Paladin of Literary Agon: A Conversation with Harold Bloom

HAROLD BLOOM HAS BEEN a member of my mental chorus for more than half my life now. At 19 years old, I had a certain problem reading my most cherished American authors: Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. The product of a severe Catholic education, I kept hearing the King James Bible at work in Hemingway and Dante at work in O’Connor. This was both distracting and enhancing. I hadn’t read Bloom yet — this was the mid-1990s — but a mentor had, and it was he who insisted that, if I wanted to understand literary influence, I needed to grapple with Bloom’s work. I left my mentor’s office one morning freighted with volumes I then spent a year committed to understanding: The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982), Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible (1989), The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), along with volumes on Shelley, Blake, Yeats, and Stevens. Here was a thinker who prayed as I did — not on his knees, but in a reading chair, at the altar of language and the literary imagination. I couldn’t have guessed it then, but Bloom’s work was the fullest literary education I would ever be given. 

Since the publication of The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, Bloom has been best known as our paladin of literary agon. A usefully reductive way to explain the anxiety of influence might be to say that strong literature requires strong precursors to struggle against if it is to come into its own: without Milton’s Satan, it is not possible to conceive of Melville’s Ahab. We are now a something-for-nothing culture, which is to say a culture of saccharine entitlement, and one of Bloom’s urgent reminders is the fact that, for the writer, there can be no such thing as entitlement, only the struggle for greatness necessitated by the absorption of greatness.

Although he began as a celebrant of the Romantic tradition before swerving into an explication of poetic anxiety, Bloom has been, since the publication of The Western Canon in 1994, our leading apostle of serious reading and the splendors of literature. This is his prime worth now, at a time when such advocacy is fiercely needed. In How to Read and Why (2000), he puts it this way: “The ultimate answer to the question ‘Why read?’ is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self.” What is an autonomous self? The inverse of what our cyber lives have zapped us into.

Literature presents us with what Bloom has dubbed “a pleasurable difficulty” and “a higher pleasure” — which is to say aesthetic pleasure: the beautiful and the true, the wise and the deep. He has no time for those who read with their ideologies: “You are more than an ideology, whatever your convictions, and Shakespeare speaks to as much of you as you can bring to him.” Literature is reciprocal — it gives back what you bring, but altered, enlarged. “Not to read King Lear fully (which means without ideological expectations) is to be cognitively as well as aesthetically defrauded.”

Bloom’s assertions about the efficacy of literature might be summarized as follows. Literature mobilizes satire and irony against the autocracy of the quotidian and literal, initiating the arduous task of becoming who we are by supplying a ferocious and farseeing interiority. It is the most consummate access we can gain to the mind — the roiling inner cosmos — of another; on their best days, the other arts don’t come close to matching that access. Literature doesn’t care about our identities or our politics. Literature cares only about the self-containment of its own wisdom and beauty, its own aesthetic excellence. Baudelaire called literature invitation au voyage, and the voyage is at once from yourself and with yourself. In that way, literature is paradoxical, simultaneously selfish and selfless. It won’t make you a more responsible citizen, but it might teach you how to begin speaking to yourself. “[I]f you become an authentic reader,” Bloom has written, “then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others.” The reading of literature, no less than the writing of it, is an act of private revolt against asphyxiating conventions, that stolid conformity society seems to require in order to function.

Here’s Kierkegaard in Either/Or: “A critic resembles a poet to a hair: he only lacks the suffering in his heart and the music upon his lips.” The first clause must always be true for any critic to be worthy of the name, but the second is demonstrably untrue, or should be. Bloom has been in control of his own music since his first book on Percy Shelley, and his suffering these last several years has been significant: the deaths of cherished friends; the manifold illnesses and injuries that required multiple operations and anguished recoveries; the exhaustion of a body that murmurs No as the mind and spirit insist on chanting Yes.

At nearly 90 years of age, Bloom assured me in a recent message that he has no plans to depart this world just yet. The work, as ever, has been his sustaining force. Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, published in April 2019, is his 47th book — and is, in several ways, his most personal. I don’t mean in the Wildean manner that all criticism is and must be personal — criticism is personal and passionate or else it is impotent and dull — but personal at the marrow. His departed family members and friends are everywhere in these pages; especially touching is his remembrance of his mother and her reliance on the Pentateuch. There are new considerations of his mainstays: Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson, Milton and Wordsworth, Whitman and Proust, among sublime others.

The following conversation began recently at Bloom’s home in New Haven, Connecticut, and continued by email.


WILLIAM GIRALDI: One of the abiding pleasures of Possessed by Memory is the dual meaning of the title: not only to possess literature by memory, but to be possessed, demon-like, by one’s own history, by a memory that will not stop. You’ll be 89 this year; you’ve had a most fertile and fulfilling life, one enriched enormously by friendships with the poets and critics you most admired. I think of Angus Fletcher, M. H. Abrams, Kenneth Burke, A. R. Ammons, John Hollander, John Ashbery: hauntings by them help mold this book into a glimmering threnody. Did you start out to memorialize your friends in such a way?

HAROLD BLOOM: I did not intend Possessed by Memory to be so elegiac. But most of it was dictated to generous assistants during several years in which I spent much of my time in hospitals and in rehabilitation. It started to become a meditation upon mortality. Worst of all, almost my entire generation of critics and poets, so many of them my closest friends, died during those years. My prime mentors — Frederick A. Pottle, Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, Kenneth Burke — had departed earlier, all save for Mike Abrams, who lasted more than a hundred years. With the recent deaths of William Merwin and Richard Wilbur, and of John Ashbery before them, my loneliness increased.

These days, whenever I read, teach, or write, I am haunted by friends who educated me: Richard Rorty, Angus Fletcher, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, John Hollander. I was very close to the poets A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery, William Merwin, and in quite a different way to James Merrill. They seem to be in the room with me. They also appear in my dreams. I have never written a poem. My only gift, as I understand it, is to have learned to listen: to students and to ghosts. I could wish the book were less somber than it is.

Something occurred to me on my second reading of Possessed by Memory: your essential friendships — those that were deeply reciprocal, that helped fertilize your work as you helped fertilize theirs — have been with poets and critics and not novelists or dramatists. You told me once about the ecstasy of being found by Hart Crane’s poems at the Bronx Library when you were a small child. The Pentateuch had always been a shimmering presence in your household, but it was Crane who opened the book your life would become, who put you in touch with the font of daemonic splendor, “the burning fountain,” as Shelley has it. I know what certain fiction writers mean to you — Cervantes, Kafka, Proust (and Possessed by Memory ends with a penetrating assessment of Proust) — but the poets (Shakespeare, Shelley, Blake, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Crane, Stevens) have clearly meant the most to you.

That is most of the story, yes. During the 1980s and 1990s, I spent a great deal of time with Philip Roth. There were also interchanges with Tony Kushner and the novelist Walter Abish. Hart Crane broke the vessels for me. I then read Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, the Romantics and Victorians and 20th-century poetry in English with a kind of fury that Crane had put into me. Probably my essential reading experience comes down to the Hebrew Bible, Dante, Shakespeare. I continue to read Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, and Stevens almost daily.

Possessed by Memory begins with an epigraph by the divine Oscar Wilde from his essay “The Critic as Artist,” in which he speaks of “the highest criticism” being “a record of one’s soul” and “the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.” I think of how Wilde and Pater swerved from the prevailing critical ethos to make it new. In their departure from their predecessors, they honed their own aesthetic. You see these swervings and disruptions in English-language criticism: Coleridge moving away from Dryden and Johnson, Arnold from Coleridge, Eliot and Empson attempting to disrupt and correct Arnold while simultaneously taking from him. Your own critical program began with a focus on the Romantic poets, on making new paths from the likes of M. H. Abrams and Northrop Frye. Then you veered into the work that became your life’s mission: the elucidation of influence. To what extent were you conscious of needing to swerve from or to disrupt your own potent predecessors?

I had a bad nightmare on July 11, 1967, following my 37th birthday. I have written about this elsewhere. The next morning I came down to breakfast and began to scribble a long dithyramb that I called “The Covering Cherub or Poetic Influence.” I kept at it for another day or two, and it became, in time, much revised, the opening chapter in The Anxiety of Influence, published January 5, 1973. The original text was printed by John Hollander in his selection of my work called Poetics of Influence. I was sadly amused when Northrop Frye told mutual friends that he could not read the book because it was all about him. It is not. Nor is it about my humane mentors M. H. Abrams and Frederick A. Pottle. After years of meditation I have come to believe that the Covering Cherub, a figure out of Ezekiel and Blake, was smothering me with the massive heft of all the poems I had read, loved, remembered. If I have a potent precursor, it would have to be Dr. Samuel Johnson. I am a good schoolteacher: he is beyond me and beyond disruption. Had I followed family tradition, I would have become a rabbi. Instead, I am a secular rabbi like those celebrated by Wallace Stevens. I teach Shakespeare as scripture. When I teach Poetic Influence, in some ways I vanish, and in some modes I am exalted.

I often try to impart to readers the Eucharistic component to the strongest literature, the necessity of its sacral communing. As a nonbelieving Catholic, I have no problem calling it a secular holiness, though I don’t, as you know, subscribe to the Arnoldian notion of poetry’s power to supplant religion, never mind to correct society. You’ve spent your life defending and explaining the pleasurable hardships in the strongest literature. I see this as the difference between the rare joy of aesthetic mastery in Dante and the mere enjoyment of a contemporary best seller: the difference between gravitas and gratification. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis differentiates between strong readers and weak readers. Strong readers experience an important book as a sacral event, their worldviews revamped. Weak readers read an important book and nothing at all happens to them. Near the start of the The Western Canon, you acknowledge that reading for aesthetic pleasure and necessary wisdom has gone the way of the plesiosaur. Twenty-five years later, as the internet perseveres in the strafing of our souls, I wonder how grim is your outlook.

I regret not sharing your admiration for C. S. Lewis. After a few amiable encounters in the autumn of 1954 at Cambridge University, the distinguished defender of the faith and I fell out while sharing drinks at the Anchor Bar. Gnosticism upset him gravely. We did not speak again after that. He attacked my book The Visionary Company and I responded gently enough by writing that his A Preface to Paradise Lost was pure theology.

Sometime back I published a brief book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? I concluded by relying upon Saint Augustine, who taught us all how to read strongly and how memory, time, and consciousness relate to imaginative literature, though of course the Bible was for him the truth. Oddly I begin to be less pessimistic than I was in The Western Canon. Partly that is inspired by my students, but also I receive endless emails, straight mails, phone calls, and visits from good readers throughout the world who have been kind enough to want to tell me that I have been their teacher. There is a saving remnant. Young women and men the world over read and hear the call of wisdom and the urgency of intelligence. I am pretty much a relic, yet I believe the future — if there is one — will depend upon deep readers all over the globe. Without reading Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cervantes, and their few peers, we cannot learn how to think. And if we cannot think, then the future belongs to the Trumps of the world — that is to say, to the apocalyptic beasts from the sea.

Since we must endure now the daily mauling of morality from our capital, the smiting of tact and taste and truth by such tanninim, I sometimes ponder what the state of our culture and politics would be if we had a populace educated in beauty and wisdom by Dante and Dickinson. But such considerations get quaveringly close to the erroneous Arnoldian line that comprehends literature as social corrective. From the beginning, and again in Possessed by Memory, you’ve been adamant in insisting that literature enhances and enlarges individuals only: through aesthetic pleasure it grants individuals the vital discourse they must have with themselves if they are to be whole, if they are to enjoy more life and prepare for life’s end. But of course a society made up of such individuals is something to smile on. I think of your old friend Northrop Frye: “We can’t speak or think or comprehend even our own experience except within the limits of our own power over words, and those limits have been established for us by our great writers.” Literature says with John Clare: “O take me from the busy crowd, / I cannot bear the noise!” and “Lord keep my love for quiet joys.” I’m a touch surprised you aren’t more morose about our noisome cyber lives.

It is true and perhaps sad that the highest literature teaches us how to speak to ourselves rather than to others. Reading Dante and Shakespeare may improve an individual but will not make him a better citizen. I do not have much of what you call a cyber life myself because I don’t watch television, do not have a cell phone, and have to dictate to someone at a computer in order to write. More than ever I am a dinosaur. But I have to reason outward from my students. Doubtless they are all involved in these technologies. But last week I taught Macbeth and “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction.” Most of my students were delightfully agile in discussing both. I grant that I choose them from a possible group that is already elite. And yet they are as good as any students I have taught in my 63 years at Yale. As I discovered again this morning, I no longer can read The New York Times, once I have glanced at all the dreadful events. Cultural coverage is so remote from my aesthetic experience that clearly I will go on provoking tired readers. Still, if I have a public function, and I doubt it, it would have to be as a living relic of an age that could give us Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery.

Your age has given us also a clutch of thrilling critical voices who helped establish American literary comment as a worthy art, just as your own work has demonstrated that art and has helped complete the imaginative literature it sets out to evaluate and appreciate. Each week I go back to Wilde to be sustained, and I’m remembering now his contention, with a nod to Pater and Arnold, that “[w]ithout the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all worthy of the name.” Wilde underscores the essential and thrumming reciprocity of literature and criticism. If critics are analysts of pleasure, in Chesterton’s phrase, then their work is responsible for instigating its own pleasure, for creating its own wisdom and beauty. Mary McCarthy once defined weak criticism as “a quivering jelly of uncritical emotion” — which I suspect is an allusion to T. S. Eliot: “The general mess of imprecision of feeling / Undisciplined squads of emotion” — and I wonder if you ever fear that our new autocracy of emotion is going to butcher the essential reciprocity of literature and criticism. What becomes of a culture that does a lot of feeling about itself but no longer knows how to think about literature?

High literature has three prime attributes: cognitive power, originality, aesthetic splendor. Only by a disciplined harnessing of emotion can any of these three come forth. What you call our “new autocracy of emotion” is just stylized noise. It cannot touch the interdependence of criticism and literature because it is mindless. Culture is now cut off from fashion. Popular culture has become an oxymoron. Bad taste is not culture. There are still many valuable writers of imaginative works in our society. It seems to me that they prosper best when they take a stance apart from the immediate moment. Distraction is the enemy. I see no crisis in the reciprocity of literature and criticism because the culture industries are irrelevant to it.

I’m reminded of your chapter in Possessed by Memory on Angus Fletcher and Whitman, in which you reference Fletcher’s Allegory and what he called “the crisis of scale.” You say that Fletcher “warned prophetically that any sense of sublime transcendence is going to vanish in our technological world. What is coming is the emptiness of allegory without ideas.” Fletcher died in 2016 and he seems to me to be a loving, guiding shade throughout this book. All along you have been not only continually in communion with poetic splendor, but continually in conversation, explicit or not, with those critics who helped cast you. Has your relationships with certain critics — Longinus, Lucretius, Pater, Hazlitt, et cetera — changed over your lifetime?

Samuel Johnson is always the rhinoceros in the room. Walter Pater taught me appreciation in all its senses. Kenneth Burke and I wandered around lower Manhattan while he taught me rhetoric and we both recited Whitman. But Angus Fletcher is the abiding presence. He is in the room as I teach, read, write. Our friendship was continuous from 1951 to 2016, and indeed he is my guiding shade. I think my relationships with mentors and friends changed only after they died. I am not an occultist nor a medium, but somehow they speak to me from the beyond. They are no different except perhaps a touch more urgent.

My memory is all loops and lacunae. The poetry I have locked in me took lots of work to get there and takes lots of work to stay there. I once described your memory as a great bear trap, but let’s revise that, because I recently heard a cosmologist say that at the other end of every black hole is a white hole: nothing truly disappears but is born anew in another cosmos, at the other end. There’s poetic splendor in that, a Nietzschean eternal recurrence that pleases me. Your memory for poetry is a vortex birthing fresh light. I think of Robert Graves’s poem “On Portents,” in which he writes of “tourbillions in Time made / By the strong pulling of her bladed mind.” But I wonder if a pulling memory such as yours is ever a woe: it gives in verse but takes in tears. There must be morose moments before the bruising dawn when you wish you couldn’t remember with such vividness.

Memory can be a consuming fire or it can please like the taste of fresh fruit. From about 4:00 a.m. on, I am not happy about my memory though it keeps me going anyway. I surprised myself the other day by quoting swaths of Edmund Spenser to myself. At first I could not remember who it was, but that came soon. It is much easier to remember poems than to remember people. If I allowed myself to brood on all the people I loved who have departed, then I would never be able to go on reading, writing, teaching. In me memory has become cognition.

Your combined work on Romanticism, influence, memory, Shakespeare, and religion amounts to a constant, branching dialogue: your books sing to each other­­ under the light of literature. You long ago came into possession of your own influence, and I wonder what you ponder now when glancing back at your tremendous output, if you’d like to be remembered as the explicator of literary agon, as fervent Bardolator, as defender of the Canon, or if you see your different stages as I do, as a single stage that progresses as your thinking progressed, from your first book on Shelley to this latest on memory.

I have been publishing books and essays from 1957 until now in 2019. I continue to write and to teach. I can hardly remember what it was like to be 25 or 27. I would like to be remembered as a teacher. Essentially I am a schoolteacher. I do not know whether I have developed or just unfolded. It seems to me dubious that any of my writings will survive. They were extensions of my teaching. Insofar as they have taught strangers, they have done their work.

The work of teaching is never over. It has taught me how to listen. When I was young and middle-aged, I was a bad listener. Now I listen very closely as my students discuss Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens with one another. I think when I depart that I will think of myself as a secular rabbi. One reads to the congregation yet also to oneself. Yahweh bewilders me. I cannot accept him. I cannot reject him. The God of my mother and my father cannot be just an old story. I do not trust in the Covenant, but I cannot deny the transcendental and extraordinary.


William Giraldi is the author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, the memoir The Hero’s Body, and an essay collection, American Audacity.