Stories as Prayer: A Conversation Between Joshua Cohen and Harold Bloom




HAROLD BLOOM’S theory of influence is, by now, infamous. It proposes a history of literature in which writers attempt to psychologically defend themselves against the masters of the past by consciously or unconsciously misinterpreting their work.

I was reminded of this in early summer, when the brilliant, nearly 88-year-old professor wrote me an email, inviting me to New Haven, Connecticut. This was the first that I’d ever heard from Bloom and though the summons was encouraging, I couldn’t help but misread its subject line — “(no subject)” — as an admonition. Of me. Of my generation. Of the age. Philip Roth had died the week before. 

On Friday, June 22 (the one-month anniversary of Roth’s death, as it turned out), I was still sweating these anxieties as I jostled through Grand Central Station at rush hour: all of commuter Connecticut was just coming in for the day, but I was outward bound on the opposite track, communing. 

As my train dragged its way through Bloom’s native Bronx — and continued upriver through the rising heat of Westchester and into that great humid smog-cloud that covers all of Connecticut beyond the stockbroker coast — I had the unsettling feeling that I’d been cast in some straight-to-YouTube adaptation of one those classic scenes of literary visitation, wherein a young bookish type makes a pilgrimage from the stifling city to pay homage to a rusticating mentor. Roth opens his novel The Ghost Writer this way, with his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman journeying north from Manhattan to visit “the great man,” the novelist E. I. Lonoff. Henry James’s story “The Middle Years” — which is quoted in The Ghost Writer (“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”) — is a far darker version of this theme of intergenerational literary encounter that James returned to time and again, imbuing it with cranky humor in “The Death of the Lion” and with tender mystery in “The Figure in the Carpet.”

Tellingly, it was only as my train had come to terminus at New Haven’s Union Station that I was able to recall my favorite variation on this theme: Martin Buber’s tale of an anonymous Hasidic disciple’s eve-of-Sabbath visits to Rabbi Dov Baer, a.k.a. the Maggid of Mezritch, who was among the first leaders of the Hasidic movement in 18th-century Poland (“Maggid” means preacher or seer in Hebrew): 

A disciple told: Whenever we rode to see the maggid — the moment we were within the limits of the town — all our desires were fulfilled. And if anyone happened to have a wish left, this was satisfied as soon as he entered the house of the maggid. But if there was one among us whose soul was still churned up with wanting — he was at peace when he looked into the face of the maggid. 

This was what I experienced as soon as I entered Bloom’s home. This was what I experienced the moment I looked into Bloom’s face.

June 22, 2018, New Haven, Connecticut

¤

JOSHUA COHEN: It’s an honor to meet you, Harold. You’re being very generous and kind and —

HAROLD BLOOM: Okay, okay, enough. Sit down.

I’m sitting.

I was thinking all day, what questions will you ask? You’re recording?

I am. I’m recording on my phone — and we might as well begin with that, because one of the things I wanted to speak with you about was memory. Everyone calls this “a phone,” but my generation in particular considers it as something more like an external brain. It stores our sounds, our images, our books. I need this extra storage space, this extra memory, to compensate for my own. But, famously, you don’t. You remember everything.

Our backgrounds are similar, Joshua, but remember: We’ve lived half a century apart. So I can’t speak of technology. But my memory is a freak — this is true. I had it from when I was a little one, growing up in the Bronx, and going to the Sholem Aleichem schools. My first language was Yiddish. There was no English in our house, or even really in our part of the Bronx.

Do you think that the traditional Jewish education you received played some role in developing your memory?

It helped me develop my recall, along with what used to be a very fast reading speed, which has since slowed down. There was a time when I could memorize whatever I wanted to memorize, provided that I liked it. Poetry and prose.

I wonder whether, given that ability, you have any sympathy for the chief contemporary complaint about technology: namely, that we’re being overwhelmed by information?

I have sympathy. I lost John Ashbery a year ago this fall. My favorite poem by John — I kept telling him this and he was always surprised by it — is the one called “Wet Casements.” The one that goes:

I want that information very much today,
Can’t have it, and this makes me angry.
I shall use my anger to build a bridge like that
Of Avignon, on which people may dance for the feeling
Of dancing on a bridge. I shall at last see my complete face
Reflected not in the water but in the worn stone floor of my bridge.

It’s a beautiful poem. What do you like about it?

I love that vision of a bridge on which people have danced so much that finally John could stare at the bridge and see his complete face — not narcissistically, as in water, but reflected in hard worn stone. John was always asking, “What is information?” out of his distrust of information, and I think that is the key to the relationship with information that any writer must have. But then, I’ll be 88 next week — that is information — and all the writers of my generation are now gone.

Not all of them.

Of course Pynchon, DeLillo, and McCarthy are still around, but they are younger than I am. I’m in touch with Cormac; we speak on the phone. But all of the Jewish writers of my generation are gone except Ozick.

Ozick is the queen, for me. I sometimes recite just the titles of her stories, as a prayer: “Bloodshed,” “Usurpation,” “Levitation,” “Envy.”

By the way, you must feel the same way I do about Nathan Weinstein.

Nathanael West? Yes, of course.

When I was with Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, at his apartment, he talked about Walter Benjamin all the time. But when I recommended Nathanael West to him, he exploded, “You recommend to me a Jewish anti-Semite? A man who changed his name?”

I’ve always wondered about the contempt that Scholem seemed to have for American Jewish writers, and for Yiddish writers. I’ve been rereading a lot of the latter lately — maybe because I’ve been trying to understand the current American political climate, or maybe because I’ve just been trying to avoid it, but I’ve found myself returning especially to those great Yiddish writers of Russia who came into conflict with Soviet ideology and were destroyed. The poets Peretz Markish and David Hofstein; the novelists David Bergelson and Pinchas Kahanovich, who wrote under the name Der Nister.

And what about Isaac Babel? If he had lived, God knows how grand he would’ve been. But he was shot by Stalin too. Whatever one feels about contemporary Israel, at least nobody is going to shoot its writers. Just as nobody’s going to pop you off, Joshua. But there is another way to go, of course. All of the Yiddish poets I read as a boy — the Yiddish writers who lived in America and published in Der Tog and Der Morgen Freiheit — they were wonderful, but possibly the only ones who will survive are Moyshe-Leib Halpern and Jacob Glatstein. Alas, I’m afraid the rest will be forgotten.

And what about the literature of American Jews?

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth, and quite possibly your Book of Numbers are the four best books by Jewish writers in America. Your Moving Kings is a strong and rather hurtful book, but that helps validate it. Book of Numbers, however, is shatteringly powerful. I cannot think of anything by anyone in your generation that is so frighteningly relevant and composed with such continuous eloquence. There are moments in it that seem to transcend our impasse.

I don’t know what to say. I’m honored. Thank you.

But why is D. H. Lawrence missing in you? I would have thought that his vitalism would appeal to you.

I don’t know. Probably because Bellow, Malamud, and Roth are too present in me?

Philip and I were friends off and on. Saul and I didn’t get along: we were different people. Bernie, though, was a sweet man. Every time I lectured up at Bennington I’d play poker or pinochle with Bernie and I’d lose to him much of my lecture fee.

With a memory like yours, you’re telling me you can’t count cards?

I used to know this other man, [Yosef Hayim] Yerushalmi. A historian. The point of his work, and I think he was correct, was that Jews remember in a very selective way. It’s the fault of the rabbis. If the rabbis didn’t like a particular king, all the Tanach [Bible] would say about him was “and then there was So-and-So, and he did evil,” and then it would move on to the next king. There was no history as such.

I’ve always thought that another point of Yerushalmi’s was that history or historical memory was consciously structured to structure the life of the people. What a [certain group of] people remember conditions and sets the limits of their existence. Every year the same holidays recur; the same narratives are told, and in that telling the narratives are relived — they’re reexperienced.

But it is different every time. You see this in Proust.

Now there’s a writer for whom memory is not technologically immediate — for him, memory has nothing to do with “recall.” The past has to be beckoned, seduced.

One of the most moving moments for me in Proust is when the novelist Bergotte, who’s a surrogate for him, has died, and Proust stands in front of a Parisian bookstore — this is just after the death — and all the novelist’s books are there blazing in the bookshop window. That’s the immortality.

Yes, that’s a wonderful passage. And also a note-to-self.

Proust is full of these scenes, in which memories come, but as epiphanies. There’s the chapter when Proust arrives at the hotel in Balbec and is taking off his boots and suddenly he has a vision of his dead grandmother, and he realizes how much it meant to him that she would always comfort him, and then he weeps bitterly, as we all do, for the dead whom we didn’t show enough affection to while they were here. You would think that something like that would have occurred again and again in fiction, but it didn’t — not before Proust.

You’re saying that Proust invented regret?

But it is regret for something larger. Almost a regret for himself. Proust’s narrator who is named Marcel, but whose name is rarely spoken in the book, is presented as being heterosexual and gentile. Proust himself was bisexual, and he both was and wasn’t Jewish. Rather, he was baptized a Catholic, but he was so obsessed with his mother, and with his mother’s origins, that when she died he very carefully saw to it that the services were Jewish, that the burial was Jewish. And Kafka …

Who was both alive and dead at the same time — or who wrote as if he was?

Kafka is the ultimate Jewish puzzle.

I’ve always been troubled by his story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse-Folk” — which was the last story he ever wrote. And it famously ends with a line that says, in essence, to be forgotten is to be redeemed. I know you’ve written about this line: in your interpretation, it’s not a melancholy statement. Because though the singer might be forgotten, her song will be remembered: in fact, the more the song will be remembered, the more the singer can be forgotten, because her art remains secure. I agree with your interpretation, though I’d point out that when I reread this story last year, I found myself baffled and touched by the faith that Kafka has in “the community”: the “mouse-folk” who will preserve Josephine’s song. What do you make of Kafka’s belief in a “community” that doesn’t just preserve its culture, but incarnates it?

It makes me unhappy. Whatever Jewish culture is, or is not, it will vanish with the last Jew. And who knows when that will be?

And what about criticism — what is its relationship to the preservation, or survival, of our culture? If criticism becomes solely concerned with the political — the here and now — will there be no world-to-come?

The function of criticism now is to abandon politics. Whatever the voice that is great in us is, it relates to perception and knowledge.

So if the Kafka doctrine is “there’s hope, but not for us,” the Bloom doctrine is “there’s hope, but we have to want it”? Thank you, Harold, for issuing that challenge. Thank you for your hospitality.

I have the odd feeling that we’ve known each other a long time.

¤

Joshua Cohen’s most recent book is the nonfiction collection ATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction (Random House, 2018).


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