Interviews

Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1

Interviewed by Antonio Weiss

Recently, Harold Bloom has been under attack not just in scholarly journals and colloquia, but also in newspapers, on the op-ed page, on television and radio. The barrage is due to the best-seller The Book of J, in which Bloom argues that the J-Writer, the putative first author of the Hebrew Bible, not only existed (a matter under debate among Bible historians for the last century) but, quite specifically, was a woman who belonged to the Solomonic elite and wrote during the reign of Rehoboam of Judah in competition with the Court Historian. The attacks have come from Bible scholars, rabbis, and journalists, as well as from the usual academic sources, and Bloom has never been more isolated in his views or more secure in them. He has become, by his own description, “a tired, sad, humane old creature,” who greets his many friends and detractors with an endearing, melancholy exuberance.

He is happy to talk about most anything—politics, romance, sports—although he admits he is “too used to” some topics to get into them. One sets out to disagree with him, and the response is, “Oh, no, no, my dear . . .” In a class on Shakespeare, a mod-dressed graduate student suggests that Iago may be sexually jealous of Othello; Bloom tilts his furry eyebrows, his stockinged feet crossed underneath him, his hand tucked in his shirt, and cries out, “That will not do, my dear. I must protest!” Not surprisingly, it is by now a commonplace of former students’ articles and lectures to start off with a quarrel with Bloom, and in his view, this is only as it should be. He likes to quote the Emersonian adage: “That which I can gain from another is never tuition but only provocation.”

The interview was conducted at the homes he shares with his wife, Jeanne, in New Haven and New York—the one filled with four decades’ accrual of furniture and books, the other nearly bare, although stacks of works in progress and students’ papers are strewn about in both. If the conversation is not too heavy, Bloom likes to have music on, sometimes Baroque, sometimes jazz. (His New York apartment, which is in Greenwich Village, allows him to take in more live jazz.) The phone rings nonstop. Friends, former students, colleagues drop by. Talk is punctuated by strange exclamatories: Zoombah, for one—Swahili for “libido”—is an all-purpose flavoring particle, with the accompanying, adjectival zoombinatious and the verb to zoombinate. Bloom speaks as if the sentences came to him off a printed page, grammatically complex, at times tangled. But they are delivered with great animation, whether ponderous or joyful—if also with finality. Because he learned English by reading it, his accent is very much his own, with some New York inflections: “You try and learn English in an all Yiddish household in the East Bronx by sounding out the words of Blake’s Prophecies,” he explains. Often, he will start a conversation with a direct, at times personal question, or a sigh: “Oh, how the Bloomian feet ache today!”

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your memories of growing up?

HAROLD BLOOM

That was such a long time ago. I’m sixty years old. I can’t remember much of my childhood that well. I was raised in an Orthodox East European Jewish household where Yiddish was the everyday language. My mother was very pious, my father less so. I still read Yiddish poetry. I have a great interest and pleasure in it. 

INTERVIEWER

What are your recollections of the neighborhood in which you grew up? 

BLOOM

Almost none. One of my principal memories is that I and my friends, just to survive, had constantly to fight street battles with neighborhood Irish toughs, some of whom were very much under the influence of a sort of Irish-American Nazi organization called the Silver Shirts. This was back in the 1930s. We were on the verge of an Irish neighborhood over there in the East Bronx. We lived in a Jewish neighborhood. On our border, somewhere around Southern Boulevard, an Irish neighborhood began, and they would raid us, and we would fight back. They were terrible street fights, involving broken bottles and baseball bats. They were very nasty times. I say this even though I’ve now grown up and find that many of my best friends are Irish.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your background helped in any way to shape your career? 

BLOOM

Obviously it predisposed me toward a great deal of systematic reading. It exposed me to the Bible as a sort of definitive text early on. And obviously too, I became obsessed with interpretation as such. Judaic tradition necessarily acquaints one with interpretation as a mode. Exegesis becomes wholly natural. But I did not have very orthodox religious beliefs. Even when I was quite a young child I was very skeptical indeed about orthodox notions of spirituality. Of course, I now regard normative Judaism as being, as I’ve often said, a very strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible undertaken in the second century in order to meet the needs of the Jewish people in a Palestine under Roman occupation. And that is not very relevant to matters eighteen centuries later. But otherwise, I think the crucial experiences for me as a reader, as a child, did not come reading the Hebrew Bible. It came in reading poetry written in English, which can still work on me with the force of a Bible conversion. It was the aesthetic experience of first reading Hart Crane and William Blake—those two poets in particular. 

INTERVIEWER

How old were you at this point? 

BLOOM

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it? In some, a version of the poetical character is incarnated and in some like myself the answering voice is from the beginning that of the critic. I suppose the only poet of the twentieth century that I could secretly set above Yeats and Stevens would be Hart Crane. Crane was dead at the age of thirty-two, so one doesn’t really know what he would have been able to do. An immense loss. As large a loss as the death of Shelley at twenty-nine or Keats at twenty-five. Crane had to do it all in only seven or eight years.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read children’s stories, fairy tales?

BLOOM

I don’t think so. I read the Bible, which is, after all, a long fairy tale. I didn’t read children’s literature until I was an undergraduate.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write verse as a child?

BLOOM

In spite of my interest, that never occurred to me. It must have had something to do with the enormous reverence and rapture I felt about poetry, the incantatory strength that Crane and Blake had for me from the beginning. To be a poet did not occur to me. It was indeed a threshold guarded by demons. To try to write in verse would have been a kind of trespass. That’s something that I still feel very strongly.

INTERVIEWER

How was your chosen career viewed by your family?

BLOOM

I don’t think they had any idea what I would be. I think they were disappointed. They were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe with necessarily narrow views. They had hoped that I would be a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist. They did not know what a professor of poetry was. They would have understood, I suppose, had I chosen to be a rabbi or a Talmudic scholar. But finally, I don’t think they cared one way or the other.

When I was a small boy already addicted to doing nothing but reading poems in English, I was asked by an uncle who kept a candy store in Brooklyn what I intended to do to earn a living when I grew up. I said, I want to read poetry. He told me that there were professors of poetry at Harvard and Yale. That’s the first time I’d ever heard of those places or that there was such a thing as a professor of poetry. In my five- or six-year-old way I replied, I’m going to be a professor of poetry at Harvard or Yale. Of course, the joke is that three years ago I was simultaneously Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale! So in that sense I was prematurely overdetermined in profession. Sometimes I think that is the principal difference between my own work and the work of many other critics. I came to it very early, and I’ve been utterly unswerving. 

INTERVIEWER

You are known as someone who has had a prodigious memory since childhood. Do you find that your power of recall was triggered by the words themselves, or were there other factors?

BLOOM

Oh no, it was immediate and it was always triggered by text, and indeed always had an aesthetic element. I learned early that a test for a poem for me was whether it seemed so inevitable that I could remember it perfectly from the start. I think the only change in me in that regard has come mainly under the influence of Nietzsche. It is the single way he has influenced me aesthetically. I’ve come to understand that the quality of memorability and inevitability that I assumed came from intense pleasure may actually have come from a kind of pain. That is to say that one learns from Nietzsche that there is something painful about meaning. Sometimes it is the pain of difficulty, sometimes the pain of being set a standard that one cannot attain.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever feel that reading so much was an avoidance of experience? 

BLOOM

No. It was for me a terrible rage or passion that was a drive. It was fiery. It was an absolute obsession. I do not think that speculation on my own part would ever convince me that it was an attempt to substitute a more ideal existence for the life that I had to live. It was love. I fell desperately in love with reading poems. I don’t think that one should idealize such a passion. I certainly no longer do. I mean, I still love reading a poem when I can find a really good one to read. Just recently, I was sitting down, alas for the first time in several years, reading through Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at one sitting. I found it to be an astonishing experience, powerful and superb. That hasn’t dimmed or diminished. But surely it is a value in itself, a reality in its own right; surely it cannot be reduced or subsumed under some other name. Freud, doubtless, would wish to reduce it to the sexual thought, or rather, the sexual past. But increasingly it seems to me that literature, and particularly Shakespeare, who is literature, is a much more comprehensive mode of cognition than psychoanalysis can be.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the teachers who were important to you? Did you study with the New Critics at Yale? 

BLOOM

I did not study with any of the New Critics, with the single exception being William K. Wimsatt. Bill was a formalist and a very shrewd one, and from the moment I landed in the first course that I took with him, which was in theories of poetry, he sized me up. His comment on my first essay for him was, This is Longinian criticism. You’re an instance of exactly what I don’t like or want. He was quite right. He was an Aristotelian; as far as I was concerned, Aristotle had ruined Western literary criticism almost from the beginning. What I thought of as literary criticism really did begin with the pseudo-Longinus. So we had very strong disagreements about that kind of stuff. But he was a remarkable teacher. We became very close friends later on. I miss him very much. He was a splendid, huge, fascinating man, almost seven feet tall, a fierce, dogmatic Roman Catholic, very intense. But very fair-minded. We shared a passion for Dr. Samuel Johnson. I reacted so violently against him that antithetically he was a great influence on me. I think that’s what I meant by dedicating The Anxiety of Influence to Bill. I still treasure the note he wrote me after I gave him one of the early copies of the book. I find the dedication extremely surprising, he said, and then added mournfully, I suppose it entitles you to be Plotinus to Emerson’s Plato in regard to American neoromanticism, a doctrine that I despise. Oh, yes, we had serious differences in our feelings about poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What were your earliest essays like?

BLOOM

I don’t think I wrote any essays until I was an undergraduate at Cornell. But then a few years ago Bob Elias, one of my teachers there, sent me an essay I had written on Hart Crane (which I had completely forgotten about) when I was a Cornell freshman of sixteen or seventeen. I couldn’t get myself to read it. I even destroyed it. I shouldn’t have. I should have waited until I could bear to look at it. I’m very curious as to what kind of thing it was. 

INTERVIEWER

Are there other literary figures who were important to you early on?

BLOOM

A real favorite among modern critics, and the one I think influenced me considerably, though no one ever wants to talk about him, was George Wilson Knight. He was an old friend. Utterly mad. He made Kenneth Burke and Harold Bloom look placid and mild. George died quite old. He was very interested in spiritualism, and in survival after death. He told me a couple of times that he believed it quite literally. There is a moment in The Christian Renaissance that I think is the finest moment in modern criticism, because it is the craziest. He is citing a spiritualist, F. W. H. Myers, and he quotes something that Myers wrote and published, and then he quotes something from a séance at which Myers “came back” and said something through a medium, this astonishing sentence, which I give to you verbatim: “These quotations from F. W. H. Myers, so similar in style, composed before and after his own earthly ‘death,’ contain together a wisdom which our era may find it hard to assimilate.” I mean, perfectly straight about it! But the early books of Wilson Knight are very fine indeed—certainly one of the most considerable figures of twentieth-century criticism, though he’s mostly forgotten now.

At this point we wander into the kitchen, where Mrs. Bloom is watching the evening news

BLOOM

Now let’s wait for the news about this comeback for the wretched Yankees. I’ve been denouncing them. They haven’t won since 1979. That’s ten years and they’re not going to win this year. They’re terrible . . . What’s this? 

[TV: The Yankees with their most dramatic win of the year this afternoon . . . And the Tigers lost again.]

BLOOM

Oh my God! That means we’re just four games out. How very up-cheering. 

MRS. BLOOM

Jessica Hahn.

BLOOM

Jessica Hahn is back!

[TV: . . . hired on as an on-air personality at a Top 40 radio station in Phoenix.

BLOOM

How marvelous! 

[TV: Playboy magazine had counted on Hahn to come through. She appeared nude in a recent issue.

BLOOM

Splendid . . . Let us start again, Antonio. What were we talking about?

We return to the living room.

INTERVIEWER

We were talking about your teachers and I was going to ask about the poets you’ve known over the years.

BLOOM

Auden I knew pretty well, mostly through John Hollander. Eliot I never met. Stevens I met just once. I was still a Cornell undergraduate. I came up to Yale to hear him read the shorter version of “Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” It was the first time I was ever in New Haven or at Yale for that matter. I got to talk to him afterwards. It was a formidable experience meeting him. We talked about Shelley, and he quoted a stanza of the “Witch of Atlas” to me, which impressed me. “Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is,” it starts. It’s a chilly, rather beautiful poem. Robert Penn Warren and I were close friends. Miss Bishop was of that younger generation also. Archie Ammons and I are very close. There are quite a few others. Sometimes I used to correspond with James Merrill when he was writing The Changing Light at Sandover. He kept sending parts to me as it went along, and I kept writing him letters saying: can’t we have more J.M. and less of this stuff in capital letters? He said this was the way it had to be, this was the way it was actually coming to him. I realized I was going against my cardinal rule, which is don’t argue with it, just appreciate it.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any authors you’d like to have known, but haven’t? 

BLOOM

No. I should like to have known fewer authors than I have known, which is to say nothing against all my good friends.

INTERVIEWER

Because it interferes with an honest assessment? 

BLOOM

No. It’s just that as one gets older, one is doomed, in this profession, to know personally more and more authors. Most of them are in fact quite nice ladies and gentlemen, but they have trouble—even one’s very close friends—talking to the tired, sad, humane old creature that one is. They seem to be more conscious of one’s profession as literary critic than one is necessarily conscious of their profession as novelist or poet. 

INTERVIEWER

Are there characters you would like to have known? 

BLOOM

No, no. The only person I would like to have known, whom I have never known, but it’s just as well, is Sophia Loren. I have been in love with Sophia Loren for at least a third of a century. But undoubtedly it would be better never to meet her. I’m not sure I ever shall, though my late friend Bart Giamatti had breakfast with her. Judging by photographs and recent film appearances, she has held up quite well, though a little too slender now—no longer the same gorgeous Neapolitan beauty, now a much more sleek beauty. 

INTERVIEWER

Could you give us your opinion of some novelists? We could start with Norman Mailer.

BLOOM

Oh, I have written on Norman a lot. I reviewed Ancient Evenings at some length in The New York Review of Books and I came forth with a sentence that did not please Norman, which I’m still proud of. It was, “Subscribers to the Literary Guild will find in it more than enough humbuggery and bumbuggery to give them their money’s worth.” I had counted up the number of homosexual and heterosexual bumbuggeries; I was rather impressed by the total, including, unless I misremember, at one point the protagonist or perhaps it was the godking successfully bumbuggering the lion. But then Norman is immensely inventive in this regard. He told me the last time I saw him that he is completing a manuscript of several thousand pages on the CIA. That should be an amazing nightmare of a book since Norman’s natural grand paranoid vision is one of everything being a conspiracy. So I should think that might be very interesting indeed. What can one say? Mailer is an immense imaginative energy. One is not persuaded that in the sheer mode of the fantastic, he has found his proper mètier. Beyond a doubt his most impressive single book is The Executioner’s Song, and that is, of course, very close indeed to a transcript of what we want to call reality. So it’s rather ironic that Norman should be more effective in the mode of Theodore Dreiser, giving us a kind of contemporary American Tragedy or Sister Carrie in the Executioner’s Song than in the modes he himself has wanted to excel in. I would think that he is likely to impress future literary historians as having been a knowing continuator of Dreiser, which is not an inconsiderable achievement.

INTERVIEWER

And William Gaddis?

BLOOM

Like everyone else, I’ve never gotten over The Recognitions, but I differ from those who have found the other two books worthy of him. I have had great difficulty working my way through them. I assume that there is more to be heard from him, but I am afraid that he is an instance of someone who in that vast initial anatomy of a book, to use Mister Frye’s phrase for that kind of fictional writing, seems to have surpassed himself at the start . . . which is, of course, in the famous American tradition.

INTERVIEWER

And Saul Bellow?

BLOOM

He’s an enormous pleasure but he does not make things difficult enough for himself or for us. Like many others, I would commend him for the almost Dickensian exuberance of his minor male characters who have carried every one of his books. The central protagonist, always being some version of himself, even in Henderson, is invariably an absurd failure, and the women, as we all know, are absurdities; they are third-rate pipe dreams. The narrative line is of no particular interest. His secular opinions are worthy of Allan Bloom, who seems to derive from them. And I’m not an admirer of the “other Bloom,” as is well known. In general, Bellow seems to me an immensely wasted talent though he certainly would not appreciate my saying so. I would oppose to him a most extraordinary talent—Philip Roth. It does seem to me that Philip Roth goes from strength to strength and is at the moment startlingly unappreciated. It seems strange to say Philip is unappreciated when he has so wide a readership and so great a notoriety, but Deception was not much remarked upon and it’s an extraordinary tour de force.

INTERVIEWER

It was seen as an experiment or a sort of a leftover from—

BLOOM

—from The Counterlife. Well, The Counterlife, of course, deserved the praise that it received. It’s an astonishing book, though I would put it a touch below the Zuckerman Bound trilogy with its marvelous Prague Orgy postlude or coda. I still think My Life as a Man as well as, of course, Portnoy’s Complaint are remarkable books. There’s the great episode of Kafka’s whore in The Professor of Desire. I’ve written a fair amount about Philip. After a rather unfortunate personal book called The Facts, which I had trouble getting through, he has written a book about his late father called Patrimony, which is both beautiful and immensely moving, a real achievement. The man is a prose artist of great accomplishment. He has immense narrative exuberance, and also—I would insist upon this—since it’s an extremely difficult thing, as we all know, to write successful humorous fiction and, though the laughter Philip evokes is very painful indeed, he is an authentic comic novelist. I’m not sure at the moment that we have any other authentic comic novelist of the first order.

INTERVIEWER

You have written that poetry is in an especially strong stage now. Is the same true of fiction?

BLOOM

Although I’ve been reading extensively and writing about it over the last few years, it is very difficult for me to get a steady fix on the current kaleidoscope of American fiction. Our most distinguished living writer of narrative fiction—I don’t think you would quite call him a novelist—is Thomas Pynchon, and yet that recent book Vineland was a total disaster. In fact, I cannot think of a comparable disaster in modern American fiction. To have written the great story of Byron the lightbulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, to have written The Crying of Lot 49 and then to give us this piece of sheer ineptitude, this hopelessly hollow book that I read through in amazement and disbelief, and which has not got in it a redeeming sentence, hardly a redeeming phrase, is immensely disheartening.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any response to the essay Tom Wolfe wrote urging the big, Victor Hugo–like novel?

BLOOM

He is, of course, praising his own Bonfire of the Vanities, which is a wholly legitimate thing for an essayist-turned-novelist to do. But with all honor to Tom Wolfe, a most amiable fellow and a former classmate of mine at Yale, and as someone who enjoyed reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, I found very little difference between it and his book of essays. He has merely taken his verve and gift for writing the journalistic essay and moved it a little further over the edge; but the characters are names on the page—he does not try to make them more than that. The social pressure is extraordinarily and vividly conveyed. But he’s always been remarkable for that. He’s still part of that broad movement which has lifted a particular kind of high-pitched journalism into a realm that may very nearly be aesthetic. On the other hand, I must say I would rather reread The Bonfire of the Vanities than reread another Rabbit volume by Mr. Updike. But then Mr. Updike and I, we are not a mutual admiration society.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had run-ins with friends or writers whose books you’ve reviewed?

BLOOM

I wouldn’t say run-ins exactly. Mr. Styron, who has, of course, his difficulties and I sympathize with them, once at Robert Penn Warren’s dinner table, when I dared to disagree with him on a question of literary judgment, spoke up and said, Your opinion doesn’t matter, you are only a schoolteacher, which still strikes me as perhaps the most memorable single thing that has been said to me by any contemporary novelist.* I felt that Warren’s poetry was greatly preferable to his recent novels, and was trying to persuade Red to stop writing novels. A Place to Come to, which Red to his dying day thought was a novel of the eminence of World Enough and Time, At Heaven’s Gate, All the King’s Men, and Night Rider, is a stillborn book and a terrible bore, though I say that with great sadness. Whereas Red Warren’s poetry from the Incarnations in 1966 down to the end (he stopped writing poetry in the last few years because he was too ill) was consistently the work of a great poet.

INTERVIEWER

Are there younger writers you enjoy reading?

BLOOM

I like this fellow Ted Mooney. I think something is going on there. Traffic and Laughter, which I’ve just read through, certainly has éclat—it certainly has a lot of intensity. I don’t know; there are so many that it is difficult to choose among them. It’s easier on the whole these days to think of poets than novelists. It’s very difficult for a novelist to break through. The form is not showing a great deal of fecundity, except perhaps in Don DeLillo, who is a superb inventor.

INTERVIEWER

What direction do you see the form taking?

BLOOM

I would suppose that in America we are leaning more and more towards terrible millennial visions. I would even expect a religious dimension, a satiric dimension, an even more apocalyptic dimension than we have been accustomed to. I would expect the mode of fantasy to develop new permutations.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that fiction—or poetry for that matter—could ever die out?

BLOOM

I’m reminded of that great trope of Stevens’s in “The Auroras of Autumn,” when he speaks of a “great shadow’s last embellishment.” There’s always a further embellishment. It looks like a last embellishment and then it turns out not to be—yet once more, and yet once more. One is always saying farewell to it, it is always saying farewell to itself, and then it perpetuates itself. One is always astonished and delighted. When I introduced John Ashbery at one of the poetry readings in the old days at Yale, I heard for the first time “Wet Casements.” How it ravished my heart away the moment I heard it! Certainly when I recite that poem myself and remember the original experience of hearing him deliver it, it’s hard to see how any poem could be more adequate. Clearly it is not a diminished or finished art form as long as a poem like “Wet Casements” is still possible.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask you about a period of time in the mid-sixties, which you have described as a period of great upheaval and transition for you. You were immersed in the essays of Emerson.

BLOOM

Yes, I started reading him all day long, every day, and pretty much simultaneously reading Freud. People would look at me with amazement and say, Well, what about Thoreau? He at least counts for something. And I would look back at them in amazement and tell them what indeed was and is true, that Thoreau is deeply derivative of Emerson and very minor compared to him. Emerson is God.

INTERVIEWER

You were in analysis during this period. How did that go?

BLOOM

As my distinguished analyst said to me at the end, there had never been a proper transference.

INTERVIEWER

You were unable to accept his authority?

BLOOM

I thought and still think that he is a very nice man, but as he wryly remarked, I was paying him to give him lectures several times a week on the proper way to read Freud. He thought this was quite self-defeating for both of us.

INTERVIEWER

Can a successful therapy ever be so closely allied to a reading of Freud?

BLOOM

I take it that a successful therapy is an oxymoron.

INTERVIEWER

It’s always interminable?

BLOOM

I do not know anyone who has ever benefited from Freudian or any other mode of analysis, except by being, to use the popular trope for it, so badly shrunk, that they become quite dried out. That is to say, all passion spent. Perhaps they become better people, but they also become stale and uninteresting people with very few exceptions. Like dried-out cheese, or wilted flowers.

INTERVIEWER

Were you worried about losing your creativity?

BLOOM

No, no. That was not the issue at all.

INTERVIEWER

You were having trouble writing at the time.

BLOOM

Oh yes. I was having all kinds of crises. I was, in every sense, “in the middle of a journey.” On the other hand, this has been recurrent. Here I am sixty years old and as much as ever I’m in the middle of the journey. That is something that goes with the territory. One just keeps going.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see yourself as a difficult critic, in the sense that you qualify certain poets and prose fiction writers as “difficult”?

BLOOM

I would think, my dear, that most people these days might be kind enough to call me difficult. The younger members of my profession and the members of what I have called the School of Resentment describe me, I gather, as someone who partakes of a cult of personality or self-obsession rather than their wonderful, free, and generous social vision. One of them, I understand, refers to me customarily as Napoleon Bonaparte. There is no way of dealing with these people. They have not been moved by literature. Many of them are my former students and I know them all too well. They are now gender and power freaks.

But, no. The Anxiety of Influence is a difficult book. So is Kabbalah and Criticism. They’re books in which one is trying to discover something. But Ruin the Sacred Truths is a very different book from these earlier ones, a very simple book, to me quite transparent. Besides the aging process, and I hope the maturing process, the major reason is that I am writing more for that Johnsonian ideal—which, of course, does not exist anymore—the common reader. I wouldn’t dream of using a too technical word or term now if I could possibly help it, and I don’t think there are any in Ruin the Sacred Truths except for facticity. I use that term and then dismiss it. I don’t think that any of my own special vocabulary, for which I have been condemned in the past (and which was meant to expose how arbitrary all critical and rhetorical terminology always is and has to be) is in that book. Nor do I think it’s necessary to have read Kabbalah and Criticism or A Map of Misreading or any other to understand the book. It is general literary criticism.

INTERVIEWER

How do you account historically for the school of resentment?

BLOOM

In the universities, the most surprising and reprehensible development came some twenty years ago, around 1968, and has had a very long-range effect, one that is still percolating. Suddenly all sorts of people, faculty members at the universities, graduate and undergraduate students, began to blame the universities not just for their own palpable ills and malfeasances, but for all the ills of history and society. They were blamed, and to some extent still are, by the budding school of resentment and its precursors, as though they were not only representative of these ills but, weirdly enough, as though they had somehow helped cause these ills and, even more weirdly, quite surrealistically, as though they were somehow capable of ameliorating these ills. It’s still going on—this attempt to ascribe both culpability and apocalyptic potential to the universities. It’s really asking the universities to take the place that was once occupied by religion, philosophy, and science. These are our conceptual modes. They have all failed us. The entire history of Western culture, from Alexandrian days until now, shows that when a society’s conceptual modes fail it, then willy-nilly it becomes a literary culture. This is probably neither good nor bad, but just the way things become. And we can’t really ask literature or the representatives of a literary culture, in or out of the university, to save society. Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform. It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.

INTERVIEWER

How does one react to the school of resentment? By declaring oneself an aesthete?

BLOOM

Well, I do that now, of course, in furious reaction to their school and to so much other pernicious nonsense that goes on. I would certainly see myself as an aesthete in the sense advocated by Ruskin, indeed to a considerable degree by Emerson, and certainly by the divine Walter and the sublime Oscar. It is a very engaged kind of mode. Literary criticism in the United States increasingly is split between very low level literary journalism and what I increasingly regard as a disaster, which is literary criticism in the academies, particularly in the younger generations. Increasingly scores and scores of graduate students have read the absurd Lacan but have never read Edmund Spenser; or have read a great deal of Foucault or Derrida but scarcely read Shakespeare or Milton. That’s obviously an absurd defeat for literary study. When I was a young man back in the fifties starting out on what was to be my career, I used to proclaim that my chosen profession seemed to consist of secular clergy or clerisy. I was thinking, of course, of the highly Anglo-Catholic New Criticism under the sponsorship or demigodness of T. S. Eliot. But I realized in latish middle age that, no better or worse, I was surrounded by a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them. The school of resentment is an extraordinary sort of mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-Marxists, so-called New Historicists, who are neither new nor historicist, and third generation deconstructors, who I believe have no relationship whatever to literary values. It’s really a very paltry kind of a phenomenon. But it is pervasive, and it seems to be waxing rather than waning. It is a very rare thing indeed to encounter one critic, academic or otherwise, not just in the English-speaking world, but also in France or Italy, who has an authentic commitment to aesthetic values, who reads for the pleasure of reading, and who values poetry or story as such, above all else. Reading has become a very curious kind of activity. It has become tendentious in the extreme. A sheer deliquescence has taken place because of this obsession with the methods or supposed method. Criticism starts—it has to start—with a real passion for reading. It can come in adolescence, even in your twenties, but you must fall in love with poems. You must fall in love with what we used to call “imaginative literature.” And when you are in love that way, with or without provocation from good teachers, you will pass on to encounter what used to be called the sublime. And as soon as you do this, you pass into the agonistic mode, even if your own nature is anything but agonistic. In the end, the spirit that makes one a fan of a particular athlete or a particular team is different only in degree, not in kind, from the spirit that teaches one to prefer one poet to another, or one novelist to another. That is to say there is some element of competition at every point in one’s experience as a reader. How could there not be? Perhaps you learn this more fully as you get older, but in the end you choose between books, or you choose between poems, the way you choose between people. You can’t become friends with every acquaintance you make, and I would not think that it is any different with what you read.

INTERVIEWER

Do you foresee any change, or improvement, in the critical fashions?

BLOOM

I don’t believe in myths of decline or myths of progress, even as regards to the literary scene. The world does not get to be a better or a worse place; it just gets more senescent. The world gets older, without getting either better or worse and so does literature. But I do think that the drab current phenomenon that passes for literary studies in the university will finally provide its own corrective. That is to say, sooner or later, students and teachers are going to get terribly bored with all the technocratic social work going on now. There will be a return to aesthetic values and desires, or these people will simply do something else with their time. But I find a great deal of hypocrisy in what they’re doing now. It is tiresome to be encountering myths called “The Social Responsibility of the Critic” or “The Political Responsibility of the Critic.” I would rather walk into a bookstore and find a book called “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Statesman,” or “The Literary Responsibilities of the Engineer.” Criticism is not a program for social betterment, not an engine for social change. I don’t see how it possibly could be. If you look for the best instance of a socially radical critic, you find a very good one indeed in William Hazlitt. But you will not find that his social activism on the left in any way conditions his aesthetic judgments, or that he tries to make imaginative literature a machine for revolution. You would not find much difference in aesthetic response between Hazlitt and Dr. Samuel Johnson on Milton, though Dr. Johnson is very much on the right politically, and Hazlitt, of course, very much an enthusiast for the French Revolution and for English radicalism. But I can’t find much in the way of a Hazlittian or Johnsonian temperament in life and literature anywhere on the current scene. There are so many tiresomenesses going on. Everyone is so desperately afraid of being called a racist or a sexist that they connive—whether actively or passively—the almost total breakdown of standards that has taken place both in and out of the universities, where writings by blacks or Hispanics or in many cases simply women are concerned.

INTERVIEWER

This movement has helped focus attention on some great novels, though. You’re an admirer, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

BLOOM

Oh, but that is a very, very rare exception. What else is there like Invisible Man? Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has a kind of superior intensity and firm control. It’s a very fine book indeed. It surprised and delighted me when I first read it and it has sustained several rereadings since. But that and Invisible Man are the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all. Alice Walker is an extremely inadequate writer, and I think that is giving her the best of it. A book like The Color Purple is of no aesthetic interest or value whatsoever, yet it is exalted and taught in the academies. It clearly is a time in which social and cultural guilt has taken over.

INTERVIEWER

I know you find this to be true of feminist criticism.

BLOOM

I’m very fond of feminist critics, some of whom are my close friends, but it is widely known I’m not terribly fond of feminist criticism. The true test is to find work, whether in the past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued, and thus bring it to our attention and teach us to study it more closely or more usefully. By that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds—still matter. I do not appreciate Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson any more or less than I would have appreciated them if we had no feminist literary criticism at all. And I stare at what is presented to me as feminist literary criticism and I shake my head. I regard it at best as being well-intentioned. I do not regard it as being literary criticism.

INTERVIEWER

Can it be valued as a form of social or political literary criticism?

BLOOM

I’m not concerned with political or social criticism. If people wish to practice it, that is entirely their business. It is not mine, heavens! If it does not help me to read a work of aesthetic value then I’m not going to be interested in it at all. I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.

INTERVIEWER

What do you make of all this recent talk of the “canonical problem”?

BLOOM

It is no more than a reflection of current academic and social politics in the United States. The old test for what makes a work canonical is if it has engendered strong readings that come after it, whether as overt interpretations or implicitly interpretive forms. There’s no way the gender and power boys and girls, or the New Historicists, or any of the current set are going to give us new canonical works, any more than all the agitation of feminist writing or nowadays what seems to be called African American writing is going to give us canonical works. Alice Walker is not going to be a canonical poet no matter how many lemmings stand forth and proclaim her sublimity. It really does seem to me a kind of bogus issue. I am more and more certain that a great deal of what now passes for literary study of the so-called politically correct variety will wash aside. It is a ripple. I give it five years. I have seen many fashions come and go since I first took up literary study. After forty years one begins to be able to distinguish an ephemeral surface ripple from a deeper current or an authentic change.

INTERVIEWER

You teach Freud and Shakespeare.

BLOOM

Oh yes, increasingly. I keep telling my students that I’m not interested in a Freudian reading of Shakespeare but a kind of Shakespearean reading of Freud. In some sense Freud has to be a prose version of Shakespeare, the Freudian map of the mind being in fact Shakespearean. There’s a lot of resentment on Freud’s part because I think he recognizes this. What we think of as Freudian psychology is really a Shakespearean invention and, for the most part, Freud is merely codifying it. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Freud himself says “the poets were there before me,” and the poet in particular is necessarily Shakespeare. But you know, I think it runs deeper than that. Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean invention than a Biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind a Cartesian or Jungian invention. It’s not just that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition as such; I’m not so sure he doesn’t largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying something like this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare and one of them got very indignant and said, You are confusing Shakespeare with God. I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were. Most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare. The principal insight that I’ve had in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn’t anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, on what they themselves have said. And then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, they become a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind. We take that utterly for granted in representation. But it doesn’t exist before Shakespeare. It doesn’t happen in the Bible. It doesn’t happen in Homer or in Dante. It doesn’t even happen in Euripides. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare’s true precursor—where he took the hint from—is Chaucer, which is why I think the Wife of Bath gets into Falstaff, and the Pardoner gets into figures like Edmund and Iago. As to where Chaucer gets that from, that’s a very pretty question. It is a standing challenge I have put to my students. That’s part of Chaucer’s shocking originality as a writer. But Chaucer does it only in fits and starts, and in small degree. Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation is purely Shakespearean and we are now so contained by it that we can’t see its originality anymore. The originality of it is bewildering.

By the way, I was thinking recently about this whole question as it relates to the French tradition. I gave what I thought was a remarkable seminar on Hamlet to my undergraduate Shakespeare seminar at Yale. About an hour before class, I had what I thought was a very considerable insight, though I gather my students were baffled by it. I think that I was trying to say too much at once. It had suddenly occurred to me that the one canon of French neoclassical thought that was absolutely, indeed religiously, followed by French dramatists—and this means everyone, even Molière and Racine—was that there were to be no soliloquies and no asides. No matter what dexterity or agility had to be displayed, a confidante had to be dragged onto the stage so that the protagonist could have someone to whom to address cogitations, reflections. This accounts not only for why Shakespeare has never been properly absorbed by the French, as compared to his effect on every other European culture, language, literature, dramatic tradition, but also for the enormous differences between French and Anglo-American modes of literary thought. It also helps account for why the French modes, which are having so absurd an effect upon us at this time, are so clearly irrelevant to our literature and our way of talking about literature. I can give you a further illustration. I gave a faculty seminar a while ago, in which I talked for about two hours about my notions of Shakespeare and originality. At the end of it, a woman who was present, a faculty member at Yale, who had listened with a sort of amazement and a clear lack of comprehension, said with considerable exasperation, Well you know Professor Bloom, I don’t really understand why you’re talking about originality. It is as outmoded as, say, private enterprise in the economic sphere. An absurdity to have put myself in a situation where I had to address a member of the school of resentment! I was too courteous, especially since my colleague Shoshana Felman jumped in to try to explain to the lady what I was up to. But I realized it was hopeless. Here was a lady who came not out of Racine and Molière but in fact out of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. Even if she had come out of Racine and Molière, she could never have hoped to understand. I remember what instantly flashed through my head was that I had been talking about the extraordinary originality of the way Shakespeare’s protagonists ponder to themselves and, on the basis of that pondering, change. She could not understand this because it never actually happens in the French drama; the French critical mind has never been able to believe that it is appropriate for this to happen. Surely this is related to a mode of apprehension, a mode of criticism in which authorial presence was never very strong anyway, and so indeed it could die.

INTERVIEWER

Can you explain how you came to notice this about Shakespeare’s protagonists?

BLOOM

Yes, I can even remember the particular moment. I was teaching King Lear, and I’d reached a moment in the play that has always fascinated me. I suddenly saw what was going on. Edmund is the most remarkable villain in all Shakespeare, a manipulator so strong that he makes Iago seem minor in comparison. Edmund is a sophisticated and sardonic consciousness who can run rings around anyone else on the stage in King Lear. He is so foul that it takes Goneril and Regan, really, to match up to him . . . He’s received his death wound from his brother; he’s lying there on the battlefield. They bring in word that Goneril and Regan are dead—one slew the other and then committed suicide for his sake. Edmund broods out loud and says, quite extraordinarily (it’s all in four words), “Yet Edmund was belov’d.” One looks at those four words totally startled. As soon as he says it, he starts to ponder out loud. What are the implications that, though two monsters of the deep, the two loved me so much that one of them killed the other and then murdered herself. He reasons it out. He says, “The one the other poison’d for my sake / And after slew herself.” And then he suddenly says, “I pant for life,” and then amazingly he says, “Some good I mean to do / despite of mine own nature,” and he suddenly gasps out, having given the order for Lear and Cordelia to be killed, “Send in time,” to stop it. They don’t get there in time. Cordelia’s been murdered. And then Edmund dies. But that’s an astonishing change. It comes about as he hears himself say in real astonishment, “Yet Edmund was belov’d,” and on that basis, he starts to ponder. Had he not said that, he would not have changed. There’s nothing like that in literature before Shakespeare. It makes Freud unnecessary. The representation of inwardness is so absolute and large that we have no parallel to it before then.

INTERVIEWER

So that the Freudian commentary on Hamlet by Ernest Jones is unnecessary.

BLOOM

It’s much better to work out what Hamlet’s commentary on the Oedipal complex might be. There’s that lovely remark of A. C. Bradley’s that Shakespeare’s major tragic heroes can only work in the play that they’re in—that if Iago had to come onto the same stage with Hamlet, it would take Hamlet about five seconds to catch onto what Iago was doing and so viciously parody Iago that he would drive him to madness and suicide. The same way, if the ghost of Othello’s dead father appeared to Othello and said that someone had murdered him, Othello would grab his sword and go and hack the other fellow down. In each case there would be no play. Just as the plays would make mincemeat of one another if you tried to work one into the other, so Shakespeare chops up any writer you apply him to. And a Shakespearean reading of Freud would leave certain things but not leave others. It would make one very impatient, I think, with Freud’s representation of the Oedipal complex. And it’s a disaster to try to apply the Freudian reading of that to Hamlet.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever acted Shakespeare?

BLOOM

Only just once, at Cornell. I was pressed into service because I knew Father Falstaff by heart. But it was a disaster. I acted as though there were no one else on stage, something that delights my younger son when I repeat it. As a result, I never heard cues, I created a kind of gridlock on stage. I had a good time, but no one else did. Not long ago President Reagan, who should be remembered only for his jokes because his jokes I think are really very good, was asked how it was he could have managed eight years as president and still look so wonderful. Did you see this?

INTERVIEWER

No.

BLOOM

It was in the Times. He said, “Let me tell you the story about the old psychiatrist being admired by a young psychiatrist who asks, ‘How come you still look so fresh, so free of anxiety, so little worn by care, when you’ve spent your entire life sitting as I do every day, getting worn out listening to the miseries of your patients?’ To which the older psychiatrist replies, ‘It’s very simple, young man. I never listen.’ ” Such sublime, wonderful, and sincere self-revelation on the part of Reagan! In spite of all one’s horror at what he has done or failed to do as President, it takes one’s breath away with admiration. That’s the way I played the part of Falstaff. I’m occasionally asked by old friends, who don’t yet know me well enough, if I had ever considered becoming a psychoanalyst. I look at them in shock and say, Psychoanalyst! My great struggle as a teacher is to stop answering my own questions! I still think, though no one in the world except me thinks so and no one’s ever going to give me an award as a great teacher, I’m a pretty good teacher, but only in terms of the great Emersonian maxim “that which I can receive from another is never tuition but only provocation.” I think that if the young woman or man listens to what I am saying, she or he will get very provoked indeed.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever teach from notes? Or do you prefer to improvise?

BLOOM

I have never made a note in my life. How could I? I have internalized the text. I externalized it in different ways at different times. We cannot step even once in the same river. We cannot step even once in the same text.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of creative-writing workshops?

BLOOM

I suppose that they do more good than harm, and yet it baffles me. Writing seems to me so much an art of solitude. Criticism is a teachable art, but like every art it too finally depends upon an inherent or implicit gift. I remember remarking somewhere in something I wrote that I gave up going to the Modern Language Association some years ago because the idea of a convention of twenty-five or thirty thousand critics is every bit as hilarious as the idea of going to a convention of twenty-five thousand poets or novelists. There aren’t twenty-five thousand critics. I frequently wonder if there are five critics alive at any one time. The extent to which the art of fiction or the art of poetry is teachable is a more complex problem. Historically, we know how poets become poets and fiction writers become fiction writers—they read. They read their predecessors and they learn what is to be learned. The idea of Herman Melville in a writing class is always distressing to me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that the word processor has had or is having any effect on the study of literature?

BLOOM

There cannot be a human being who has fewer thoughts on the whole question of word processing than I do. I’ve never even seen a word processor. I am hopelessly archaic.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps you see an effect on students’ papers then?

BLOOM

But for me the typewriter hasn’t even been invented yet, so how can I speak to this matter? I protest! A man who has never learned to type is not going to be able to add anything to this debate. As far as I’m concerned, computers have as much to do with literature as space travel, perhaps much less. I can only write with a ballpoint pen, with a Rolling Writer, they’re called, a black Rolling Writer on a lined yellow legal pad on a certain kind of clipboard. And then someone else types it.

INTERVIEWER

And someone else edits?

BLOOM

No one edits. I edit. I refuse to be edited.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise much?

BLOOM

Sometimes, but not often.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a particular time of day when you like to write?

BLOOM

There isn’t one for me. I write in desperation. I write because the pressures are so great, and I am simply so far past a deadline that I must turn out something.

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t espouse a particular work ethic on a daily basis?

BLOOM

No, no. I lead a disordered and hurried life.

INTERVIEWER

Are there days when you do not work at all?

BLOOM

Yes, alas, alas, alas. But one always thinks about literature. I don’t recognize a distinction between literature and life. I am, as I keep moaning, an experimental critic. I’ve spent my life proclaiming that what is called “critical objectivity” is a farce. It is deep subjectivity which has to be achieved, which is difficult, whereas objectivity is cheap.

INTERVIEWER

What is it that you think keeps you from writing when you’re unable to write?

BLOOM

Despair, exhaustion. There are long periods when I cannot write at all. Long, long periods, sometimes lasting many years. Sometimes one just has to lie fallow. And also, you know, interests change. One goes into such different modes. What was incredibly difficult was the commentary on the J-Writer, which underwent real change for me as I became more and more convinced that she was a woman, which made some considerable difference. I mean, obviously it’s just a question of imagining it one way or another. No one will ever demonstrate it, that he was a man or she was a woman. But I find that if I imagine it that J was a woman, it produces, to me, more imaginatively accurate results than the other way around.

INTERVIEWER

But do you think that the importance of the J-Writer’s being a woman has been exaggerated?

BLOOM

Oh, immensely exaggerated. In an interview that was published in The New York Times, the extremely acute Richard Bernstein allowed me to remark at some length on my strong feeling, more intense than before, that on the internal, that is to say psychological and literary evidence, it is much more likely to have been a woman than a man. I also said—I believe this quite passionately—that if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have mentioned the putative gender of the author. It has served as a monstrous red herring that has diverted attention away from what is really controversial and should be the outrage and scandal of the book, which is the fact that the god—the literary character named Yahweh or God—has absolutely nothing in common with the God of the revisionists in the completed Torah and therefore of the normative Jewish tradition and of Christianity and Islam and all their branches.

INTERVIEWER

Certainly that aspect of the book has caught the notice of the normative Jewish reviewers.

BLOOM

The normative Jewish reviewers have reacted very badly, in particular Mr. Robert Alter. And the other Norman Podhorrors–type review was by his henchman, Neil Kozody, a subscriber to the Hotel Hilton Kramer criteria. (The marvelous controversialist Gore Vidal invariably refers to that dubiety as the Hotel Hilton Kramer.) Mr. Kozody, in playing Tonto to the Lone Ranger, went considerably further than Mr. Alter in denouncing me for what he thought was my vicious attack on normative Judaism. And indeed, I’ve now heard this from many quarters, including from an absurd rabbinical gentleman who reviewed it in Newsday and proclaimed, “What makes Professor Bloom think there was such a thing as irony three thousand years ago?”—which may be the funniest single remark that anyone could make about this or any other book.

But I’m afraid it isn’t over. It’s just beginning. There was a program at Symphony Space, where Claire Bloom and Fritz Weaver read aloud from the Bible, and I spoke for ten minutes at the beginning and end. I got rather carried away. In the final ten minutes I allowed myself not only to answer my normative Jewish critics, but to start talking about what I feel are the plain spiritual inadequacies for a contemporary intellectual Jewry. It has been subsequently broadcast, and all hell may break loose. Many a rabbi and Jewish bureaucrat has been after my scalp.

INTERVIEWER

What did you say?

BLOOM

Well, I allowed myself to tell the truth, which is always a great mistake. I said that I could not be the only contemporary Jewish intellectual who was very unhappy indeed that the Holocaust had been made part of our religion. I did not like this vision of six million versions of what the Christians call Jesus, and I did not believe that if this was going to be offered to me as Judaism it would be acceptable. I also allowed myself to say that the god of the J-Writer seems to me a god in whom I scarcely could fail to believe, since that god was all of our breath and vitality. Whereas what the Redactor, being more a censor than an author of the Hebrew Bible, and the priestly authors and those that came after in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, gave us are simply not acceptable to a person with literary sensibility or any high spirituality at this time.

INTERVIEWER

How have you found being in the public eye? The Book of J is your first book on the best-seller list.

BLOOM

Though it’s the first time, I’m informed, that a work of literary criticism or commentary has been on the best-seller list, it has not been a pleasant experience.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

BLOOM

I did not, on the whole, relish the television and radio appearances, which I undertook because of the plain inadequacies of the publisher. The people who work for that publisher did the best they could, but they were understaffed, undermanned, never printed enough books, and have most inadequate advertising. I know that all authors complain about that, but this is manifest.

INTERVIEWER

You were on Good Morning America of all things.

BLOOM

I was on Good Morning America, I was on Larry King, and many others. I must say that I came away with two radically opposed insights. One is the remarkably high degree of civility and personal civilization of both my radio and TV interlocutors. In fact, they’re far more civilized and gentlemanly or gentlewomanly than journalistic interviewers usually are, and certainly more so than the so-called scholarly and academic reviewers, who are merely assassins and thugs. But also, after a lifetime spent teaching, it was very difficult to accept emotionally that huge blank eye of the TV camera, or the strange bareness of the radio studio. There is a terrible unreality about it that I have not enjoyed at all.

INTERVIEWER

You have mentioned you might write on the aesthetics of outrage as a topic.

BLOOM

Yes, the aesthetics of being outraged. But I don’t mean being outraged in that other sense, you know, that sort of postsixties phenomenon. I mean in the sense in which Macbeth is increasingly outraged. What fascinates me is that we so intensely sympathize with a successful or strong representation of someone in the process of being outraged, and I want to know why. I suppose it’s ultimately that we’re outraged at mortality, and it is impossible not to sympathize with that.

INTERVIEWER

This is a topic that would somehow include W. C. Fields.

BLOOM

Oh yes, certainly, since I think his great power is that he perpetually demonstrates the enormous comedy of being outraged. I have never recovered from the first time I saw the W. C. Fields short, The Fatal Glass of Beer. It represents for me still the high point of cinema, surpassing even Groucho’s Duck Soup. Have you seen The Fatal Glass of Beer? I don’t think I have the critical powers to describe it. Throughout much of it, W. C. Fields is strumming a zither and singing a song about the demise of his unfortunate son, who expires because of a fatal glass of beer that college boys persuade the abstaining youth to drink. He then insults a Salvation Army lassie, herself a reformed high-kicker in the chorus line, and she stuns him with a single high kick. But to describe it in this way is to say that Macbeth is about an ambitious man who murders the King.

INTERVIEWER

So in addition to being an outrageous critic, are you an outraged critic, in that sense?

BLOOM

No, no. I hope that I am not an outrageous critic, but I suppose I am. But that’s only because most of the others are so dreadfully tame and senescent, or indeed are now politically correct or content to be social reformers who try to tell us there is some connection between literature and social change. Outraged? No, I am not outraged. I am not outraged as a person. I am beyond it now. I’m sixty years and seven months old. It’s too late for me to be outraged. It would really shorten my life if I let myself be outraged. I don’t have the emotional strength anymore. It would be an expense of spirit that I cannot afford. Besides, by now nothing surprises me. You know, the literary situation is one of a surpassing absurdity. Criticism in the universities, I’ll have to admit, has entered a phase where I am totally out of sympathy with ninety-five percent of what goes on. It’s Stalinism without Stalin. All the traits of the Stalinist in the 1930s and 1940s are being repeated in this whole resentment in the universities in the 1990s. The intolerance, the self-congratulation, smugness, sanctimoniousness, the retreat from imaginative values, the flight from the aesthetic. It’s not worth being truly outraged about. Eventually these people will provide their own antidote, because they will perish of boredom. I will win in the end. I must be the only literary critic of any eminence who is writing today (I cannot think of another, I’m sad to say, however arrogant or difficult this sounds) who always asks about what he reads and likes, whether it is ancient, modern, or brand new, or has always been laying around, who always asks: How good is it? What is it better than? What is it less good than? What does it mean? and Is there some relation between what it means and how good or bad it is, and not only how is it good or bad, but why it is good or bad? Mr. Frye, who was very much my precursor, tried to banish all of that from criticism, just as I tried to reintroduce a kind of dark sense of temporality, or the sorrows of temporality, into literary criticism as a correction to Frye’s Platonic idealism. I have also raised more explicitly than anyone else nowadays or indeed anyone since Johnson or Hazlitt, the question of why does it matter. There has to be some relation between the way in which we matter and the way in which we read. A way of speaking and writing about literature that addresses itself to these matters must seem impossibly naive or old-fashioned or not literary criticism at all to the partisans of the school of resentment. But I believe that these have been the modes of Western literary criticism ever since Aristophanes invented the art of criticism by juxtaposing Euripides with Aeschylus (to the profound disadvantage of Euripides), or indeed ever since Longinus started to work off his own anxieties about Plato by dealing with Plato’s anxieties about Homer. This is the stuff literary criticism has always done and, if it is finally to be of any use to us, this is what I think it must get back to. It really must answer the questions of good and bad and how and why. It must answer the question of what the relevance of literature is to our lives, and why it means one thing to us when we are one way and another thing to us when we are another. It astonishes me that I cannot find any other contemporary critic who still discusses the pathos of great literature, or is willing to talk about why a particular work does or does not evoke great anguish in us. This is of course dismissed as the merest subjectivity.

INTERVIEWER

Can essays like Hazlitt’s or Ruskin’s or Pater’s still be written today?

BLOOM

Most people would say no. I can only say I do my best. That’s as audacious a thing as I can say. I keep saying, though nobody will listen, or only a few will listen, that criticism is either a genre of literature or it is nothing. It has no hope for survival unless it is a genre of literature. It can be regarded, if you wish, as a minor genre, but I don’t know why people say that. The idea that poetry or, rather, verse writing, is to take priority over criticism is on the face of it absolute nonsense. That would be to say that the verse-writer Felicia Hemans is a considerably larger figure than her contemporary William Hazlitt. Or that our era’s Felicia Hemans, Sylvia Plath, is a considerably larger literary figure than, say, the late Wilson Knight. This is clearly not the case. Miss Plath is a bad verse writer. I read Knight with pleasure and profit, if at times wonder and shock. These are obvious points but obviously one will have to go on making them. Almost everything now written and published and praised in the United States as verse isn’t even verse, let alone poetry. It’s just typing, or word processing. As a matter of fact, it’s usually just glib rhetoric or social resentment. Just as almost everything that we now call criticism is in fact just journalism.

INTERVIEWER

Or an involvement with what you refer to as the “easier pleasures.” What are these easier pleasures?

BLOOM

Well, I take the notion from my friend and contemporary Angus Fletcher, who takes it from Shelley and Longinus. It’s perfectly clear some very good writers offer only easier pleasures. Compare two writers exactly contemporary with one another—Harold Brodkey and John Updike. Updike, as I once wrote, is a minor novelist with a major style. A quite beautiful and very considerable stylist. I’ve read many novels by Updike, but the one I like best is The Witches of Eastwick. But for the most part it seems to me that he specializes in the easier pleasures. They are genuine pleasures, but they do not challenge the intellect. Brodkey, somewhat imperfectly perhaps, does so to a much more considerable degree. Thomas Pynchon provides very difficult pleasures, it seems to me, though not of late. I am not convinced, in fact, that it was he who wrote Vineland. Look at the strongest American novelist since Melville, Hawthorne, and James. That would certainly have to be Faulkner. Look at the difference between Faulkner at his very best in As I Lay Dying and at his very worst in A Fable. A Fable is nothing but easier pleasures, but they’re not even pleasures. It is so easy it becomes, indeed, vulgar, disgusting, and does not afford pleasure. As I Lay Dying is a very difficult piece of work. To try to apprehend Darl Bundren takes a very considerable effort of the imagination. Faulkner really surpasses himself there. It seems to me an authentic instance of the literary sublime in our time. Or, if you look at modern American poetry, in some sense the entire development of Wallace Stevens is from affording us easier pleasures, as in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and before that “Sunday Morning,” to the very difficult pleasures of “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” and then the immensely difficult pleasures of a poem like “The Owl in the Sarcophagus.” You have to labor with immense intensity in order to keep up. It is certainly related to the notion propounded by both Burckhardt and Nietzsche, which I’ve taken over from them, of the agonistic. There is a kind of standard of measurement starting with Plato on through Western thought where one asks a literary work, implicity, to answer the question “more, equal to, or less than?” In the end, the answer to that question is the persuasive force enabling a reader to say, I will sacrifice an easier pleasure for something that takes me beyond myself. Surely that must be the difference between Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, an enigmatic and to me in many ways unequal play. I get a lot more pleasure out of Barabas than I do out of the equivocal Shylock, but I’m well aware that my pleasure in Barabas is an easier pleasure, and that my trouble in achieving any pleasure in reading or viewing Shylock is because other factors are getting in the way of apprehending the Shakespearean sublime. The whole question of the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice is for me one of the astonishing tests of what I would call the sublime in poetry. One has the trouble of having to accommodate oneself to it.

INTERVIEWER

You recently completed a stint as general editor for the Chelsea House series, a sort of encyclopedia of literary criticism, consisting of some five hundred volumes.

BLOOM

I haven’t completed it, but it has slowed down. It has been a very strange kind of a process. It swept me away in a kind of fantastic rush. I couldn’t do it again like that and I wouldn’t want to do it again, but it was very intense while it lasted. When it reached its height I was writing fifteen of those introductions a month, so that every two days I had to write another. I had to reread everything, and crystallize my views very quickly. But I like that kind of writing. I learned a great deal doing it, because you couldn’t waste any time. You had to get to the kernel of it immediately, and in seven to twelve pages say what you really thought about it without wasting time on scholarly outreaches or byways.

INTERVIEWER

How do you manage to write so quickly? Is it insomnia?

BLOOM

Partly insomnia. I think I usually write therapeutically. That is what Hart Crane really taught one. I was talking to William Empson about this once. He never wrote any criticism of Crane, and he didn’t know whether he liked his poetry or not, but he said that the desperation of Crane’s poetry appealed to him. Using his funny kind of parlance, he said that Hart Crane’s poetry showed that poetry is now a mug’s game, that Crane always wrote every poem as though it were going to be his last. That catches something in Crane which is very true, that he writes each lyric in such a way that you literally feel he’s going to die if he can’t bring it off, that his survival not just as a poet but as a person depends upon somehow articulating that poem. I don’t have the audacity to compare myself to Crane, yet I think I write criticism in the spirit in which he wrote poems. One writes to keep going, to keep oneself from going mad. One writes to be able to write the next piece of criticism or to live through the next day or two. Maybe it’s an apotropaic gesture, maybe one writes to ward off death. I’m not sure. But I think in some sense that’s what poets do. They write their poems to ward off dying.

INTERVIEWER

You were for some time writing a major work on Freud to be called “Transference and Authority.” What’s become of that?

BLOOM

Well, it’s a huge, yellowing manuscript. I don’t know whether I would have finished it, but for the five years before the Chelsea House New Haven factory closed down I increasingly had to give my work to writing those introductions. I don’t regret it, since it allowed me for the first time to become a really general literary critic. But I had to set the Freud aside. Perhaps in four or five years I’ll get back to it. I would still like to write a book on Freud, but I don’t think it will be the “Transference and Authority” book. I’ve got a huge manuscript that tries to comment on every important essay or monograph of Freud’s, but I don’t think I would want to publish it. I would not want to write on Freud as though he were a kind of scripture. I would have to rethink the whole thing. The title was a giveaway, I now realize. I could never work out my own transference relationship with regard to the text of Freud, and I could never decide how much authority it did or didn’t have for me. I suppose I foundered upon that, so it’s a kind of tattered white elephant. It’s up in the attic—seven or eight hundred pages of typescript. But I think I have abandoned in manuscript more books and essays than I’ve ever printed. The attic is full of them. Eventually I may make a bonfire of the whole thing.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also referred to a sequel to Flight to Lucifer, your one novel.

BLOOM

I wrote about half the sequel to it, called “The Lost Travelers’ Dream,” about a changeling child, a kind of gnostic concept, though it was much less doctrinal than A Flight to Lucifer. I thought it was a much better piece of writing, and a couple of people whom I showed it to thought it had real promise. But I brooded on it one night, about 1981 or 1982, and I shut my notebook, took the manuscript, and put it up in the attic; it’s still up there, and if I ever live long enough and there are no changes in my life I might take it down. Flight to Lucifer is certainly the only book that I wish I hadn’t published. It was all right to have composed it, but I wish I hadn’t published it. I sat down one night, six months after it came out, and read through it. I thought it was—particularly in the last third or so—quite well-written, but I also felt it was an atrociously bad book. It failed as narrative, as negative characterization. Its overt attempt to be a sort of secret sequel to that sublime and crazy book A Voyage to Arcturus failed completely. It had no redeeming virtues. It was a kind of tractate in the understanding of gnosticism. It clearly had many obsessive critical ideas in it. The Flight to Lucifer now reads to me as though Walter Pater were trying to write Star Wars. That’s giving it the best of it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find you have “slowed down” at all since your incredibly prolific period in the seventies?

BLOOM

I don’t know that I’m a burned-out husk but one becomes so dialetically aware of the history of literature that one requires some multiple consciousness of oneself in regard to the total work of others. One gets more and more addicted to considering the relationship between literature and life in teaching and writing. In fact, there are certain things that had been possible at an early age that are not possible anymore. I find that anything of any length I’m now trying to write is what once would have been called religious. I’m writing this book called “The American Religion: A Prophecy,” whose title, of course, echoes Blake’s America: A Prophecy. It is meant to be a somewhat outrageous but I hope a true and useful book. It begins with our last election and leads into the whole question of the American spirit and American literature and above all the American religion—which existed before Emerson but to which Emerson gave the decisive terms. The religion of the United States is not Christianity; perhaps it never was Christianity, but is a curious form of American gnosis. It is a mighty queer religion, exhilarating in some ways but marked by destructiveness. It seems to me increasingly that George Bush won hands down and had to win because of the two candidates he more nearly incarnated the ideals and visions of the American religion. Our foreign policy basically amounts to making the world safe for gnosticism.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that the Christian Bible is, on the whole, a disappointment.

BLOOM

The aesthetic achievement is so much less than that of the Old—or original—Testament. The New Testament is a very curious work from a literary point of view. So much of it is written by writers who are thinking in Aramaic and writing in demotic Greek. And that curious blend of Aramatic syntax with a Greek vocabulary is a very dubious medium. It’s particularly egregious in the Revelation of St. John the Divine, the Apocalypse, which is a very bad and hysterical and nasty piece of writing. Even the most powerful parts of the New Testament from a literary point of view—certain epistles of Paul and the Gospel of John—are not works that can sustain a close aesthetic comparison with the stronger parts of the Hebrew Bible. It is striking how the Apocalypse of John has had an influence out of all proportion to its aesthetic, or for that matter, I would think, its spiritual value. It is not only an hysterical piece of work, but a work lacking love or compassion. In fact, it is the archetypal text of resentment, and it is the proper foundation for every school of resentment ever since.

INTERVIEWER

Is belief anything more than a trope for you now?

BLOOM

Belief is not available to me. It is a stuffed bird, up on the shelf. So is philosophy, let me point out, and so, for that matter, is psychoanalysis—an institutional church founded upon Freud’s writings, praxis, and example. These are not live birds that one can hold in one’s hand. We live in a literary culture, as I keep saying. This is not necessarily good—it might even be bad—but it is where we are. Our cognitive modes have failed us.

INTERVIEWER

Can belief be as individual and idiosyncratic as fiction?

BLOOM

The religious genius is a dead mode. Belief should be as passionate and individual a fiction as any strong, idiosyncratic literary work, but it isn’t. It almost never is. Religion has been too contaminated by society, by human hatreds. The history of religion as an institutional or social mode is a continuous horror. At this very moment we see this with the wretched Mr. Rushdie, who, by the way, alas, is not much of a writer. I tried to read Midnight’s Children and found myself quite bored; I have tried to read The Satanic Verses, which seems to me very wordy, very neo-Joycean, very much an inadequate artifice. It is not much better than an upper-middle-brow attempt at serious fiction. Poor wretched fellow, who can blame him? There’s no way for him to apologize because the world is not prepared to protect him from the consequences of having offended a religion. All religions have always been pernicious as social, political, and economic entities. And they always will be.

INTERVIEWER

Are you still watching the TV evangelists?

BLOOM

Oh yes, I love the TV evangelists, especially Jimmy Swaggart. I loved above all his grand confession starting “I have sinned . . .,” which he delivered to all of America with his family in the front row of the auditorium. One of the most marvelous moments in modern American culture! I enjoyed it immensely. It was his finest performance. And then the revelation by the lady, when she published her article, that he never touched her! And he was paying her these rather inconsiderable sums for her to zoombinate herself while he watched. Oh dear. It’s so sad. It’s so terribly sad.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that you occasionally listen to rock music.

BLOOM

Oh sure. My favorite viewing, and this is the first time I have ever admitted it to anyone, but what I love to do, when I don’t watch evangelicals, when I can’t read or write and can’t go out walking, and don’t want to just tear my hair and destroy myself, I put on, here in New Haven, cable channel thirteen and I watch rock television endlessly. As a sheer revelation of the American religion it’s overwhelming. Yes, I like to watch the dancing girls too. The sex part of it is fine. Occasionally it’s musically interesting, but you know, ninety-nine out of a hundred groups are just bilge. And there hasn’t been any good American rock since, alas, The Band disbanded. I watch MTV endlessly, my dear, because what is going on there, not just in the lyrics but in its whole ambience, is the real vision of what the country needs and desires. It’s the image of reality that it sees, and it’s quite weird and wonderful. It confirms exactly these two points: first, that no matter how many are on the screen at once, not one of them feels free except in total self-exaltation. And second, it comes through again and again in the lyrics and the way one dances, the way one moves, that what is best and purest in one is just no part of the creation—that myth of an essential purity before and beyond experience never goes away. It’s quite fascinating. And notice how pervasive it is! I spent a month in Rome lecturing and I was so exhausted at the end of each day that my son David and I cheerfully watched the Italian mtv. I stared and I just couldn’t believe it. Italian MTV is a sheer parody of its American counterpart, with some amazing consequences—the American religion has made its way even into Rome! It is nothing but a religious phenomenon. Very weird to see it take place.

INTERVIEWER

Has the decision to be a critic . . . or it’s not really a decision, I suppose.

BLOOM

It’s not a decision, it’s an infliction.

INTERVIEWER

Has the vocation of criticism been a happy one?

BLOOM

I don’t think of it in those terms.

INTERVIEWER

Satisfying?

BLOOM

I don’t think of it in those terms.

INTERVIEWER

Inevitable only?

BLOOM

People who don’t like me would say so. Denis Donoghue, in his review of Rain the Sacred Truths, described me as the Satan of literary criticism. That I take as an involuntary compliment. Perhaps indeed it was a voluntary compliment. In any case, I’m delighted to accept that. I’m delighted to believe that I am by merit raised to that bad eminence.

INTERVIEWER

Are there personal costs to being the Satan of literary criticism?

BLOOM

I can’t imagine what they would be. All of us are, as Mr. Stevens said, “condemned to be that inescapable animal, ourselves.” Or as an even greater figure, Sir John Falstaff, said, “ ’Tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.” I would much rather be regarded, of course, as the Falstaff of literary criticism than as the Satan of literary criticism. Much as I love my Uncle Satan, I love my Uncle Falstaff even more. He’s much wittier than Satan. He’s wiser than Satan. But then, Shakespeare’s an even better poet than Milton.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you feel especially required to complete right now, as a teacher or as a critic? Something just beyond view?

BLOOM

Well, I intend to teach Shakespeare for the rest of my life. I would like to write a general, comprehensive study on Shakespeare, not necessarily commenting on every play or every scene, but trying to arrive at a total view of Shakespeare. One always wants to write about Shakespeare. But by then I may be too old I think.

INTERVIEWER

Are you being fruitfully misread, as you would say, by anyone?

BLOOM

I hope that somewhere in the world there is a young critic or two who will strongly misread me to their advantage. Lord knows, one is not Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt or John Ruskin, or even Walter Pater or Oscar Wilde as critic. But, yes, I hope so.

You know, I’ve learned something over the years, picking up copies of my books in secondhand bookstores and in libraries, off people’s shelves. I’ve written so much and have now looked at so many of these books that I’ve learned a great deal. You also learn this from reviews and from things that are cited in other people’s books and so on, or from what people say to you—what you pride yourself on, the things that you think are your insight and contribution . . . no one ever even notices them. It’s as though they’re just for you. What you say in passing or what you expound because you know it too well, because it really bores you, but you feel you have to get through this in order to make your grand point, that’s what people pick up on. That’s what they underline. That’s what they quote. That’s what they attack, or cite favorably. That’s what they can use. What you really think you’re doing may or may not be what you’re doing, but it certainly isn’t communicated to others. I’ve talked about this to other critics, to other writers; they haven’t had quite my extensive sense of this, but it strikes an answering chord in them. One’s grand ideas are indeed one’s grand ideas, but there are none that seem to be useful or even recognizable to anyone else. It’s a very strange phenomenon. It must have something to do with our capacity for not knowing ourselves.

* Mr. Styron wishes to point out that his annoyance was not with H.B.’s critical views— with which he agrees—but that they were offered in Penn Warren’s presence. [—Ed.]

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.