Lesson 10: Harold Bloom; How Does Memorizing Shakespeare Change The Way We Think, or Write?

Sam Tanenhaus interviewed Harold Bloom for The New York Times; the video is here. It’s a very cool, very short, interview. It will be historic, too—not only for capturing Bloom at a fragile time in his life, but for capturing him as fierce as ever in his earliest convictions: the canon exists; Eliot’s overrated; Joyce, Proust, Beckett and Kafka were the Beatles (but not “the Moderns”). And, perhaps the most powerful and enduring of his more philosophical concepts: that memorization allows us to “possess” a poem, but it is memory that might make us refrain from writing more.


We Are The Things That We Remember

Tanenhaus, the Editor of the Times Book Review (and former Bloom student) wrote a review of Bloom's new book, "The Anatomy of Influence," on Sunday. If you read it, you won't need a Yale English degree. Or at least, you can learn a large of part of what's happened in English literature, criticism, and Ivy League departments over the last half century. It's a careful love song to Bloom--careful because it's not slavish, but loving nonetheless in its reverence for his place.

We are “influenced” by what we remember. Bloom, celebrated and vilified in equal measure, still never wavers from this central theme, and implicit in it is a larger one: literature matters. “Shakespeare is God,” Bloom has said, and one interpretation of that is that one author more than any other has colored the way we see the world. We should show respect.

“Possession by memory is what I try and teach my students,” Bloom tells Tanenhaus. Any actor who has played Hamlet or Juliet knows this is true. Memorization (a comparatively easy task with iambic pentameter) is an excellent conduit to empathy for the poet, a far more powerful and relevant conduit than, say, knowing about his or her sex life.

The Canon Is What I Say It Is

This is what Bloom wrote in The Western Canon:

“The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits, to set a standard of measurement that is anything but political or moral. I am aware that there is now a kind of covert alliance between popular culture and what calls itself "cultural criticism," and in the name of that alliance cognition itself may doubtless yet acquire the stigma of the incorrect. Cognition cannot be placed without memory, and the Canon is the true art of memory, the authentic foundation for cultural thinking. Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare; it is the image of the individual thinking, whether it be Socrates thinking through his own dying, or Hamlet contemplating that undiscovered company. Mortality joins memory in the consciousness of reality-testing that the Canon induces. By its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders. Strength alone can open it up, the strength of a Freud or a Kafka, persistent in their cognitive negations.”

The first line disqualifies any challenge to Bloom's idea by embedding the logical equivalent of an IUD right inside of it. The casual nastiness of “limitless idealism” undercuts the critics’ lack of sophistication. "Cheerleaders" identifies the detractors with a certain apotheosis of American silliness (and popularity). Game, set, match. It isn’t easy being Bloom because it isn’t easy being the smartest guy in the room, even if the rest of the room has been schooled in the fact that the smartest guys in the room are not always right.

“A Department Of One”

It is with critical elegance that Bloom trumps competition, whatever one may think of his Canon. It’s hard to find analogs in other areas, but Bloom is less the Michelangelo of critical thought than its Galileo: he’s not afraid to say what he sees, and what he sees is what he believes to be real. History has no choice but to hang on to see the verdict. “Paper’s dead,” says the ad you have to watch before getting access to the interview on the Times site. Bloom’s critics, were they reviewing the interview, might have parsed this fact, even made it central to their reactions. Bloom surely would dismiss this as ridiculous.

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