Readersforum's Blog

December 8, 2011

John Banville on Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom: 'Shakespeare, more than Hume or Wittgenstein, remains the greatest of thinkers' Photograph: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA/Corbis

“Bloom writes: ‘I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions'”

Harold Bloom delights in his surname. Describing it as “splendid”, he says it seems to him “the most literary of names”. There is, however, a price to be paid. When he teaches Ulysses, he tells us, he has to refer to its protagonist Leopold Bloom as Poldy, “since my name has been confiscated – for a time”. This happy excursus appears in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale, £25), in a chapter entitled “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction of the Romantic Self”, and is preliminary to, among numerous matters, a consideration of why the name Lucifer is not mentioned in Paradise Lost, and why Milton should have chosen not to give us in his great poem an account of Satan in his prelapsarian, luciferous state. Yes indeed, here we have the literary life de haut en bas.

In another splendid appellation, Bloom is Sterling professor of the humanities at Yale University. It is a most fitting seat for this great critic to occupy. He was born in New York City in 1930 into a Jewish family, and grew up speaking Yiddish and Hebrew before he learned English. He famously claims that at the age of 10 he discovered the poetry of Hart Crane at his local library in the Bronx, and at once determined to become a literary critic. Throughout his career he has continued to champion Crane, seeing him as the direct heir to Walt Whitman – Whitman being “not just the most American of poets but American poetry proper, our apotropaic champion against European culture” – and slayer of neo-Christian adversaries such as “the clerical TS Eliot” and the old New Critics, who were and are anathema to Bloom, unresting defender of the Romantic tradition. Other heroes of his are Shelley and Blake, Samuel Johnson and Walter Pater, Yeats, DH Lawrence and Joyce, and, among more recent figures, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery.

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