Harold Bloom died at 89 this week. A self-described “brontosaurus bardolater” (a Shakespeare fanatic who never learned to type), his career spanned 1955 to 2019 and reached up until 4 days prior to his passage.
Twenty-five years ago, Bloom shook up the literary and academic world with his contrarian, unrepentant The Western Canon, a book that seemed intended to piss off absolutely everyone. His major target was a group he called “The School of Resentment,” a coterie of neo-Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, and Foucauldian/Derridian post-structuralists, aka New Historicists, who he claimed were rampaging through the humanities departments of the Global North, intent on nothing more or less than a politically-correct remake of the incineration of Alexandria’s library.
On a superficial, rather shallow reading, it is easy to pigeonhole Bloom with his contemporary Allan Bloom (no relation), a neocon philosopher whose The Closing of the American Mind claimed that the liberal arts had made American students a cadre of unbearable drones.
Furthermore, it is not possible to avoid the fact that Bloom did carry on like a bit of a cantankerous old war horse, charging these windmills akin to his beloved Quixote rather than being decent enough to just politely ignore people whose case he only magnified by dignifying their complaints. The fact he did not include the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois on his list of canonical works astonished me.
Yet it would also be absurd to call him a complete reactionary.
In one interview, he described himself as a Norman Thomas Socialist voter, bemoaning greatly his disgust at Bill Clinton’s repulsive Welfare Reform bill. He raked Ronald Reagan over the coals mightily and expressed deep loathing for a Republican Party that had gone off the rails into proto-fascist Evangelical Christian madness.
Yet most telling was his adamant, earnest appraisal of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, what can only be called one of the most horrific and powerful novels of the past 100 years. In many ways, Bloom championed the novel and made it a success.
“If I had to vote for one novel by a living American, it would be Blood Meridian, which is a fearsome story and terrible parable in which I think has a deep, implicit warning for current American society,” he said. “I mean, our gun-crazy country, where Charlton Heston appears endlessly on television and–amazes me. He angrily says,`President Clinton, why do you talk of 22 children shot here or there [at Columbine High School] and you don’t talk about the tens, the perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars that the NRA is spending to educate young people how to properly handle guns.’
“I cannot believe the madness of what I’m hearing,” he rhapsodized. “But it is all straight out of Blood Meridian because Blood Meridian is the ultimate Western. It is a historically, closely based account of a terrifying scalping expedition organized by Mexican and Texan authorities in 1849-50 to simply wipe out all of the Southwestern Native Americans in order to clear the way to the gold fields.”
“And the Glanton gang, an extraordinary group of free booters or filibusters, have with them as their spiritual leader a frightening manifestation, a Melvilleian–a kind of human Moby Dick, Judge Holden, who is a vast albino fellow as round as I am but seven foot tall and who has all languages, all knowledges, and who preaches endlessly of the theology of violence and war, and who is still alive and dancing and fiddling and proclaiming that he will never die at the end of the book.
“And indeed, he has never died.”
Bloom continued “He is responsible for those people who blew up the Federal Building [in Oklahoma City]. He is responsible for these mad people who break into schools and shoot children… We are a country that has had a kind of perpetual ongoing religious revival since the year 1800, and simultaneously, we have been completely gun crazy for the last two centuries. And in some sense, that’s what McCarthy’s great book is about.”
Like a Jewish prophet of old, Bloom was a pariah and an outcast. He had broken away from the Yale English Department decades ago owing to his consternation with postmodernism, poststructuralism, and all the other post-s in the humanities departments that wandered into intellectual morasses even Noam Chomsky found loathsome.
As with the case of several other prophets, he also had allegations of piggish sexual misbehavior against him that seemed to mirror the stories of King David or Lot. But his Talmudic voice, sounding in the wilderness, did bear some important messages, ones that have become even more relevant. He was one of the last of a specie we might not see again.