Tag Archives: Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom’s Late Style

Far more knowledgable people than I have written memorials to Harold Bloom, whose death left me with a sense of a hole in the world. I feel his absence, although I never met him. Ever since I was an undergraduate I’ve had Bloom’s books on my shelf, but I scarcely read them until I started studying Shakespeare several years ago. I don’t know if Bloom is my favourite critic of Shakespeare, but he may be the most prolific and reliably insightful, for my purposes. Bloom affirms my belief that we read literature for a combination of pleasure, fascination, and edification that can be called moral. Just as Shakespeare is always about getting people to come to the theatre (and pay for their tickets), Bloom never loses sight of reading as something people choose to do, in a world that offers other choices. He helps me understand what I want, and maybe even need, from Shakespeare, or the Bible, or whatever he was writing about–why I should choose them.

Bloom helps me articulate a different version of late style than what Edward Said proposes, which I have written about in earlier postings. My paradigms of late style are painting, especially the late Turner, in which recognizable figures–ancient ruins, mountains, ships, and coastlines–disappear, leaving us with colour, swirling on the canvas, evoking without representing. I also think of the late works of Titian, which evoked questions of whether the paintings were unfinished, or maybe the old master was losing his eyesight. In Bloom’s last books, the Shakespeare’s Personalities series, more than half of each volume is quotation from Shakespeare. The critic is present but seems to be fading away. After I wrote an earlier posting about the volume on King Lear, I realized how unconvincing my quotations from Bloom became, once taken out of the context of his long quotations. To read each book is like watching a performance of Shakespeare with Bloom sitting next to you, and during intervals when the actors go silent, he comments on what you might choose to notice. His late style is to be the voice beside you, speaking just above a whisper, telling you just enough. As opposed to critics who want to take centre stage and shout down the actors who perform the play. Bloom, at least the late Bloom, never usurps. In the fewest brushstrokes he captures what is essential.

If I ever write my joke book, it will definitely include the one told by the family therapist Paul Watzlawick. This huge ocean freighter has a knock in the engine, and the company calls in the expert on such engines–they’re losing vast amounts of money from the ship sitting at the dock. He wanders around the engine room for some time, looking and listening, and finally he takes a small hammer out of his pocket and taps a couple of times in a particular place. The knocking stops. Then we get the Pied Piper narrative. He sends the company a bill for $2000 (the joke is from the 1960s). They demur, asking him to itemize his services. He sends a second invoice: “For tapping on the engine, $.50. For knowing where to tap, $1999.50.” Late style is knowing where to tap.

The same point in made in Laurence Olivier’s advice to the young actor, that she might have gotten twice the effect with half the effort. Actors can take for granted knowing what “the effect” is and why they want it. Academics are often less clear what effect they seek. Harold Bloom, in his later works, seemed to know exactly who he was writing for: those who might come to love literature, and especially its characters, as much as he did, if they listened to him. The effect he sought was to make us want to read, and to live more fully with what we read.

Harold Bloom may be dead, but his books are all over my floor; they resist being shelved. The spirit that emanates from those books will, I hope, remind me to think about how little I need to say, and to speak more softly. That will not get my writing placed in scholarly journals, whose referees encourage exactly the opposite. A risk of late style is to raise questions about whether you’re losing it, or your work is simply unfinished. At the end of the joke about the engine knocking, it’s worth noticing that we’re left with a silence that is anything but empty. It’s exactly what we need, all we need. And we’re grateful.

Praise of Minimal Criticism

A problem shared by social science research and literary criticism is how much to say about the voices that are … what? Text, data, stories, material, sources–each of these words implies a different response: texts and data are to analyzed; sources are points of departure, to be elaborated; stories, at least on my account, are to be responded to. A central problem of the project of vulnerable reading, which this blog is trying to figure out, is how to write in dialogue with, rather than about. It goes back to what I recommended in 1995 in The Wounded Storyteller. How do we think with stories, rather than thinking about them. The dialogue is two sided. On one side is a work of literature, maybe Shakespeare, not as a text but as partner in conversation, to which you leave space to talk back (apologies for that syntax, which I can’t immediately improve). The other side of the dialogue is your reader, who also deserves space to talk back.

All of which is why I respect how the eminent critic Harold Bloom chose to write his King Lear: The Great Image of Authority (2018), in Bloom’s “Shakespeare’s Personalities” series. What’s worth noting is how little of the text (as in words and column inches on the page) is Bloom’s words. It’s more measurement work than I’m up to, but it would be interesting to count both what proportion of King Lear Bloom quotes–I’m guessing at least half–and what proportion of Bloom’s book is quoted Shakespeare; I’m guessing more than half. Bloom’s primary critical method–call it his late style of criticism–works by representing Shakespeare in chunks that Bloom has chosen, interspersing those with minimal commentary, and thus slowing down our reading, calling on us to see and hear as we have not before. What matters is not his ideas but our seeing and hearing Shakespeare. This is pedagogy without ego. It’s also elegant publishing by Scribner.

At the most crucial junctures, Bloom steps back, choosing silence. After quoting the reconciliation scene in Act IV, when the rescued Lear wakes in Cordelia’s tent and recognizes her as he returns to himself, Bloom simply says, “We are at the limits of art. Even Shakespeare never surpassed this. The love of daughter and father reaches absolute expression.” Then he allows himself this bit more: “I sometimes think that all of Shakespeare moves toward a reconciliation scene, one that would be total and transcendent.” Thus he lets Shakespeare be. No interpretation, just his own admiration bordering awe. Bloom allows his readers their own intimacy with this moment, their own form of reconciliation. He enables them to feel a measure of what he allows himself to feel.

The idea of the writer allowing him or herself to feel, and thus enhancing the reader’s feelings, would still be regarded as a niche enterprise in social science; in medical scholarship, it would require editorial gestures of containment. In the 1970s feminist sociologists especially became rightly concerned with honouring the voices of those whom they studied; the shift in anthropology to more participatory forms of research reflected the same ethical awakening. Today, humanities in healthcare struggles against the pervasiveness of the dichotomy between professional and patient, knower and known, active and presumed passive. What’s gained or lost in this struggle may be what defines this work. I would love to read a journal article about illness experience that just stops and says, as Bloom does, ‘we are at the limits’. That would be honouring the stories of the ill. And yet Bloom is always with his reader, guiding us, opening for us.

Bloom’s model is only one way of practicing dialogue in writing; consistent with the idea of dialogue, there is no last word. I am also grateful for those scholars who say a great deal more, filling in historical and textual details. But there’s a purity to Bloom’s approach that is deeply moving to me; a respect. He makes the ending of Lear, on the page, more emotionally resonant than I have found excellent stage performances to be, because–I think–Bloom gives me more space to feel. It’s minimalism in the finest sense of achieving so much more with so much less.