Harold Bloom, a staunch defender of the Western
literary tradition, returns to Shakespeare, "the true multicultural
author." For the past half century, the critic Harold Bloom
has stood as something of a lone warrior in the literary world.
In the 1950s, he battled T. S. Eliot's New Criticism, then the
prevailing trend in literature classrooms. In the 1970s, he sparred
with the Deconstructionists, a group of mostly European intellectuals
who believed that language was essentially devoid of meaning.
In the 1990s, after publishing his book The Western Canon, Bloom
found himself facing off against literary feminists and multiculturalists.
Most recently, Bloom incensed thousands of Harry Potter fans by
expressing unambiguous disdain for the boy wizard in the op-ed
pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Depending on one's ideology, Bloom can be perceived
in one of two ways: as a Don Quixote tilting at the whirring blades
of social progress or as a noble Sir Lancelot, defending a literary
kingdom whose nobility includes Homer, Milton, and Dante. In this
second paradigm, Bloom's King Arthur is undoubtedly William Shakespeare,
the writer to whom he reverently refers as "my mortal god."
Bloom's newest book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited,
is essentially a love letter to Shakespeare and his most famous
creation. The book was born out of Bloom's dissatisfaction with
his own 1999 work, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. After
devoting a lengthy chapter to Hamlet's themes and origins, Bloom
realized that most of his true feelings about the play had not
made it into print. To remedy this mistake, he wrote Poem Unlimited,
a slim volume that strips away history and theory to reveal Bloom's
most personal responses to his favorite work of literature.
At seventy-three, Bloom lives with his wife,
Jeanne, near the campus of Yale University, where he is the Sterling
Professor of Humanities. He leads a proudly anachronistic existence.
A highly prolific writer (he has written nineteen books of his
own and penned introductions for over 350 others), Bloom abhors
e-mail and fax machines. He still listens to records on a turntable
and wears white shirts with red suspenders. Like an affectionate
grandfather, he addresses everyone as "my dear"—a
publisher on the telephone, a visiting graduate student, the mailman.
But for all his old-fashioned geniality, Bloom remains a powerful
warrior on the literary field, always ready to raise his lance
in the name of the Western tradition.
I spoke with him at his home in New Haven, Connecticut.
There's a line in the first chapter of your book Hamlet: Poem
Unlimited that seems to encapsulate your approach toward literature:
"I think it wise to confront both the play and the prince
with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do."
As a literary critic, how are you able to analyze a text with
this kind of humility instead of assuming a dry, superior tone
as some other critics do
Superior? To William Shakespeare? You know, I've
been at it for so long, so long, dear. I'll be seventy-three this
July. This last year has been my fiftieth in a row teaching at
Yale. But I started out very early. I was already a ferocious
reader of the great poets and the great writers when I was hardly
big enough to get the books home from the library. My three kindly
older sisters would carry them for me.
If you spend a lifetime reading and teaching
and writing, I would think that the proper attitude to take toward
Shakespeare, toward Dante, toward Cervantes, toward Geoffrey Chaucer,
toward Tolstoy, toward Plato—the great figures—is
indeed awe, wonder, gratitude, deep appreciation. I can't really
understand any other stance in relation to them. I mean, they
have formed our minds. And Hamlet is the most special of special
cases. I've been accused of "bardolotry" so much that
I've made a joke out of it. As I am something of a dinosaur, I've
named myself Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator. It's not such a bad
thing to be.
This attitude of reverence is what sets you apart
from many of your colleagues. You don't seem to belong to any
particular school of literary criticism.
Well, it's such a complex thing. I left the English
department twenty-six years ago. I just divorced them and became,
as I like to put it, Professor of Absolutely Nothing. To a rather
considerable extent, literary studies have been replaced by that
incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as
I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there
has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned.
You know, the term "philology" originally
meant indeed a love of learning—a love of the word, a love
of literature. I think the more profoundly people love and understand
literature, the less likely they are to be supercilious, to feel
that somehow they know more than the poems, stories, novels, and
epics actually know.
And, of course, we have this nonsense called
Theory with a capital T, mostly imported from the French and now
having evilly taken root in the English-speaking world. And that,
I suppose, also has encouraged absurd attitudes toward what we
used to call imaginative literature.
When you say "theory," are you dating
this back to New Criticism? When you were a student, you famously
resisted that movement—you felt it was too cerebral and
analytical. Your early books glorified the Romantic poets and
went against almost everything T. S. Eliot and the other New Critics
taught about literature.
Well, you know, I've always been in an odd position.
When I was a youngster starting out as a graduate student, and
as a young teacher here at Yale, the so-called New Criticism was
the prevailing orthodoxy. It was exemplified here at Yale by someone
who eventually became one of my closest friends, though we didn't
start out that way—the novelist Robert Penn Warren.
Then, after fighting the New Criticism so endlessly,
I suddenly found myself fighting the Deconstructionists, another
group of people who were and are my personal friends. Except for
one—I don't talk to Derrida anymore, for all sorts of complicated
personal reasons that I wouldn't want to bring up. But I continue
to badly miss Paul de Man, whom I deeply love as a person, though
we always fought and couldn't agree on anything.
Deconstructionism, in a sense, destroyed all
parameters in the world of literary criticism. It broke literature
and language down into random signs that have no natural connection
to one another. Where has the study of literature gone from there?
Well, we are now in the grip of this dreadful
third phase. I've so talked myself to exhaustion with a sort of
rant against cant that I'm reluctant to say much about it. Throughout
the English-speaking world, the wave of French theory was replaced
by the terrible mélange that I increasingly have come to
call the School of Resentment—the so-called multiculturalists
and feminists who tell us we are to value a literary work because
of the ethnic background or the gender of the author.
Feminism as a stance calling for equal rights,
equal education, equal pay—no rational, halfway decent human
being could possibly disagree with this. But what is called feminism
in the academies seems to be a very different phenomenon indeed.
I have sometimes characterized these people as a Rabblement of
Lemmings, dashing off the cliff and carrying their supposed subject
down to destruction with them.
Yale on the whole has held out against that better
than Harvard and Princeton have. This university has so long and
strong a tradition of real philological studies, a deep love of
imaginative literature, that it has held up fairly well. But last
spring a very charming young lady who was one of my research assistants
came in here shaking her head. She said, "Harold, I'm rather
stunned. I've just gone to my undergraduate seminar in American
Studies." I shivered, because of all the Yale departments
that once would have been called humanistic, the one that has
now given over completely to nonsense is, in fact, American Studies.
She said, "We just had a lecture on Walt Whitman. The professor
spent the entire two hours explaining to us that Walt Whitman
was a racist." In the face of that, my dear, I almost lose
my capacity for outrage, shock, or indignation. Walt Whitman a
racist? It is simply lunatic.
Why do you think there's such a fascination with
finding political and social motivations behind a text? Do you
think it comes from a genuine desire to understand all the structures
that shape human identity? Or is it just that everything else
about literature has been said before?
My child, you would have as much insight into
that as I do. These are ideologues, dear. They don't care about
poetry, they don't care about Walt Whitman. You know, if there
is a single figure who stands as the New World's answer and complement
to Milton and Goethe and Victor Hugo and the other great post-Renaissance
figures, it would be Walt Whitman.
You mentioned Deconstructionism a moment ago.
In an essay of yours, "The Breaking of Form," you once
made an interesting comparison: "Language, in relation to
poetry, can be conceived in two valid ways, as I have learned,
slowly and reluctantly. Either one can believe in a magical theory
of all language, as the Kabbalists, many poets, and Walter Benjamin
did, or else one must yield to a thoroughgoing linguistic nihilism,
which in its most refined form is the mode now called Deconstruction."
Oh, yes, I remember. In those years, Paul [de
Man] and I were always debating one another in public. In private,
we would take long walks together, or he would sit where you are
sitting now and argue this, drinking a Belgian beer.
What struck me most was your next sentence: "But
these two ways turn into one another at their outward limits."
Yes. I know the passage you are citing. I remember
saying to Paul that I did not care whether one taught what he
and Jacques [Derrida] were teaching—which was the absolute
dearth of meaning, the permanent wandering about of language—or
whether one had a linguistic theory that taught an absolute plenitude
of meaning, as with Kabbalists such as my great mentor Gershom
Scholem and my friend Moshe Idel. All that I cared about was the
Absolute, as it were. Because in the end, the two turned into
This is fascinating, but how would you explain
the seeming paradox in what you're saying?
To me, it doesn't seem paradoxical at all. Isn't
that strange? Essentially, what Kabbalah is always saying is that
the Torah, and indeed any single Hebrew letter, contains within
itself the total plenitude, which is what the Spanish Kabbalists
called the Ein Sof, the "without an end," the divinity,
That seems to contradict one of the central tenets
of Deconstructionism. Derrida and others said that language is
always being deferred along a chain of meaning, referring itself
to one signifier after another. Is the Absolute you're talking
about the "transcendental signified" they said didn't
No, I don't think so. It transcends any notion
of what you can signify! The Ein Sof can't be called the transcendental
signified because it's not a signified. It's not a sign among
other signs at all.
And in the same way, even if you say meaning
is always wandering, always in exile, always going from one apparent
signifier to another, pragmatically, as William James put it,
only a difference that makes a difference really is a difference.
And pragmatically, there seems to me no difference between teaching
an absolute dearth of meaning and an absolute plenitude.
When I read that line of yours about the two
ways turning into one another, I thought of Dante's Divine Comedy—how
the outer edge of paradise spins so quickly that it's standing
Yes, yes, that's right. It comes to the same
mode of paradox in the end.
Do you think Dante had a direct experience of
that Absolute level, what you might call Ein Sof? Maybe it's an
author's experience of the Absolute that gives permanence to language,
that makes some works last throughout the changing phases of history.
That could be, though we really don't know much
about Dante. He is so autonomous a figure. It's one of the bad
jokes of literary history to say that Dante is in fact versified
Augustine or versified Aquinas. He's only versified Dante. He's
been so powerful and so successful at it that the Catholic Church
is very happy to claim him as its own. But when you look into
his work, it's shot through with all kinds of fascinating heresies.
And what could be closer to a sort of—I will not say a gnosticism,
but a sort of personal gnosis—than to take a woman with
whom one is in love and say she is essential not only for one's
own salvation but that she is, indeed, essential for everyone's
But then, Dante is, like Milton, like Plato I
think, one of those imaginative makers so strong that they persuasively
redefine the possibility of religion for us. The great exception,
in that as in everything else, is always William Shakespeare,
the most permanently enigmatic of writers.
Shakespeare is so enigmatic that there's been
a lot of debate about whether he was even a single individual.
I know you're very much opposed to those sorts of theories.
The other weekend, they actually were trying
to get me down to New York to take part in a so-called debate
on television as to whether the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare.
As I remarked rather nastily to them, the only answer to that
is that the founder of the American Flat Earth Society died only
recently. I also told them that I am not necessarily delighted
but that I find it very enlightening that every month or so, there
is a society in London that sends me its literature—unsolicited,
of course. It's devoted entirely to demonstrating that all of
the works of Lewis Carroll were written by Queen Victoria. That
is just as likely as that the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe,
or Sir Francis Bacon, or who you will, wrote William Shakespeare.
You mentioned in your new book that Hamlet is
the most experimental of all plays. Do you really think it's more
experimental than, say, Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, where the
characters end up just shouting vowels and consonants at each
Oh, Ionesco is as nothing compared to Hamlet.
In fact, the great experimental dramatists of the twentieth century
and just before—Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett—are
essentially, as they keep admitting, trying to rewrite Hamlet.
It's just not a challenge that anybody can really answer.
My dear friend Karen Coonrod was directing a
production of Hamlet out in San Francisco a few years ago. She
said she tried to work on my notion, which I'd been talking to
her about for years. I really felt Hamlet still strikes me as
the most avant-garde play, the play in fact that nothing else
can come close to. It violates any possible decorum or mode of
representation, in a way really more singular and more enterprising
than anything else ever has.
What do you think makes it so avant garde? Is
it, as you write in your new book, that it's all taking place
inside Hamlet's consciousness?
To some extent, indeed, because it is purely
taking place in consciousness. But also because it's quite amazing
what the audience is seeing. From Act II, scene ii, when the players
enter, until Act III, scene ii, when the play Hamlet has retitled
"The Mousetrap" comes to an end (because Claudius suddenly
screams, "Give me some light!" and Hamlet breaks into
a series of wild jigs and such things)—what are you actually
watching? You get theatrical in-jokes, clearly based on Shakespeare's
own life and his friendly rivalry with Ben Jonson. You get plays
within plays within plays. You're not getting what a drama is
supposed to give you, which is an imitation of an action or a
representation of possible human beings. You're getting a fireworks
display of one kind of inventiveness after another.
Your reading of the "To be or not to be"
speech was quite unique. You insist that it's not a meditation
on suicide. Instead, you said it's a kind of triumph in itself,
an exaltation of the mind.
It is a testimony, indeed, to the power of the
mind over a universe of death, symbolized by the sea, which is
the great hidden metaphor.
How did you come to that conclusion?
There's nothing in the play to indicate at any
moment that Hamlet is interested in killing himself. Just as frankly—and
this is where that little book of mine breaks radically with the
entire tradition—don't think for a moment, even when he
stands above the praying Claudius, that Hamlet had the slightest
intention of killing him. It's too paltry a deed for him! Claudius
is such a small potato. It's unworthy of him.
No, the thing I think reviewers have liked least
about that little book is my saying that there's a kind of war
going on in it between Hamlet and Shakespeare. Hamlet is in effect
demanding of Shakespeare, "Give me a play somewhat worthy
of my magnificent intellectual consciousness and my presence!
Give me a cosmological drama. Put me in King Lear, or at least
Macbeth! Instead, here I am at this rotten court, surrounded by,
apart from my old chum Horatio, these paltry fellows." But
that, too, is a kind of experimental element that violates the
whole question of what's being represented in the play.
Look at it another way. I think I remark somewhere
in the book that though Hamlet is called a tragedy, it isn't actually
a tragedy. It's an apotheosis, a transfiguration, a kind of upward-breaking
transcendence of the protagonist. It actually has more in common
with the high comedies written just before and after it—As
You Like It and Twelfth Night—than it does with Julius Caesar
Why is Hamlet's death so strangely uplifting?
It's a very hard thing to explain when you look at the facts.
If that whole play were taking place in the house next door, the
ending would be a horrific scene with screams and police sirens.
Instead, you finish the play feeling so unbounded.
Ahh. Indeed, that is certainly one of the most
central and beautiful mysteries of literature, why it is such
an extraordinary release both for him and for the audience. I
have not yet known how to answer that question. It's too large
for me to give an answer.
Hamlet is so profound a character. He's really
such bad news, though we find it so hard to accept that. We go
on loving him. But in fact, he's not lovable. He doesn't love
anyone, as far as I can tell. The whole tradition of interpretation
of him is absurd, the idea that he's madly in love, not to say
in lust, with that great magnet, his mama the sexy Gertrude. It's
ridiculous! Here's the poor woman dying of poison onstage and
crying out, "Ah, my dear Hamlet!" And he, as he dies,
cries out, "Wretched queen, adieu!" Which is to say,
"So much for you, kid!"
As for his supposed reverence for the ghost,
at one point in that scene he actually refers to him as "this
fellow in the cellarage" and at one point he says, "Well
said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?" We have
no categories that are inclusive enough to subsume him. Which
returns us to the initial point that you were making—how
could we possibly get round Hamlet when he is, in fact, a lot
smarter than we are?
Speaking of Hamlet not loving anyone, here's
something you wrote about Ophelia—you said she had a beauty
that was "engendered by Hamlet's cruelty, indeed, by his
failure to love." What kind of beauty could be engendered
Ah. She is as lovable in her way as, say, Desdemona
or Juliet, which is to say very lovable indeed. In regard to her,
the man is a vicious brute! He drives her to madness and suicide.
He's responsible, before the play is over, for eight deaths, including
his own. Yet somehow we don't hold it against him.
With a play like Hamlet...
The "like" is fascinating. There is
no play like Hamlet.
So then, with Hamlet itself—how can this
play ever really be performed? Have you ever seen a production
of Hamlet that came close to capturing the play's magnitude?
I've seen only one Hamlet that immensely moved
me. It was, of course, Sir John Gielgud. Somehow his gestures
were not right for the part. But no actor could speak Shakespeare
the way Gielgud could. If you just shut your eyes and listened,
the cognitive music that was coming out of this man's mouth was
quite overwhelming. Whether it was acting or something else, I
Charles Lamb, the marvelous Romantic critic,
said it was far better to read Shakespeare than to see it on the
stage. Goethe of course had said this before him. But obviously,
there are things that can come out on the stage that cannot come
out as you ponder it for yourself.
Most of what passes on the stage for Shakespeare
is preposterous, but there are a few decent Shakespearean directors
alive. My favorite is this marvelous Karen Coonrod who did a King
James that I saw in New York years ago. Subsequently we have become
close friends. Of the older British directors, John Barton is
remarkable and so is Sir Peter Hall. And Trevor Nunn was quite
a director in his day.
Some years ago down at the Henry Street Settlement
Playhouse in New York there was a traveling company, mostly Australian
actors. They were doing a kind of minimalist Macbeth. There were
only seven or eight people. They didn't have costumes. They sat
on benches when they were not actually doing the speaking. My
wife Jeanne, who did not know the play well at that point, found
it a mixed thing. I was enthralled. Obviously, there is something
in the immediacy there that one misses in reading.
But we now have the dreadfulness of what are
called "high concept" directors who are more interested
in the height of their own concepts than they are in the height
of Shakespeare's own concepts. So what can one do?
So you're not an advocate of doing Hamlet in
an apartment in New York or Twelfth Night as a western?
No, not at all. But let me put it this way. I
still remember being onstage a number of years ago, having a debate
with probably the most distinguished living British critic, Sir
Frank Kermode. He's not someone who's terribly fond of me, and
I cannot say that I'm enormously fond of him. At one point, someone
in the audience asked, "Professor Bloom, what do you think
is the best film of Shakespeare you ever saw?"
I said, "Actually, the two Kurosawa movies—Ran,
his version of King Lear, and Throne of Blood, his version of
Macbeth." At which Sir Frank said triumphantly, "It's
the usual thing with Harold. Shakespeare's language doesn't matter
at all. Kurosawa doesn't know a word of English." I said,
"That doubtless is true. But I felt that Kurosawa captured
a sense of what I believe Lear and Macbeth are up to."
We spoke earlier a little bit about Eastern literature.
Many of the ideas you raise in your new book—transcendence
and the inward Self—seem to resonate more with the Eastern
tradition than with the Western. You're known as one of the world's
most preeminent experts on the Western tradition, but I wonder
if you've ever been interested in literature from the East.
I remember that some years ago some very nice
fellows who are the heads of the Buddhist Society of London came
to see me after they read my book The Western Canon. They tried
to explain to me how many of my notions are essentially Buddhistic.
I told them what I'm going to say to you.
I don't know what it is. I of course don't read
Sanskrit, so I cannot read these works in their original. I have
very frequently read translations of them. I am very fascinated
by the whole, what you might want to call, Western tradition of
wisdom from the Bible and the Greeks to Shakespeare and beyond.
But I just somehow never really understand what is going on in
the Eastern tradition.
What about The Bhagavad Gita? Like Hamlet, Arjuna
is also unable to act—he throws his weapons down on the
battlefield and says he would rather die than kill his evil relatives.
Then Lord Krishna teaches him the true nature of action and Being.
Could Krishna's words have had any value for Hamlet as well?
I know the so-called Blessed Lord's Song very
well, and I do find that a very striking passage. But I can't
persuade myself that I really understand it.
Ultimately, I feel that Shakespeare is so comprehensive
and huge a consciousness that he's inclusive not just of the Western
tradition. Students and visiting scholars and friends who travel,
people from all over the world, have told me about productions
of Shakespeare in Indonesia, Japan, Bulgaria, and various African
nations by no means Anglophonic. They tell me that the audiences,
even when they are not themselves highly literate, are transfixed,
because they somehow believe that Shakepeare has put them, their
relatives, and their friends all upon the stage.
I used to say it as a kind of angry joke, because
I loathe what is called multiculturalism, but Shakespeare is indeed
the true multicultural author. I think my favorite sentence in
my book about the Western canon is this: "If multiculturalism
meant Cervantes, then who could possibly protest?" Of course
it doesn't mean Cervantes, or Shakespeare. Perhaps all times are
full of period pieces, like that wretched Harry Potter.
That's right—you caused quite a stir a
few years ago with that piece you wrote about Harry Potter for
The Wall Street Journal.
I was asked to write the piece, quite innocently,
by the editor of the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. I
asked, "What is Harry Potter?" He explained who Harry
Potter was. I said, "It doesn't sound like my sort of thing."
He said, "Harold, there are people like myself who think
you are probably as notable a literary critic as the world now
has. You really ought to say something about this."
So I went round to the Yale bookstore and purchased
an inexpensive paperback copy of the first volume. I could not
believe what was in front of me. What I particularly could not
bear was that it was just one cliché after another. In
fact, I kept a little checklist on an envelope next to me, and
every time any individuals were going, as you or I might say,
to take a walk, they were going to "stretch their legs."
At the fiftieth or sixtieth stretching of the legs, that was too
much for me.
I wrote the piece, and it was published. It is
not an exaggeration to say that all hell indeed broke loose. The
editor called me ten days later and said, "Harold, we've
never seen anything like this before. We have received over four
hundred letters denouncing your piece on Harry Potter. We've received
one favorable letter, but we think you must have written it."
I said, "No, I assure you."
It never stopped. The damn piece was reprinted
all over the world, in all languages. I will never hear the end
of it. But of course, the Harry Potter series is rubbish. Like
all rubbish, it will eventually be rubbed down. Time will obliterate
it. What can one say?
You like to tell your students, "There is
no method except yourself." What do you mean by that?
I believe that very passionately. My friend Paul
de Man with whom, as I say, I used to argue endlessly, would tell
me that after a lifetime of searching, he had found the method,
the "Troot," as he put it—that Belgian pronunciation
of "Truth." I would say, "No, dear Paul, there
is no Truth. There is only the Self."
What theory did the great critics have? Critics
like Dr. Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt? Those who adopt a
theory are simply imitating somebody else. I believe firmly that,
in the end, all useful criticism is based upon experience. An
experience of teaching, an experience of reading, one's experience
of writing—and most of all, one's experience of living.
Just as wisdom, in the end, is purely personal. There can be no
method except the Self.
[Editor's Note: Originally published as "Rant Against Cant"
in The Atlantic Monthly.]