Habitual Mood

How to Read and Why (Bloom)

Habitual Mood

I have owned this book since 2005, which means it has been in my life longer than my youngest child, now an adult. I think I had the vague idea that one day I would read it and make fun of it online. Bloom offers great sport: he's so pompous and irritating! But now that I have read the thing I mostly just feel weary, and kind of sorry for the guy.

Lurching onto the page like a bipedal Eeyore, the Bloom of How to Read and Why is pessimism incarnate. He was well into his culture warrior phase when this book was published in 2000, lamenting the decline of university English departments under an an educational "culture where the appreciation of Victorian women's underwear replaces appreciation of Charles Dickens and Robert Browning" (p. 23), thanks to feminists and multiculturalists and critical theorists and all the other representatives of the "school of resentment" (Bloom's term) that common sense chaps like HB want to clobber with their Johnsons (Samuel).

And look, maybe he was right about all of this. I don't know! I've never taught anything, let alone cultural studies at Yale. Certainly when I was a humanities undergrad there was an emphasis on feminist criticism and other methodological bugbears of the conservative right, although I don't necessarily see that as grounds for condemnation; indeed the literature courses I took tended to combine those approaches with close reading and other, more "traditional", methods. I never felt brow-beaten by my teachers, or compelled to agree with a particular point of view. In fact, the only frustration along those lines that I can recall was in a particular art history class where there was a heavy focus on Marxist interpretation - but that was one class of many that I took across the humanities curriculum. There may well have been a long march through the institutions, but evidently its success was partial, at best.

Bloom exhorts us to read "fully", "without ideological expectations" (p. 23); we must "relax our will-to-power when we open a book" - we gain nothing by coming to an unfamiliar work in an attitude of "condescension or fear" (p. 197). Prima facie, this seems reasonable enough. I think you do have to attempt to approach art with humility if you're to have any chance of "communing" with it, or however you want to conceptualise the complex interaction of a piece of art with your consciousness. Of course, it's not possible to completely set aside your preconceptions and biases - you're (presumably) a human being - but you can give it a go. You can even fake it, as I do every time I'm reminded of a line from a Woody Allen movie and I have to pretend to myself that I'm blissfully ignorant of Woody Allen's personal life.

But does this ideal of individual communion with a text obviate the value of examining literature through a feminist or post-colonial or you-name-it lens? Surely these critical tools can, in their own way, enhance understanding of the work. Literature isn't written in a vacuum, why should it be studied in one? Let's leave the academy behind: is it really possible (or even desirable) for an attentive reader to remove "ideology" from their interaction with literature? If you notice T.S. Eliot's antisemitism or Charlotte Brontë's obsession with the shape of her characters' skulls, is that an ideological reading of the work? If so, have you in some way failed as a reader? Is it actually possible to read something "fully" and not notice the attitudes and elisions embedded in it?

The nub of the issue is that for Bloom, ideology, like hypocrisy, is a condition other people have. He accepts his own perspective as the civilisational default: any deviation is fashionable nonsense, including, naturally, any criticisms of Bloom himself. He would probably damn me for an ideologue for pointing out that the section on poetry in How to Read and Why includes only two female poets (Emilies Brontë and Dickinson) and none who are non-white. Elsewhere, when discussing Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison - the only persons of colour allowed in Bloom's treehouse - Bloom goes out of his way to distance their work from the context of Black American literature in order to play up their debts to Bloom's familiar roll call of white writers.

In contrast to the ideological brain police stalking the groves academe, Bloom sees himself as a seer-critic, whose role is to "weigh" the value of writers and their work, assert chains of influence (his academic specialty), and issue proclamations from on high. This would be bad enough to encounter in a lecture theatre; in a book ostensibly written for the general reading public, it is almost unendurable. As Adam Walker, of the excellent YouTube channel Close Reading Poetry, diplomatically puts it Bloom's main failing as a public intellectual is that he "talks down to the public, arguing from his own authority." If you want to approach a work of literature "fully", without expectations, you had better not read Harold Bloom on it first.

How to Read and Why is if nothing else a master class in pontification. The bulk of it consists of short essays on literary works that Bloom deems central to the "tradition". The essays are often just plot summaries, interspersed with judgments and commentary linking the author in question to others in the Bloom canon, usually Shakespeare. (Conveniently, the disparate authors in Shakespeare's thrall have apparently all read Shakespeare as Harold Bloom reads Shakespeare.) It's a somnambulant performance, although Bloom does occasionally rouse himself to fire a meek barb into the blubber of political correctness (eg. "sex-workers (as some call them now)" he sneers at one point, nostalgic for better times when we called a whore a whore p. 43.) I did enjoy his apparently serious insistence that various writers (Maupassant, Chekhov) foresaw and fore-wrote their own deaths. I'd have been happier with an entire book on that.

The poetry section is the most interesting. Bloom seems (relatively) energised, and the reader is helped through his analyses by lengthy excerpts from the poems, although this does have the unfortunate consequence of placing Bloom's ponderous diction in juxtaposition with some of the finest writing English literature has produced. Here as elsewhere the book is haunted by a sense of aimlessness: who is it for? "Most of us have favorite ballads," Bloom muses, which is probably true if by ballad he means the kind that gets played on FM radio. I doubt Harold Bloom was one for rocking out, but who knows what he's getting up to in heaven with Jimi and Janice and Kurt.

How to Read and Why is too polemical and stodgy to function as an introduction to the canon; while it is unlikely to prove revelatory if you're already on nodding terms with that eternally contested abstraction. Bloom's intense love of literature is obvious - he spent his entire life absorbed in the stuff! - but he struggles to transmit that passion to his reader. We read, Bloom says, "to strengthen the self" (p. 89). It's telling that he chose to expand on this by writing a book where the reader comes to feel superfluous to requirements.

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