Sunday February 25, 2024

The Blooms, the Bard and great books

December 23, 2019

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

It was Dr Manzoor Ahmed, well-known teacher of philosophy and former vice-chancellor of Hamdard University, who brought Harold Bloom to my notice. I am sure he doesn’t remember that now, as it has been over 15 years that he was member of a job-interview panel where I appeared as a candidate. He asked me if I had read any book by Prof Bloom.

Assuming that he was asking about Allan Bloom, I responded by mentioning ‘The Closing of the American Mind’, a book by the academician and philosopher that I had read during my doctoral studies. Dr Manzoor corrected me — or just tried to gauge the breadth of my knowledge — by pointing out that there was another, Prof Harold, Bloom. Not knowing a bit about him, I confessed my ignorance, but irrespective of the outcome of the interview, I ended up reading Harold Bloom who died in October this year at the age of 89, exactly 27 years after Allan Bloom had died in October 1992 at the age of just 62.

This gives me an excuse to discuss both Blooms who had a couple of things in common: love for the idea of Great Books, an enchantment for the Bard, and a dislike for some new theories of literary criticism. Both were born in 1930, studied and taught at some of the top universities in the US, and had shining careers as writers. Allan Bloom was more of a philosopher whereas Harold Bloom had a lifelong love for literature but both had an interdisciplinary approach to reading, teaching, and writing — making them stand tall, despite their relative conservatism.

That is the reason Allan Bloom’s first book was ‘Shakespeare’s Politics’ in 1964 (with Harry Jaffa) in which he provides an analysis of four plays guided by the political philosophy of Leo Strauss. Beginning from the introduction of that early book, Allan Bloom expresses his pessimism about the state of contemporary education. He lamented, as Harold Bloom did a bit later, that students considered literature irrelevant to their lives; and that there was a need to continue with some ‘common authors’ whose work should be a compulsory reading to provide a ‘standard education’.

Allan Bloom was not happy that such common authors were being dropped from the curriculum and neglected. For example, Goethe and Homer should have remained an integral part of higher education, as Shakespeare has been for all English-speaking people. Allan, and then Harold, Bloom suggested that students should read these common authors — including Shakespeare — as ‘naïve’ readers without the influence of existing schools of criticism such as New Criticism. The Blooms were particularly unenthused about the critical ideas of T S Eliot because students should understand ‘authentic intellectual tradition’ in which the authors wrote their literary works.

After this first book on Shakespeare, Allan Bloom moved more into philosophy, publishing in 1968 his interpretation and translation of ‘Plato’s Republic’. Then onwards, he crossed the boundaries of education practice and theory, history of political philosophy, and literature; moving from Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ by Swift in the 1970s. Harold Bloom on the other side was traversing the fields of poetry, psychology, religion, and spiritualism; from Emerson and Freud to Shelley and Yeats. But in 1973, Harold Bloom wrote the first of his many best-selling books

— ‘The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry’.

In this book he presented a ‘revisionary’ approach to literary criticism. Harold Bloom advances a thesis that creative writers, especially poets, are hobbled in their creativity by an unclear relationship with their precursor poets. This Harold calls the anxiety of influence because all poets are wittingly or unwittingly inspired by other poets. So, ‘the poet in a poet’ produces work that is derived by previous poets. Each new poet mimics an original ‘poetic vision’ which creates a sense of anxiety. To Harold, only a small number of ‘strong poets’ are able to compose some original lines.

Before writing this book, Harold Bloom himself was greatly entrenched in the Romantic Poets of the early 19th century. And he tried to prove that the Romantic poets were influenced by earlier poets such as Dante and Milton. But the anxiety of influence was less evident in ‘strong poets’ such as Ben Johnson and Shakespeare. Interestingly, in a later edition of ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, Harold suggests that Shakespeare in his early career appears to have been influenced by Christopher Marlow. Apart from this central idea, the book is full of new jargon of criticism that is hard to digest.

For the rest of his life, Harold Bloom kept regurgitating his ideas about influence in various books, essays, and monographs. For example, just two years after the publication of ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, he wrote another book ‘The Map of Misreading’ in 1975, in which he made several adjustments to his earlier ideas and terms. It was meant to serve as a companion to the earlier book, but ended up giving instructions on how to read poems and other creative writing. He explains relationships between the texts of various writers who are centuries apart.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Harold Bloom drifted more towards religious criticism and applied and sought relationships between religious texts of Abrahamic religions mainly Christianity and Judaism. He even penned a novel based on religious imagery and metaphors, ‘The Flight to Lucifer’. But for Allan Bloom, the 1980s were a period of disenchantment with the status of higher education in America. In a way both Allan and Harold were moving towards a more conservative approach to education, literature, and philosophy. In the early 1980s, Allan wrote an essay in the ‘National Review’ about the failure of universities.

As we know, the National Review is a magazine that represents conservatism in the US and has helped in its development and promotion as a leading voice on the American Right. This essay by Allan Bloom was an instant hit and his friends including Saul Bellow — another conservative and opponent of feminism and multiculturalism — persuaded him to expand the essay into a book form. Just keep in mind the 1980s of Ronald Regan and his rhetoric against all leftist and progressive forces not only in America but all over the world.

The 1980s represented conservatism and right-wing activism as opposed to the left-wing tilt of world politics. With the decline of socialist economies and the support of the Western capitalist powers to dictators such as General Ershad in Bangladesh, General Pinochet in Chile, and General Zia in Pakistan, not only the political but also the literary and social scene was being repainted. When writers such as Bano Qudsia and Ashfaque Ahmed were propagating an apparently apolitical spiritualism in Pakistan, critics such as Harold Bloom, philosophers such as Allan Bloom, and novelists such as Saul Bellow in America were also treading on similar paths.

‘The Closing of the American Mind’ published in 1987 became a bestseller. Why? Because it lamented on how higher education had impoverished ‘the souls’ of students. The first edition of this book that I have in my collection has a foreword by Saul Bellow and a back title intro by Bernard Lewis, another historian of great renown, but of conservative and right-wing orientation. Since in the 1960s and 1970s, universities the world over had become a hotbed of anti-capitalist and anti-Vietnam War sentiments, the conservative right was not delighted and sought ways to counter the trend.

The diagnosis given by Allan Bloom was well received. He presented a critique of contemporary university and explained how it was failing its students. He is highly critical of modern movements in humanities and philosophy. This nearly 400-page book is an indictment of all new learning and theorizing in areas such as ‘language analysis’ and ‘critical theory’.

To him, all new movements have led the student astray from the ‘truth’ and ‘genuine knowledge’; and under the garb of openness, they have actually closed the American mind, meaning the mind of the youth who challenge and question the conservative right.

To be continued