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Angela Tilby: Bloom began a debate that lives on

25 October 2019

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THE American literary critic Harold Bloom, who died last week, polarised academia. I first came across him in 1994 when his book The Western Canon was published. I happened to be in New York at the time, researching a film for the BBC, and I was fascinated by the intense debate that Bloom’s book provoked.

His critics loathed it as an elitist project, an unrepentant celebration of Western superiority, because, in it, he promoted 26 authors whom he believed to be the best ever. Most, perhaps predictably, were dead white males, but he had room for Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and Emily Dickinson, and also for Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda.

For Bloom, literature was a mode of exploring emotions, sensations, and impressions, the inwardness of humanity itself. An electrifying speaker, he embodied what he taught, speaking of how particular works overwhelmed, possessed, and flooded him.

Bloom was the child of poor Orthodox Jews from New York. Yiddish was his first language. The Bible was in his blood, and, in later life, he even wrote a fantasy about the composition of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers by a woman who, he claimed, “invented” God. Although he loved the King James Bible, Shakespeare was the greatest for him.

He was deeply opposed to what he saw as the degeneration of English literature into “cultural studies”, obsessed not with truth or beauty but with the “impact” of texts on social and political issues. He most loathed what he called “the school of resentment”: the belief that literature should be an instrument for unmasking oppression and supporting social change.

He summed himself up as a “tired, sad, humane old creature”, but the debate he engendered is very much alive, and it has seeped into everyday life, whether we are aware of it or not. The hub of the argument is whether the study of literature (or any art form) can ever be genuinely and wholly appreciative, or whether it must always be an expression of some kind of ideology. If the latter is true, “appreciative” stands for oppressive, and correct scholarship must be enlisted as a tool for social progress.

This debate affects the Church and the Church’s proclamation. Perhaps “political” readings of scripture have killed the Bible as a literary text, and so, in Bloom’s terms, blunted its spiritual impact. Personally, I am less and less convinced that we should take the Bible as an agenda, a manifesto for the social changes that we regard as desirable. The Bible seems to me to be essentially about revelation: the painful, necessary, transformative relationship between God and humanity, from which neither side emerges unscarred.

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