The Book of Bombast and Bardolatry

August 29, 2009 § 1 Comment


Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Bloom, Harold)

Literary criticism,” says Harold Bloom, quoting Dr. Johnson,”is the art of making the implicit finely explicit.”

Very well, then: let us, in this very light, critique Bloom’s own magnum opus. Of course, it is difficult for much to be left implicit in a 745-page tome; moreover, Bloom flaunts his likes and dislikes on his sleeve and leaves little to the imagination. However, there is something to be said for brevity, and so, here is a two-line summary of the book.

What Bloom does NOT approve of: TS Eliot, post-modernists, Marxists, feminists,  structuralists, multi-culturalists, Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet, nouveau historicists, George Bernard Shaw, people who direct Shakespearean plays these days, people who teach Shakespeare these days, people who don’t teach Shakespeare these days, most modern Shakespearean critics, and Peter Brook.

What Bloom approves of: William Shakespeare.

The End.

“Approves of” is a complete understatement, to be honest, and understatement is not something that is easily associated with Bloom. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of people that Bloom does approve of: AC Bradley, Hegel, Nietzche, Freud, Borges, Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff, Kierkegaard and so on – all dead and gone – but Shakespeare is his One True God, who can never die.

I cannot improve, therefore, on Bloom’s wry and apt description of himself, as “Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator, an archaic survivor among Shakespeare critics“. He is perhaps the last in a distinguished list of idolators of the Bard, from Samuel Johnson to Coleridge and Carlyle, and so, if you are a theatre-goer or a student of English literature, you will find this book a perfect companion.

Bloom approaches his subject not only with slavish devotion, but also with consummate mastery and easy familiarity. What in Shakespeare is great? Why, his characters – Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, the Macbeths, Othello and Iago, Lear, Shylock and Richard III, of course, but also Richard II, Edmund and Edgar,Portia from the Merchant of Venice, even Faulconbridge the Bastard – characters who brood, evolve through the play, and as Bloom points out, listen to themselves. Forget the play – the characters must go on! It is in the explication of what makes these characters magnificent creations that Bloom excels himself, leafing through the 38 plays, picking out parts, pointing out lines, comparing, contrasting, educating – he is at once professorial in his pronouncements and childlike in his awe.

Does Bloom overstate his case? I am no literary expert, but I will arrange 11 quotes from the book in increasing order of the strength of the assertion, and you may decide for yourself the point where admiration ends and hyperbole begins.

11. “Shakespearean protagonists suggest unused potentialities that their plays do not require of them…they are more, much more, than what happens to them”

10. “Shakespeare’s characters are ‘free artists by themselves'” (quoting Hegel)

9. “Shakespeare psychologized us”

8. “…the representation of love, in and by Shakespeare, was the largest literary contamination that produced Romanticism”

7. “As much a creator of selves as of language, he can be said to have melted down and then remolded the representation of the self in and by language.”

6. “Shakespeare invented our feelings”

5. “To call Shakespeare a ‘creator of language’ as Wittgenstein did, is insufficient, but to call Shakespeare also … a ‘creator of thought’ is still not enough”

4. “…the time before Shakespeare had his full influence upon us was also ‘before we were wholly human and knew ourselves’” (quoting Wallace Stevens)

3. “I do not know whether God created Shakespeare, but I know that Shakespeare invented us, to an altogether startling degree.”

2. “…Shakespeare is a kind of mortal god, our instruments for measuring him break when we seek to apply them.”

1. “Shakespeare is an international possession, transcending nations, languages, and professions. More than the Bible, which competes with the Koran and with Indian and Chinese religious writings, Shakespeare is unique in the world’s culture”

While I definitely disagree with the last claim ( I have always thought Bloom unidimensionally Western, having read his Western Canon), he has now inspired me to bring out my old, trusty Collected Works, with a renewed pledge to read the Histories and the Tragedies. Bloom has told me what to expect, but as Italo Calvino has already warned me, in Why Read the Classics: “no book which discusses another book can ever say more than the original book under discussion”.

I suppose that says something about this blog as well. Hmm.

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