Friday, October 16, 2015

Harold Bloom’s self-disclosures

The Daemon Knows, Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.  Bloom wrote this in 2014 and 2015.  I begin to doubt he’ll write another.  Here he is on pages 136-137:

“. . . I reread and teach Moby-Dick to uncover and appreciate the sublimity and the danger of American Promethean heroism.  But several prolonged times when close to death, I have recited Whitman to myself as medicine.  I hardly recommend my personal praxis to students or readers because what works for me may not do much for another.  Unable to rise out of bed for months, desperate for self-help, chanting much out of Whitman, particularly Song of Myself and Sea-Drift and Lilacs elegies, has given me more than the illusion of consolidation and recovery.  Walt calls this ‘retrievements out of the night’ and persuades me that for once the poet is the man and I have become his poem.  Then I recall how often from 1863 through 1867 Whitman labored in the Civil War hospitals, dressing wounds, reading and writing letters, bearing little gifts, holding the maimed and sick as they died in his arms.  In itself that was secular sainthood, and Walt was a kind of American Christ.  Yet it is at one with the human and aesthetic power of his greatest poems.  If finally I value Whitman more than Melville or Emerson, Dickinson or Henry James, Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, it must be because he has healed me and goes on helping me to get through many sleepless nights of anxiety and pain.”

Somewhere recently I read the title of an essay something to the effect of “politicians are becoming more and more open about their personal lives.  They should quit it.”  That advice should not be applied to the poet, but should it be applied to the critic?  Why does Bloom include these comments in his discussion of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville?   Perhaps because Bloom has spent so much time reading poetry, and many poets feel free to use themselves in their poetry, that he sees no reason not to as well.  Whitman is America’s great poet, Bloom argues.  He marshals his arguments, and one of them is that Whitman is a sort-of American Christ who has healed Bloom when he has (sort-of) prayed to him.  Students and readers he tells us might want to pray to someone else on Bloom’s list of great American writers.   He questions himself.  Perhaps he prefers Whitman because he has prayed to him and been healed.  Perhaps someone else might prefer praying to Melville.  Bloom doesn’t deny his Jewish heritage.  He mentions it several times, but he prays to Walt Whitman. 

I haven’t memorized any poems for fear they would interfere with my writing and so couldn’t pray to a poet even if I were inclined to.  Neither have I suffered on beds of pain, but I have felt a certain sort of anxiety – undefined, with jumbled thoughts overwhelming coherent thinking.  In my case I pick up a tablet and write.  The “working out,” the “process” is what calms me.  Whether that would work if I ever ended up on a bed of pain like Bloom’s, I don’t know – perhaps not.  Pain might drive out coherent thinking even more effectively than jumbled thoughts. 

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