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Remembering Harold Bloom, Literary God

He was a Falstaffian and Yahwistic presence with the most exquisite ear

Someday, we all lose our mothers and fathers.

But what about our poetic father figures?

Many of us might argue that Harold Bloom, who passed away yesterday in New Haven, Conn., at 89, will never die.

We can start with the fact that Professor Bloom has been immortalized in print.  He was one of the most prolific writers around, who, besides his 40 to 50 books of literary criticism, also edited and penned the introductions to the “Bloom’s Notes” series for Chelsea House.

All told, an Amazon search for Harold Bloom is likely to number in the thousands, or, as the J writer might say, the tens of thousands.

I am, of course, referring to David, the shepherd boy, who became king, because Harold Bloom also had an immortal ear and voice, just as David was said to play the secret chord, in the words of Leonard Cohen.

Many obituaries have mentioned that Professor Bloom had a photographic memory.

That may be, but the real genius of Bloom, and the real genius of all great writers and readers, was his exquisite ear, what I once termed his “unique, auditory aesthetic,” the very one that convinced him that the J writer, the most luminous author of passages of the Hebrew Bible, was a woman, who lived at the time of King Solomon.

After an astute reader suggested that J might have been Bathsheba, mother of Solomon and wife of David, Bloom heartily agreed with that possibility and began to refer to J as Bathsheba.

Harold Bloom was often compared to Falstaff, a larger than life figure with many well-known appetites, but he was a Jewish Falstaff.

If Professor Bloom was not literally a king, like David, he was a king or even a god of literature.

And Bloom was such a god not only because of his ear, but also because of his love, indeed passion, for reading, writing and teaching.

I will never forget the first time that I spoke to Bloom, my former professor, who taught me when I was a senior at Yale in 1987.

Like most of the students in Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare seminar, I was transfixed by him.  And as I have noted before, most of us said very little in his class for the first several weeks.  Such was the level of respect and awe that we had for Bloom, who loved to speak and had one of the most cultured of voices.

Yes, there was a touch of the Bronx in Professor Bloom, but his voice was as mellifluous and delightful as that of a Shakespearean actor.

I can still hear it to this day, just as I can remember my first exchange with Professor Bloom.

As I approached the steps leading to the second floor of St. Anthony Hall, close to Silliman College at Yale, Harold Bloom appeared on the landing outside of his classroom.

A friend of mine, who had studied with Bloom, had suggested that I say something to him.  She said that he would like me.

And so, when I spotted Professor Bloom on the second floor, I declaimed, “Professor Bloom, do thou stand for Max Bialystock!”

The eminent literary critic, who was then 56 years old and weighed a “svelte 300 pounds,” turned his head, as if to the heavens, and said, “It would be a wonderful part.”

I proceeded into the classroom, a low-ceilinged space that overflowed with students for his seminar, “Shakespeare & Originality.”

Then I sat down in my familiar spot to Professor Bloom’s immediate right.

When he returned to the class, I leaned toward him and said, “You’re supposed to say, ‘Shall I?  Content!’”

Much bemused, Bloom, who knew that I was invoking not only Zero Mostel’s Bialystock but also Falstaff, then leaned toward me and responded, “That was in sublime, bad taste.”

I will always remember Harold Bloom for his sense of play, though it is also true that he could be cantankerous.

As I have pointed out before, he could lash out at literary rivals or enemies, such as the so-called “school of resentment.”  That was a term he used to refer to critics, who, in his mind, valued an agenda, such as Marxism or feminism or multiculturalism, at the expense of aesthetics, imagination and wisdom, the only true barometers of sublime literature.

Of course, he could also be quite tender, as well as playful.

The last time I saw Professor Bloom was in the fall of 2014.

I visited him at his home in New Haven.

He and his wife, Jeanne, had invited my wife, Barbara, and me to have tea with them.

Barbara, who passed away last month, was not walking well in 2014, so she stayed at our hotel in New Haven, while I visited Professor and Mrs. Bloom.

When I arrived at this house, Professor Bloom, who also did not walk well, said, “You’re too early, my dear.”

He had to go to the men’s room, and he did so with the aid of a walker, as I recall.

Then he sat down next to me at a table by his kitchen.

As we drank our tea and listened to jazz, we spoke of Bart Giamatti, the late Yale president, of whom Bloom said, “Bart was my dearest friend until the day he died.”

We also spoke of Bob Dylan, whom Professor Bloom referred to as “Bobby Dylan.”

Bloom did not think that Dylan’s lyrics compared to the poetry of, say, Wallace Stevens.

I then said that Dylan’s melodies and his idiosyncratic voice, combined with his lyrics, were what made him a standout.

I looked at Professor Bloom and added, “He is what you would call the vernacular sublime.”

Professor Bloom nodded with a smile.

If Dylan embodies the vernacular sublime, Harold Bloom will always represent the sublime at its highest literary level.

Bloom was indeed possessed by memory, as he wrote in his most recent book.

Like the prophets, Bloom may have also been possessed by and may have even heard the voice of Yahweh.

Ehyeh asher ehyeh is usually translated as “I am that I am” in scripture.

But Harold Bloom sometimes translated that prose from the J writer, who wrote that passage in the Hebrew Bible, as “I will be where and when I will be.”

Who could doubt that Bloom, a literary god, was right!  He grew up in an immigrant household in the Bronx, and he learned to speak and read Hebrew and Yiddish before he learned to speak and read English.

And Bloom had that fabled and godly ear.

At the end of my visit to Professor Bloom in 2014, he said to me, “I’ll let you go now, son.”

He added that I should call him and Mrs. Bloom when I was next in New Haven, where he spent much of the past 70 years.

Then, as I stepped to the door, he turned to me and said, “You’ll be back.”

I never did get to see Harold Bloom again, though I did come by in July 2018, when I was in New Haven to see my own father and mother.

Professor Bloom was too ill to see me a year ago.

It is certainly the case that Harold Bloom had many sons and daughters, beside his two biological children.

He will always be a poetic father figure to so many of us.  And we should always remember him, just as we should always remember Yahweh, and not just on the Sabbath or any one of the Jewish holidays. 

We should remember that Harold Bloom taught us how to read, how to appreciate literature.

In that regard, it might be said that Harold Bloom, like Shakespeare and J, taught us how to be human as well as godly, since reading and writing at the most exquisite level are acts that bring us closer to the divine or the sublime.

And as Harold Bloom would say, paraphrasing Percy Shelley, the “function of the sublime” is to “abandon easier pleasures for more difficult ones.”

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