Bloom’s last lilac: the death of Harold Bloom (1930-2019)

The American literary critic, or rather lover of literature, is dead at 89. There are the usual range of bad obituaries, collected over at aldaily.com, prepared by scornful woke journalists (“staff writers”) on the make or embittered post-modern pedants envious of his gifts of memory, language and understanding. But these fashionable madmen cannot mar the grief I feel at Bloom’s fading into the infinite conversation, and the enduring charity of his reading will not be undermined by the Schools of Resentment that peck at his grave.

I first encountered Bloom in the early 80s, confusingly mingled with the critical fashions he would disarm, such as de Man and Derrida and other names who have passed from my memory now. Howard Felperin, who taught me to appreciate Milton’s Lycidas, spoke of Bloom in his long Southern exile from his ambition and his home master, teaching literature at the University of Melbourne. Peter Craven at Scripsi, long lost, since 1994 (though I still imagine its ghost stalks this ersatz city of literature), may have even brought him out to Melbourne, and I recall hearing him speak with his gentle erudition, on the radio show Peter Craven once had on 3RRR, back before the schools of resentment took over the culture. I may have even seen him speak at a guest lecture somewhere in Melbourne, but the memories are too mistaken. Certainly, there is an interview with Bloom that appeared in Scripsi that was conducted by the then young literary scholar, part of Peter Craven’s circle, Imre Salusinszky, who would later give up much of his life to be a political adviser to a failed Premier. Ultimately, I made my way from Bloom’s appearances in the chat shows of literary culture to his substantial books, and I recall reading The Anxiety of Influence, alone and anxious, in the university libraries of Melbourne and Canberra.

But it was not that strangely birthed book of misreading – Bloom’s own account of its place in his life appears in the much later, An Anatomy of Influence – but his later, deeper readings of longing and tradition that influenced me most. Bloom’s The Western Canon sits on my desk as I write this shambles of grief. I open it at random in the first chapter, An elegy for the canon, and read the sentence: “Where did the idea of conceiving a literary work that the world would not willingly let die come from?” (The Western Canon, p 19) This idea grips me – that our task, when surrounded by the flames of the burning archive, is to do what we can not to let the books burn, not to let the culture die, not to let what thou lovest well to be reft from thee.

In an interview from 1991, Bloom said:

“I don’t believe in myths of decline or myths of progress, even as regards the literary scene. The world does not get to be a better or a worse place; it just gets more senescent. The world gets older, without getting either better or worse and so does literature. But I do think that the drab current phenomenon that passes for literary studies in the university will finally provide its own corrective. That is to say, sooner or later, students and teachers are going to get terribly bored with all the technocratic social work going on now. There will be a return to aesthetic values and desires, or these people will simply do something else with their time.”

I can only hope that there may be some stirrings amidst our ruins and flames for such a return to aesthetic values and desires. Bloom’s courage was to defy the technocratic merchant’s creed and social work campaigning that invaded the culture, and to defend the infinite conversation with tenacity. For that I will always be grateful; from that long defence of his tower from the schools of resentment, I can find hope. One obituary says:

“Harold may have been divisive, and he had his blind spots. But he taught us to live with characters, to think the world through writers, to see reality textured by literature: richer, more alive, redeemed.”

Lucas Zwirner, Harold Bloom’s Immortality, Paris Review

I never responded as warmly to Walt Whitman, as Bloom. He called Whitman the American Homer, and read the echoes of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d in other modern members of the canon, such as Eliot and his Wasteland. But in honor of Bloom’s protection of the burning archive, let me mark this fading bloom, with two verses from that act of mourning for Lincoln and for more.

From Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

….

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song
.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)

Image Credit

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