Harold Bloom's Swan Song
Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism | Harold Bloom | Knopf (2019)
Unlike Harold Bloom, the infamous literary critic and Yale professor, swans have no voice. Legend says that the graceful birds remain silent until moments before death, when, for the first and only time, they sing. Those who have heard the elusive swan song report that it is strangely dissonant, an unearthly bugle as if the swan is calling into eternity while offering a clamorous farewell to the waking world.
The prolific Bloom was not at all like a swan in its lifelong silence. He had a prodigious voice. Over the course of his illustrious career as a professor, literary critic, and scholar, he wrote more than forty books, including one novel, twenty books of literary criticism, and multiple books on religion. Well known for his vigorous rhetoric articulated in stately prose, Bloom has always been a fiery enigma, forcefully defending the sanctity of the traditional Western Canon on the one hand while abjuring the “Protestant god” as an angry fiction on the other. Bloom was a man whose emotional capacity was as great as his intellectual prowess, both strenuously expressed in his outspoken public presence and his monumental body of work. In nearly everything, Bloom was nothing like a swan.
However, in reading his final book, Possessed by Memory, I hear Harold Bloom's unearthly bugle. The book was released earlier this year; Bloom died last week. For those in the literary world, his death comes as something of a surprise, for although the man was 89-years-old at his death, there was a quality of timeless resilience about him. Bloom taught his humanities classes at Yale well into his later years, once declaring that he would need to be removed from the classroom "in a great big body bag.” He had open-heart surgery in 2002 and broke his back after a fall in 2008. His colleagues and contemporaries have mostly died, but it is only now, in 2019, that the legendary literary scholar and critic gave up the ghost, leaving behind, in his final publication, a swan song of phantom beauty.
Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism was Bloom's last book, published in April, 2019. Conditioned to expect polemics, I steeled myself for Bloom's often brilliant but generally controversial pronouncements on literary and religious matters but found instead a series of poignant meditations. This was a new Bloom. Gone were dogmatic interpretive statements, replaced instead by gentle musings and memories. Rather than an academic pursuit, Bloom asserts that literary criticism is an inward journey of love that happens only when we are “possessed by memory.”
Not only does he claim it, but he also embodies it. “This book is reverie,” he states, “not argument.” The book is luminously self-revelatory, written as a series of memories and meditations on the literature that Bloom loved, often since childhood. Personal memory weaves in and out of poetic contemplation. Bloom does not shrink from the grief inherent in such an endeavor. “All of us wish that, when we experience sorrow, we could be shown the end of sorrow. If we are secular, that cannot be expected.” In true Bloom fashion, the book, at 508 pages, is a tome. It is not, however, the tome I expected. I anticipated a theory of criticism; I found, rather, the deeply human Harold Bloom on the brink of death, telling us the unfolding story of the great love of his life: literature.
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In The Odyssey, Telemachus wistfully asked the goddess, “Does any man ever really know his father?” It was Bloom himself who claimed that every new age of literature and culture springs from a primal need of sons to cast off the stifling influences of their fathers, a dogma he called “the anxiety of influence.” Much ink has been spilled on whether or not Bloom got this right, most of the ink on behalf of the sons. Throughout Possessed by Memory, however, I hear the voice of the metaphorical father pleading with the usurping generation not to be forgotten. “For me, survival is a mode akin to the work of mourning. Our beloved dead live only as long as we absorb them into our daily thoughts and feelings. When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us.”
Reading the book upon his death and in light of his “anxiety of influence” creed is inexpressibly moving. I cannot help but imagine the frail but still formidable Bloom, typing on a laptop at the break of dawn so that he will be remembered, knowing that if he was right, he almost certainly will not, or at least it will not be on his own terms. This is the dissonance inherent in his last song. For Bloom, whose longing and tenderness illuminates every page, memory is our afterlife. Will memory be enough to quiet the soul that is raging against the dying of the light?
My grandfather died when I was 9 years old. Before his death, he would call for me to sit with him while he told me stories about growing up as one of the thirteen children of poor farmers during the Great Depression. He wore denim overalls as he picked cotton. Once he found a rattlesnake and killed it with a shovel. He snuck out of the cotton fields to read books. His father beat him for it, but he kept on reading because he wanted a better life. He fought in World War II and received a purple heart, then he worked his way through college, married my grandmother, and became a botany professor at U.C. Berkeley. I did not know it then, but I was listening to my grandfather's swan song just as we are invited to listen to Bloom's.
Those conversations meant far too little to me when I was a child, but they possess my memory now that I know their immense worth. I never really knew my grandfather until he was nearly gone, when I became a possessor of his memories, a keeper of his legacy. Here is where I confess that I hope that Bloom was wrong all along, that perhaps the world is less like the dismissive child and more like the awakened woman who grows more generous as she becomes more wise, who is not only possessed, but redeemed, by memory.
As I read Possessed by Memory, I am deeply moved to find that I am again nine-years-old, holding the hand of a dying man as he sings his final song.
Heidi White is managing editor of the Forma Journal, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.