The Demiurge and I

January 10, 1999

bloom-1This review of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) appeared in an edited form as “Much Ado about Shakespeare” in The Sunday Times (10 January 1999).

You cannot run away from William Shakespeare, says Harold Bloom, and this may as well be said of Bloom himself. Arguably the most infamous of America’s living literary critics, he has written academic bestseller after academic bestseller, launched controversy after controversy, and edited volume after volume of essays on practically anything from Albert Camus to Zora Neale Hurston, from Asian-American fiction to science fiction.

The latest book by this professor at both Yale and New York University continues an argument he had brought to the fore in the 1994 study The Western Canon. In that work, he went beyond simply hailing Shakespeare as the greatest literary genius to assert that the Bard really possessed the single consciousness that had created Western culture, if not most of contemporary culture.

While this claim turned out to be outrageous enough for many, it was not new to any reader who had followed Bloom’s compositions through the years. More than a decade ago, he had already argued that the originality of Shakespeare’s characters made their creator a secular god, saying: “A mode of representation that is always out ahead of any historically unfolding reality necessarily contains us more than we can contain it.”

What was thus noteworthy about the scandal of The Western Canon was an overdue excitement blown out of proportion, fuelled by increasingly polarized reactions to the man and his ideas. Revelling in the centre of it all, Bloom gave no sign of wanting to make peace and, in fact, declared himself a champion of “the autonomy of the aesthetic”, whose mortal enemies must be the members of “the School of Resentment”.

This was the blanket term coined to include all academic revisionists — whether feminists, Marxists, New Historicists or postmodernists — who he believed sought to destroy the canon of great writings in favour of their separate social agenda. It did little to calm the storm, clarify Shakespeare’s status or further substantiate canonicity and, for his next book, Bloom chose instead to issue Omens of Millennium, which extended his analysis of modern religiosity last carried out in The American Religion.

Therefore, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is a major literary event for followers and derogators alike if only on the grounds of their long wait. Like the over-hyped Apocalypse, it arrives as the grand accumulation of all that Bloom has always wanted to say about Shakespeare with a force calculated to disprove all claims of his illegitimacy to speak both extensively and absolutely.

Spanning 745 pages, it looms with a thickness that incidentally matches the Bard’s collected works and, in fact, Bloom comments here on every known Shakespearean play including, yes, The Two Noble Kinsmen, his often-neglected collaboration with John Fletcher. This critical mammoth is undoubtedly destined to go down literary history as one of the longest appendices ever to have been written on one principal idea with one belated intention.

But belatedness is itself a familiar tenet in Bloom’s literary vision, albeit with a radically different meaning. Made famous by his 1973 milestone The Anxiety of Influence, the word was used countless times to describe how every writer wrote agonistically, that is to say, wrote in creative response to some “strong” predecessors whose writings denied him or her of originality.

What thus appears to us as artistic individuality is possibly the result of some clever misreading of essential texts, the motive of which is to make it seem like there is still something new to say. “Agon is the iron law of literature,” declares the notorious axiom and, should this sound suspiciously like a variant of Freudian or even Darwinian discourse, it only goes to show how right Bloom is.

But, to come back to Shakespeare who is forebear even of Freud, how far can we honestly hope to get away from the Demiurge of how we think or, to rephrase the question, how conceivable is post-Shakespeareanism, really? You will get no good answer from Bloom, not in the past, not in his new work; what you will hear repetitively instead is that his psychology is all we can know until — God help us — some greater genius creates anew the way we imagine ourselves.

Given this expected irresolution anyway, the self-named “Brontosaurus Bardolator” goes on to generate another kind of belatedness, acknowledging that his is a “latecomer work” written under a 400-year-old priesthood of criticism, whose adherents include Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, A. C. Bradley and Harold Goddard. The attempt treads an argument of creative ownership so much thinner that the aphoristic statements he is known to sprout are brilliant insomuch as, for most times, you can hardly tell where another critic ends and Bloom begins.

Indeed, it further aggravates his case that no footnote, bibliography or index is provided here, the eccentric’s latest unpardonable sin which has won him both new disbelievers and new criticism from old disbelievers. Even his avid readers have stronger reasons now not to remain undecided about the extent of his academic smugness and how much of it is really justifiable, if eclecticism and worldly wisdom are not to be confused together.

His proverbial demand on our cultural memory is one more case in point where, with a line, he will make us compare an individual with half a dozen more, be they Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Romantic or modern fictional characters, or real-life artists or critics from some other corner of Western culture. Thankfully but somewhat disappointingly, there is less of that in the new work — easily the most readable of the readable Blooms emerging from The Book of J of 1990 — so that you need not find yourself hating him before you experience his bizarre ideas.

What is still needed, however, is a basic knowledge of Shakespeare’s major works in order to appreciate pronouncements like “Brutus is Shakespeare’s first intellectual” and “Hamlet’s aptest disciple is Iago”. When you have tested your advanced general knowledge against lines like “Isaiah and Montaigne fuse in Gonzalo’s rhapsody of an ideal commonwealth”, then brave this more distinctive remark on a play-without-a-play: “Shylock would be an Arthur Miller protagonist displaced into a Cole Porter musical, Willy Loman wandering about in Kiss Me Kate.

In fact, if those are not enough to make you believe that you have been missing out on something, then it is time to roar at stray suggestions that Brutus stabs Caesar in the privates, that the all-too-virtuous Desdemona dies a virgin, that Edmund is really Christopher Marlowe, that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s heir apparent, and that Macbeth’s world is inspired by, well, Shakespeare having read Gnostic fragments.

The more erudite among us will surely enjoy hearing him explain why David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein had undervalued Shakespeare, why there must have been a Shakespearean Hamlet earlier than the earliest Hamlet story presumably by Thomas Kyd, how the playwright “defeated” the J Writer, the author of the original strand in the Pentateuch, and what could have transpired inwardly in the last years of his dramatic career.

Adults should be warned against having their children read this book alongside their Arden Shakespeares because it will assuredly mess up their foundations but, for just about the same reason, it is recommended reading for virtually every schoolteacher. Whether you like it, loathe it or loathe it absolutely, there is enough in Bloom’s reservoir of sheer energy and audacity that will keep your back straightened while you marvel at how far he can go long after the carriage has gone over the cliff.

And, considering that his motive is really to deify the genius from Stratford-upon-Avon, this work has done its unsurpassable best to send readers either scurrying back to Shakespeare or away from Bloom so that, either way, Shakespeare still reigns. It is, at worst, a renewed publicity blitz for the Bard in an age of informational excess; at best, it can reinvigorate a waning public discussion of Shakespeare’s centrality and the nature of a Western canon, never mind Bloom’s own political incorrectness.

So, if Bloom is right and even he is somewhere in Shakespeare, then he must be Falstaff redacting Prospero’s books, insofar as Falstaff is not “just language”, or Mercutio entrusted with poor Yorick’s skull. He is, for sure, a Puck more than Bottom although, thoughtwise, he is more like a dreaming Bottom than a playing Puck since gloriously and enigmatically, as Shakespeare tells us, Bottom’s dream “hath no bottom”.

Gwee Li Sui

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