Patriarchs among the poets: Harold Bloom's case for the Bible as high literature

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 12:49 a.m. MDT

Professor Harold Bloom speaks to an audience gathered along with Denmark's Royal couple, seated in the front row, after Crown Prince Frederik presented Bloom with the Odense city Hans Christian Andersen Award for 2005, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005, at the New York Pulbic Library.

Associated Press

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The title of Harold Bloom's new book, "The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible," could easily describe Bloom himself.

Now 81, he is by all accounts a great rock among literary critics.

His immense shadow spans over 50 years and includes 40 some-odd books translated into nearly the same amount of languages.

Though wildly successful, his career hasn't been easy — indeed, Bloom's expansiveness never quite fit inside the ivy walls of the academy.

As a Yale professor he spent many lonely years defending the western canon, worshiping William Shakespeare and even praising Joseph Smith, albeit in his own gnostic-judeo-bardolic way. He still calls the prophet of the Mormons a "religious genius" and says matter-of-factly, "Had I been a nineteenth-century American and not Jewish I would probably have become a Mormon . . . "

Amidst the typically-secular world of the academy, where few outside divinity schools defend the merits of the Bible (let alone Joseph Smith), Bloom's new book says the King James Bible is an "inexplicable wonder," standing atop the "sublime summit of literature in English," only shared by the works of William Shakespeare.

A prophet of Bloom

"For more than 40 years I have been playing the prophet Jeremiah," Bloom says, sitting comfortably in his parlor, surrounded by books. "That's a horrible task, I don't even like Jeremiah."

Like a voice crying in the wind, Bloom has become a self-described literary prophet of doom — a transition made shortly after publishing his seminal text on literary theory, "The Anxiety of Influence" (1973).

"I made a vow from 1976 on that I would never write for the academy again and I haven't. I have pitched myself to the widest possible general audience," he says, lifting a thin index finger to emphasize his point. "I've warned them that if one studies garbage based on ethnicity, skin pigmentation, sexual orientation, politics rather than shear cognitive and aesthetic value you destroy the subject and today they have indeed destroyed the subject. All over the world now people don't want to study literature because of it."

Whether the relationship is causal is hard to say, but statistics show that the amount of liberal arts colleges has dropped substantially from 212 in 1990 to 136 in 2009, according to research by Roger Baldwin, an education professor at Michigan State University.

Additionally, over the past three decades the portion of university students majoring in fields like English, philosophy and history has fallen by 13 percent, according to the U.S Department of Education.

For Bloom, it's another sign of the academy's decline.

Yet, those who disagree have replied in kind, accusing him of "racism," "sexism" and "bardolatry" (the worship of Shakespeare).

Despite the academy's critics, Bloom has produced best-seller upon best-seller; "The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages" and "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" are his most noted texts, defending the aesthetic and cognitive importance of the western canon — a canon which is overshadowed by contemporary reading lists filled with "the Harry Potter tripe," and the Stephen King "swinishness."

Implicitly, Bloom's new book once again hints at the fact that "Great Books," especially the Bible, are not read as much as they used to be.

"What can an education be in the Western world if it doesn't include Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy" and, of course "the Bible?" he asks.

"These are the constituents of our mind and spirit."

His book, "The Shadow of a Great Rock," tries to show the permanent aesthetic import and value of the King James Bible and how the text informs the entire tradition of literature in England and America.

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