The Book Club

Sound and Fury

Dear David,

Just come out and say it, please! The book is godawful. In a fit of weariness brought on by one too many repetitions of the subtitular phrase, “invention of the human” (an extremely unrigorous count brings me to 154, and I’m only on page 431), I went back and reread the reviews, because I remembered them being vaguely favorable. They weren’t, not really. They only seemed so, because they were suffused with reviewer’s doublespeak–you know, the little barbed remarks meant to hint at horrors better left implicit, quickly plastered over with praise. I hadn’t realized American criticism had grown so mossy. “Bloom cares little for plot, genre, or action,” writes James Shapiro in the New York Times Book Review, but still, “the most exhilarating observations…have the quality of aphorisms.” Jonathan Bate in the Wall Street Journal says Bloom becomes a “bar-room bore,” but that the book “demands to be forgiven because it is alive and full of magnanimity.” In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane delivers an over-the-top rave; three pages into his piece, however, he points out that 1. Bloom nevers actually specifies what he means by “human” or “personality,” even though the entire book is about Shakespeare’s invention of it; 2. Bloom doesn’t help you read Shakespeare, preferring grand pronunciamentos to textual analysis; which means that 3. Bloom rarely anchors those pronouncements in anything Shakespeare wrote.

It is the laziness inherent in points 2 and 3 that most infuriates this reader, because as an undergraduate I took the class at Yale this book is based on, and it was one of the things that helped me become a reader in the first place. Bloom can be a great reader, among the greatest, and yet in his books (as opposed to in his classes) he is too busy advancing grand theses to bother. Bloom’s refusal to read closely is this book’s fatal flaw. (It isn’t quite so bad in his other books–The Western Canon, for instance, doesn’t set itself up as a kind of companion volume to anything, the way this book does to Shakespeare). Bloom’s claims for Shakespeare’s characters–that they were the first to experience inwardness, the first to learn and change by listening to themselves–only make sense if he shows us where in the text these transformations take place. Does Hamlet “have a mind so powerful that the most contrary attitudes, values, and judgments can co-exist within it coherently, so coherently indeed that Hamlet nearly has become all things to all men, and to some women”? Is his wit “more than Joycean”…”another name for … inwardness and freedom”? We believe you, Harold, but give us the evidence: Which lines are more than Joycean, which lines invent inwardness, what’s the evidence that Hamlet is the most intelligent character in all Western literature? Bloom has a prodigious memory and I’m sure he could cite act and verse, but shockingly, he does not.

Why is a man as brilliant as Bloom so cavalier? I think it’s because he’s more caught up in his struggles against other critics–his agon, he would have called it in his High Romantic days, before he became a Shakespearean populist and abandoned weird Greek neologisms–than he is in his so-called Bardolatry, shrill though his insistence on his obsession may be. Who are the critics he’s battling against? Having defined them in The Western Canon he’ll be damned if he’ll do so again in Shakespeare, so here’s the relevant blacklist, lifted from TWC: “‘cultural materialist’ (Neo-Marxist); ‘New Historicist’ (Foucault); ‘Feminist.’”

Bloom quotes his great critical predecessor, Kenneth Burke, to the effect that the central question for any work of literature is, what was the writer trying to do for himself by writing it? In Shakespeare , I feel Bloom was trying to put down the School of Resentment, as he calls the critics listed above, and elevate the kind of criticism he loves. And what is that? I’d call it the New Aestheticism–returning criticism to debates over what’s great and what isn’t; insistence on categories of genius; the refusal to reduce literature to a mere epiphenomeon based on literary effects, which is to say, a bag of tricks. This last claim is certainly a refreshing one, and the basis of Bloom’s originality–not in this book, mind you, because nothing in this book is original. It’s all self-plagiarized. It was argued in The Western Canon and elsewhere. But this one claim, in all its Gnostic splendor, never ceases to amaze and impress me: Bloom holds that literary characters such as Falstaff and Hamlet can be more alive, more filled with presence, than you or me, by virtue of their greater intelligence, playfulness, and consciousness of themselves. Literature can be more real than life.

Why make Shakespeare the vehicle of this claim? Why not choose, say, Cervantes, or Montaigne, who were themselves, and also wrote, characters of high intelligence, playfullness, and self-consciousness? Bloom believes what he writes about the triumphalism of Shakespeare’s characters, and Bloom wants to identify himself with one of them in particular: Falstaff. His is a Falstaffian battle–the battle of literary vitality against literary-critical nihilism, the battle of witty freedoms against hidebound determinisms. He’s identified himself with Falstaff in intervews. Even the photo of Bloom on the back of the book seems designed to evoke Falstaff, with its sagging jowls, tragic, knowing eyes, and thinning white hair. Falstaff sucks all the reality, all the authority, all the pith out of his enemies by virtue of his infinitely superior wisdom, leaving just the pomp and pretension. So deep is he that his tormentors usually don’t even realize he’s beaten them. That’s what Bloom wants us to think about, for instance, Stephen Greenblatt, a New Historicist, or Alvin Epstein, a director he doesn’t like. He’s Falstaff; they’re Hal. He’s real; they’re not. He’s vital and will endure through the ages; they’re not and won’t. He’s won; they’ve lost.

So novel and interesting a strategy is it that I almost wish Bloom had won. But I’m sorry. Through his own hubris, I think he’s lost.