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Harold Bloom, proponent of the literary sublime, dies at age 89

Harold Bloom, author of How to Read and Why, has died at age 89

Harold Bloom, the literary critic who antagonized academics and cultural theorists in roughly equal measure, has died at the age of 89. A professor at Yale University, Bloom was a staunch champion of the Western canon of literature. At the centre of Bloom’s canon of great books and writers he placed Shakespeare; he titled his 1996 volume Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

While Bloom strove to make literary criticism accessible to the general public, he also demonstrated outright antipathy for identity politics in the realm of literary commentary. In his best-known text, 1973’s The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom wrote, “We are now in an era of so-called ‘cultural criticism,’ which devalues all imaginative literature … Politicizing literary study has destroyed literary study, and may yet destroy learning itself.”

Even those who were generally admiring of Bloom had occasion to note his somewhat intransigent approach to what is and is not allowable as worthy of literary consideration. In his book Beyond the Blurb, Daniel Green writes, “For Bloom, literature offers the truest access to the widening of consciousness he seeks, and books he judges do not promise such access are simply not worth taking seriously. And Bloom has seemingly so narrowed the range of works he does take seriously, and employs such arcane means of finding their value, he leaves the impression only he knows how to find it, that the canon he celebrates belongs to him.”

And yet Bloom’s impulse toward valorization of “the best which has been thought and said,” to quote Matthew Arnold, was always pure and his untrammelled enthusiasm for the literature and the writers he admired was apparent on every page of his criticism. Whether he was writing about Dante and Shakespeare or Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, Bloom’s zeal for writing that he assessed to be worthwhile remained pure and unwavering.

In his 2000 book How to Read and Why, Bloom addressed the matter of serious reading and suggested that the true impulse to engagement with literature involves a desire to brush up against the sublime:

We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure. I am not exactly an erotics-of-reading purveyor, and a pleasurable difficulty seems to me a plausible definition of the Sublime, but a higher pleasure remains the reader’s quest. There is a reader’s Sublime, and it seems the only secular transcendence we can ever attain, except for the even more precarious transcendence we call “falling in love.” I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.

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