If you don’t follow “literature” you might not know a “legendary” scholar just died. I’d read many of Harold Bloom’s books. I’d interviewed him. I remember his soft, hoary voice on the phone.
In college, I was formed by his idea that that our lives should be spent reading the great writers’ great works—with great critics on standby, helping out.
He seemed like “literature” embodied, the ambassador of greatness. I realized, suddenly, when he was dead, he was just a pathetic sex fiend, a misogynist, a liar—an evil and ugly little toad.
I realized: he did not read life very well at all.
I remember being shocked, in 2004, when the feminist writer Naomi Wolf disclosed that Bloom hit on her in 1983, when she was a student of his.
I remember I didn’t believe her . . . but even if it’d happened, it was a long time ago, and wasn’t that bad? He put his hand on her?
Now I re-read the account and realize she was telling an important story. Bloom was a sex-fiend. He viewed female students as his harem. And literature was just his racket.
I was a senior, majoring in English. Harold Bloom was one of Yale’s most illustrious professors. Most of my friends in the Literature department were his acolytes, clustering around him at office hours for his bon mots about Pater and Wilde. He called students, male and female both, “my dear” and “my child.” Beautiful, brilliant students surrounded him. He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma.
Bloom noticed Woolf in a class and and chats her up. “His aura was compelling — and intimidating.” Another professor urges her to do an independent study with Bloom. (I suspect now: she was set up.)
Bloom sets up a dinner with several other of his students.
The four of us ate a meal. He had, as promised, brought a bottle of Amontillado, which he drank continually. I also drank. We had set out candles — a grown-up occasion. The others eventually left and — finally! — I thought we could discuss my poetry manuscript. I set it between us. He did not open it. He did not look at it. He leaned toward me and put his face inches from mine. “You have the aura of election upon you,” he breathed.
I hoped he was talking about my poetry. I moved back and took the manuscript and turned it around so he could read.
The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh.
I lurched away. “This is not what I meant,” I stammered. The whole thing had suddenly taken on the quality of a bad horror film. The floor spun. By now my back was against the sink, which was as far away as I could get. He moved toward me. I turned away from him toward the sink and found myself vomiting. Bloom disappeared.
When he reemerged — from the bedroom with his coat — a moment later, I was still frozen, my back against the sink. He said: “You are a deeply troubled girl.” Then he went to the table, took the rest of his sherry, corked the bottle, and left.
Bloom never replied to Woolf’s public confession.
I realize —This was the time he got caught.
He’d set up himself as the image of the ultimate judge of aesthetic merit, of “Literature.” Then he used it as a tool of seduction.
Maybe even enjoying the jarring effect of the girl realizing she’s not seen as a poet, but as a piece of ass.
Now, she had to strategize, and be practical, to do what she needs to do in a sex factory, in a rape mill, to get their signature, and run.
He’d done this many times before. He’d strategized, and he had help.
I realized: his female students were trained, and expected, to give in.
When Woolf rejects his advance, he is already gaslighting her, stigmatizing her as being mentally ill.
She continues the story:
I tried to tell the grievance board, but they told me it is my word against his, and that there is no point in pursuing it. I know I won’t get a job if I do anything about it. My lit professor made a pass at me; he is grading my senior thesis. My female adviser basically told me to drop it if I want to graduate; to switch classes; to start all over with another subject. My lab instructor keeps putting his hands on my body, and his mentor is on the grievance committee. I can’t sleep. What should I do?
Bloom knew that Yale would protect him. What to do?
There was only one thing to do, and that was become feminist.
Feminism was a defense against sexual slavery and predation in a world that didn’t plan to let you say “no.”
In the throes of #MeToo, Woolf re-approached Yale, seeking some acknowledgment of the problem. “After nine months and many calls and e-mails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intact — as secretive as a Masonic lodge.”
I think over Bloom’s comments on women authors, and I realize he was just a misogynist. If they were apparently sexless or lesbian, he could admire them. If they were not, he didn’t. Over and over, and over.
He wrote a celebrated book, The Book of J, speculating the author of Old Testament works was a woman. I realize—that was a joke.
I look up the Bible scholar Adrien Janis Bledstein’s open letter to Bloom, noting: “part of your purpose is clearly blasphemy. You tweak the noses of biblical scholars; you tease feminists by presenting the greatest storyteller of the bible as a woman who in her urban sophistication cares little about issues of injustice and oppression; you bait believers.”
I flip through his works, realizing how many of them were just a pose. At the core of which was a man who looked around at life wondering who he was going to fuck next. Feminism was kind of a bad day.
Plath killed herself in 1963, and Ariel was published in 1965. I shied away from the book and did not purchase and read it until the early 1970s. Perhaps I would have liked it better then, or could now, if its few merits were not so grossly exaggerated by its many admirers. Perhaps not.
Bloom would often write about gay writers—from Shakespeare to Walt Whitman to Oscar Wilde to Hart Crane—without ever writing about sex or sexuality.
He wrote of them without processing the conflicts, difficulties, dreams, the problems for which their works were a partial resolution. For him the writer was never actually real. Not in a body. Not seeing a real world.
For him, “great writers” were writing “literature,” not writing about life.
Life? What is that?
As I’d revisit authors I’d loved, having come to know them through Bloom, I realized they had been alive, and their works were responding to life—not playing games about books up somewhere in their minds to satisfy academics on deadline for a new book.
I remember reading a review of a new book by a feminist scholar, re-reading the male-created biography of Virginia Woolf:
She implies that this simplistic vision of Woolf as brilliant, but asexual and unstable, was consoling for the men in her life, who would have liked to be geniuses themselves but weren’t. Forrester accuses Bell in particular of condescension, of reducing Woolf, whose work he admits he “did not know very well,” to a sort of freak, not “a complete woman.” She makes a persuasive case, catching him, for example, in inventing a childhood episode of madness for his Aunt Virginia and then presenting it as fact. “Separating the writer from the woman,” writes Forrester bitterly, “to avoid one and disparage the other.”
And I realize: that’s what Bloom also did? For critics and literary biographers, the woman was a freak, a problem, a nutcase.
But the writer—that was ‘sublime’.
Woolf was a woman writing about life when that was an enormously problematic thing to do. She was a whole person, as every writer is—seeking to glimpse a better way of being.
I realized: I’d gone to books to seek answers but critics like Bloom use the love of reading against you. To defeat the very thing you’d sought.
How to be human, lively, alive—when everyone around you isn’t.
He lived in a walled-in city called ‘Yale’ and thought every day about what female student he was going to trap and fuck next.