- The Bloomian Moment: An Appreciation
“We have an interval,” Walter Pater insisted, “and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among ‘the children of this world,’ in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”
The remark comes in the concluding essay of The Renaissance, Pater’s first book and the one that announced him as a preeminent critic of the 19th century. Harold Bloom cites it approvingly near the end of The Daemon Knows, his 45th volume. If, in Pater’s case, the assertion seems fairly prophetic, for Bloom, it is almost valedictory. Now in his second century as a preeminent literary critic, his “one chance” hasn’t escaped him.
Still, the pulsations Pater praises—those that relish of “intellectual excitement” and yield the “fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness”—don’t only emanate from art or song (or even literary criticism). They radiate, as well, from the wisdom of a teacher. Bloom’s commitment to that vocation is less well known than his work as a scholar or public intellectual, but the same traits define it: the record is extraordinary and seemingly inexhaustible. With Yale’s 2016 spring commencement exercises, Bloom completed the first year of his seventh decade of teaching. His pedagogical pulsations precede the advent of home computers, the invasion of the Beatles, or even the first unmanned space flight. For more than 60 years, they’ve rippled across thousands of students, a multigenerational assembly who have had their education, [End Page 113] their imaginations, and, most importantly to them, their lives all enriched by a man who almost inevitably asks them to call him Harold.
When you speak with Yale students who have found their way to Harold Bloom sometime in the past decade—and I, myself, am one of them—you hear elements of a common story. Students do not stumble across his classes; indeed, few professors have already made such a formidable impression on their pupils years before they’ve met them.
Take Riley Soles. A doctoral student in Yale’s East Asian Languages and Literatures Department and one of three students for whom Bloom’s still acts as a dissertation advisor, Riley remembers trawling The Harvard Bookstore as an undergraduate and being struck by finding Bloom’s name “in great quantities.” The experience is a familiar one for Bloom’s students. He has not only been unusually prolific as a scholar, his writing has evolved to include readers from far beyond the academy, creating the conditions for a quintessential Bloomian moment, one of déjà vu rather than discovery.
“Bloom was there again” is how a recent graduate of Yale College, Vincent Tolentino, puts it. He says that he first came across Bloom’s name as a high school sophomore while writing a paper on Hawthorne and kept coming across it in research projects until Bloom became his “go-to guy.” Bloom’s research assistant, Lauren Smith, describes a similar experience. Bloom’s Invention of the Human (“the Shakespeare book”) was a resource for her in a study group on the Bard at St. John’s College, which led her to Yeats when she took a preceptorial on the poet and finally—déjà vu all over again—to his book on William Blake.
The fact that Bloom has already begun teaching one (after the title of one of his books) How to Read and Why does not make the prospect of meeting him seem any easier or, for that matter, any more likely. After he was accepted to Yale, Riley says he had a “vague daydream” that he might one day “chance upon” Bloom, as if the most likely way of meeting him was turning a corner on Old Campus to find him leading [End Page 114] a fugitive seminar on Wallace Stevens. Lauren was also struck by the same sense of utter improbability that a man who had otherwise been teaching at Yale for over half a century might someday be her professor. When a...