Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
The first thing I broke was the cream-colored ceramic sugar bowl. Smashed to bits. I’d been at my friend’s flat in London for less than a day, and left to my own devices, I innocently placed a cup in the dish rack, and like a collapsing house of cards, the contents of the rack began to shift, and through an unnoticed gap in the front of the rack, the sugar bowl escaped and smashed onto the floor. My first-day settling-in disaster.
But I wasn’t done. My destruction cut a path from the kitchen to the bathroom where I didn’t fully comprehend that the shower fixture didn’t want to turn the way I wanted it to turn, and with superhuman strength, I bent it, rendering it unusable. It took hours, and a toolbox, for me to fix it.
Then it was on to the den – my bedroom for the visit – where I thought I’d broken the TV. I’d switched it off with the remote, and no amount of maniacal and increasingly haphazard button-pressing would turn it on again. (It took my friend all of two seconds to locate the on/off button on the side of the set – a button that I swear wasn’t there earlier – and bring the BBC back into our world.)
Then back to the kitchen a few days later where I desperately tried to open the clothes-dryer door after the cycle had ended, unaware that the door would not, could not, open until a full minute had passed. A minute filled with thoughts of wrenches and hammers and whatever I may require to force open the door and rescue my clothes.
That’s me, staying with a friend for two weeks in London, a city I’m somewhat familiar with, in a country whose language I share.
So Philip Graham and his family can be excused for their “first-day settling-in disasters” at the start of their year in Portugal, alone in a Lisbon apartment struggling with the flat’s lighting system. Dispatches, detailing their disasters – and triumphs – previously appeared in McSweeney’s online, and now the wonderful collected memoir of the Graham family’s year in Portugal The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is available in print.
In 2006, author and teacher Philip Graham uprooted his family – his anthropologist wife Alma and their 12-year-old daughter Hannah – and transplanted them to Lisbon. Reading the dispatches, I felt as if I were with this family every step of the way, through every day-to-day adventure and every settling-in disaster, as they walked that fine line between fitting in and remaining on the outside.
“I do and I don’t feel at home here,” Graham writes. “I oscillate between comfort and unease.”
Language of course is a big barrier and while the whole family does its best to learn and communicate in Portuguese, it proves to be a challenge.
“There’s so much to remember in building a Portuguese sentence,” Graham writes, leading in to an account of a morning reading of a Portuguese newspaper, and how a single word – andar (to walk) – can be used in so many different ways. “One lousy verb, so many subgestures.”
A recurring theme in Graham’s book is “Saudade,” a complex emotion “that combines sorrow, longing and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure.” Saudade colors all aspects of Portuguese life – from its fado music to its soccer matches to its underdog sensibility.
This being a family memoir, food and drink naturally have a strong presence and the wines and fish and other delicacies linger on the tip of the reader’s tongue. When I finished reading The Moon, Come to Earth, I asked my parents – who had spent a few days in Lisbon some years ago – what image lingered the most. Without missing a beat, my mother replied “the grilled sardines.”
Here is the opening phrase of the opening line of the opening dispatch in Philip Graham’s book: “The grilled sardines, lying in my plate…”
The Moon, Come to Earth lifted me up from my humdrum life and transplanted me into the Graham family’s Lisbon adventure. It was a day-to-day adventure, full of the familiar, full of new routines and small struggles. It was a bit sad to leave it all, a bit of saudade creeping into my own life.
A week or so after reading it, I was in London, wreaking havoc in the flat, and trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Fighting the good fight. And delighting in the small triumphs.
Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski’s on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus’ book The Histories – a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski’s lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this one, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image, etc., something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.And of course, I’m sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski’s books have had “a certain advantage over the actual trip.” With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn’t be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn’t all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn’t consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote “To define [Kapuscinski’s] books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers.” In speculating about Herodotus’ way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer’s right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible… that the rhythm of Herodotus’s life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity – something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski’s motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and “colorful” descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf. George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy – lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski’s admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski
There’s a scene early on in the mini-series version of Generation Kill in which Lee Tergesen, the actor who plays Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, wins over the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion with whom he is embedded. Recon is the eyes and ears of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the forwardmost units to push deep into Iraq in the first days of the war. The jarheads address Wright simply as “Reporter,” and treat him with a cool saltiness – until he lets slip that he used to write for Hustler. The soldiers, their raunchy humor already established, instantly warm to him. As the mission unfolds, Wright becomes the eyes and ears of the folks back home, evoking for his readers the cultish fraternity of American warriors on the front line of a strange war. HBO’s Generation Kill was based on a New York Times bestseller by Evan Wright, and it was adapted for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, the architects of The Wire. For his new collection of reported pieces, Hella Nation, Evan Wright breaks the ice in much the same way. In the introduction, he discusses his early years, a slow metamorphosis from shiftless slacker to crack reporter, starting with the unlikely gig as Hustler’s entertainment editor. “My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax,” he writes, and we’re off and stumbling. Wright’s back-assward path into serious journalism makes for entertaining reading, and there’s an important point to it. In the early 1990s, his life was a parade of blurry tableaus: blackouts, bar fights, stealing cars, and “waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was.” In journalism, Wright found a way to cope with his demons and overcome his youthful conviction that “failure was a sort of philosophy to live by.” He accomplished this turnaround by focusing on the lives of other people who lived at the margins of American society. In these remote places on the cultural map, the rivers run deep, the currents are swift and unpredictable, and people need a skillful guide if they wish to know what it’s like to ride the whitewater. His background as something of a misfit has enabled Wright to gain amazing access to the lives of other misfits. More than once, almost by chance, he has crossed paths with characters who live in parallel universes where values are warped and decorum non-existent. In “Portrait of a Con Artist,” which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, Wright wrote about Seth Warshavsky, a dot-com whiz kid in Seattle who founded an online porn company, Internet Entertainment Group. By the late nineties, IEG was being touted by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as the porn industry’s version of Microsoft, supposedly earning revenue of $100 million in 1999. Following his departure from Larry Flynt’s Hustler, Wright moved from LA to Seattle and went to work for Warshavsky, a tourettic, human growth hormone-addicted porno-nerd-cum-Internet mogul. As chief Web editor, Wright soon learned that IEG was a sham, built around little more than smoke, mirrors, and Warshavsky’s pathological relationship with the truth in all of his business dealings. One thread that runs through all of the pieces in Hella Nation is Wright’s straightforward, almost deadpan descriptions of scenes that are perfectly absurd. During his ill-fated tenure at IEG, such scenes were common. One unfolded when Warshavsky had Wright meet with a group of analysts from an investment bank that had agreed to underwrite IEG’s initial public stock offering. Taking the men inside IEG’s video porn production warehouse, Wright was surprised to find that just one of the dozen or so booths that were supposed to be broadcasting live nude girls 24/7 contained an actual live nude girl. Far from being dismayed by the inactivity at the warehouse, the analysts gathered around the single booth, enthralled by a nude woman’s desultory masturbation before a webcam in a faux bedroom. “The one with the MBA from Harvard,” writes Wright, “suggested I had better insist on receiving stock options from my boss – Warshavsky – ahead of the IPO. He shot me a jocular smile.” This is a deeper subtext that runs through much of Wright’s work. As seemingly insane as many of his subjects are, their ridiculousness is often dwarfed by the ridiculousness of an American culture that is fascinated with, and eager to be taken in by, those risky characters who operate at society’s margins. The credulous businessmen in “Portrait of a Con Artist” are in this way not unlike Wright’s readership: ready, willing to be taken in. These are the stories that magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair live for. I, for one, was astounded and mesmerized by several of the stories in Hella Nation. I marveled at the access Wright was able to get and the thoroughness of his reporting. Only rarely did what he wrote strain my own credulity. Those moments were for the most part born of the skepticism of admiration. The stories include a dispatch from Afghanistan (Rolling Stone, ’02), where infantry soldiers from the Army’s 3-187th Battalion, Fifth Platoon Delta, are ostensibly battling the Taliban. In fact, they spend most of their days laboring in 125-degree heat, discussing the rumored existence of a McDonald’s in Kandahar, debating techniques for wiping your ass without toilet paper, and marveling at the disturbing proclivity of their Pashtun allies in the Anti-Taliban Forces to fraternize with young boys in their camp. There are profiles of an alcoholic skateboard punk from West Haven, Connecticut (Rolling Stone ’01), who won fame and corporate sponsorship in Hollywood by being featured doing never-before-seen tricks in underground skating videos, and a flamboyant Ultimate Fighting Challenge champ on whom the upstart blood sport had, at one time, hopes to pin (Men’s Journal ’02). In a breezy essay entitled “Scenes from My Life in Porn” (LA Weekly ’00) Wright sketches some mostly humorous memories from his days working at Larry Flynt Productions. One of the oldest stories, first published in Hustler in late ’97, is a profile of the rock group Motley Crue. At one point, the band’s drummer, Tommy Lee, explains how he had once managed to run himself over with his own car: “‘I pulled over to pee after drinking tons of beers,’ Tommy relates. “‘I left my Corvette in neutral, and it ran over both my legs. And dude, my leather pants fucking exploded.'” A lengthy piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000 follows the activities of a group of young anarchists, starting with the infamous Battle of Seattle during the World Trade Organization’s conference there: “As Wingnut inevitably says, when asked by police who his leader is, ‘I work for Mother Earth, arrest her.'” Wingnut’s other hero, we learn, is Ted Kaczynski. Wright travels with Wingnut from Seattle to a tree-sit high above the ground in the old-growth Douglas firs of the forest outside Eugene, Oregon, then down to LA. Wright covers a lot of ground, and he seems to prefer to treat every story as an embed. There are two stories in Hella Nation that I found particularly engrossing. The first is an investigative piece about a young San Francisco gym teacher who was attacked by her neighbor’s dogs in the hallway outside her apartment and killed. I remembered this gruesome story from when it happened in late 2001. Wright fills in astounding details. The dogs, rare Presa Canarios, were procured by a white supremacist while he served a life sentence in California state prison, and were being cared for by his lawyers, a married couple who had also legally adopted him. The couple exchanged pornographic letters with their “son,” and, it was rumored, photographs of the wife engaged in sexual acts with the dogs. The final story in the collection is a 25,000+ word profile of Pat Dollard that appeared in Vanity Fair in March ’07. Dollard was a Hollywood agent and producer until he dropped out of sight around Thanksgiving of 2004, only to resurface in Iraq, embedded with Marines in Baghdad. He returned to LA with a self-shot documentary film about his experiences and a desire to become a “conservative icon, the Michael Moore of the right.” Dollard’s late sister, Ann, was a prominent liberal activist, well-known in elite Hollywood circles, but this is not the only thing about him that made his new direction surprising. As Wright writes, “When you consider that just eighteen months earlier Dollard was a confessed whore-loving, alcoholic, coked-out Hollywood agent, his transformation into the great hope of conservative America is nothing short of astonishing.” Wright was first introduced to Dollard by a friend who believed Dollard could help him get Generation Kill made into a movie. The back of Hella Nation has a quote from Newsday: “[Evan Wright’s] style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness.” I sort of disagree, and so does Wright. “Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing,” he writes in the introduction. There’s no gonzo to Wright’s straightforward narrative approach – no madcap prose fraught with the writer’s own drug-fueled lunacy, a staple of Thompson’s work. Wright got that mostly out of his system before he became a serious journalist. Where Wright’s writing is reminiscent of Thompson’s is in certain conclusions about American culture that he leads the reader to. Wright’s subjects are outsiders, but an Evan Wright story is itself a subversion. The mainstream magazine reader is the one on the outside looking in.
Harold Bloom is getting old. The venerable and untiring critic has reached the age of 81, the age Dante thought would allow one to reach the perfection of mind and spirit. Bloom would be the first (and he repeats himself in this, as in all things) to admit that he falls pretty solidly short of this luminosity. The nickname he chose for himself is “Brontosaurus Bardolator Bloom” – an amiable enough monster, as he wryly remarks. He once rather charmingly referred to Leopold Bloom, the wonderfully curious and unpretentious leading man of Ulysses as his “namesake.” In this new volume of criticism, proclaimed to be his last, he rejects the idea of grandly associative names except, of course, for the fortunate few who’ve earned them: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Joyce among them, as well he might. He’s spent most of his life absorbed in their imaginations. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way Of Life is simultaneously a swan song, mash note, and fever dream.
It’s interesting to see how Bloom frets and struts his hour upon the page. To my mind, Harold Bloom is not so much the judicious patriarch or brazen egomaniac or even a vogon (as one detractor had it) as he is a grandmother – endlessly harried, fiercely loving, and relentlessly worried about the future of his brood. One could say that the bombastic Brontosaurus is really no more than the mother hen of his corner of literary history. He has been known to address his interviewers as “my child,” “my dearies,” and “my little bear.” Every photo of him I’ve ever seen displays the hollow-eyed gaze of a sort of maternal weariness, an insomnia of wondering if the lights are going out and if the house will still be standing when he finally shuffles off the mortal coil.
As for his method and his taste, it might be summed up in a bit of his critical mythology. For Bloom, especially when starting from his breakthrough 1973 essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” the issue at hand has always been the nature of literary influence. The idea is that a poet wants to begin to create though at first he feels threatened and anxious that a stronger, precursor poet has already said what he wanted to say before he had the chance to say it himself. The influence of the precursor is overwhelming in its inspiration and the poet begins to copy the voice or style or philosophy of the precursor poet, causing an anxiety over the poet’s struggle for identity, for individuality.
The agon, a word rooted in the competition between Greek tragedians, is when the poet is struggling to overthrow this contaminating power. The way this is accomplished is through a Lucretian clinamen, or unpredictable swerve from the precursors’ dominance. The result is sublimity; the rapture of a distinct, powerful, and utterly strange new voice which appears. The readers discover themselves, always themselves, as an inscrutable interiority always deepening and widening, as they read through the panoply of what Bloom unabashedly calls genius. He is fond of citing Emerson on this: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
The contention would seem to be on what authority, of course, Bloom would be able to decide that one writer has sufficiently influenced or superseded another, and on what grounds. There does not seem to be an objective answer to this, given that interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best. It doesn’t matter as much as it might, though – criticism can falter when it decides on its own that it contains the last word on any text. History is a long record on the folly of this. A plethora of meanings, an opening up of new avenues of discovery, a startling juxtaposition is plenty to grow on. Bloom, to his credit, is aware of this: “opponents accuse me of espousing an ‘aesthetic ideology,’ but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.” Subjectivity never ends.
Bloom’s position does not, and should not, mean you discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions. History can’t – and shouldn’t – be avoided in criticism, and Bloom errs in his cantankerous avoidance of historicism, but if societies do in fact write books, the minds who craft them certainly do not come to us mass produced. In his Genius: A Mosaic of A Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sort of a choice anthology of favorite poets, novelists, and playwrights), he remarks that “there were many neurotic spinsters in 19th Century Amherst, but there was only one Emily Dickinson.” It may be best for politics and cultural production as such to be considered an ingredient of the soup and not the sum total of the soup itself.
What sets him off, as he rather irritatingly tends to repeat here and elsewhere, is what he calls “The School of Resentment” – the Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Deconstructionist methods of approaching a text. His use of a Nietzschean concept is telling, both for what he accuses and how he accuses it. For Bloom, this culture theory approach trivializes the power of imagination, absurdly reducing it to circumstances of gender or class stature or ethnicity. It’s interesting how this kind of gripe has been heard before, usually from some self-righteous idiot who bemoans the lowering of America’s mental and spiritual standards while preening on Fox News or scribbling another paranoid, myopic screed for some Moral Majority book club, the better to pay off his gambling debts and mistresses. Bloom’s not a conservative, at least as far as politics go, and the distinction is worth remembering. If the new frontier for political affiliation is cultural and taste-based vindictiveness (Starbucks vs. Wal-Mart, Fox vs. CNN, The Noble Canon vs. Gangsta Rap), and it is well-argued that it was the right wing who created the mess in the first place, then it pays to see a believer in the canon remind us that despite “the war for America’s soul,” good little boys and girls are not going to be saved by reading their Bible and their Emerson to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and merrily stride towards a Manifest Destiny:
It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline…Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us…I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students.
It’s very penetratingly said that Bloom’s canon is sometimes low on non-Western voices. Bloom is pretty bombastic in what he loves and why he loves it, and he can’t go at least a page or two without pumping out another reference to Shakespeare and how the Bard’s omnivorous consciousness almost overshadows the book he’s analyzing. Bloom likes to mingle his views with those of the lords of language, and good for him. Proximity, however, is not approximation. I don’t think a writer can decide for themselves who their authentic precursor is; there’s way too much bubbling around in the stew of the creative mind to locate such an inspiration.
If an interested reader takes inventory of Bloom’s school for the ages, there are indeed plenty of Dead White Men (and Women) to be found, but there are also more than a few interestingly subversive texts to be found. I discovered Ishmael Reed’s searing Mumbo Jumbo on this recommendation and I doubt very much that it was chosen as an encroachment of European cultural hegemony. Same goes for Bloom’s “20th Century Sublime,” which includes The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the concluding ten minutes of which is hard to see as anything but hilariously anarchic satire on whatever is patriotic and pious in western history. The same could be said of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, for that matter. The list also includes Charlie Parker’s Parker’s Mood, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, and the “Byron The Light Bulb” sequence from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I mention these not to engage in academic tit-for-tat, but to emphasize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of all criticism. His indignation is incandescent. Bloom celebrates what he is moved by, what outrages and delights him, what “ravishes his heart away.”
Bardolatry, “the least religious of all religions,” is Bloom’s great love. The first half of the book is taken up with the idea of “Shakespeare the founder.” Shakespeare is the omnivorous, omniscient one: his creative capacity is boundless and subsumes everything which comes before or after it. In a previous work, Bloom even makes the provocative if dubious claim that he “invented the human.” He hasn’t changed his mind. Bloom sketches the various places where the Bard is to be found in all manner of literature, and in Bloom he is never out of sight. He often quotes Giambattista Vico’s saying that “we know only what we ourselves have made” but in the end, Shakespeare has made everything for us. Shakespeare the person is unable to be found within his created works, so thoroughly has he subsumed himself into his personalities: Iago, Lear, Othello, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ariel, just to name a few.
Bloom is obsessed with one character above all: the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the wildest, “supremely outrageous,” most coruscating intelligence to be found anywhere in the work. His special book length study on the topic is entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and it’s not unlimited for nothing. Hamlet is a character who destroys everything in his path, composing cognitive splendors of almost nihilistic intensity, he is mad but “mad north-northwest.” Bloom can’t get enough of him – he links him with Paradise Lost’s Lucifer, for one, and wonders what it would be like if he had Edmund or Iago to contend with onstage. The Dane’s instantaneous cognition and meta-cognition is enough to send Bloom awhirl. The Lucifer comparison is apt in many ways, though one gets the feeling that his Oedipal theory of poetic influence is based on such prodigious and intimidating reading (he’s said to be able to read several hundred pages an hour) that it’s exhausting to keep up. He once mentioned that his only attempt at therapy resulted in his therapist explaining that he was being paid by the hour to listen to lectures on the proper way to read Freud. If that isn’t the mark of a true literary man, I don’t know what is.
The second half of the book deals with the pervading influence of Emerson as the mind of America, and Walt Whitman as its poet. Whitman’s influence is with us as deeply as Emerson’s was with him. Who hasn’t been touched by his rhetoric? It might be fair to say that for American poetry Whitman’s own debt to Emerson is appropriate: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to boil.” Bloom tracks his vision through several of the most celebrated poets of the past 50 years, some struggling to throw off Whitman’s influence and coming into their own, some being transformed in digesting it – D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and – especially – Hart Crane. Crane has been with Bloom since he encountered his work in the Bronx Public Library, at ten years old, and has stayed with him ever since. He claims to have memorized “nearly all” of Crane’s poetry and insists upon memorizing in general as much as one can so as to possess the poems yourself. When he writes about the words which have left him in awe for seventy years, the resonance is palpable – “Perhaps his truest vista is comprised by the final four stanzas of the ‘Proem’”:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry-
Again, the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path- condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year…
O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Poor Harold has been fighting and fretting over the fate of the canon for nearly a century. I don’t think it’s quite so dire. I’ve yet to meet a passionate reader who doesn’t love any or all of his Western Canon: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett – to name merely a few – are all doing pretty well, thank you. He needn’t despair. We are still eating and drinking well of what Bloom passionately recommends. A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter. If anything, it might change the way that it matters in the larger social sphere. There is always a Whitman or an Emerson yet to emerge, even in what he grimly terms “our evening land.” Any fan of his can thank him for suggesting language and stories newer and fresher and duly more strange than a lifetime of reading could grasp. Bloom reads Wallace Stevens writing of Whitman “walking along a ruddy shore./ He is singing and chanting the things that are a part of him,/ the worlds that are and will be,/ death and day./ Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end./ His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.” If that can be enough for him (and he seems to think it might be) then may he contentedly sink into our common plot for a long, well-deserved rest. There will always be plenty of anxiety to go around.