Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

How to Read and Why is a book that seems to accomplish its goals a little early. I had imagined it as presenting a Grand Unified Theory of Reading, by which I might expand my appreciation of literature as a whole, and in its first section it does something of that, as Bloom presents a set of what he sees as essential principles for reading. Among other things, he puts forth what seems to me the most persuasive and encompassing rationale for reading I have ever encountered:

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of all pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.

Terry Eagleton--basically England's Harold Bloom--notes in his remarkably negative review that "[i]t sounds as though Harold is a bit short of mates and reads to make up for it." With all due respect to the achievements of Prof. Eagleton, such a statement reeks of petty snark and, worse yet, of intellectual dishonesty. Loneliness is the undiscussed companion of the human condition and if you do not feel at least a little bit like Prof. Bloom does, then I simply don't understand you.

With the why out of the way, Bloom turns to the how in the 200-odd pages that follow, and it is here that Eagleton's criticisms have some bearing. Bloom divides his book into five sections, one each for short stories, poetry, and drama, and two for the novel, and within each section he briefly treats five to six major authors or works. Each gives the impression of being somewhat less than Bloom has to offer; while the section on Keats may serve as a passable introduction to the poet and enlightens us as to why Bloom treasures "Le Belle Dame sans Merci," it fails to break free from Bloom's solipsism. Despite Bloom's notions that we should be forever reading the best literature available to us, knowing how to read Keats is not the same thing as knowing how to read; knowing how to read Keats exactly like Harold Bloom is more distant still. Furthermore, the meager selections of works suggest no reason for their being included together, and while Bloom tosses superlatives around with impunity (there is no "higher aesthetic achievement by a twentieth-century American writer than As I Lay Dying," no greater book by a living American than Blood Meridian, no greater book by an American black than Invisible Man), their ubiquity drains them of power and it is hard to shake the feeling that the works have been selected, not for their greatness, but by whim.

One notable exception to this piecemeal feeling is the final chapter, on the American novel since Melville, in which Bloom articulates an affinity among seven novels: Moby-Dick, As I Lay Dying, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Crying of Lot 49, Invisible Man, Blood Meridian, and Song of Solomon. These novels all express a "negative sublimity," a horrific transcendence in the tradition of Moby-Dick and a uniquely American and apocalyptic vision:

It is not the function of reading to cheer us up, or to console us prematurely. But I conclude by affirming that all of these American visions of the End of our Time offer us more, much more, than their cleansing negativity... There are survivors among these: Ishmael, Oedipa, Invisible Man. Why read? Because you will be haunted by great visions: of Ishmael, escaped alone to tell us; of Oedipa Maas, cradling the old derelict in her arms, of Invisible Man, preparing to come up again, like Jonah, out of the whale's belly. All of them, on some of the higher frequencies, speak to you and for you.

This, unsurprisingly, does not meet Terry Eagleton's expectations of serious criticism, and though my expectations were quite different it did not quite meet them, either. But to read Bloom is to be in the presence of someone who truly loves reading; I hope that one day I should love my own children as much as Bloom loves books. There is little concrete advice in How to Read and Why, but I do find that it inspires me to find something in books that speaks to me as loudly as these works speak to him. Insofar as the success of How to Read and Why is encountering another soul with its unique passions, a literary fellow traveler, it fails as literary criticism but succeeds as something of sister text to the books it idolizes, alleviating a trace of human loneliness.


billy said...

what do you mean when you say loneliness is the undiscussed companion of the human condition?

Christopher said...

I mean that people are, generally speaking, lonely. There is no way to step out of one's own skin, and even when we have friends and loved ones we are essentially alone, trapped in ourselves. To be a human being is to be lonely, because it's something that you do alone.

It is undiscussed because I think that it's a fundamental truth, but not something that we talk about--because we are only dimly aware of it, or because we don't know how to put it into words, or because we're slightly ashamed of it. What do you think?

billy said...

i disagree, especially if you mean lonely in a negative way (which i'm not sure that you do, but i stand by my points either way). i think that we're not trapped in ourselves if we share ourselves with others. i share my time, my thoughts, my experiences, etc, with my family and my friends, and as a result they are in my life and i am in theirs. bloom says that friendship is vulnerable and likely to diminish or disappear, but (i hope) he is referring to individual friendships, not friendship as a continuous influence in our lives. when i was in high school, i had a group of people in my life and was not alone. in college, most of those people drifted out of my life, but others drifted in. while i anticipate more of those people being in my life for longer, some have already left it. but then again, more new people entered my life when i got to law school, and (i hope) i'll add more people to my life as it goes on.

i guess i just don't agree that to be a human being is something you do alone. i suppose you CAN do it alone if you want, but i don't think i do. i rely on others, others rely on me, i spend time with others, i share parts of myself with others, and in those ways i feel they participate in my life. as a result, even if there is no one else in the room with me, i'm never alone.

i am reminded of the scene in good will hunting when robin williams asks matt damon if he has a soul mate. the dialogue goes:

Sean: Do you have a soul mate?
Will: Define that.
Sean: Someone you can relate to, someone who opens things up for you.
Will: Sure, I got plenty.
Sean: Well, name them.
Will: Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O'Conner...
Sean: Well that's great. They're all dead.
Will: Not to me, they're not.
Sean: You can't have a lot of dialogue with them.
Will: Not without a heater and some serious smelling salts.

i don't know how familiar you are with this movie (and if you aren't you need to become more familiar with it, because it's great), but despite the fact that will immerses himself in every book he can get a hold of and sean is still haunted by the memory of his dead wife, i think that will is more alone than sean. sean also cuts himself off from the world, but that memory alone is enough to keep him from being completely lonely. and will's loneliness isn't static, either; when he finally learns how to open up and let skylar in (we are led to believe) he is no longer alone.

sorry for writing an essay, i just think i disagree. maybe i've used the word alone and lonely interchangeably and i shouldn't have, but either way, i don't think i'm either

billy said...

or maybe it's just because i'm a Liverpool fan and therefore will never walk alone...

Christopher said...

But it is something you do alone--friendships are only an approximation of a connection. You simply can't be a part of "the other"--that's why it's "the other."

Bloom's point is that literature connects us to otherness. Of course, it too is an approximation, but an equally important one.

G.R.R. Fotley said...

But why should reading a book be less of an approximation than a friendship (according to Bloom)?

Christopher said...

It isn't. He says that friendships are too few, and the ones we have tend to be imperfect. Literature alleviates some of that--it isn't the same thing as saying that books are better than friends.