By Shaun Randol
On the closing day of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, I had front row seats to listen to two giants of the literary world, Harold Bloom and Wole Soyinka. Both events took place in the exquisite Beaux-Arts Celeste Bartos Forum at that temple of the book, the New York Public Library. First up, From Anxiety to the Anatomy of Influence, where Paul Holdengräber picked the octogenarian mind of the often controversial Harold Bloom.
For those keeping score: I counted fifty name-drops in the course of the conversation. Here’s a random sample of ten: Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Anne Carson, W.S. Merwin, John Milton, Victor Hugo, John Ruskin, Sigmund Freud, and Samuel Johnson.
The conversation began with a bang as Bloom declared Walt Whitman to be the greatest writer in the Western Hemisphere in the past 400 years. The reverberation from such a bold declaration was heard in the gasps that rippled through the audience. Further emboldening his claim, Bloom declared that his judgment is based on a mere six poems written by Whitman, spanning a decade; my apologies, but I only caught four of them: Song of Myself, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Memories of President Lincoln, and The Sleepers.
What say you, Mantle readers? Does Whitman outweigh the contributions of Pablo Neruda, Eduardo Galeano, Mark Twain, and other Western Hemisphere giants? (For the record: Bloom considers Shakespeare to be the greatest writer ever, in all hemispheres, through all ages.)
Say what you will about Bloom’s literary canon choices, but the man takes a stand and makes a case for it. I’ve got respect for that. Any critic who’s afraid to stake a position and not make a defense for it is no critic at all.
I half-expected Bloom to give the young whippersnapper critics in the room a spanking, and I was half right. Happily, he did not belittle or look down upon the Internet, a position I expected him to take (his wife does his e-mailing). He’s a book man, after all, one who luxuriates in the act of reading with a physical book in hand. But no, as far as he understands it, the Internet is a powerful tool at the disposal of his students, quickening the act of research and enhancing their studies.
Bloom failed to connect his conclusion on the usefulness of the Internet to his points on memorization, however. The act of memorization, he said, allows for sharper reading and writing skills. Further, the act of remembering can make people and a country greater, moves toward which Americans are failing, he laments. Yet I wonder if Bloom is familiar with the arguments against the “Google-ization of everything,” wherein simple searches and a heavy reliance on the Internet advance the degradation of the mind.
Toward the end of the conversation, my ears began to burn. Holdengräber turned the conversation toward criticism. In terms of poetry criticism, Bloom said the purpose is to “discover hidden paths from poem to poem,” a tactic that can be used for other literary forms.
Okay, fine. Not bad, but not great. The subject of the purpose of criticism is for another time.
More interestingly, Bloom made the case for the importance of the critic, especially as it pertains to maintaining a literary canon. Critics, he declared, are the creators and arbiters of the literary canon. Before this week, I had not seriously considered the relationship between the critic and the canon, and yet the subject arose twice over the course of events. Earlier in the week, a panel of critics tackled this very issue and came up with the exact opposite answer. The critics (without objection) determined that the critic has only a minor role to play in the creation of the canon. Rather, they argued (especially Carsten Jensen), in complete contrast to Bloom, authors create the canon by influencing other writers. As soon as you cease to inspire other writers, they claim, you drop off the canon. Likewise, writers who emerge or reemerge as influential for new writing get promoted to the canon.
For me, though, Bloom went off the rails when he declared that contemporary books are “not worth paying attention to.”
So, take that David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Umberto Eco, Lydia Davis, Salman Rushdie, Annie Proulx, Joyce Carol Oates, C. K. Williams, Roberto Bolaño, et al!
And tell that to Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate due on stage next.