Before Shakespeare, literary characters mostly remained static, representing types rather than psychologically real human beings. At least according to critic and Yale academic Harold Bloom, who published a gargantuan book—Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human—to prove that “in Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves.” Shakespeare, in other words, invented psychological realism: that dynamism of character we recognize as one of the hallmarks of literature. Great books give us fictional people we believe in, suffer with, feel we know intimately when we’ve lived long with their stories.
For Bloom, Shakespeare’s characters often change because “they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is their royal road to individualism.” When we look forward a couple hundred years, we find Herman Melville reaching for Shakespearean heights of tragedy and bombast in Moby Dick, his Ahab as outsized and unforgettable a character as Lear, Macbeth, or Richard II. But does Ahab change? Perhaps only in that he grows more vehemently single-minded (and unstable) as the novel progresses, though his purpose never wavers from beginning to fateful end.
We can see Ahab’s intensification guided by the self-overhearing of his many crazed speeches—to his crew, himself, the whale, no one in particular. In the speech Bloom reads at the top of the post, Ahab addresses the purely elemental—St. Elmo’s fire—in Chapter 119, “The Candles,” asserting his selfhood against the sublime indifference of nature. “In the midst of the personified impersonal,” Ahab shouts at the luminous phenomenon, “a personality stands here.” In his critical book on Melville, Bloom interprets this speech as a Gnostic sermon, but we can just as well see it as a manifest refining of Ahab’s conscious sense of himself as an avatar of vengeance, animated against the world, though it seems not to recognize in him or anyone else the specialness of personality and its many lists of grievances.
The Melville reading, and the two above—from Hart Crane’s The Bridge and Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”—come to us from Random House, publisher of Bloom’s latest critical opus, The Daemon Knows, a study, as his subtitle states, of “Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.” As in nearly all of his popular critical books, in this most recent one, Bloom traces literary genealogies. And while all three of these American greats distantly descend from Shakespeare, “here,” writes Cynthia Ozick in her New York Times review, Bloom “invokes the primacy of Emerson as germinating ancestor.”
Emerson, writes Bloom, “is the fountain of the American will to know the self and its drive for sublimity.” As Bloom has interpreted the Western Canon for over half a century—serving as its self-appointed spokesman time and again—the great drive of literature since the Renaissance accords with the ancient command to know thyself… or, failing that, invent thyself.