Hear Harold Bloom Read From Three Sublime American Authors: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson & Hart Crane

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Harold Bloom Cre­ates a Mas­sive List of Works in The “West­ern Canon”: Read Many of the Books Free Online

Harold Bloom Recites ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’ by Wal­lace Stevens

Harold Bloom on the Ghast­ly Decline of the Human­i­ties (and on Obama’s Poet­ry)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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