Harold Bloom was an influential professor of Shakespeare and Romantic Poetry at Yale in the days of the New Criticism. His Inventing the Human is the Bible of Shakespearean criticism and as complexly literate as the Bard’s work itself.
English majors at Yale had little idea what he was talking about as he spent class after class deconstructing the simple lines of Blake.
Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings dare he aspire!
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The poem was all about God, the Creation myth, Gnosticism, the Apocalypse, Christian mystery, ‘the perception of the infinite’, divine power, human fear, the symmetry (or contradiction) of the creation of the Lamb and the Tyger.
Bloom quoted the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and Milton. He alluded to Shakespeare and both poets’ use of iambic pentameter, free verse and rhyme. He drew from Greek, Roman, Persian, and Hindu mythology.
Blake’s poem was a perfect poem, he said, for each line and every word within it had meaning, allusion, reference, and imagery.
Students in his classes grimaced and squirmed at what they thought was a torturous, overly academic, and pretentious exegesis of a simple poem; and most left Bloom’s class no smarter than when they started.
Many years later a classmate of mine who had taken Bloom’s Romantic Poetry course and fidgeted and daydreamed like everyone else, wrote to Bloom and explained that after fifty years, he finally understood. He now had the patience to read Blake slowly and to extract the complex meaning and intent of Tyger.
He told Bloom that he had read all of Shakespeare’s plays and had been able – thanks to Invention of the Human – get past the difficult Elizabethan language, the verse, and the complex metaphors, and appreciate what the playwright meant. Reading Shakespeare’s entire opus, as varied and unique as it was, he was able to understand his understanding of power, human nature and will; his conclusions about history, men and women, families, and their empires. If it hadn’t been for Bloom at Yale, and despite his painfully detailed literary criticism, he never would have returned to Shakespeare at an age where his works meant something.
The age of the New Criticism ended and was replaced by Post-Modernism. No longer was Bloom’s articulation of philosophy, religion, mythology, and human insight relevant. The poetry of Blake and Shakespeare were texts like any other, and to understand them, one had only to analyze them within their socio-political context. According to Deconstructionism and the Marxist philosophy which underpinned it, human activity is a product of the historical dynamics which precede and define it. Only by studying Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shakespeare within the social context of the world in which they wrote could one conclude anything about their poetry and drama.
Jacques Derrida www.blogs.bookforum.com
It wasn’t so much Shakespeare’s insight into human nature and will that unified his work, but his times. Shakespeare was a product of the Queen, palace politics, the new world order of Copernicus and Machiavelli, the role of women, the ordered structure of a patriarchal society, and the political struggles between Church and State.
The Deconstructionists didn’t dismiss obvious Biblical or mythological references, but insisted that their influence on the artist was conditioned by his place in society and his susceptibility to its influences.
It was no coincidence that Post-Modernism and American Neo-Progressivism arrived on campus at the same time. Whether English professors were influenced by the new, insistent, and increasingly exclusive emphasis on race, gender, and ethnicity in progressive politics; or whether literary Deconstructionism provided the intellectual foundation for it, the result was the same – a closed circuit of progressive, post-modern academics, and student leaders for whom all events were political was the result.
Samuel Abrams, writing in the New York Times (7.2.16) cites the overwhelming liberalism of professors at Eastern private colleges and universities:
The liberalism of the New England professoriate is so pronounced that it makes certain academic fields and college types appear far more politically extreme in the aggregate than what you would find in a typical college classroom. For instance, private colleges in aggregate appear to be leading the charge to the left by being far more liberal than private universities or religious schools.In itself this finding is not surprising. New England has always been far more liberal if not progressive than the South, the Southwest, or the Midwest. It has a higher concentration of private schools than anywhere else in the country, and while they compete for funds, influence, and students, there is a certain collegial sharing of ideas within the network. New York City and its historical links to Socialism, labor, and progressivism has always been an intellectual center for New England academia.
What is important and disturbing is that Eastern private colleges and universities – even and especially elite Ivy League institutions – have become militantly political and recall the chaotic campus days of the Sixties. Then, however, professors kept their political counsel and, like Harold Bloom, taught literature, art, history, and philosophy as civilization’s seminal works. A ‘Great Books’ core curriculum at Columbia and Harvard among other institutions, presented these works per se – i.e. they were not taught with a modern, current perspective, but were designed to explicate their inherent intellectual character.
It was against this traditional academic conservatism that this often inchoate rebellion rallied. Students wanted more control over their academic lives just as they were demanding greater social and sexual liberty.
Many of the young professors at these universities sided with the students, and the transformation of an intellectually conservative academia to a politically progressive one began. This academic movement has gained momentum until the present day when it is facing its first real challenge. As the country becomes more conservative, the automatic liberal reflexes of campus administrators and professors is being challenged.
Yet the inertia of the movement will be hard to resist, for in contrast to the Sixties, there is no a cabal of professors and students, both actively promoting the progressive race-gender-ethnicity post-modernist ideology.
It isn’t so much, then, that New England professors are liberal. Academics, protected by tenure and isolated from the working, capitalist world, have always favored progressive causes. It is not even that such professors introduce their progressive politics into their teaching. It is that a closed circuit of liberal professors and militantly progressive students has been formed, nourished, and protected. The militancy of the streets influences teaching. Teachers willingly submit to this influences and in turn support campus causes.
How can higher education survive this two-fronted assault on learning? History is being rewritten from a modern political perspective. While no historical treatise can ever be free from subjectivity, this defection from objective interpretation, complete and en masse, can only be corrosive, disassembling, and counter-productive.
A student-teacher monopoly on ideas necessarily creates isolation and ignorance. If neither professor nor student leaders are standing up for difference of opinion, conservative political and religious views, or social traditionalism, universities become gulags.