by Eva Sohlman
– Sweden –
Harold Bloom, Yale literature professor and cultural critic, is one of America’s most prominent and provocative intellectuals. Unabashedly, he has always spoken up for what he calls “the fight for truth and beauty” making a lot of foes in the process, but also some friends. As one of the first critical voices against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, Bloom landed in the hot seat with the satire “MacBush” in 2004. Lately, he sparked worldwide outrage by calling Harry Potter “garbage”. Speaking at his home in New Haven where he is recovering from a recent health scare, a pale and weak Bloom seems to have symbolically embodied what he calls the “poor state of the nation”.
“I am 77 years old and I have never seen this country in such a bad state. It is madness. What we are seeing is the fall of the Roman Empire, only now it is the fall of America, the glory of our Empire. This war is what Parthya was to Rome.
“The horror of what is taking place in Iraq exceeds my worst fears five or six years ago (after Bush came to power). I am horrified at the disastrous mistake involved. Imagine the complete madness in trying to occupy a large Arab country in the middle of the Arab world, a culture we know precious little about, and who speaks a language only a handful of our specialists can speak, with armed forces which we have limited control of and with a large army of private soldiers… The whole thing is a scandal…a series of lies. I don’t understand the motivation for the war, but suspect the real reason for the war, which one would suspect of a country which is a third oligarchy, a third plutocracy and a third theocracy, is that it simply is a profitable machine.”
Sitting in the middle of his living room and in the brown leather armchair from which he has given most of his interviews in recent years, Bloom sighs deeply and a sad grimace spreads over his expressive face. It soon switches to anger, as he expands on the consequences of the war and, ultimately, of Bush at power: a growing national debt and a weakened dollar in tandem with a spiraling war budget, as well as America’s lost credibility on the international stage due to the Iraq war and the situation in Afghanistan. Not to mention Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib and the CIA’s rendition program.
“We have caused a monstrous mess. We don’t even count killed Iraqis. God knows how many Iraqi women, children and men have been killed by our accidental shootings, which we are such experts at, or by other Iraqis. No, ‘Benito Bush’ (Bloom’s pet name for President George Bush) deserves, if we had a functioning civil law in the world, to be condemned for crimes against humanity. Bush is ultimately responsible for this war,” Bloom says pointing angrily with his index finger in the air as his dark eyes burn below a pair of thick dark eyebrows and a crown of unruly white hair.
“It is bleeding our nation, and I can’t see a solution in the near future. We are obviously so deeply involved concerning blood, money and the situation on the ground that it will be very hard for us to pull out.”
But Bloom has no illusions that there is any real pressure from the Democrats to pull out of Iraq at the moment.
“The truth is that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hoyer and the other Democrats who lead the Congress Party in the Senate, are far too cunning. They will talk about wanting to end the war and so on, but the truth is that they know they can’t do anything about it and it suits them as they can blame the Republicans for the war in the upcoming elections. But the ugly truth is that we can’t stop the war now. We are responsible for Iraq now. We have crushed it so now we own it. I have never seen this country (America) in such a bad state. But how big a percentage who actually cares, I don’t know.”
If the war in Iraq is the most palpable example of the decline of America under Bush’s reign, Bloom cites the U.S. media as another casualty.
“’Media-ocrity’ is what I call it. It is awful what kind of media we have today. Nobody dared to stand up and criticize Bush when he unlawfully went to war on Iraq. It is depressing, and shows what direction this country has taken since he came to power – a power which did not rightfully belong to him. The media is not playing its role. The Bushites are bullies and for a long time nobody dared criticize them and just swallowed their propaganda and lies. People have become scared. In this kind of climate, nobody is interested in the critical voice. You ask about the role of the intellectual in America today and I have to say: What role? What intellectuals? There is no room for them in the simplified and dumbed down world of today’s media. We used to play a role, and there are still a few left, but we are a dying breed. Nobody seems to be interested in nuance anymore.”
This is where the real danger lies, he says.
“Democracy, whether in Sweden or the United States, depends on the voter’s capacity to think. If you have read the best of what has been thought and said, then your cognition and understanding is on a much higher level than if you have read Harry Potter or Stephen King. So what this decline into half-literature and mediocre media really means is de facto a self-destruction of democracy.”
“Political correctness is the death for the mind, for literature. I am terribly outspoken and don’t try to hide it. I care passionately and I say so. I want quality when it comes to everything, and insist on it. I believe in the aesthetics, the beauty of good literature and I believe in wisdom. People get angry because of that and think it is an attack on them.”
Harold Bloom has long been a central, yet lone, figure in the American cultural debate.
In the 1950s, he battled T. S. Eliot, whose New Criticism then reigned in literature classrooms. In the 1970s, he sparred with the Deconstructionists, a group of mostly European intellectuals who argued language was essentially devoid of meaning. In the 1990s’ Culture Wars, Bloom, who advocated an aesthetic approach to literature against feminist, Marxist, new historicist, postmodernist, and other new methods of academic literary criticism, found himself facing off against feminist and multiculturalist critics after publishing “The Western Canon,” which many found too biased towards white male writers. A great admirer of William Shakespeare and a defender of the 19th century Romantic poets, Bloom has written some 30 books, notably the influential “The Anxiety of Influence” and “The Book of J,” which makes the unorthodox claim that parts of the Bible were written by a woman.
“I don’t think most people understand me, but that is life. I am often portrayed as an anti-feminist. Of course, I am not against women’s equal rights in society. It would be madness and unintelligent not to support that. What I am against is applying a political agenda to literature. It kills it.”
Contemplating his own legacy and work, Bloom describes himself an anarchist who refuses to adhere to any school or paradigm; “an agnostic Jew” who takes great pride in always having encouraged his students to go their own way — manifested by the fact that “none of his former students’ work resembles the other.”
“I might be remembered as what I myself disparagingly call a ‘period piece,’ a rather large period piece. One tries to justify one’s existence, one wants to believe one can do something good with a life of teaching, writing and reading.”
Once at the center of the American intellectual debate, Bloom today considers himself a marginalized guerilla fighter – an old dinosaur with the self-invented nickname “Bloom Brontosaurus”.
“(Big sigh) We lost the war. What can I say? Nobody is interested in quality any more.”
But supporters and fans still write Bloom, like the teacher who describes the discussion she has had with her students.
Bloom, now sitting at the computer in the salon, reads her email aloud:
“Some of them are quite upset with your harsh words regarding the Harry Potter books, as you can imagine. As a teacher I love the article and agree wholeheartedly with you, and so now we wonder if you are still out there writing more controversial articles.”
Looking up bemused, Bloom responds, “How funny!” and asks his wife, Jeanne, to type his reply:
‘As I am getting very old, I must avoid any quarrels. With best regards, Harold Bloom.’
Bloom sighs again, puts his hand on his forehead while slowly shaking it, and says with a resigned smile: “But you are right, Jeanne. What is one known for? To have attacked Harry Potter and Stephen King!”
About the Author
Eva Sohlman is a Swedish journalist and writer with credentials in print, radio and TV. She is presently Editor and Producer of The World in Focus (“Världen i Fokus”), a Swedish TV program which reports world news and in-depth studio interviews. The show follows Eva’s international career reporting for Reuters and publications in The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Having lived, studied and worked in Sweden, Britain and France, Eva is fluent in each of those languages. Her book, Arabia Felix [Happy Arabia] in the Time of Terror – Journeys in Yemen (“Arabia Felix i Terrorns tid – Resor i Jemen” ) was published in Swedish in January 2007. It is based on her reporting for Reuters and the Economist. Three chapters translated into English by her Swedish publisher, Wahlström & Widstrand can be found here.