Bloom’s Cult of the Bard

This is a response to a reading for HUCO617: Posthumanism– The introduction and first chapter of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

We were asked to read this selection while paying careful attention to how Bloom sets up Shakespeare as the origin of what we today call “humanism”, and to wonder, “What if Shakespeare never existed?  What if Bloom made him up?”

To start with, Bloom’s Shakespeare makes me think of the reverence and divine elevation of the title character in A Canticle for Leibowitz.  In the first part of Walter Miller Jr.’s novel, a novice monk uncovers some cryptic documents apparently written by the founder of his order, Leibowitz.   Over the centuries Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, becomes a symbol for the preservation of knowledge.  Shakespeare and his works are also a symbol: for Bloom, he is a symbol of what it means to be human, and Bloom proselytizes about how significant his existence was in the promotion of that ideal.

If Shakespeare never existed, Bloom implies, our understanding of who we are as human beings– humanism, more generally– would be completely different, unfathomable.  I suggest that Shakespeare makes a convenient symbol for Bloom, just as Leibowitz was convenient for the Albertian Order in Miller’s novel… but if he had never existed there would have been someone else to take his place.

Bloom’s mistake is to present Shakespeare as existing in a virtual vacuum; he talks about influences on Shakespeare’s writing only in the context of how Shakespeare imitated existing forms, such as Ovid, to showcase his originality.  Bloom grudgingly admits Chaucer affected Shakespeare’s work (“He took hints from Chaucer…”), but Chaucer– who preceded Shakespeare by two centuries– began exploring the human condition in his Canterbury Tales in such a sophisticated way that it is still critically read for that reason today.  Shakespeare may crystallize several centuries of literary tradition and Renaissance thought in his plays, acting as a lodestone for generations of literary criticism, but he is hardly responsible for inventing humanism as a founding principle of western philosophy.  I’d contend the fact that Shakespeare so effectively summarized the prevailing philosophical bent of the European Renaissance has made it too easy for centuries of critics like Bloom to invoke his work as the culmination of western literary tradition.  Arguably, this position has stunted the growth of literary criticism, paying poor tribute to the many good creative works that have been written since, and we are only now beginning to grasp other approaches to criticism.

Another thought (and I have to say, I had many I’m leaving unmentioned in reading Bloom’s text): Bloom quotes T.S. Eliot in saying, “…all we can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.  I propose only that we cease to be wrong about him by stopping trying to be right.”  This is a truism that should apply to all sufficiently sophisticated creative works, “literature”, not just Shakespeare.  The more closely you examine an object, and the more eyes you have examining it, the more it reveals.  We have had four hundred years to examine Shakespeare’s corpus– imagine what we could get out of four hundred years of interpretations of Joyce’s Ulysses?

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