Muggling Through

Harold Bloom v. Harry Potter.


In an era when moral absolutists ranging from Hanoi Jane Fonda to Bombin' Bob McNamara are willing to acknowledge that boy, were they ever wrong for letting that little contretemps in Southeast Asia keep Country Joe McDonald temporarily off workfare, it's hard to find people who are willing to issue unambiguous, authoritative pronouncements from on high. These days it seems as if everyone — from the pro-death penalty governor of Illinois to the newly cuddlesome mayor of New York City — is riven with doubt about right and wrong, guilt and innocence, truth and falsity.

Indeed, even Dagon the Fish God, a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, who ostensibly gets his marching orders directly from the Devil himself, is as slow to speak ex cathedra these days as he is quick to grant that Galileo may have been on to something way back when he was yammering about the Earth revolving around the Sun. In a time when even the definition of "is" is up for grabs (along with whoever walks through the doors of the Oval Office), we understandably sometimes miss the days when authority — however blockheaded, self-interested, and delusional — spoke with the voice of, well, authority.

In a sense, then, we all owe plus-sized literary critic Harold Bloom a debt every bit as unpayable as the one he apparently owes Entenmann's Baked Goods. We shudder like so many Jell-O jigglers in a thoroughly provisional, postmodern landscape where gelatinous pitchman Bill "Fatherhood" Cosby acknowledges extramarital "rendezvous" (though unlike Fonda and McNamara, Cos has yet to apologize for his personal Vietnam, Leonard Part 6). But just as it seems Truth with a capital T has left the building, Bloom reminds us how lucky we are to be done with a world of smug, pontifical assertions from which there was once little escape. He does this great public service not by explicitly underscoring the benefits of a world characterized by decentralization and what Jean-Francois Lyotard

once termed "incredulity towards meta-narratives" (chief among these: skepticism toward all forms of power and a sense of empowerment for those on the outside looking in).

No, Bloom does it the old-fashioned way: By bloviating endlessly — again and again and again in a series of repetitive articles, public utterances, and scarcely rewritten books — about Great Art and the Classics in the quaint, olde-tyme language of divine pronouncement and declaration that stops just short of Charlton Heston's sand-pounding exhortations at the end of Planet of the Apes. Consider these choice nuggets from The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages: "We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences"; "[these are] the worst of all times for literary criticism"; "Shakespeare is the Canon. He sets the standard and the limits of literature." Watching him discourse on a recent episode of Charlie Rose (during which he insisted on calling his host "Charles"), you get the sense that Bloom is the foil in a Mentos commercial that will air during next year's Super Bowl.

Consider his take on the current Ziggy Stardust for the pre-teen set, Harry Potter. Writing in the July 11 Wall Street Journal, Bloom sniffs that the Potter books don't possess "an authentic imaginative vision" and doubts grandly that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is going to prove a classic of children's literature" (playing to his audience, he also slags The New York Times as "the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture," implying that the WSJ is the official newspaper of "our" dominant counter-counter-culture). As a "a professor at Yale" (an i.d., incidentally, sure to bother the folks at relatively downscale NYU, where Bloom draws a check as the part-time Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Professor in English and American Literature), Bloom simply assumes his position on the classic-lit selection committee, unaware perhaps that that particular club disbanded some time ago to no noticeable loss. After a gratuitous comparison to the Who's multiplegic pinball hero Tommy, ("the prematurely wise Harry is much healthier than Tommy"), the only apparent purpose of which is signal to the Journal's hipster audience that he groks this whole rock-n-roll scene, Bloom lets on, "Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be so for as long as they persevere with Potter."

Why, exactly? Because J.K. Rowling merely "feeds a vast hunger for unreality," "makes no demands upon her readers," her books will not "enrich mind or spirit or personality," and her "prose style…[is] heavy on cliché." "In an arbitrarily chosen single page…of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés," he clucks, even as he himself falls into that hoariest of clichés, the boring old fart English professor quick to tut-tut in moralistic terms that which eludes him or moves the conversation away from his own navel: "At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes. The cultural critics, soon enough, introduce Harry Potter into their college curriculum, and The New York Times will go on celebrating another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies." Indeed, it makes no sense at all that cultural critics might want to puzzle over the demonstrable appeal of a series of books that have ignited among kids an unprecedented interest in reading.

Presumably Bloom believes that Rowling's "millions of readers non-readers" would be better off reading his latest rewrite of his "Anxiety of Influence" shtick, this version humbly entitled How To Read and Why. There, those sad-sack, imbecilic Muggles who take delight in Harry Potter can learn that universities are bad places to hone reading skills mostly because "the appreciation of Victorian women's underwear [has] replace[d] the appreciation of Charles Dickens" (a reason, and perhaps a necessary one, why two-thirds of high school grads go on to college) and that Shakespeare — William Shakespeare — "reads you more fully than you can read him" (so don't flip through Lear on the crapper). More important, perhaps, the Potter maniacs can simply skim the book's prologue on the Web and understand that, "You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock," that Bloom himself is "going on seventy," and that "time will not relent." Which is not merely reason enough to skip How to Read and Why and to sign up for an advance copy of the next Potter book. It also underscores that Bloom is not simply a dying man but a dying breed in an age when the priest, the politician, the professor — even that once most powerful of magicians, the stockbroker — no longer command the powers and obeisance they once did. The more he castigates the world he'll leave behind — a world in which traditional hierarchies are breaking down with amazing and increasing alacrity, a world in which people feel more comfortable than ever to ignore expert advice, and a world in which thousands of kids will wait on line at midnight to buy a frickin' book — he reminds the rest of us of how good we've got it now that a voice like his is easier than ever to ignore. Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.