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  • Andrew Field

Harold Bloom and Postcritical Studies



“One beats and beats for that which one believes.” — Stevens, “The Man on the Dump”


There were three formative events from my childhood, in second and fourth grade, that I believe led me eventually to my love and appreciation for Harold Bloom, who I would argue has been the most important and influential literary critic in the last fifty years, and should be included and acknowledged in any project of what is being called “postcritical studies.” I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School in Farmington Hills, MI, and in second grade, we were assigned to write a book review. I do not remember the book I chose, nor do I remember exactly what I wrote about, but I do have a vivid memory of the teacher, who had long dark hair, praising me for what I wrote, and feeling somewhere inside that this activity she was praising me for was an important part of my soul, a vocation of sorts. In fourth grade, there were two things: the first was, I fell in love with reading, because I had a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Falbaum. She would refer to herself in the third person, wore big glasses that made her eyes larger and magical, and had a calm voice that gave me a pleasant feeling of chills that ran down my neck and spine. One day, near some vacation, she wrote on the board, “R _ _ _, R _ _ _, R _ _ _!” She asked our class, “boys and girls, fill in the blanks. For this vacation, you should…?” And, of course, we figured it out, as a class: “Read, Read, Read!” Like the former memory, this commandment written on the board has remained a very vivid memory — how the sentence appeared in white looping cursive letters on the blackboard, and the exclamatory, urgent injunction of it. It seemed to carry a meaning that was strangely personal, and it reached me in ways that suggested that reading, again, was connected to my own self’s calling.


The third event, which is harder to describe, also happened in fourth grade, when I was reading a book of science-fiction. I do not remember the title of the book, though I have tried many times to figure it out. The main aspects of this memory involved, along the same lines, a sense of calling or vocation, through an identification with one of the main characters who, I felt, was somehow “me.” This is common for readers of novels, of whatever age, but especially younger readers, who can strongly identify with characters they like or who speak to them. I remember feeling, through the character, that my own character was being described, but not only that: also somehow extended or expanded or (Bloomian term, which I think is the best way to put it) augmented — shown a picture or an image of itself as what it was, and also what it could be. The feeling that attended this experience is hard to describe, but there was an undeniable strangeness about it — I think the character suffered a tragedy in the book, which moved me, and made me feel a sort of vicarious suffering for or with him, and the book took place in the future, which also created a more dark and intriguing atmosphere in my mind — and there was also a feeling of excitement and potent meaning. (The only other time I have ever experienced as intense an identification of this sort with a character in a a novel was through Pierre Bezukhov, young and (wonderfully) quixotic, or old and more experienced, in War and Peace, during the two times I read the novel, in my twenties and more recently in my thirties.)


But perhaps I am not being altogether honest, because for around two decades I have also identified — though we are not talking about novels here, exactly —with the character, person, personality, voice, of Bloom himself — outsized, searching, shocking, provocative, exuberant, riotous, brooding, proleptic, gnomic, Gnostic, fabulously heretical — though there have been, important to say, different iterations of Bloom and said voice— see, for example, here, and here, and here. There is something for me that is irresistible about Bloom’s idiosyncratic “cognitive music,” by which I mean the voice of his thought. I can hear this voice in my head when I read him, and it is unmistakably and altogether Bloom — in this sense, his voice meets his criteria for the strong poets he endlessly cogitates on — a voice and style that is distinct, unique, and instantly recognizable — and Bloom is undoubtedly a strong maker. “Cognitive music” is Bloom’s term, which he uses to speak of “strong poets,” like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Jay Wright, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane.1


So when and how did this identification with Bloom happen? Strangely enough, my memory of the origins of this readerly relationship are murkier than my memories from second and fourth grade. If I had to guess, I started reading Bloom somewhere around 2000, when I was an undergraduate and English major at the University of Michigan, and picked up a copy of How to Read and Why , probably at the great, large Borders Books that stood at State and Liberty . I don’t remember too much about the content of this book, but I do remember reading the whole thing, and feeling grateful to be introduced to many new writers. If I remember right, in that book (and elsewhere) Bloom writes about reading as a necessity to get to know other people and stave off loneliness, and I’m sure that reached me, as I was a lonely person, especially then; I also remember some talk about the importance of not reading “cant,” which was a word and principle I liked — an echoing remnant, I’m sure alluded to in the book, of one of Bloom’s primary masters, Samuel Johnson. In essence, Bloom took the art of reading incredibly seriously; I did (and do), too, and felt I had found a friend and guide.


Over time, his books would literally pop out at me, as though they were finding me more than vice versa, when I visited new and used bookstores during the time I graduated college and entered my first stint in graduate school, in secondary English education (which was an utter and absolute failure), and then Waldorf education (utter and absolute failure), and then worked various jobs, mainly in the mental health field, and never stopped reading. I struggled mostly with undiagnosed bipolar then (which does explain, to a certain extent, these failures), but now and then I’d pick up a book by Bloom (and of course, plenty of other writers as well — Philip Roth and Ashbery come to mind now) and feel more connected and genuinely stimulated, excited and even happy, as if I was seeing or meeting a friend once again. (Reading Bloom is not exactly a therapeutic experience, as some poets seem to advocate for in regards to why we read poetry, but there is something… grounding? if challenging and illuminating, about reading one’s favorite writers, and Bloom is no exception.) He really seemed to be everywhere, whether in his more academic books, or his presence in the “canon wars,” or in the more intellectual periodicals or his books for the “common reader” (Johnson again), not to mention the literally hundreds of volumes he edited and introduced with Chelsea House, many of which can be found in both academic and public libraries across the country. Many of those aforementioned Chelsea House introductions I love reading to this day; the ones he wrote on Plath and Walcott are especially sobering; I agree completely with his negative assessment of Plath, though I haven’t read enough of Walcott to come to any easy conclusions.


Somewhere I found Bloom’s Yeats , which I never finished, although I’d like to someday; my parents bought me Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human when I graduated undergraduate, and I read much of it (and still read it) and learned about (another Bloom coining) “The School of Resentment,” which he characterized as a “rabblement of lemmings,” which I found hilarious, and which started me thinking about the difference between ethics and aesthetics. I found Map of Misreading , and bought or ordered Kabbalah and Criticism and Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens to complete Bloom’s “tetralogy”, which I think, along with The Anxiety of Influence, are Bloom's most important books, along with The American Canon, one of his last books, and his anthologies; and there of course was The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, and his difficult book about Stevens , and so on and so on. Currently The American Religion, an excursion into what Bloom calls “religious criticism,” is on my Kindle app on my phone. Like everything else he has written, it is absolutely wonderful, evidence of a very open and discerning mind.


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After my time working in the mental health field, I was accepted into a master’s program in English at a University in Ohio, and eventually a PhD program at another Ohio university (I lasted a year). These were edifying experiences, for the most part, with some mental health hiccups, although I started to see how there was something about a robust understanding of aesthetics and literature that many parts of academic culture did not value, or even looked down on — not just at my schools but across the country and even the globe. Essentially, I was seeing that many of Bloom’s prophecies about the state and fate of English departments and, more largely and disturbingly, what he called “imaginative literature” — prophecies which I had read in his books, but not exactly experienced, not being in academia at the time — had definitely come true. In one literature class during my master’s program, we read books by Tom Robbins and Rita Mae Brown. There was this philosophy everywhere you looked, expressed overtly or implicitly, that literature should first and foremost console or flatter our identities, even if said literature was not actually strong, or of a certain quality, or remotely enduring, but was instead mediocre, unsatisfying, and without much aesthetic (not to mention spiritual) value. And yet a part of me almost agreed with this dominant philosophy in some uncertain ways: I had absolutely revelatory experiences reading Roth before entering my master’s program — his fiction had awakened me to the culturally Jewish (and materialistic) culture that I had been steeped in as a child and adolescent. Also, sometimes, when I visited the art museum in my city during the master’s program, and saw school groups looking at various paintings, and many of the kids were African-American, and they were looking at a huge Kehinde Wiley on the wall, I thought to myself, “that is without a doubt a good thing — these kids can now think of themselves as both artists and worthy subjects of being represented in art,” just as Roth had made me feel and think that my own experience as a third-generation Jewish-American growing up in the manufactured suburbs was a worthy subject for art. How was I to make sense of all this?


One route is to describe and understand this tension — essentially between ethics and aesthetics, sociology and phenomenology — in the context of evaluation and judgment. Let’s start with aesthetics. This is undoubtedly one of two fundamental axes of Bloom’s criticism (spirituality, which we will discuss and define below, is the second). Together, aesthetics and spirituality are the primary values Bloom ascribes to literature. How does Bloom understand aesthetics? There are a few ways we can go about answering this. If we are looking at lineages, Bloom is a self-professed disciple of Walter Pater, by way of the Romantic poets. But that is not the whole story. Bloom, more than any critic I or we have ever encountered so far, has probably come closer to a near-mastery (“mastery” defined as “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity”) — though such a thing is ultimately impossible, as has been argued often, and is utterly quixotic and Borgesian — of the entire Western canon, from Homer to Anne Carson, an absolutely staggering, breathtaking achievement akin to Maimonides’ mastery of Jewish texts in the 12th century. (Bloom has been known, I think when he was an undergraduate at Cornell, to recite “Paradise Lost,” the entire text, backwards, end to beginning, at parties. His memory is not just prodigious, it is paranormal, and helps explain his mastery, as well as his ability to evaluate.) This means that, Walter Pater included, Bloom has many masters, from Samuel Johnson to Freud to Emerson to Milton to the King James Bible to (his primary teacher) Shakespeare, and through Shakespeare, Falstaff and Hamlet. How is this related to evaluation and judgment?


We can achieve an appreciation of Bloom’s own achievement when we consider that, not only has he read everyone and everything, but he is able to evaluate these writers and texts, to reach a judgment about them. Such evaluations and judgments — time is short: who should we read? why? —are absolutely crucial to literature, are, in a way, what makes literature literature, and therefore what makesus us , in terms of both exisiting actualities and dormant possibilities or potentials. (When Bloom argues that Shakespeare invented us, and which he means quite seriously, we should take him seriously.) To make such evaluations requires a developed literary sensitivity, subtlety, and discernment — aesthetic experiences and aesthetic intelligence, as well as spiritual experiences and spiritual intelligence — about aesthetic objects (novels, poems, short stories, plays, essays). This means an ability not only to fully and vividly absorb said genres (the experience aspect), but also the ability to reach a balanced, incisive, and nuanced judgment about what has been absorbed (the intelligence aspect). To absorb and judge in this way requires a constant self-transcendence or self-creation — “overhearing” is apt here in this context, in terms of willed change — because to transcend a text, or at least to master it in some sense, is to essentially see it somehow clearly, or at least, in a more Bloomian sense, deeply creatively, (“misreading”). Blake’s apothegm is relevant: “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” The sheer quantity and quality of imaginative texts that Bloom has mastered over the years seems to me very, very rare in the entire history of Western literature, especially in our “belated Evening Land.” He is without a doubt the most important American literary critic since Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it's shocking and saddening that this is not very recognized in either academia or outside academia.2


There is aesthetic evaluation (what is subjectively beautiful?), and there is ethical evaluation (what is intersubjectively good?), and the two represent different modes of consciousness, which raise different questions, and with different methods for answering them. So maybe we can say that certain aspects of my experiences reading Roth, or the African-American children seeing a Kehinde Wiley, carried not only some aesthetic qualities (Roth is indeed a master), but also ethical or moral or sociological qualities — the ability to see oneself reflected, as part of a wider community and society, (a second-person truth), though not to experience the first-person immediate awareness that we call “subjectivity.” Yet ultimately for Bloom, literature is not a matter of ethics , and I completely agree with him, though many do not understand or agree with this. Here we come to the essence of the battles between Kosofsky Sedgewick’s “paranoid” and “reparative” readers, the latter who practice, as postcritical studies are making plain, shamefully long-denied or ignored or derided things, related to consciousness or beauty or phenomenology or interiority or presence or subjectivity, that are just as valid as hermeneutics. Bloom has been ahead of the game, and essentially prophetic, this entire time. Discussion of postcritical readings, therefore, need to acknowledge Bloom’s contribution.3


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How are we to understand Bloom’s aesthetics, in the context of ethical concerns that are, of course, undeniably necessary for this world, for living a meaningful and post-conventionally moral humane life? Is there a way to contextualize Bloom’s perspective, without collapsing or misunderstanding his aesthetics as ethics, and then reaching absurd conclusions? Is it possible, in this sense, to point out a blindness in Bloom’s own criticism, but on his own ground of aesthetics?

Here is where we should refer more explicitly to the work of Ken Wilber, a psychologist and theorist who has developed something called “Integral Theory,” which is absolutely relevant to postcritique’s more holistic attempts at thinking about the role of the humanities in academia and the wider culture. Wilber, also like Bloom, has been writing for some time now and has certain pretty distinct phases in his work. In his relatively late phase, he has articulated a vision of what he calls “Integral Methodological Pluralism.” The chapter of the book in which Wilber spells out Integral Methodological Pluralism can be read here. But for those who are new to Wilber, reading said chapter might be a tall and disorienting experience. So here’s my hopefully-not-too-clumsy attempt at explaining this more mature phase briefly.


Integral Methodolical Pluralism is a way of thinking about knowledge acquisition, through the awareness and honoring of the various perspectives afforded by the first-person (I, beauty, phenomenology, subjectivity), second-person (We, ethics, hermeneutics, intersubjectivity), and third-person (It and Its) perspectives. These four modes of consciousness are also called (by Wilber, though they show up in Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas with other names) the “cultural value spheres,” and stand for self (I), culture (We) and nature (It), or beauty, ethics and science. Each of these modes carries its own form and modus operandi for knowledge acquisition, and, while initially fused — Copernicus was in danger with the Church, paintings were always religious — they seem to have differentiated, or begun to be differentiated, around the Renaissance. Integral to Wilber’s theory — and many other writers and theorists, like William James, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Owen Barfield — is that consciousness develops or evolves; the differentiation of the value spheres can (and I think, should) be thought of in this context. Below is a diagram that might be helpful, that breaks down these value spheres, what Wilber calls “the four quadrants”:



Case in point: right now I am typing on a computer at my job as a public adult services librarian on the west side of Cleveland near closing time. I (subjective, self) am thinking and typing, but this subjectivity is embedded in endless contexts of culture and community (We), such as the work culture of my library, my religious upbringing, my socio-economic background, my spiritual practice, my family, my friends, my race, my age, etc… As I type, of all these contexts come into play. At the same time, my fingers are typing on a black rectangular keyboard made of some type of plastic, sitting on a long beige desk near a telephone and my turquoise water bottle— the material realty (It). Yet this computer is actually part of larger network of technological and digital innovation, and this library is part of a larger system of libraries in Cleveland and the U.S. and the world, and all of these institutions are set against a larger systematic material background of governments and nations, which exists set against the background and system of the ecological environment (interobjective Its). All of these realities are co-occuring, co-arising, at the same time, and they cannot and should not be reduced to one another, whether reducing everything to the right quadrants (scientism, materialism), the lower left quadrant (pathological postmodernism), or the upper left quadrant (many forms of Eastern spirituality — and, as we will argue, though in a more complicated way, Bloom).


Let me put this in literary-critical terms, and then we’ll move on to Wilber’s extension of these four quadrants into a new area. In the 1950’s, M.H. Abrams, Bloom’s teacher as an undergraduate at Cornell, published The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Abrams pointed out that there are four primary theories of interpretation in the world when it comes to literary criticism. There is the emphasis on the text to the universe, the text to itself, the text to the author, and the text to the audience. Here is a diagram from the book:



Abrams then broke this four-fold aspect of literary criticism further down: there was Mimesis (the relationship between text and universe), Objective Theories (the relationship between the text and itself), Expressive Theories (the relationship between the text and the author), and Pragmatic Theories (the relationship between the text and the audience). These map right onto the four quadrants or value spheres. Mimesis involves material systems and institutions (lower right quadrant, the outward manifestation of the universe, ecology, its); Objective Theories involve formalism (upper right quadrant, logos, it); Expressive Theories involve the subjectivity of the author (upper left quadrant, I, ethos, aesthetics); and Pragmatic Theories involve hermeneutics (lower left quadrant, pathos, We, culture, ethics). Postcritique, as a more holistic or reparative art of interpretation, seeks to acknowledge the distinctive integrity of each these value spheres. It is therefore, to use a Wilber and Jean Gebser’s term, “Integral,” which is a further development in criticism, and one that is a very good thing, as it acknowledges each of these truths without collapsing or reducing.

Another hopefully helpful diagram: below is Wilber’s extension of the four value spheres. What he discovered is that there are not only four modes of consciousness (I, We, It, and Its, or the inside and outside of the one and the many), there are actually eight “perspectives,” which are the inside and outside of each of the quadrants. This is, I think, a very brilliant discovery:



For the purposes of this essay, let’s focus on the upper left quadrant, more specifically the the two “zones” of phenomenology and structuralism. The upper left quadrant is concerned, remember, with subjectivity and aesthetics. But subjectivity can be looked at from the inside (phenomenology) or the outside (structuralism). As Wilber points out, one can spend years reading, or for that matter meditating, and experiencing one’s first-person immediate awareness, and never have the slightest awareness of structuralism, i.e. the structures or, better yet, the grammar , that support first-person awareness, that first-person awareness looks through . For just as we learn and can speak a language, without any understanding of grammar (unless we study it), the same can be said of phenomenology, which is based on various structures of consciousness or awareness (what has been called the development from magic to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral structures of consciousness in various developmental psychologists’ work, though with different names and terms — see Wilber’s Integral Psychology ). These structures are not disclosed through a first-person perspective on first-person awareness or experience (phenomenology, the inside of the upper left quadrant), but through a third person perspective on first-person awareness or experience (structuralism, the outside of the upper left quadrant).


Bloom does not show evidence in his writing of an awareness of these structures. His revisionary ratios are astonishing and fascinating, but they are essentially phenomenological to the extreme (they are also spiritual, see below). Such very intense inwardness is important, but without a sense of structuralism, this inwardness can seem too pataphysical, and almost frighteningly ungrounded. Bloom is without question one of our best explorers of the phenomenological realm. But without an adequate understanding of the structures of consciousness that support immediate awareness — they are what immediate awareness looks through, the “grammar” of our “language,” and each structure presents a different worldview — the picture is incomplete and shaky.


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I said above that there are two primary axes of Bloom’s work: the aesthetic and the spiritual. How are these related? Wilber offers four definitions of spirituality, and they are, simply put:

  1. The highest levels of any developmental line or intelligence

  2. The highest levels of the specifically spiritual line of development or intelligence

  3. A state of consciousness or peak experience

  4. An attitude

Below is our last diagram. Take a look:



Readers of Howard Gardner will recognize what we are getting at here. Human beings have many intelligences: the diagram shows kinesthetic, cognitive, moral, emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic — not included are other lines of development, such as self-identity, interpersonal, values, needs, levels of faith, and psycho-sexual.


The y-axis represents the structures of consciousness (magic to integral and beyond), through which the lines of development or intelligences develop. So, Wilber’s definitions of spirituality hopefully make more sense: it can be the higher levels of any of these intelligences; the higher level of the specifically spiritual intelligence; a state of consciousness or peak experience; or a general attitude (of openness, love, compassion, etc.). As I’ve discovered from over two decades of reading Bloom, his work meets all four of these criteria. This probably to some extent explains his wide readership, inside academia (currently not as common today, though hopefully this will change) and outside academia (still very common). Bloom’s spirituality derives from the very highest levels of the cognitive, aesthetic, and spiritual intelligences (and maybe more as well, I’ve never met him personally). His work can also (here we are on more shakier ground, but go with me) give the reader a spiritual experience in the form of a state of consciousness, (I call this a “transfer of consciousness,” which I briefly wrote about it here in the context of Flaubert and Stevens), and Bloom himself (this is speculation, but seems grounded in some evidence from his work) has had some spiritual experiences in the form of states of consciousness while reading, hence his identification with Gnosticism and his interest in Kabbalah in the work of Gershom Scholem and Moshe Ideal, not to mention his entire book about angels, prophetic dreams and near-death experiences , as well as his aforementioned excursion into what he calls “religious criticism,” The American Religion . Lastly, Bloom’s attitude towards the world and literature, as readers of his books know, carries a vast open-mindedness and generosity, a richness and even (and especially) a form of love and appreciation. Perhaps others will disagree: Bloom has been criticized as a “gate-keeper” and so on, but the truth is that, at those very high levels from which he writes and reads and teaches, he cannot help but be one (and he should be one). Like Johnson before him, Bloom hovers over and informs our age. Transcendent and immanent, he is ultimately irreplaceable, and should be a cornerstone of any postcritical praxis.

  1. There are many favorite terms and memorable phrases from Bloom’s work (and the ideas they stand for) that come to (and seem to stay in) my mind, though I am partial to his usage of the “Covering Cherub,” borrowed from Blake and Ezekiel and used for Bloomian ends in Anxiety of Influence as the phenomenon that blocks creative poets. I also love the phrase “hungry demons” that guard and prevent Bloom from writing poetry (he has written a science-fiction novel that was poorly received and that he has disowned, but claims he has never tried to write poems, suggesting this would cross a sort of dark and holy threshold). Then there are the whole fascinating worlds and implications of “belatedness,” (the sense that we come too late, after the florescence of Shakespeare and, perhaps, Cervantes and Dante and Milton, and therefore live in the “evening land,” as opposed to the bright morning, let’s say, when said writers lived and wrote), and “misreading,” also a very important and always-relevant term, which Bloom essentially understands, perversely and I think correctly, as a synonym for creative interpretation itself. And lastly, there is the less-discussed (because less understood?) and rather gnomic “overhearing,” which he has extended in his latest book, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism into “ self-otherseeing .” As I mentioned, I have never found an adequate discussion anywhere of what Bloom actually means by “overhearing” or, for that matter, the more recent “self-otherseeing,” (people just seem to ignore these terms, though “overhearing” is central to his cognizing of Shakespeare’s achievement in creating characters who are, as Bloom is fond of quoting Hegel’s take on Shakespearean character, “free artists of themselves”). Bloom has discussed this phenomenon of overhearing in terms of characters in Shakespeare overhearing themselves speaking, and then changing or creating or revising themselves based on what they hear; but I can’t help but speculate that this process is something Bloom has experienced in his own self, perhaps brought about through reading Shakespeare, and then recursively or retrospectively applied to the Bard. I have come to think of these terms (overhearing and the more recent self-otherseeing) as radical experiences during reading or life that, while not involving psychological disassociation per se, do involve a deep distance between the proximal (“I”) and distal (“me”) selves, so that there is a sense of being other to one’s own self, a stranger in the world, and perhaps an overall sense of the world itself as a grand theater, illusion, or collective hallucination. I have sometimes had this feeling, too, at select moments in my life, (“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players”), and often associate it with the concept of maya (what we could call an ultimately illusory appearance) from Hinduism and Buddhism.

2. When I was in my first master’s program, there was a diagram we saw constantly, weirdly in this context called “Bloom’s Taxonomy” (not Harold but Benjamin), and it looked like this (with colors and a design that always reminded me of elementary school for some reason, maybe reminiscent of the food pyramid):




Harold Bloom remembers, understands, applies, analyzes, and then evaluates and creates massively . He is my perennial favorite example of this (in the strangely somehow connected area of music, Bob Dylan is a great example of this).


3.To see a good example of an exchange between hermeneuticists and reparative approaches, check out this series of articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education: first this 1 (a general humane sense of problems in the humanities), then this response (paranoid), then this resonse (reparative, postcritique).

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