Harold Bloom and the Death of Art

“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed, or flourish, in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish!”
– William Blake

Let’s start with this: an excellent article by Stephen King on Harry Potter and reading in modern society. [Warning: do not read it if you haven’t read the Potter books, because it spoils them completely. And if you think the books are silly or beneath you, you are a silly person. You can understand this post without reading King’s article.]

There’s one quotation from near the end which I particularly liked, and which is the basis of this post.

I began by quoting Shakespeare; I’ll close with the Who: The kids are alright. Just how long they stay that way sort of depends on writers like J.K. Rowling, who know how to tell a good story (important) and do it without talking down (more important) or resorting to a lot of high-flown gibberish (vital). Because if the field is left to a bunch of intellectual Muggles who believe the traditional novel is dead, they’ll kill the damn thing.

And that is the essence of the problem with modern academia and people like the despicable Harold Bloom (who, incidentally, hates both Rowling and King). Not only do they have a terrible idea of what makes a good novel (something as obscurantist and incomprehensibly written as possible, with little to nothing real to say about the world), they also want the novel to be dead. The idea that “no-one reads anymore” and “all the good novels were written in the past” is essential to their understanding of art: that it’s something exclusive that only they and their buddies can understand. If it’s popular (i.e. King or Rowling) then it must be bad. If they had lived in Shakespeare’s times, they (like many others) would have thought him mediocre; they would have said the same about Dickens or Chesterton or Mark Twain or any other great artist popular in his own time.

But people like Harold Bloom aren’t just glorifying a past they intentionally distort: they’re strangling the present. To a large degree thanks to them, the current attitude towards art in our society is deeply unhealthy. It’s not just that some writers get overlooked – that has always happened and probably always will, to some degree. And it’s not just that some academics wouldn’t recognize a great novel if someone hit them repeatedly in the face with it (Harold, I’m thinking of you) – no, even readers think lowly of what they enjoy reading. Millions of people read Stephen King, and there’s good reason for it: not just because his books are often exciting or scary, but because they’re full of wonderful observations of modern society, strong and memorable characters, powerful themes that are relevant and important, and on a sentence-to-sentence level, simply fantastic writing.

But how many of these readers are aware, when they’re putting away It or Duma Key, that they’ve just read a literary masterpiece? Almost none of them. “I know it’s just Stephen King,'” they say, “but I kinda like it.” As if reading something enjoyable has to be justified. As if art must, by definition, be unpleasant to be meaningful. It is one of the best novels ever written about childhood and childhood friendships. Duma Key is a deeply thoughtful work about friendship, fatherhood, the human body, and art. They are also exciting and funny and scary – like a good Shakespeare play.

King makes another very useful observation:

And, of course, the bigheads would never have credited Harry’s influence in the first place, if the evidence hadn’t come in the form of best-seller lists. A literary hero as big as the Beatles? ”Never happen!” the bigheads would have cried. ”The traditional novel is as dead as Jacob Marley! Ask anyone who knows! Ask us, in other words!”

But reading was never dead with the kids. Au contraire, right now it’s probably healthier than the adult version, which has to cope with what seems like at least 400 boring and pretentious ”literary novels” each year.

You see, a great many kids still read. It’s when they turn into adults that they stop. And why is that? It’s because when they’re adults, the books they are expected to read are shit. The critics haven’t applied their disgusting ideas to children’s literature as much (yet) – if only because they don’t take it seriously in the first place. What children read is considered to be mostly stupid anyway, so they have much greater leeway when it comes to reading books they like. But as they grow older, they are taught that the kind of books they enjoyed were stupid, now it’s time to read something boring. Something that no-one but professional critics would really read in the first place; something that people mostly praise because they think they ought to, not because it actually did something for them.

That’s what Harold Bloom and his intellectual bedfellows (like the equally idiotic Theodor Adorno with his hatred of anything modern) are selling us: the death of art. Because what is art if not the ability to reach out and touch people? The ability to talk about the things that make us human, both good and bad? What is art if not imagination and craft combined into something that transcends both?

Art, Mr. Bloom, is not your exclusive boys’ club. It’s a living, breathing entity, a force that is alive now, not just in your silly and outdated idea of a canon. It shouldn’t be populist, but it has every right to be popular. And I hope that one day it crushes you and your accomplices, you stranglers of dreams, because the alternative is too terrible to consider.

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72 Comments

  1. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    The biggest mistake critics make is too view aesthetics from their own perspective and not that of the artist, which is, after all, the one that actually matters. The accomplishment of a work of art must always be considered in the context of what it is attempting to accomplish. You could argue Melville tells a less exciting yarn in Moby Dick than Rowling does in the last book of Harry Potter, but it is Melville’s work that is a masterpiece because what he was trying to achieve, and did achieve, amounted to significantly more than a popular page-turner.

  2. ‘I do not prefer Rowling because her writing is easier, but because it is better: cleaner, more accomplished, more able to engage and transport.’

    More able to engage and transport you, obviously. That is not cleaner, better or more accomplished because you say so. Art appreciation is utterly subjective. Valuation is as creative as writing, it is essentially about individual taste.

    Understand style from the point of view of the writer and not the reader. Serious artists often delight in annoying people. They simply do not want to be liked by everybody; style is a kind of code through which they communicate with their own. Your personal distaste, therefore, is probably precisely what they were aiming for. No genuine artist ever will or ever wants to please everybody.

    Of course it is subjective. Which is part of what I’ve been arguing the whole time. You can’t label things that easily. Not like Harold Bloom does. Not as if you are the voice of Literary Authority (with capitals, of course).

    I find it amusing that you’re telling me about what it means to be a serious artist. As a person who has fought for nearly a decade to stay true to his artistic vision, producing work that is unique and not at all interested in pleasing everyone, as someone who has worked for years teaching people how to write, and as a writer who has a book coming out this year… what perspective do you think I come at this conversation from? (Edit: I see what you were trying to say. See my next comment.)

    As for Rowling, she clearly hasn’t pleased you. Or Harold Bloom. Nor is she interested in doing so. In fact, I would say she delights in annoying people like you.

    The notion that “style is a kind of code through which they communicate with their own” is repugnant, and entirely characteristic of the introverted perspective that sees art as an exclusive gentlemen’s club. Hell, even Bloom would agree that the point of style is aesthetics, the creation of beauty, and not the invention of a secret language for the self-important.

  3. The biggest mistake critics make is too view aesthetics from their own perspective and not that of the artist, which is, after all, the one that actually matters. The accomplishment of a work of art must always be considered in the context of what it is attempting to accomplish. You could argue Melville tells a less exciting yarn in Moby Dick than Rowling does in the last book of Harry Potter, but it is Melville’s work that is a masterpiece because what he was trying to achieve, and did achieve, amounted to significantly more than a popular page-turner.

    I completely disagree with that; stories are written to be read, not to be admired by other writers. That is common sense, and 99% of the writers in human history would probably agree. Neither does it matter what the author was trying to achieve – the question is what they did achieve. Their intent is an interesting historical question and something that can be debated in literary studies, but since intent can never truly be known, it is silly to assume it can be the basis of our understanding of a work. Are we interested in literature (what’s on the page) or history and biography (what the author may or may not have been thinking)?

    Furthermore, there is no contradiction between intending to make a work entertaining and having deeper artistic intentions, or we must discard everyone from Homer to Shakespeare to Dickens. I do not accept the notion that Rowling’s work is “just a page-turner”. If I believed that to be the case, I would not hold it in such high regard (though I would also not instantly dismiss it as worthless).

  4. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    I did not claim to be the voice of literary authority. I labelled nothing. I did not personally criticise you. I assumed you came from the perspective of a reasonable differing opinion, obviously not. It is entirely reasonable for me to point out that there have been writers who have developed styles to keep the crowd away as well as to draw it in; I did not say it was the ultimate aim of all style because no such thing exists. The creation of beauty is but one aim.

    Rowling has pleased me, I think she is fun. Not near greatness, in my opinion, but good fun, especially for children.

  5. My point was that Bloom argues as if he represents literary authority, not that you did.

    If you were attempting to say that some writers have written in such a way (but it is not the sole characteristic of meaningful, complex art), that is fine. I don’t think that comes across in your previous comments, though, or at least not well.

    I think children can enjoy Rowling’s work in the same way they can enjoy a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  6. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    ‘Neither does it matter what the author was trying to achieve – the question is what they did achieve. Their intent is an interesting historical question and something that can be debated in literary studies, but since intent can never truly be known, it is silly to assume it can be the basis of our understanding of a work. Are we interested in literature (what’s on the page) or history and biography (what the author may or may not have been thinking)?’

    If we are interested in judging the cultural value of a work of literature, not only our personal value of it, then intention is crucial.
    What is on the page is what they were thinking, isn’t it? That’s the point I was making. Rowling was thinking about writing an entertaining adventure romp for a popular audience, Melville was thinking about writing a metaphysical epic prose poem containing an encyclopedia of whaling lore; which is the more substantial task? Each book should be judged on the intention of the author, to say otherwise is a position of nonsense. The intention of a writer cannot be separated from their writing – it’s like removing the brain from the nervous system – the two are inextricably linked.

    ‘If you were attempting to say that some writers have written in such a way (but it is not the sole characteristic of meaningful, complex art), that is fine. I don’t think that comes across in your previous comments, though, or at least not well.’

    As I said, valuation is as creative as writing, it is essentially about individual taste.

    If you are comparing Rowling to Shakespeare, I won’t argue now, because the judgement of 500 years will be required to see whether her influence will be as pervasive throughout world literature as his has been. I doubt it, somehow.

  7. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    The glory of Shakespeare is the unexampled poetical texture of his language, most of the plots he nicked and simply added the odd embellishment. It is the imaginative brilliance and uncanny psychology of his imagery that has made him world-historically famous.

    The glory of Rowling is what… Dumbledore? Quidditch? Or the bit in book seven when somebody says ‘Bitch’?

  8. If we are interested in judging the cultural value of a work of literature, not only our personal value of it, then intention is crucial.
    What is on the page is what they were thinking, isn’t it?

    If what is on the page is the same as intention, how can we separate intention from the work itself? Doesn’t that make the term “intention” somewhat pointless? Surely if we are to judge how well an author has accomplished their intention (as you claim we must), then there must be a difference between intent and execution, between the thought and the result.

    But if intent is not what is on the page, but rather what the word implies, i.e. what the author meant to do in his or her mind, then we immediately reach an impasse. We do not know the intent of many authors. We know nothing about Homer. We know relatively little about Shakespeare. We don’t know what he was trying to achieve beyond the work itself. And even if we do – isn’t Milton a great example of how difficult it is to judge intent?

    Rowling was thinking about writing an entertaining adventure romp for a popular audience, Melville was thinking about writing a metaphysical epic prose poem containing an encyclopedia of whaling lore; which is the more substantial task?

    Here the problem of judging intent becomes instantly visible – since we are never truly privileged to know what is in an author’s mind, it is very easy to impose our own ideas of what their intent must have been. I believe that the Harry Potter books as a whole are far more than just an entertaining romp – they are deeply concerned with the way adults relate to children and children to adults, with guilt, with redemption, with sacrifice, with the (il)logic of racism, with politics, with the tragic complexities of life. These themes and quite a few more are elaborated upon in a manner that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally affecting. The books begin with a child’s perspective (Dumbledore as the grand old wise man / the Malfoys as pure evil / Snape as mean adult) and end with an adult’s (Dumbledore as a well-intentioned but highly problematic, conflicted individual that makes many mistakes / the Malfoys as people on the wrong side of a conflict, detestable in some ways, but deeply human / Snape as a tragic figure, a good person with many dislikable traits).

    That was the point of my comparison to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a child can enjoy the magic and the pretty colours (they are there to be enjoyed, after all) but an adult can see the more nuanced aspects, the layers of meaning that transform the work into more than pageantry.

    Each book should be judged on the intention of the author, to say otherwise is a position of nonsense. The intention of a writer cannot be separated from their writing – it’s like removing the brain from the nervous system – the two are inextricably linked.

    Why is it a position of nonsense? Beyond the arguments I’ve already mentioned above, is it not possible for an author to create something that goes beyond what they were intending? The creative process is a complex one, and what an author is thinking about isn’t always exactly what lands on the page. An author may say “I will write an entertaining story about my homeland” and write a masterpiece that tells us everything about a time and place and culture. The greatness of the work, in fact, may be the result of the author’s personal perspective and talent, the result that is of their ability and their personality, rather than of their specific intent.

    If you are comparing Rowling to Shakespeare, I won’t argue now, because the judgement of 500 years will be required to see whether her influence will be as pervasive throughout world literature as his has been. I doubt it, somehow.

    Art is not a popularity contest. As I said in my original post, the popularity or lack of popularity of a work doesn’t amount to anything. I do think people will still be reading Harry Potter 500 years from now; perhaps with less of a desire to prove something than now.

  9. The glory of Rowling is what… Dumbledore? Quidditch? Or the bit in book seven when somebody says ‘Bitch’?

    If you don’t understand the brilliance of that “bit” then I pity you, and we have nothing further to discuss.

    (I am quite serious. That particular moment is absolutely masterful, and it angers me to see it dismissed like that.)

  10. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    You haven’t actually refuted anything I said. You’re misunderstanding what I meant by intent. I meant their ambition, not their meaning, meaning always develops in the process of writing, obviously. I meant how far back and ahead have they had to look, how hard has a mind had to work, how much has one had to suffer, how much past and present culture goes into the magnum opus? For me, that is definitely not world-historical in Harry Potter. I do not disagree that Harry Potter is emotionally affecting and intellectually stimulating, but it just isn’t exceedingly deep or original. It is a good set of books, not near a masterpiece. Milton had absorbed the classical and biblical literatures before endeavouring to ‘justify the ways of God to Man,’ that is what gives his work its enduring cultural value, the contrast of the two, something that had not been done before him in a single epic poem. What has Rowling done to compare to that?

  11. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    When I said their intention, I meant, what were they setting out to achieve? Were they trying to accomplish something unique and masterful in their art, as was clearly the case with writers/poets like Milton, Melville, and Shakespeare, or just tell a really good, contemparaneously minded story for children to grow up with, as in the case of Rowling? Because that has been done over and over. We will never see another Milton, Shakespeare or Melville. Rowlings will come along every decade or so.

  12. Milton, like Homer, was working in an existing tradition. So is Rowling. Harry Potter calls on myth, on modern culture and politics. Neither Homer nor Milton nor Shakespeare were in any sense wholly original (for a relatively cheap definition of original). That’s why Milton was so much easier to understand in his own time than he is now – his audience was very familiar with the material he was drawing on.

    I’m not certain that setting out to tell a really good story isn’t the nobler and more artistic (more dedicated to the work, less dedicated to the ego of the artist) of the two intents. Frankly I’m not even sure these are opposite intents. But again, as I asked above, do authors not often achieve more than they intended? Are their works not sometimes more insightful than they themselves are aware? A writer’s ambition may be to write a simple love story, but through their vision and experience it may come to express something profound and essential about what it is to be human. Is blues music less valuable than classical? Adorno would think so, Bloom might, but I certainly don’t.

    In fact, isn’t it possible than an overwhelming self-awareness may lead authors to write less insightfully, to make ego get in the way of truth and beauty? The author who only wants to write a good story will put all of their wisdom, all of their talent, all of their experience into making that story as vivid and truthful as possible, because that way the story will be as good as they can make it. But an author concerned with writing a great work, aware of their own position in history and of how they may be perceived, may well be more concerned with matters external to the work to such a degree that the result will be artificial and stilted. Shakespeare, we may remember, said nothing about his work; he put his efforts into entertaining audiences, not amusing academics.

  13. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    Milton was working in an existing tradition but nobody had attempted anything like Paradise Lost before him, certainly not in English; he was aware of that, that is what made it worthy of the attempt. Even at the time, Paradise Lost was difficult to understand, as contempary readings show; it was published again in his lifetime with an argument for each book. He intended it to be hard to understand, however, possibly ambiguos, (like the mysteries of God) and thus the arguments are sparing. Milton wanted to ‘justify the ways of God to Man,’ he considered composing Paradise Lost a spiritual destiny. Do you think a poet like Milton simply wanted to be enjoyed? Read his autobiography on that.

    Fair enough though, most of what you have said makes perfect sense to me. I do not dispute that a writer can grow in the process of writing and produce something of produndity. But most of this will have been done better before by an original master decades or centuries ago. I’m talking about pushing the literary envelope, stretching the intellectual membrane. There will always be those who have the natural talent to push the boundaries of form, and they will never be content within themselves with simply telling a good story, though they may tell most of the best.

    ‘Shakespeare, we may remember, said nothing about his work; he put his efforts into entertaining audiences, not amusing academics.’

    Agreed, but we may also remember that he repeatedly challenged conventions within drama and poetry, he clearly strove to be at the forefront of his art. How is Rowling cutting edge?

  14. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    Your favourite poet is Blake, man, you should understand that in a state of passion a revolutionary artist is working for much more than other peoples enjoyment; they are trying to effect culture and society historically with their works; to open the human spirit to knew possibilities, to purge or promote challenging aspects of themselves; they want death and glory. How does Harry Potter challenge the modern consciousness? Where does it take a risk, say something new, represent something different? It simply isn’t great art with a capital G, and never will be. Its just good fun.

  15. Do you think a poet like Milton simply wanted to be enjoyed?

    No, and I think that sometimes that gets in the way of his own ambitions. It’s related to what Blake said: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he Wrote of Angels and of God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” I think the Devil’s party cares more about stories and less about ego; the really excellent parts of Paradise Lost are also the most exciting and story-like. Then we get to Heaven and it turns to Monty Python.

    Agreed, but we may also remember that he repeatedly challenged conventions within drama and poetry, he clearly strove to be at the forefront of his art. How is Rowling cutting edge?

    I have, over the years, come to the conclusions that “cutting edge” is not something I consider particularly valuable; or at least that it is not what art should strive for. Innovation may come in the process of seeking to become better at telling a story, a kind of pleasant side-effect of the artist’s desire to perfect the work; but I’m not convinced it is a worthy goal in and of itself. Partially that is a wholly personal feeling, of course, but there’s also a logical element to it. If we appreciate art only for its innovation, we appreciate it only as a cultural artefact. But to me the truly glorious thing about art is simply that it is good, truly good, on its own terms. I appreciate Homer, even thousands of years after the civilization that produced him has crumbled, not because he was innovative for his time, but because he was good. Shakespeare is best appreciated not when read and analyzed (not that doing so is wrong), but when seen performed.

  16. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    I meant to type biography, I also mispelled ambiguous and profundity.

  17. Your favourite poet is Blake, man, you should understand that in a state of passion a revolutionary artist is working for much more than other peoples enjoyment; they are trying to effect culture and society historically with their works; to open the human spirit to knew possibilities, to purge or promote challenging aspects of themselves; they want death and glory. How does Harry Potter challenge the modern consciousness? Where does it take a risk, say something new, represent something different? It simply isn’t great art with a capital G, and never will be. Its just good fun.

    I think Blake (who, after all, believed that his own work could easily be read and understood by children) would actually prefer Potter to most of what passes for serious literature these days. Potter has at its core a fundamentally democratic sentiment, a belief in standing up against oppression and cruelty from above, a belief in love and friendship and equality not as cliché virtues but as something bittersweet and terribly important in a world that is not always easy to deal with. Potter is full of imagination, questioning of authority, and struggle. I think Blake would appreciate that a lot more than the inwards-turned postmodern novel and its focus on the mildly pathetic problems of middle-aged academics. That its language is modern does not keep it from being, in its own way, an epic – that is, a well-told heroic story of a classical nature with themes of love, revenge and redemption.

    It’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong. I love the Harry Potter books and greatly admire them, but they are not the only books I love. They are simply a convenient example, because King and Rowling are two of the writers that Bloom likes to complain about.

  18. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    It’s not always about telling a story for a poet. Did Blake write Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion to tell a good story…? I hope not. I think he was trying to turn Art itself into an irreligious Christianity. I do not think he expected children to be able to understand that one.

    How can you say for sure that Homer wasn’t innovative for his time? It has been specualted that he may have been the first oral bard to exploit the possibilities of writing, which explains the vast scale of the epics. Also, if he did not stand out from his contempories, the memory of Homer would not have become so strongly imprinted on the ancient Greek consciousness. They used to depict him on vases, Plato talks about him in the Republic, Aeschlyus called his plays, ‘a meal from the banquet of Homer…’ etc etc

    All the greatest writers are innovators, in my opinion. For me, that is the most important measure of greatness, although I accept it is not for you.

    The world is changing. Very soon there will once again be writers and poets who can change the world.

  19. jonjo

     /  April 18, 2012

    ‘the inwards-turned postmodern novel and its focus on the mildly pathetic problems of middle-aged academics.’

    Love that! (Making a note)

  20. But to stand out from one’s contemporaries is not the same as innovation – except, of course, in that differences in degree become differences in kind. The Ancient Greeks respected Homer because what he did was remarkably good, because he was the high point of his tradition. They didn’t praise him for being original, but for being great.

    I am all for writers and poets changing the world. And, in fact, I am all for artists striving to be greater, to do more than just entertain. I do think that much of modern popular culture is insipid, uninspired shit. My problem is that people like Bloom tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater; literature cannot recover from its current lull if we dismiss works full of vitality and truth just because they are popular or do not conform to the stylistic ideas of decades past.

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  22. jemimallah

     /  November 19, 2012

    thank god that conversation ended. damn satan i had to read it