"I will be going on 89 when this book is published; in its composition over the past several years I began to apprehend my ongoing writing as a dialogue with my dead friends ... This book is reverie and not argument. My title is the book in single phrase. What is to be ‘possessed by memory’? How does possession differ in these: to possess dead or lost friends and lovers, or to possess poetry and heightened prose by memory? The range of the meanings of the verb “possess” are varied: to own as property, to have power over, to master knowledge, to be controlled by a daemon, to be filled with the experience of cognitive apprehension ... In a poem the image of voice is always a trope listening for a tone you may have heard before your world was made. The Blessing frequently coincides with a change in your name. When you have a poem by heart, you possess it more truly and strangely than your dwelling place, because the poem possesses you. Drawing down a god can be an esoteric procedure, yet poems at their strongest strike the lyre, and then the god becomes an issue of strings.”
On Oct 14, 2019, Harold Bloom died, having reached 89. Most of us who have had anything to do with Western literature — William Shakespeare in particular — knew of Bloom as a quintessential commentator and prolific author who had an unabashed love for writers he felt close to his heart despite the strong criticism that he dealt with most of his life. He taught for 60 years at several American universities, including Yale and New York University, and his students — whether they admired or resented him — include several prominent names. He wrote over 45 books and gave countless interviews, all of which is what remains of Bloom now that he is no more in the realm of the living.
But what does it mean to die in an age such as ours when there is so much around us that puts us face to face with the dead? Upon learning that Bloom had passed away, my instinct was to view one of his interviews, the most candid of which were the ones he did with Charlie Ross. There Bloom was, unapologetic, authoritative and deeply moved by the writers he spoke of. Those he felt most passionate about were Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and Dante; he spoke about them endlessly with the kind of fervour and devotion only a lover can have.
Even though in the world of facts Bloom was dead as I watched, in spirit he was more alive than ever. And it made sense with all the more immediacy what he once said of the blessing that literature is: “It is more life, in the sense of ‘something evermore about to be’.” An expanded life that only readers can have, which is enriched and deepened by the voices of the dead and fuelled by their claim on us to be their conduits into the world of the living. Bloom was that conduit that reanimated Western literary texts beyond the concerns of the academy, speaking of them as if they were people he knew, instead of considering them components of poetic structures created by language.
Bloom’s parting gift to his readers — the closest he came to an autobiography — is Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism. Written as not an extended essay or argument, but as a reverie, a sort of meditation, spanning over 500 pages and divided into four sections, it makes clear that Bloom is not interested in polemics and in engaging with people who disagreed with him. Here, Bloom is an old man in his final years, fully aware of his impending end, looking back at the texts that haunt him now even though they have been part of his inner life ever since he was a young boy chanting poems and lines in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep or was visited by a dream. As he mentions in his preface, as he converses with himself in this final act, almost in the manner of a Shakespearean soliloquy, he admits to the futility of the polemics that he engaged with for most of his academic life and laments the waste of energy they consumed.
The book opens with ‘A Voice She Heard Before the World was Made’. Here Bloom ruminates over Hebraic tradition and poetry that he felt close to after he lost faith in the Romantic ideals of Williams Blake and Wordsworth. According to Larissa MacFarquhar in The New Yorker, Bloom “converted” to Gnosticism as a result of disillusionment with Romanticism, which she compared to “the Jewish, Christian and Sufi variety”— highlighting the belief in the fallen state of man as a result of the primal catastrophic splitting of the universe from God, which only knowledge can salvage.
Be that as it may, this knowledge that a Gnostic seeks is not through a pure presence as if a text, but a spark, pneuma — a fragment of the divine that resides in humans but to which they have no access without Gnostic revelation. It reminds one of Rumi’s immortal opening lines, the anthem of Gnosticism as it were, from the Masnavi, which capture this yearning of knowing and salvation in the eternal metaphor of the reed-flute and its song:
Hearken to this Reed forlorn,
Breathing, even since ‘twas torn
From its rushy bed, a strain
Of impassioned love and pain.
The secret of my song, though near,
None can see and none can hear.
Oh, for a friend to know the sign
And mingle all his soul with mine!
* Translation by R.A. Nicholson, 1950
Anyone reading Bloom before this supposed conversion would know all too well that Bloom was a Gnostic even before he claimed to be one. Even as I read his last book, it appears to be even clearer that he was a reader not in the modern academic sense of dissecting stanzas and specialised reading mostly ending up in hopeless atomism, but in the biblical sense of interpretative reading that is insightful and makes an ancient text reverberate with new meaning.
In other words, whether Bloom read a Kabbalist poem, the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagvad Gita, Shakespeare or Walt Whitman, he read it in the Rabbinic tradition of reading, memorising in the spirit of possessing the text by heart, chanting lines from the works of secular literature as if he was in some kind of communion with the spirits of the dead. More importantly, he read it as if it were true. With the demise of Jorge Luis Borges and more recently René Girard, Bloom was perhaps the last of his kind who animated the written word regardless of the age, culture or language it belonged to.
Part two of his book, entitled ‘Self-Otherseeing and the Shakespearean Sublime’ and part three ‘In the Elegy Season: Milton, the Company of Visionaries and Victorian Poetry’ are both farewell readings to the poems, plays and people which he read, wrote about and taught most of his life. In reading these sections, including the subsequent part on American and 20th century poetry, one gets a strong sense of how closely Bloom was attached to these literary pieces in a way that they possess him in his final years, but now only to let him go. Like many of his students and readers, I, too, have disagreed with his readings in his earlier writings, but I find it difficult to disagree with Bloom in Possessed by Memory. It is primarily because the book leaps at you as a noble and moving testament to love, struggle and search, which turns into visionary power only because of its embeddedness in the dark reality of human mortality.
More importantly, Bloom — who has been something of a high priest of solitary and deep reading (although he never agreed with this description since he left the covenant very early on) and authoritative in his ways of reading and writing about literature — can be seen resigned to his limitations in this book. Although written in an elegiac tone throughout, the book celebrates the ecstasies of reading, or what he calls the privileged moments and sudden revelations to which he committed his life. The coda at the end of the book completes the arc of Bloom’s life as his current book in his sublime re-reading of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time interspersed with St Augustine and Samuel Johnson, where he turns inwards and bids his beloved farewell with Johnson’s The Idler 103.
Bloom’s last book is a gift that his admirers and critics will relate to with equal respect. And there is also a possibility that it might strike what Bloom used to call “the wound of immortal wonder” for getting the glimpse of the inner life of a man who was truly an heir and the receiver of a tradition.g
The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Canada. Her research focuses on the literary and intellectual traditions of Persian and Urdu languages in pre-modern North India
Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism By Harold Bloom Knopf, US ISBN: 978-0525520887 544pp.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 2nd, 2020