Sunday, October 20, 2019

Harold Bloom, R.I.P.

Famed Yale professor, Falstaffian lover of literature, orotund defender of the Western canon, Harold Bloom died last week.

If I dare say so, he was the last of a breed. A lover of literature, a defender of great literature, a man who stood strong against the hordes of social justice warriors, Bloom believed in the intrinsic value of art. He did not believe that aesthetic value was a social construct. He did not believe that a literary work was great because a lot of people said that it was great. And he did not accept the absurdist corollary, namely that if we all say that a literary work is great then it is great.

Time makes the decision, but the value is not determined democratically. You do not vote on which works will endure. You do not even run an election among the nation’s leading artists and art dealers. At the turn of the twentieth century the greatest Parisian experts were asked to predict which of their contemporary artists would be seen as great a century hence, in the year 2000. The list was topped by one William Bouguereau! Dare I say, they were largely off the mark.

Aesthetic value is not a social construction. It is intrinsic to the work itself. An important message at a time when the Museum of Modern Art has just completed its latest expansion and has chosen to fill its spaces, not with great works by great artists, but with works by a more diverse contingent. 

The thesis is: being a great artist means being shown in a great museum. And yet, if a great museum puts up mediocre works by self-important buffoons, how long will it still be considered a great museum. So, on one corner you have a great painting by Picasso. On another you have a work chosen because of the gender or ethnicity of the artist. One understands that New York’s philistines will moon over the mediocre works of fourth rate artists, but more savvy viewers will note that some of the works have not been chosen for their aesthetic value. Given the cultural climate, they might not say so, but they will know so.

The same principle is at work in auction houses, where a metallic toy bunny was sold for around $90,000,000. Admittedly, the artist in question, by name of Jeff Koons, did not fill a diversity quota, but imagining that the work contains intrinsic value because a couple of wealthy dupes bid it up to the stratosphere is a step into an intellectual void. As was noted at the time, Christie’s displayed the toy with lighting that made it seem to be a modern version of Michelangelo’s Pieta. As of now we do not know who dropped that much money on a toy, that is, who made a colossal fool of himself. Perhaps he is suffering a small pang of embarrassment for having been duped so completely. Remember the old adage about a fool and his money...?

At the least, the value of a work of art does not depend on its place in a museum, especially when social justice warriors have taken over all curatorial functions. And it tells us that the art market, such as it is, depends on a very small number of wealthy people, people who often have no taste, people who are treating art works as investment opportunities, like penny stocks.

One notes that the attribution of timeless value, because artistic value must reach across generations, beyond contemporary interest, means that we often do not know, upon seeing a new work of art, whether or not it will endure, whether it will manifest its value to those who do not inhabit today’s art scene. Thus, if you are going to attack the notion of intrinsic value, you do well to start with contemporary art… because very few people really know what will or not maintain its place on the museum walls.

You might have noticed that this debate has a close correlate in the world of finance. Without trying to explain something that I barely understand some people believe that the only real money is gold… being as gold is the only element that is immutable. Gold is forever. It never changes. Those who oppose the notion that gold has intrinsic value argue that money is what a government says is money, what a government accepts as money. In the vernacular this is called fiat currency… and if the day ever comes when the world decides that the dollar does not contain any intrinsic value… we are all going to be in a heap of trouble.

So, does art have intrinsic aesthetic value? Harold Bloom said that it did. He read everything, often many times, and he decried the tendency in the academic world to sacrifice art in the service of propaganda. University departments of literature and social science are currently being downgraded, because students and certainly their parents, do not see the point of paying to be indoctrinated with leftist propaganda. 

Among the deviant values we owe to totalitarian dictatorships is the notion that art should serve the Revolution, that it ought to impose correct opinions on everyone. Just about everyone in the world has discovered that making art into propaganda erases its aesthetic value. Everyone, that is, except those who teach in university humanities departments, people who do not owe their positions to their own intrinsic merit, but to other considerations.

Bloom led the denunciation of the notion of aesthetic relativity, but he was not alone. Among his compatriots was one Stanley Fish. A leading American academic geezer Fish wrote an appreciation of Bloom for The Atlantic.

He opens thusly:

For more than three decades Harold Bloom, Cassandra-like, warned America that the literary culture that sustained him and other lovers of the word was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice. “We are,” he said, “destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences.” We eviscerate literary works to uncover the presence of exclusionary and discriminatory impulses and gestures; we feast on their contributions to social justice or their failures to contribute to social justice, and then discard the carcass. There is nothing more to be done with them, and surely no reason to reread them.

If the works have no intrinsic values, if they are merely propaganda to promote and advance white privilege and the ruling class, then we are no longer required to learn how to read them. Literary works either advance the cause or detract from it. There is no other value, than the revolutionary cause. As I say, everyone else in the world knows that the revolutionary cause has been tossed into the dustbin of history. Even China has a thriving artistic scene, where works are anything but propaganda.

Fish continues:

Rereading for Bloom, who died last weekend, was the hallmark of the aesthetic experience. Something that has, in Bloom’s words, aesthetic dignity is not disposable. It is not instrumental in relation to some other value. It is its own value, and it is not, Bloom wrote, “for hire.” Aesthetic dignity is not to be subordinated to some cause, however noble. It does not offer itself up for “rapid ingestion.” It does not exist to give the reader pleasure. Instead it gives the “high unpleasure or more difficult pleasure that a lesser text”—one in the service of an ideology—“will not provide.”

By “high unpleasure,” Bloom meant the experience of participating in the struggle of a supreme mind to understand the world and itself. The reward (please don’t say payoff) is the ability “to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves, and perhaps to accept change in ourselves, as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change,” which is of course death. Needless to say, this high unpleasure “is altogether solitary, despite all traditional obsessive attempts to socialize it”—that is, to make it yield a message or a marching order or, God forbid, a policy.

For Bloom the experience was aesthetic. We might go back to Aristotle and say that the aesthetic experience is something like a catharsis. In tragedy, the philosopher posited, the play first produces dread when we imagine that it might happen to us. But then when we recognize that the hero’s fate has not befallen us, when we pity him as someone with whom we do not identify, we feel a relief, a catharsis, a cancellation of our dread.

Let’s not forget that tragedy arose from pagan religious rituals, from animal sacrifice. The word itself, in Greek, means: the goat’s song… presumably, by one reading, the goat’s song before being ritually sacrificed. An alternative explanation saw the goat as the prize given for a choral competition. Why this should be tragic, I do not know. So I will opt for the first reading.

At the least, great art is not designed to produce paroxysms of pleasure or fear or any other emotional excess. It tells us something about who we might be and who we are not.

If I had to categorize Bloom’s aestheticism I would say that it has more to do with religious mysticism. Mystical journeys to see God are of a piece with the aesthetic experience. The best known medieval work, the cornerstone of the genre was Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum… The Mind’s Journey to God.

Does great art offer something like an experience of God. One notes that many forms of therapy promise the same experience. For those who want to see the correlation between therapy and the religious experience, they can do no better than William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.

As it happened, Bloom wrote extensively about religious texts, especially the Book of Genesis. To his mind these texts were primarily literary. I would take issue with him on this and posit that literature is a subspecies of scripture. They were not written to provide an aesthetic experience. As it happens literary criticism is a subspecies of Biblical exegesis, a tradition that largely predates literary criticism.

The difference is simply that Scripture lays down laws to live by. It lays down the rules that all members of a community should follow, because this allows them to live in a cohesive community. The stories in Scripture tell us what the rules are, explain them to us, show us how they came about, and offer us instances of people following or not following them.

So, Scripture has a communitarian purpose. The word religion derives from a Latin word that means, binding together. Religion, the rules and laws that are given by God, bind people in community.

Art addresses the individual. It shows individuals who do or do not follow the rules. In tragedy, of course, the heroes fall because they suffer from overweening pride. It is cautionary more than prescriptive.

If tragedy shows what happens to people who play by their own rules, who defy society’s rules, who even defy God’s rules, comedy shows what happens when people overcome their childish ways and learn to play by the rules. Tragedy is about disintegration. Comedy is about reintegration and reconciliation.


UbuMaccabee said...

Nice obituary for what might be the last of the great humanist scholars of literature in America. Thanks, Doc.

When I refer to Western Civilization, I have Harold Bloom and Jacques Barzun in mind. “The Western Canon” and “Shakespeare: Invention of the Human” have been with me since their release, and both have given me innumerable threads to follow in literature. Bloom pointed me to Cormac McCarthy. HB also introduced me to many of the great Shakespearian scholars including AC Bradley and Harold C Goddard.

Blooms best work, In my opinion, was his close reading of the Henriad. Anything he wrote on Hal and Falstaff is electric. When I watch Shakespeare being performed, Harold Bloom sits beside me, well, a couple chairs apart, but in the same territory.

Falstaff > Henry, Shakespeare > Freud, Harold Bloom > raceclassgender

See you on the other side, Harold. I owe you a lot of drinks, and more importantly, introductions to all the lovely young ladies in the room.

Ubu Food for Powder

Happy John said...

"The list was topped by one William Bouguereau! Dare I say, they were largely off the mark."

Rather unfortunate. Art World today would be much better if people took cues from Bouguereau. Instead, we have Jeff Koons.