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GP25Jun03:  Bloom—In Praise of Divorce

The Spread of Genius.  The late Leonard Krieger, author of The German Idea of Freedom and intellectual historian of the first order, never tired of describing how big ideas traveled from the minds of original men, out into the popular marketplace, and then radiated to the corners of the globe.  This is the most exalted form of marketing.  A classic study in this regard is Bruno Latour’s The Pasteurization of France which shows the complex of circumstances that put Pasteur across the map of France.  (See the Science and Technology branch of our Infinite Bookstore, on the Global Province for more on his books.)  We have long wondered how good ideas best get a grip on the whole of a people, for this is literally the only way to drive out bad ideas.   In Krieger’s view, universities and professors earn their keep by distributing seminal ideas originated elsewhere by geniuses: they’re simply radio transmitters for the intellectual giants who live apart from the academic ratpack. 

What Now?  But universities are probably breaking down, and education is sometimes no longer their main agenda.  When we chatted for a few moments with Professor Harold Bloom in mid-June, he allowed that Harvard, Princeton, and a raft of other brandname institutions had fallen into disrepair, beset by ideological nonsense and other confusions that kept them from focusing on and teaching the subject at hand.  In his view, Yale, where he mostly abides, does somewhat better, having resisted some of the distractions and currents that draw one away from the raison d’etre of the university.  Probably, nonetheless, universities are no longer the forum where good thinking struts its stuff and then makes its way out to visit with the citizenry. 

Divorce.  We had called to ask him how he had burst beyond the boundaries of the university to get his teachings into the hands of readers of literature throughout this land and beyond.  He kindly fitted us in during the quiet time, after tea and just before supper, that late afternoon hour where Proust achieved dramatic clarity.  It’s a good time for a summing up—perhaps of the day, even of a lifetime. 

“Simple,” he replied to our query.  “It all began with my divorce from the English Department at Yale in 1976.  Then I became a Yale professor of absolutely nothing.”  If we remember rightly, he was subsequently called something like Professor of Humanities.  By a curious accident, he found himself separated, just like that, from the small skirmishes that now eternally plague all academic departments.  As importantly, thereafter, he began to reach out to a wider audience. 

He taught at more places, including New York University, where he still holds a second chair.  He figures, if we got it right, that he’s reached some 30,000 students over all in his long career. That is probably equal to an Army division that’s a little under strength.  One never quite knows where he will pop up next—on C-Span some days, in The Wall Street JournaI on another, railing about Harry Potter on still others.  He is guilty of innumerable acts of random teaching. 

His books, meanwhile, have carried him well beyond these shores, particularly in the Latin countries of Europe.  He is compulsively copious, having produced an incredible stream of volumes  and articles.  Apparently, now, he’s been published in Indonesia.  That so many devout readers have flocked to him has been “incredibly moving” to him.  He is reviewed and re-reviewed almost constantly.  This is doubly wonderful, because he is not an extremely accessible author, but complex in the tradition of William Wimsatt, a teacher of his who was also a brilliant academic critic in the generation before him.  To get a little feeling for the breadth of his work and of his following, take a peek at the following New York Times and Stanford websites:  www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/01/specials/bloom.html and http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bloom/interviews.html.  

The lesson in all of this is that anyone who wants to get beyond a small place must leave it, at least in part.  Any institution ties an Atlas-intellect down, causing one to look inward, equipping one’s tongue with a limited vernacular that does not ever reach a global audience.  All of us owe it to ourselves to achieve a certain detachment from the place where we work, especially if the whole structure is in decay anyway. 

Irony.  We might even call this ironic detachment, and we think “irony” is Professor Bloom’s stock in trade.  A compelling conversationalist, Mr. Bloom is a torrent of words where one does not exchange ideas, but drinks his in.  Fortunately the rush of thoughts is witty, and the wit is ironic.  Did he not say to us (well, approximately), “If  I don’t speak ill of the dead, who will?”  Or something like that. 

In one of his lesser works, How to Read and Why, we read about the importance he attaches to irony: 

“Irony is only a metaphor, and the irony of one literary age can rarely be the irony of another, yet without the renaissance of an ironic sense more than what we once called imaginative literature will be lost.”

In 2003, we would say, irony frees us to get beyond truisms to something that resembles the truth. 

At this moment in history, there’s a massive cleavage between the world as we perceive it and the world as it really is, in all fields of endeavor.  Words put to paper do not quite mean what they seem to say.  With such cosmic delusion firmly in the saddle, irony is in total command of the stage.  Bloom is awesomely relevant.     

Creative Critic.  For 30 years now, academic critics of all sorts have consigned Bloom to the dustbin of history, particularly those who want to interpret literature as a piece of history, an underpinning for racism or sexism, as something other than literature.  But his audience, as we have said, grows.  So much for his critics. 

His power we think lies in the fact that he gives a close, close reading of the text and, whether it is Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens, uses his imagination to elicit meanings that might otherwise elude us.  In his hand, criticism is not analysis but a creative act that looks for truths that will evade a dissecting eye.  This view of things has drawn readers the world over to him, as they find his passion and ideas to be authentic.  Ultimately his power with the populace has not come about because he has flogged his works the world over through book tours and the like, but simply because the words have rung true.  What he has to say about a writer, even if it has flights of fancy, comes to grips with what the writer has said in his creative work, excluding the considerable intellectual baggage many critics bring to their task.   

Pabst Blue Ribbon.   In this week’s New York Times Magazine  (“The Marketing of No Marketing,” June 22, 2003, pp. 42-45), you can read how Pabst Blue Ribbon, once of Milwaukee but now of San Antonio, has amazingly staged a comeback, rising perhaps to 1% of all U.S. beer sales.  In some locales, such as Oregon, it has even done better.  This is only interesting because it did the trick with virtually no marketing:  it really doesn’t  have the dollars to support advertising and the other tactics that national consumer brands use to buy shelf space.     

In a way, we could care less.  All the U.S. national beer brands, including Pabst, taste like water and froth, hardly deserving a place in anybody’s refrigerator. They are shoddy products.  Yet it’s interesting that little subgroups, people who have opted out of the mainstream, have taken up the beverage and had Pabst sponsor their occasional meetings, but without any sign of Pabst or its people at those meetings.  Pabst sells through silence, by being invisible.  The Orwellian subclasses have opted for Pabst because it has no message at all, about as truthful as you can get about a tasteless commodity which does not particularly have anything to recommend it.  The message, or the lack of it, fits the product and has made it grow. 

End of Marketing.  Obviously the Professor and PBR have absolutely nothing in common, except that they have attracted people in unusual ways.  Bloom gains an avid audience by an ironic reading of first-rate authors.  Pabst moves its tepid brew off the shelf by saying nothing at all.  There is a yearning for authentic messages that accurately convey the essence of the speaker and that are, at the same time, emotionally closer to the real mood of our era than the utterings of pundits, endorsers, and organization men of any stripe.     

This is not the way universities or companies have sold their wares in the past.  With them, packaging has become all important, and their product has often become hollow.  Perhaps marketing as we know it is set to take a tumble, since it often aims to put a face on things that does not square with reality.  Already we see a different style in some of the more interesting Internet communication and some other marketing avenues.  We  have urged new substantive approaches on our own clientele. 

Authenticity.  We are reminded of the advertising man who said, “Truth is in—for advertising.  Now, if we can only learn to package truth.”  But you can’t.  You can mostly strip away the packaging.  That’s a different business altogether.

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