the imaginative conservative logo

It is always a dangerous and potentially deadly error to consider the enemy of our enemies to be our friend, patting him on the back while he is stabbing us in ours. The truth is that Dr. Harold Bloom is himself a servant of dark forces, which are subtler by far than those politically-oriented forces that he rightly condemns…

Only in an age of abject nonsense can peddlers of nonsense sell their wares and prosper thereby. Ours is such an age. In such times, erudition is put to the service of sophistry, and sophistry serves iconoclasm. It is not that nothing is sacred, it is that nothing sacred is safe. All that is truly good and truly beautiful is assailed by the sledgehammer slander of the nihilistically violent or betrayed by the wormtongue wit of the seemingly wise. Take, for example, the wit and seeming wisdom of the literary critic, Harold Bloom. Having made his reputation as a literary critic and as a critic of religion, Dr. Bloom has become something of a celebrity in the world of contemporary ideas, critiquing literature and religious faith from the bifocal perspective of relativism and Kabbalistic Gnosticism.

Dr. Bloom is best known perhaps for his work on Shakespeare, most especially Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). To offer credit where such is indubitably due, Dr. Bloom defends the Bard from those cultural vivisectionists who take Shakespeare’s living work and kill it with the weapons of idolatrous ideology. Dr. Bloom is no friend of Marxist or feminist criticism. On the contrary, he has been tireless in his defense of Shakespeare from the slings and arrows, and the sledgehammers, of outrageous criticism, condemning Marxist and feminist critics for serving what he calls the “forces of resentment.” And yet it is always a dangerous and potentially deadly error to consider the enemy of our enemies to be our friend, patting him on the back while he is stabbing us in ours. The truth is that Dr. Bloom is himself a servant of dark forces, which are subtler by far than those politically-oriented forces that he rightly condemns. In Dr. Bloom’s case, he seems to harbor a deep-seated grudge against Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, which he refuses to stomach. This would be fair enough in itself, albeit regrettable. The problem is that Dr. Bloom refuses to stomach the presence of Christianity wherever he finds it, including in literature, the consequence of which is a singular blindness which is more comic than tragic. Thus, for instance, he criticizes G.K. Chesterton for suggesting that Shakespeare was a Catholic, asserting that “we cannot know, by reading Shakespeare and seeing him played, whether he had any extrapoetic beliefs or disbeliefs…. [B]y reading Shakespeare, I can gather that he did not like lawyers, preferred drinking to eating, and evidently lusted after both genders.” Commenting on these words in my own book, The Quest for Shakespeare, I noted that it was “a sorry reflection of the state of modern literary criticism that this woeful lack of penetration not only gains credence in academic circles but actually gains disciples.” I continue:

Apart from [Dr. Bloom’s] apparent inability to glean any meaning, intended by Shakespeare, from any of his plays—political, philosophical, moral, or religious—beyond the indulgence of the lower appetites, his use of the phrase “extrapoetic beliefs or unbeliefs” is curious. Is he really suggesting that poesis is possible in a vacuum, that poets create in the absence of belief in anything? If they believe in nothing, why are they inspired to say anything? If they believe in nothing, how can they say anything? If they believe in nothing, why do they have anything to say? Pace Bloom, poesis, like thought itself, is rooted in belief and is impossible without it. Shakespeare had to believe in something or else he would have written nothing.

This is not the place to begin to offer the strong and ultimately indisputable evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, both in the facts that are known about his life and in the multifarious and innumerable instances of its presence in his plays. Needless to say that the mounting evidence for the Bard’s orthodoxy threatens the very foundations of Dr. Bloom’s credibility. It is, we might venture to say, the papal bull in Dr. Bloom’s precious china shop, threatening to bring his all too facile and therefore all too fragile scholarship crashing down. The sooner the better.

Rather than laboring the Shakespearean point any further, let’s look instead at Dr. Bloom’s singular blindness with regard to his reading of other well-known works. Take, for instance, his reading of Beowulf. “Is Beowulf a Christian poem?” he asks. “Just barely,” he replies grudgingly. “In any case,” he adds hastily, “it has a profoundly elegiac relation to its Germanic origins”:

Though the nameless poet of this heroic epic must have been at least ostensibly Christian, Beowulf eschews any mention of Jesus Christ, and all its biblical references are to the Old Testament…. Perhaps aesthetic tact governs the poet of Beowulf: his hero’s virtues have nothing to do with salvation, and everything to do with warlike courage.

Note, Dr. Bloom’s use of words. The poet doesn’t merely fail to mention Christ, he “eschews” any mention of Him, implying a deliberate shunning of the Saviour in favour of a eulogizing of the pagan past. As for Dr. Bloom, he eschews any mention of the Beowulf poet’s explicit condemnation of pagan practices as devil worship; instead he claims that the hero’s virtues “have nothing to do with salvation.” How does Dr. Bloom square this absurd assertion with the repeated insistence by Beowulf that he can do nothing of his own strength without the assistance of the will of God? How does Dr. Bloom explain, or explain away, the miraculous gift of the supernatural sword which saves Beowulf from certain destruction at the hands of Grendel’s mother? How does he explain, or explain away, the fact that the monsters are described explicitly as the offspring of Cain, connecting the evil in the poem with the account of Original Sin in the Bible? Is he blind, either from willful arrogance or woeful ignorance, of the way in which the poem can be seen as an Orthodox Christian response to the heresy of Pelagianism?

In spite of this abundant evidence, Dr. Bloom ends his own commentary of Beowulf with another question: “But does Beowulf conclude with the triumph of the Christian vision?” A question which he answers in the negative: “God’s glory as a creator is extolled in the poem, but nowhere are we told of God’s grace. Instead, there are tributes, despairing but firm, to fate, hardly a Christian power.”

Let’s respond to the last part of Dr. Bloom’s conclusion first. There are no tributes to “fate” in Beowulf, despairing or otherwise, but to wyrd, which is an altogether different thing. It is true that the word wyrd is usually and inadequately translated as “fate,” but it is not the same thing, not least because wyrd is not merely fatalistic, as in its being a mere manifestation of blind fortune. Wyrd, from which we get the modern word “weird,” denotes the weirdness of things, suggesting a supernatural or providential dimension to human destiny. The tributes are therefore to the power of wyrd, to the power of a providential Will beyond the will of man. Incidentally, the reason that wyrd is never translated as “providence” is aesthetic, rather than definitive. Translators of the poem are understandably keen to evoke the feel and sound of the poem by choosing the Germanically-rooted word rather than its Latin equivalent; hence “freedom” over “liberty,” and “fate” over “providence.” (Ironically “fate” is itself Latin in derivation but it has the feel of Old English, at least as compared to “providence.”)

Let’s conclude our exposé of Dr. Bloom’s blindness by answering his question as the text demands: Does Beowulf conclude with the triumph of the Christian vision? No, says Dr. Bloom; yes, says the poem itself.

In the final part of the poem, which tells of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, there are numerous numerical signifiers connecting the hero’s actions with the Passion of Christ, the latter of which is the archetypal Hero’s fight with the archetypal Dragon. We are told that Beowulf has twelve hand-picked followers, one of whom betrays the rest by stealing from the dragon’s hoard. Of the eleven remaining hand-picked followers, all but one betray the king when he faces the power of the dragon. The king, therefore, has only one of the twelve present with him as he lays down his life for his kingdom. At the very conclusion of the poem, an eternal burial mound has been raised in memory of the king and there are once more twelve more hand-picked followers circling the mound. Clearly, the twelve knights signify the apostolic Church, as does the burial mound itself, with the circling of knights signifying the eternal nature of the bond between the apostles and the Church. Does this signify “the triumph of the Christian vision”? Of course, it does!

Having exposed Dr. Bloom’s blindness with regard to Beowulf, we will not be surprised to learn that he had a very low opinion of The Lord of the Rings, which he would no doubt have liked even less had he been aware of its “fundamentally religious and Catholic” character. “I suspect that The Lord of the Rings is fated to become only an intricate Period Piece,” Dr. Bloom opined with dismissive superciliousness. Begging to differ with the invariably myopic critic, we might venture to suggest that “fate” is likely to prove that works which exude timeless verities about the nature of man and his place in the cosmos will survive, whereas followers of fallacious philosophies will fade with the fads they idolize. Heroes will survive and will continue to vanquish the monsters. As for the wayward critics, they will vanish as the vanquished victims of their own lack of vision, their “bloom” fading as they wilt upon the very vine of verity that they have rejected.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. Thank you.

    I had more respect for Bloom before this, unaware of his huge blind spot on Shakespeare. Metaphors are not his strength, a fatal flaw for someone who thinks of themselves as a literary expert.

  2. One thing Bloom taught me was that Freud got his ideas from Hamlet. But he couldn’t see the obvious, Hamlet was Catholic.

  3. Of equal concern is Bloom’s apparent envy (and hence, degradation) of canonized poets. In his volume The Best Poems of the English Language, his diction drips with transparent jealousy of widely recognized and respected poets, and his views on their contributions are flawed by his own unfulfilled ambitions.

Leave a Reply to flapoet555 Cancel reply