The Inward Light of Criticism

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The Inward Light of Criticism

“It’s hard to describe,” the literary critic Harold Bloom was saying as we sat at the kitchen table of his tall Victorian house. Professor at Yale since 1955, author of more than 40 books, reader in all the classical literary languages (except Russian and Sanskrit), Bloom, 88, can’t often have found himself uttering such a thing. Describe is what he does, perhaps more brilliantly than anyone else alive. Although wheelchair-dependent, he remains a physically expressive thinker above the shoulders—eyes clamped shut, eyebrows in motion, head slightly bowed as if in communion with the saints of The Norton Anthology.

Literary criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.

What was hard to describe was his new book, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism. “It’s a kind of memoir,” Bloom picked up, “but by way of Wilde’s principle that literary criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.” Other books of Bloom’s have given us a sense of what being a student of his might be like. But this one is both more personal and more selective. Here are the fragments, strophes, poems, acts, and scriptures that constantly spill from his memory. They aren’t works he tries to remember but ones he can’t forget.


Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism

Possessed by Memory is a book to consume in no particular order and at no particular pace. There are essays (Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Proust) as well as meditations as short as two pages. He lights upon Delmore Schwartz’s “The First Night of Fall and Falling Rain” for a mere couple of pages, yet it will give you solace for a week; he reminds you of the John Cheever of poetry, Weldon Kees, who, at 41, parked his car near the Golden Gate Bridge never to be heard from again; and he holds high the achievement of May Swenson’s “Big-Hipped Nature,” a paean to her father. The common thread is that the words collected here appear to have a source that isn’t altogether human. “My intention for this book,” Bloom writes, “is to teach myself and others how to listen for the voice we heard before the world was made and marred.”

Editor in Chief
Jay Fielden is the editor in chief of Esquire magazine.

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