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Possessed by Memory

The Inward Light of Criticism


Harold Bloom (View Bio)
Hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Possessed by Memory

In brief, luminous readings of more than eighty texts by canonical authors—texts he has had by heart since childhood—Harold Bloom has written a memoir of an inward journey from childhood to age ninety. Bloom argues elegiacally with nobody but Bloom, interested only in the influence of the mind upon itself when it absorbs the highest and most enduring imaginative literature. He offers meditations on poems and prose that have haunted him since childhood and which he has possessed by memory: from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson; Spenser and Milton to Wordsworth and Keats; Whitman and Browning to Joyce and Proust; Tolstoy and Yeats to Delmore Schwartz and Amy Clampitt; Blake to Wallace Stevens; and much more.  Though he has written before about some of these authors, these exegeses, written in the winter of his life, are movingly informed by “the freshness of last things.”  As he writes, “One of my concerns throughout Possessed by Memory is with the beloved dead. Most of my good friends in my generation have departed. Their voices are still in my ears. I find that they are woven into what I read. I listen not only for their voices but also for the voice I heard before the world was made. My other concern is religious, in the widest sense. For me poetry and spirituality fuse as a single entity. All my long life I have sought to isolate poetic knowledge. This also involves a knowledge of God and gods. I see imaginative literature as a kind of theurgy in which the divine is summoned, maintained, and augmented.”

"A must-read for all who enjoy literature."—Library Journal

"Harold Bloom, is not only the greatest literary critic of our lifetimes, but quite possibly the greatest of all time. He has written more than 50 books with a special interest in Shakespeare, and Possessed by Memory appears to be a collection and a coda of memories for Bloom, who turned 89 in July. Bloom is now wheelchair-bound and appears to have dictated much of the book to an assistant, which begs the impressive question of how much of this book simply flowed from the great man’s mind. The amount of text and poetry he has committed to memory is astounding and humbling.... This is a mind that has seemingly defied the aging process and the writing is further proof of the mental gymnastics being performed in his mind.... Save money on the SAT English prep courses, simply buy your wannabe college student some Harold Bloom and give them access to an online dictionary." — Drew Gallagher, The Free Lance–Star, "Harold Bloom's Genius, Memory Will Astound Readers"  (Read the full review)

"Possessed by Memory looks at the scriptural texts, poetry and fiction that mean most to him, with brief commentary and an occasional personal anecdote.... As he has written, paraphrasing his beloved Emerson: 'That which you can get from another is never instruction, but always provocation.' Whether you agree or disagree with what he writes, Mr. Bloom always—as the French say—makes you furiously to think. More than that, though, he stands for a rare intellectual purity, being not only a kind of shaggy saint in his devotion to literature but also, like so many saints and prophets, a gadfly, a doomsayer and a great teacher. So here’s to you, Harold Bloom, with thanks for 60 years of magnificent and rewarding provocation." — Michael Dirda, The Wall Street Journal  (Read the full review)

"Literature is the closest thing Harold has to a religion. Writers such as Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth are like a substitute for the elusive Yahweh of the book of Genesis. Which explains why he retains an essentially sacred view of writing and is concerned to defend the ‘western canon’ (from Homer through to James Joyce) against unbelievers and sceptics (which probably includes me). His attitude could be summed up in the opening lines of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God (theon), and the Word was God.’ But he was brought up on the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and was later seduced by the medieval tradition of Kabbalah, which says that the world was called into being via 10 utterances (or ‘Sefirot’) and that therefore the whole of life is language. Organised religion, monotheism-style, derived from a reverence for the written text. Bloom derives consolation from the books that surround him on shelves and in piles on the table and on the floor. In Possessed by Memory, he writes that ‘Frequently at dawn, when I am very chilly and sit on the side of my bed, knowing it is not safe for me to go downstairs by myself in order to have some morning tea, I find deep peace in (Wallace) Stevens at his strongest.’" — Andy Martin, The Independent  (Read the full review)

"Although he began as a celebrant of the Romantic tradition before swerving into an explication of poetic anxiety, Bloom has been, since the publication of The Western Canon in 1994, our leading apostle of serious reading and the splendors of literature." — William Giraldi, Los Angeles Review of Books, "A Conversation with Harold Bloom"  (Read the full review)

"Describe is what he does, perhaps more brilliantly than anyone else alive.... 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." — Jay Fielden, Esquire  (Read the full review)

"Harold Bloom, America’s preeminent literary critic, is lying awake at night reciting lines from poems. It’s not a way to count sheep; rather, he’s gleaning from the verses the ‘inward light’ that will comfort him as he enters the ‘elegy season.’ This audacious personal odyssey offers readers a cosmos of possibilities when contemplating what happens once we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil.’" — The Christian Science Monitor

"Possessed by Memory may not be the easiest work to navigate, but it offers a reward to the dedicated reader who sticks with it. Though Possessed by Memory cannot strictly be called a memoir, the elements of the private life of the writer that pepper the pages are present enough to make it a deeply personal work, perhaps the most illuminating of the critic’s life thus far. It is Bloom’s fascination with memory—what haunts and heals us, what drives and draws us—that shapes the book, be it a memory influenced by a particular work or a work that gives rise to the memory, and it is that fascination that is universal regardless of whether a reader is familiar with the core text about which he is writing or not. Bloom reminds us of the ways literature can transform and inform our lives, and Possessed by Memory is a small glimpse into the way it has shaped his. It is brilliant, vast, and well worth the time it takes to sort through his varied critical takes." — Danielle McManus, San Francisco Book Review

"The Jewish text Pirkei Avot states that the 80s are a decade of vigorous old age. Approaching 90, Bloom confirms this maxim, publishing two books this month alone. Part 1 discusses parts of the Bible; Part 2 delves into Shakespeare; Part 3 treats British authors from Ben Jonson to Algernon Charles Swinburne (who is especially good on the Romantics); and Part 4 considers Walt Whitman and 20th-century American writers. A coda reflects on Marcel Proust's series "Remembrances of Things Past." Quoting extensively, Bloom brings a keen mind and prodigious memory to bear on the prose and poetry he considers, and his insights make one want to read, or reread, these works. Having published some 45 books, Bloom not surprisingly sometimes repeats himself, as when he claims here as he did in The Western Canon that Samuel Johnson was inhibited from becoming a major poet because of his admiration for Alexander Pope. Bloom's treatment of Falstaff here overlaps observations in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and his 2017 book about that character. Yet even these chapters contain new discoveries, along with engaging, sometimes touching, personal reminiscences. VERDICT: A must-read for all who enjoy literature." — Joseph Rosenblum, Library Journal

"Admirers of prolific polymath Bloom will treasure this assemblage of 76 pieces, ranging in length from brief reflections to full-length essays, and in genre from memoir to literary analysis. Bloom’s central interest—the role of influence in literary history—is highlighted in selections that showcase his deep immersion in canonical greats (Shakespeare, Milton ), Romantic-era poets (Byron, Keats, and Shelley), and the later Victorians (Browning and Tennyson), whom he sees as undervalued by recent criticism. Bloom also attends to American poets, including Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and longtime friend John Ashbery, and religious writings, with character sketches of biblical figures such as Deborah, Moses, and Ruth and a meditation on the Kabbalah. Ample excerpts illustrate his assertions, such as that Edmund’s speech from King Lear on how ‘we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars’ illustrates why the villainous character is nonetheless ‘surprisingly attractive’ for his ‘candor and clarity.’ However, general readers may find Bloom’s personal remarks most affecting, such as on how, while ‘nearing 88, I have to consider how little I know of time to come.’ A rich lifetime of readership and scholarship can be found within the covers of this equally rich book." — Publishers Weekly

"Literature serves as consolation for an eminent and prolific critic. Legendary critic and professor Bloom has created a literary biography from brief essays on the poems, plays, and prose—many committed to memory—that he has reread, with growing insight, throughout his life. He calls this book ‘a reverie’ that meditates on what it means to be possessed by the memory of ‘dead or lost friends and lovers’ and by works of literature. ‘When you have a poem by heart,’ he writes, ‘you possess it more truly and more strangely than you do your own dwelling place, because the poem possesses you.’ Now 88, Bloom suffers the debilities of aging: ‘a tremor in my fingers, my legs tend to hint at giving out, my teeth diminish, incipient macular degeneration dims my eyes, deafness increases,’ and, even using a walker, he is constantly afraid of falling. He has been hospitalized several times, and he mourns the deaths of many friends, who include colleagues, fellow critics, and poets (John Ashbery and A.R. Ammons, for example) whose works he admires. For spiritual sustenance, religion fails him. ‘I am a Jew who evades normative Judaism,’ he writes. ‘My religion is the appreciation of high literature. Shakespeare is the summit.’ In one of the book’s four sections, Bloom insightfully examines in Shakespearean characters the strange act of ‘self-otherseeing,’ by which he means ‘the double consciousness of seeing our own actions and sufferings as though they belonged to others.’ Other sections focus on biblical verse, American poets, and, in the longest section, elegies. ‘I seem now to be always in the elegy season,’ he writes. Among these poems of praise are lyrics by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson, whose ‘Morte d’Arthur’ provided comfort to Bloom as he was recovering from two serious operations. Although the author has written about these works throughout his career, these essays reveal a deeply personal attachment and fresh perspective. An eloquent and erudite rereading of the author’s beloved works." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"America’s foremost scholar of literature delivers his most personal treatise yet in this compendium of musings about eighty-plus seminal texts, from Shakespeare to Keats to Tolstoy. This isn’t the garden variety work of criticism you might expect—at the end of his life, 88-year-old Bloom is plumbing his personal relationship with the greats for a thoughtful memoir of an extraordinary life in letters." — Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire, “The Most Anticipated Books of 2019”

"Not surprisingly, masterly and sometimes lightning-rod literary critic Bloom here discusses 80 crucial texts throughout the ages, from Shakespeare to Joyce to Amy Clampitt, but he does so to show how they have influenced his thinking and his life. As he further clarifies, ‘One of my concerns throughout Possessed by Memory is with the beloved dead. Most of my good friends in my generation have departed. Their voices are still in my ears. I find that they are woven into what I read.’ Weave that into your reading." — Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

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