Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bloom on Twilight of the US

{Today we continue to hammer away at the themes of illiteracy and American decline, with an excerpt from a new lecture by literary critic, Harold Bloom on the "American Religion"}

...I am a teacher by profession, about to begin my 51st year at Yale, where frequently my subject is American writers. Without any particular competence in politics, I assert no special insight in regard to the American malaise. But I am a student of what I have learned to call the American Religion, which has little in common with European Christianity. There is now a parody of the American Jesus, a kind of Republican CEO who disapproves of taxes, and who has widened the needle's eye so that camels and the wealthy pass readily into the Kingdom of Heaven. We have also an American holy spirit, the comforter of our burgeoning poor, who don't bother to vote. The American trinity pragmatically is completed by an imperial warrior God, trampling with shock and awe.

These days I reread the writers who best define America: Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Mark Twain, Faulkner, among others. Searching them, I seek to find what could suffice to explain what seems our national self-destructiveness. DH Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), wrote what seems to me still the most illuminating criticism of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Of the two, Melville provoked no ambivalence in Lawrence. But Whitman transformed Lawrence's poetry, and Lawrence himself, from at least 1917 on. Replacing Thomas Hardy as prime precursor, Whitman spoke directly to Lawrence's vitalism, immediacy, and barely evaded homoeroticism. On a much smaller scale, Whitman earlier had a similar impact on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lawrence, frequently furious at Whitman, as one might be with an overwhelming father, a King Lear of poetry, accurately insisted that the Americans were not worthy of their Whitman. More than ever, they are not, since the Jacksonian democracy that both Whitman and Melville celebrated is dying in our Evening Land.

What defines America? "Democracy" is a ruined word, because of its misuse in the American political rhetoric of our moment. If Hamlet and Don Quixote, between them, define the European self, then Captain Ahab and "Walt Whitman" (the persona, not the man) suggest a very different self from the European. Ahab is Shakespearean, Miltonic, even Byronic-Shelleyan, but his monomaniacal quest is his own, and reacts against the Emersonian self, just as Melville's beloved Hawthorne recoiled also. Whitman, a more positive Emersonian, affirms what the Sage of Concord called self-reliance, the authentic American religion rather than its Bushian parodies. Though he possesses a Yale BA and honorary doctorate, our president is semi-literate at best. He once boasted of never having read a book through, even at Yale. Henry James was affronted when he met President Theodore Roosevelt; what could he have made of George W Bush?
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What has happened to the American imagination if we have become a parody of the Roman empire?
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Our politics began to be contaminated by theocratic zealots with the Reagan revelation, when southern Baptists, Mormons, Pentecostals, and Adventists surged into the Republican party. The alliance between Wall Street and the Christian right is an old one, but has become explicit only in the past quarter century. What was called the counter-culture of the late 1960s and 70s provoked the reaction of the 80s, which is ongoing. This is all obvious enough, but becomes subtler in the context of the religiosity of the country, which truly divides us into two nations. Sometimes I find myself wondering if the south belatedly has won the civil war, more than a century after its supposed defeat. The leaders of the Republican party are southern; even the Bushes, despite their Yale and Connecticut tradition, were careful to become Texans and Floridians. Politics, in the United States, perhaps never again can be separated from religion. When so many vote against their own palpable economic interests, and choose "values" instead, then an American malaise has replaced the American dream.
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{continues at link above in The Guardian}


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