Harold Bloom, super-literate, vs. and George Bush, semi-literate
I once tried to read Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon, in which he recommends a list of books that a person should read if he/she wants to be truly literate and well-informed in the tradition of Western civilization.
Tried, and failed, even though I happen to be a fairly voracious reader. How Bloom managed to take a bunch of inherently fascinating books and make them seem dull is a mystery I haven't quite solved. But I seem to recall dense prose and a generous dose of condescension.
At any rate, Bloom is now venturing into political waters. In Saturday's Guardian, his commentary on--who else?--George Bush appeared. Here are a few excerpts to give you an idea of the flavor of its typical conspiracy theories on the dark motivations and machinations of Bush and the Republicans:
At the age of 75, I wonder if the Democratic party ever again will hold the presidency or control the Congress in my lifetime. I am not sanguine, because our rulers have demonstrated their prowess in Florida (twice) and in Ohio at shaping voting procedures, and they control the Supreme Court. The economist-journalist Paul Krugman recently observed that the Republicans dare not allow themselves to lose either Congress or the White House, because subsequent investigations could disclose dark matters indeed. Krugman did not specify, but among the profiteers of our Iraq crusade are big oil (House of Bush/House of Saud), Halliburton (the vice-president), Bechtel (a nest of mighty Republicans) and so forth.
Bloom doesn't think much of Americans, either:
All of this is extraordinarily blatant, yet the American people seem benumbed, unable to read, think, or remember, and thus fit subjects for a president who shares their limitations.
Bloom clearly seems to think that Americans deserve Bush--we are that stupid. But Bloom is clear that we don't deserve some of our greatest writers:
[D.H.] 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.
One gets the notion that Bloom thinks that America is also unworthy of the Great Bloom, although he's far too modest to say it straight out. And it's odd to see the word "Jacksonian" in this context, because the political impulse that Bush is implementing (and part of what Bloom is so against) is sometimes referred to as "Jacksonian," in the sense advanced by Walter Russell Meade.
Bloom may or may not have read Meade, but he certainly reads a lot of books--and he is certain that Bush does not. In fact, Bloom writes:
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.
I'll draw the veil of silence on the rest of Bloom's essay (if you're interested, you can always follow the link and read it for yourself), except to say that the summary version is, "Bush stinks, and American has lost its way due to the evangelicals."
I want for a moment, however, to talk about those two sentences of Bloom's about Bush and books. They piqued my curiosity: whatever could Bloom be referring to? Did Bush really boast of "never having read a book through, even at Yale?"
The closest I could come to the origin of the statement was a joke Bush made at a dinner. Bloom's remarks seem to have been based on the following self-deprecating quip Bush made at a black-tie event prior to the 2000 election:
William F Buckley wrote a book at Yale. I read one.
Well, if I didn't know better, I'd accuse Bloom of a lack of reading comprehension. Or perhaps it's a lack of listening comprehension. Or maybe he just doesn't get the difference between a joke and a serious declarative statement; certainly, his works don't show an especially well-developed sense of humor, as best I can recall.
And what of Bush's actual reading habits, not his Bloom-imagined ones? Well, he seems to like his books long:
Married to a former librarian, Bush likes short speeches and, judging from a recent reading list (Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington), lengthy books. Early in its first term the Bush White House established an authors lecture series, which enabled the president to pick the brains of David McCullough, Edmund Morris, Martin Gilbert, Bernard Lewis, and Robert Kaplan, among others. Bush has publicly acknowledged his debt to Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy, which distinguishes between "free" and "fear" societies, and exalts Ronald Reagan's moral confrontation with Soviet tyranny. A recent New York Times story described his admiration for Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
I'm not sure how these works would sit with Bloom--but they certainly qualify as books. In addition Bush, according to the same article, reads the Bible or the works of Oswald Chambers (a Scottish-born chaplain) every morning. With Bloom's emphasis on how the religious right is responsible for so many ills in America, I would have guessed that he'd be none too pleased with that reading matter.
But it turns out I'd be wrong. Here's Bloom's Western Canon, his list of essential books for the educated, literate person. It turns out that the Bible, King James version, is one of the first on the list. De Tocqueville doesn't get mentioned, but surely Bush should get at least a tiny bit of credit from Bloom for his Bible study? Seems not.
I'm not really sure why people such as Bloom fascinate me so. I think it's the way their deep knowledge in a certain specialized area (in his case, literature) combines with a failure to research much outside the range of that knowledge, and the resultant arrogance and ignorance they display without their even realizing it. Because they are smart and highly erudite in one discipline, and are used to pontificating within that discipline (and receiving praise and respect when they do), people such as Bloom often appear to lack the intellectual curiosity--and humility--to wonder what it is they don't know about other things, and to try to learn.
Well, you certainly can't say the same for Bush. In fact, au contraire, according to this excerpt from a mostly-uncomplimentary book about Bush, written by Jacob Weisberg:
Richard Perle, foreign policy adviser [says]: "The first time I met Bush 43 … two things became clear. One, he didn't know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn't know very much."
Weisberg cited the Perle quote in a way that was meant to be a put-down of Bush. But some might consider it a recommendation. At any rate, it's a trait that Harold Bloom might do well to emulate now and then.