The man was not as he was portrayed. Nor as he portrayed himself. The person seated, almost propped, at the head of the seminar table, shirt unbuttoned three or even four down to allow his hand to massage his weakened heart — “my doctor urges this exercise” — often absentmindedly while listening to students speak, a roll of flesh exposing itself, making it impossible not to think “I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs,” a line from the poet and critic whose influence Bloom’s early career had been almost single-mindedly aimed against, and whose often pompous pronouncements he ended up imitating; the person arriving always early to the class and seated in the dark, “I am tired today, my dears,” that was not the man. The airs, the extravagances, the affectations, also not the man.
It was around the time that he was writing Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. This was a modern American poetry seminar, but he was steeped in Falstaff, “the god of my imaginings,” he called him, auditioning for the character, clowning with pathos, a last hurrah of sorts, the doctors weren’t giving him long, he said. It was then 1998.
Like other teachers and sages I’d known and apprenticed myself to for seasons of my life, Bloom performed, but what he didn’t perform was pedagogy or teaching, not for himself and not for us. He just did readings, in the Bloom way, which was an ongoing drama, in words, between the work at hand and the absent works, lines and phrases that the work had brought itself into being from. This wasn’t the same as watered-down “intertextuality” or “influence studies” or, god forbid, some kind of seminar or salon-like conversation. It wasn’t “New Critical” thing-in-itself close reading, because poems weren’t things in themselves, they were living subjects, and as full of contradictions and private dramas and unconscious desires and hauntings as any other. While some critics thought about the “political unconscious” and others of just the human unconscious, Bloom found a way to surface the poetic unconscious.