MARCH 2, 2021
IN THE LIMBO between the final day of the semester and Christmas Day, the 1,100 pages of Harold Bloom’s two most recently published posthumous works — Take Arms Against the Sea of Troubles (Yale University Press) and The Bright Book of Life (Knopf) — provided me with an unexpected madeleine that sent me back to my undergraduate years. I often wonder how many of my colleagues and friends in the United States realize that I wrote my first book, El canon y sus formas, on Bloom’s idea of the canon and its early reception in Latin America. I have been fortunate to build a career as a scholar of Mexican literature and cinema right before the current wave of precarity reached my subfield in full force. Yet, my love for criticism and scholarship has always been tied to my passion for cosmopolitan culture and what we now call world literature, often in conflict with the duties and limits of my chosen specialty.
El canon y sus formas was my undergraduate thesis, and it was published as a book by the Ministry of Culture in the State of Puebla, Mexico, in 2002. It was the conclusion of a Licenciatura degree in Literature (no qualifiers or adjectives) from the University of the Americas. In Mexico we do not have a liberal arts model, but rather a structured curriculum in which one spends four to five years fully devoted to one’s major. In El canon y sus formas, I wished to capture the movement between Latin American and world literatures, between literary reading and theory, that my program so beautifully embodied.
When my book came out, I was 23 years old and a first-year graduate student in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. I had already renounced my original wish for a doctorate in comparative literature, after being told a few times that no one in the United States would hire someone with a strong Mexican accent to teach anything other than Latin American literature. It turned out to be a wise professional decision, and a meaningful personal one. I became a very committed member of the field of Mexican Studies, as I quickly realized the cultural and political importance of teaching and researching Mexico in the face of US ignorance toward its Southern neighbor. In exchange for these gains, which I value, I paid the price of not developing a career as a critic that matched my literary world and global interests. It was well worth it, but every time I return to Bloom’s work, and recall the reasons why I spent so much time studying it, I am reminded that the loss of a career that matched my passion for world literature (and cinema) rendered my rise in my field and the academic ladder possible.
Reading these two volumes these past few days, I saw both traces of the ideas and readings that so powerfully drew me to Bloom’s work, and also the reasons why I opted to become such a different critic from him and to distance myself from the kind of criticism in Mexico that takes a page from his conservatism. Take Arms and The Bright Book are written in a conversational, rather than critical, mode. Bloom’s prose is mostly committed to asserting his love and admiration for the works discussed, and to conveying his own memories of readings and discussions surrounding them. There is extensive citation, with some single, block-quoted passages running for pages. Whatever the reason for these excerpts, the citations read as if they were recited from memory amid a tête-à-tête with his imagined interlocutors. Bloom could reputedly invoke literary passages on command, and the book that immediately preceded these two is tellingly entitled Possessed by Memory. If anything, Bloom was a gifted anthologist, and the books would be well worth it if one read only the cited texts.
The tone of both books, and their steadfast commitment to the idea of literary experience, harkens back to a mode of erudition and of the everyday presence of literature that is not available in the same way to anyone who grew up, like I did, during the rise of cable television, video games, and the internet. It may in fact be impossible for any young person in the US to acquire it through the current, hobbled educational system. There is thusly a sense of something that was valuable but is now lost, aligned with Bloom’s long-sustained narrative of the greatness of literature fighting against various forms of cultural malaise.
This is why I believe Take Arms and The Bright Book are books that ultimately embody Bloom’s inability to be part of a project that contributes to the knowledge of literature in the future tense. They are full of his most frustrating critical tics, and his highly performative prose, sharpened by his cultural wars and his one-dimensional understanding of genius, has weakened over time. Bloom’s insistence on grabbing every writer to measure them (or “him” since his repertoire is mostly men) against Shakespeare, or whatever other supposedly superior writer, delivers the dullest moments in his books. This is symptomatic of a larger problem: the frequent surrender of his critical powers to the notion that a piece of sublime literature can speak by itself.
The five days I spent reading the books and retrieving from my library the 20-some books of his I have read over the years confirmed my own ambiguous relationship to his criticism. My profound passion for literature finds an echo in his own profession of love, as affected and magniloquent as it can be. Yet, Bloom’s faith in literature makes his own love sound acritical and one-dimensional, almost unworthy of the deep knowledge of the literary that he clearly possessed. For me, quarreling with the love of literature — being unfaithful to literature with cinema or music or popular culture, and returning to the intensity of a masterpiece after periods of distance and even indifference — fuels a more intense passion. Writing criticism solely to express an unqualified love for literature has the same effect of happy love songs or feel-good movies: it fails to truly convey that love and often turns out to be quite uninteresting. To use an analogy that he would hate, reading Bloom again was like listening an all-too-familiar pop song: it no longer carries any insight, but its power of evocation was still worthwhile.
Because of the role that Bloom’s work played in my early formation, I cannot but weave my reading of these new books into my own memories of what it meant to read his infamous book The Western Canon in Spanish. Published in 1995 in Damián Alou’s translation, El canon occidental turned Bloom into a household name in the Spanish-speaking world. I remember acquiring my long-lost copy of the book some time in 1997 or 1998, at the behest of my mentor, the novelist and scholar Pedro Ángel Palou. Now a professor at Tufts, Palou was, at the time, part of a group of writers called “el Crack,” a parody-of-sorts of “The Boom,” the literary movement from the generation prior that put Latin American authors (Cortázar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and García Márquez) on the map and in the hands of Anglo-American readers. Although they did not object to the work of Boom authors, they were critical of the cooptation of magical realism into stereotypes of Latin America in the work of commercially successful writers like Isabel Allende, Luis Sepúlveda, or Laura Esquivel. Explicitly contrasting themselves with these authors, the novelists of el Crack espoused the claim that Mexican writers should not be pigeonholed as native informants or writers of exoticism; nor should they participate in Mexico’s long tradition of cultural nationalism. Crack writers contributed substantially to opening the ground for Latin American writers to break away from the commodification of magical realism, and, in my view, constituted one of the precedents that set the stage for Roberto Bolaño’s success.
Palou’s cosmopolitan agenda as a writer and professor inspired me and my classmates to find in Bloom a claim for the universal right of Western culture. This was meaningful to a group of students who grew up in a generation exhausted by state-sponsored cultural nationalism and experiencing the contradictions of the NAFTA era. Cultural theorist Roger Bartra called this malaise the “post-Mexican condition.” Removed from the specifics of American culture wars, Bloom’s denunciation of what he called the “School of Resentment” was not originally read in Latin America as an attack on the new historicism or cultural studies, which would take many more years to win a footing in our academies. Instead, Bloom’s fiery rhetoric resonated with our yearning to be part of what we would now call world literature, as new and exciting waves of contemporary fiction were coming into our bookstores thanks to transnational publishers like Siruela, Anagrama, and Ediciones del Acantilado. This phenomenon was, in part, a function of the corporatization of Hispanophone publishing, which allowed for the Spanish circulation of works in translation by a plethora of writers in every genre. Nevertheless, based in Spain, many of the leading publishers of the time — Alfaguara and Planeta most notably — would limit the publication of Latin American authors to their national contexts, something that stood in stark contrast of the regional and international circulation of writers from the Boom era. In this paradox, the cry for the right to cosmopolitanism was crucial to the cultural politics of the time.
Anagrama, the Barcelona-based publisher responsible for Bloom’s books in Spanish, was a central actor in this process. Bloom’s work was published in their “Argumentos” series, devoted to the essay and to contemporary critical thinking — genres that in Spanish are not always as starkly divided as they can be in English. El canon occidental shared a catalog with Gilles Deleuze’s Crítica y clínica, Pierre Bourdieu’s Las reglas del arte, and Edward W. Said’s Cultura e imperialismo. In Latin America and Spain, these works were published and read side by side, in a critical continuum. Bourdieu, Deleuze, Said, and Bloom were authors that I absorbed simultaneously, with great dedication and with little sense of contradiction. Although Bourdieu’s sociology remains the most significant influence in my academic work, Bloom’s attachment to literariness gave significant shape to my belief that the love for literature should never be in contradiction with criticism.
To be sure, El canon y sus formas was by no means the first or the only book in Latin America written in reaction to Bloom. I dialogued with an Argentine collection entitled Dominios de la literatura. Acerca del canon, featuring luminaries like Beatriz Sarlo and Ricardo Piglia, likewise concerned the relationship between the Western and the Argentine canon. There was also a beautifully playful essay by the brilliant critic and public intellectual Rafael Rojas, Un banquete canónico, in which he made a careful reconsideration of the Cuban canon after Bloom. This interest has lingered for years. For instance, in 2010, the Venezuelan critic Josu Landa published Canon City, a deep engagement with Bloom.
We all consider Bloom’s idea of the canon and his defense of literature to be a valuable and compelling departing point. At the same time, his poor account of Latin American literature in what is clearly the worst chapter of The Western Canon opened up a space for us, critics engaged with different areas of Latin America, to reflect on the conflicted and ambiguous relationship of our traditions with the idea of Western culture. And although it is not the case of these particular works, one most acknowledge that Bloom’s infamous term “The School of Resentment” is still leveled these days in the Spanish-speaking world to police any desire to account for race, gender, class, or social justice in our literary and cultural fields, so the reactionary effects of his conservatism also made the trip.
Since publishing El canon y sus formas, my views have evolved significantly. Moving to the United States granted me an intense sense of my foreignness and the experience of the everyday ways in which anti-Mexican sentiment shapes so much of the identity of this country. Having arrived in Pittsburgh less than a month before 9/11, I came to understand and endure the ugly undertones of Bloom’s dismissal of anti-canonical efforts as “resentment.” While I am not myself a participant of ethnic studies, I learned over a few years to understand and value the politics behind strategic essentialism and the work of centering marginalized voices. I have become an academic who joyfully fluctuates between Mexican humanists and romantic comedies, between the study of Occidentalism and the consideration of the idea of the taco. Which is to say that I have not renounced my profound appreciation for the exceptionality of literature as a cultural practice, but I do not see it threatened by the opening of canons or the study of popular culture.
I have nonetheless continued to be a dutiful reader of Bloom’s work, a tall order when one considers the enormous number of pages he continued to publish until his passing in 2019. I now find debates regarding the value of the academic study of literature, by him and his opponents, boring and pointless. The ongoing gutting of the humanities by university corporatization is partly enabled by frivolous culture wars. Bloom belonged to the ilk of academic patricians that validate many of the negative stereotypes that the enemies of the humanities have about our fields, while at the same time fiercely opposing the fundamental task of allowing our ideas to move forward with the times.
My admiration for his intelligence and erudition does not give me any sympathy for his whining about Marxism or “Franco-Heideggerianism,” which is blessedly reduced in Take Arms and The Bright Book to a couple of passing digs. I am also disinterested in writing a vindication or exercising any judgment of his person, not only because I find it futile and even distasteful in the wake of his passing, but also because a simple Google search yields the many profiles written during his life and death, as well as his many controversies, including the accusations of sexual misconduct leveled by Naomi Wolf. Some readers of this piece may object to this position, and I have no desire to convince anyone who believes Bloom’s failings are reason enough to not read him, a position I do not share but I most certainly respect. Besides, having trained in structuralism and surviving a substantive amount of Saussure, Greimas, and Barthes as an undergraduate, I have never really believed in biographical criticism, nor in the notion that a work can be disqualified a priori due to the moral failings of its author.
If anything, my disinterestedly ambiguous view of the culture wars of the academy in which I work made me realize long ago that the same premise that scaffolds Bloom’s conservatism underpins the schools of critique he so abhorred. Aligning morality, aesthetics, and truth has become a shared expectation for many varieties of criticism. See, for example, the faith in the moral power of cultural works that accompanies neoliberal multiculturalism, or consider the amount of academic social media posts invested in judging books and television shows for their failure to represent the full dimensions of marginalized subject positions or to embody a proper critique of capitalism. Bloom’s own alignment of literary genius with the category of wisdom (a moral concept) or the type of transcendent truth captured by the subtitle of Take Arms (“The Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death”) can be read as accepting the same axiom of the moral imperatives of culture, sustained by an altogether different form of pontification. Morality, after all, is what culture wars are about. I try (and sometimes fail) to refuse any participation in this very American version of an age-old debate. To not exceed my purposes here, I will just remark that Bloom’s final books reflect one of the most personal and distilled versions of the moral code that sustained his idea of poetic thinking as the highest path to universal truth.
Take Arms and The Bright Book collect Bloom’s reflections on his favorite poems and novels, respectively. The former is grounded on the idea of a “poetic thinking about poetry [that] denies the illusiveness of character, shrugs off epistemology even as it does metaphysics.” This mode of thinking, in Bloom’s view, does not only “augment life” but also identifies a “matrix of complex relations, historical and psychic, linguistic and imagistic, that work together so as to manifest a raw power that is now difficult to locate elsewhere, whether in theology or philosophy.” It is not difficult to see why this belief, which Bloom has repeated in one way or another for decades, has found so much resonance outside the academy, where there is still a community of readers seeking truth and solace in reading. It is the same “self-help compulsion” that Beth Blum identifies in her outstanding book on the role of modern literature in the continuous search for advice and personal betterment.
There is, however, a strong dissonance between the power that books continue to have in our society and the hollowing out of the institutional conditions for their study and discussion. Bloom thrived in this contradiction, and he both understood and deployed the self-help compulsion very well, even if he may have resisted this characterization. In Take Arms and The Bright Books, he arrived, after many years of redundant renditions of the same principles and even the same readings, to a refined weaving of the role of the literary critic with that of the self-help author. If anything, whatever emotions these two books may elicit in some readers, one can attribute them to their autobiographical musings, which are more concerned with Bloom’s own mortality than with his intellectual quarrels.
In Take Arms, Bloom returns once again to his well-worn canon: from Shakespeare and Milton, to Wordsworth and Shelley, all the way to Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane and closing with Dante and a return to Shakespeare. I do not mean this as a criticism per se. There is significant beauty in this book, which mostly emerges out of Bloom’s culmination of a lifetime of reading. Its readings embody Bloom’s decision to spend the last moments of his life and critical work in a final engagement with the texts that he loved the most. Attacking the book’s selection is fruit as low-hanging as can be. One can begin with the fact that no woman poet gets a chapter here, and figures canonical in Bloom’s own terms, such as Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, are simply mentioned in passing. It is almost satirical that the index has an entry on “gender” pointing to the representation of women in three or four male poets. One cannot forget, though, that the mere gesture of pointing this out contradicts Bloom’s own belief that the personal relationship to the text cannot be overridden by demands of representation. It is simply foolish to expect Bloom, after dozens of books and at the end of his life, to suddenly change his mind or his references.
The Bright Book of Life more closely follows Bloom’s non-academic work as an advocate of the Western canon, with 48 essays devoted each to one novel from the United States, Western Europe, or Russia. Although the vast majority of the essays are on the authors one would expect — Cervantes, Austen, Tolstoy, James, Proust, etc. — there are also some surprising and even peculiar entries the closer one gets to the present: Elizabeth Bowen, Ursula K. Le Guin, W. G. Sebald, and Joshua Cohen, an author whose acquaintance I now owe to Bloom. Perhaps due to its obligation to appeal to the wider audience of a trade book, there are some enjoyable and telling anecdotes peppered across the book, particularly in the late chapters. I was certainly surprised to learn that Bloom lunched together with “my friend Ralph Waldo Ellison” once a week “at the Century Club in New York and talked about literature and jazz.” One cannot miss a certain level of irony when reading Bloom’s praise of “major African American achievements in the arts” or defending Their Eyes Were Watching God from Ellison’s criticisms, after decades of dismissing the groundings of minority literatures. Another curious anecdote is his email-based friendship with Le Guin, and the two loving chapters he devotes to her work, clearly a deliberate contrast to Bloom’s well publicized trashing of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter saga.
Compared to Take Arms, The Bright Book is more loosely structured through the desire — again due to the difference between a university and a trade press — of instructing his readers on the pleasure of reading and rereading novels. Both books are deeply steeped with the awareness of mortality and with the possibilities of literature as a device that augments life and that ponders questions of death and eternal life.
If one is going to invest the considerable time and effort these books require, one has to accept that they do not reflect Bloom at his highest critical power, nor do they constitute any form of late style that would mark a distinct evolution in his work. One cannot fairly read anything written by Bloom since his break into the mainstream and expect anything other than idiosyncratic readings and approaches to literature. Idiosyncrasy is the core of Bloom’s method, even if it is masked by his tendency toward prescription. Bloom’s post–Western Canon books clearly delineate a mission to guide his audience into a form of reading that presents itself as sublime, but that requires surrendering to the tension between the prescriptive rhetoric of the critic and his claims on behalf of the freedom of the individual reader. He developed his grand claims on the role of literary greatness in the history of human culture in this period in massive tomes like Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) or Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2002), as well as petulantly pedagogical books with titles like How to Read and Why (2002) or Where Shall Wisdom be Found? (2004).
In this period, Bloom’s critical abilities were questioned across the board as he was becoming widely read both by a more general audience in English and by a growing audience in translation. To my knowledge, none of this pushback appeared in the Spanish-speaking world in a significant way. Yet, in the Anglosphere, a consensus emerged that he was no longer the powerful critic who, in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), had produced a sophisticated theory of poetry grounded on agonistics. Those who agree with this conception and who became irritated with Bloom at any stage of his late career won’t find in these posthumous books much reason to change their mind. This is well embodied in Philip Hensher’s frustrated review of Take Arms, unequivocally entitled “Harold Bloom finally betrays how little he really understood literature.”
And yet, moving beyond both the aversion and admiration that Bloom so strongly elicited is essential to fully understand the meaning of his work, as represented in Take Arms and The Bright Book. My previously expressed criticisms notwithstanding, reading Take Arms and The Bright Book afforded me many pleasures, because the memory of my readings held a continuous conversation with Bloom’s disquisitions. Hensher is correct that the book reads mostly as if Bloom was thinking aloud, but I do not find this to be a problem, and, unlike Hensher, I do not feel any urge to point out whether his readings and statements are wrong. If anything, I have learned that reading Bloom often requires taking them at face value and enjoying the peculiar character of some of his interpretations. I also continue to believe that one of the best ways to read Bloom is side by side with the critics that he quarrels with, which constructs some truly fascinating debates.
In El canon y sus formas, I compared Bloom’s claims for saving literature to Auerbach’s own idea of saving Western literature in Mimesis. When I was still a graduate student, Bloom received a copy of my book, which I think I sent but honestly do not remember if I did. He wrote me a letter that I likely lost in one of many moves. The only things I recall are the graciously grateful tone of the letter, amused as he probably was that a young Mexican wrote about him, and that his sole objection to my book was that he did not like to be compared to Auerbach. Because of this, I smiled when I read one of the few cogent theoretical points in Take Arms — Bloom’s strong criticism of Auerbach’s concept of figura. I, of course, regret losing that letter, but the loss may be symbolic of the fact that I gleefully and deliberately turned out to be a scholar that Bloom would have disapproved of in many ways. Disappointing our teachers is a fundamental path to intellectual growth.
In the early stages of my undergraduate research, another dear mentor from college, Adela Pineda Franco, who now teaches at Boston University, brought me Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Said’s Orientalism from the United States. Reading Bloom in English was a welcome challenge — as was reading Said, a much different stylist and humanist. The fact that I could read such tomes in English encouraged me. They were at the time the thickest and most daunting books I had consumed in my second language. An obsessive bibliophile, I spent many hours trying to find copies of Bloom’s books, as well as the works discussed in his criticism, in English and Spanish. Reading the chapter of Take Arms on Wallace Stevens reminded me of the joy I felt when I found a modest edition Wallace Stevens’s essays published by the Universidad de Puebla. This joy was almost immediately matched by my success in acquiring a copy of La angustia de las influencias in the 1992 reprint by the legendary Venezuelan publisher Monte Ávila. I spent many hours pondering why the translator chose “angustia” (anguish) instead of “ansiedad,” but that was in itself the kind of productive misreading around which Bloom’s theory thrived.
Some of the memories elicited by reading Take Arms took me even further into my reading past. In Bloom’s discussion of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” I recognized the passages that Gerald MacCarthy, my Irish high school teacher, taught me in a tutorial, when my school unsuccessfully tried to train me for the International Baccalaureate exam on English literature. As Bloom traversed through the poetry of Shelley and Lord Byron in Take Arms, I recalled the experience of reading their poems in a textbook anthology entitled Touched with Fire, struggling with forms of the English language that I knew to be beautiful, but that frequently exceeded my abilities. This reading was not helped by the fact that it took place during my two-hours-long daily commute on Mexico City’s buses and subway. Taking a step back, I recognize that Bloom’s highly personal style and his reminiscences trigger my own recollections because they are designed to do so. The book is a final conversation with those who can connect their personal ways of loving literature — and the memories it arises — to the passages he analyzes.
I first spent a semester in the United States in the fall of 2000, when I was an exchange student at Washington State University. After falling in love with Seattle for two days, I moved to Pullman, a rural campus town on the border between Washington and Idaho. Even when witnessing the chaotic presidential election of that year, absurd in comparison to Mexico’s ousting of the ruling party that summer, the idleness was useful. The library, the local bookstore, and Amazon allowed me to acquire the many books I needed to complete El canon y sus formas, whose final form would have been impossible with the materials solely available in Mexico. I still own the copy of Bloom’s A Map of Misreading that I found the very first day I arrived in Pullman. Graham Allen’s and Peter de Bolla’s studies on Bloom were available in the campus library, along with many of the books my university did not own.
This was a time when the internet made references much more extensive but lacked the circulation of actual texts now possible with PDFs. Given how expensive and hard to find most books of theory and criticism were in Mexico back then, we had to read many assignments for class and materials for research in photocopies of photocopies. Out of curiosity, I recovered some of my Amazon orders from 2000. They included Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Julian Barnes’s Cross Channel. I also found that I paid 90 cents each for the Dover Thrift editions of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Keats’s Lyric Poems, which would have been prohibitively expensive in Mexico.
In hindsight, I believe that my pride in reading Bloom, in writing about him, and in struggling to achieve a sophisticated enough level of English to read the Romantics and Wallace Stevens, stemmed from the fact that someone from my background was not supposed to do it. Mexico is a country with a very complex literary world, but many of its prominent figures come from families that have been part of the cultural elites for at least two or three generations. In contrast, I was raised as the only child of a single mother who only finished elementary school and was barely able to intermittently attain lower-middle-class status amid seasons of near homelessness. The first two novels I read, at age 13 or 14, were The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which I found, out of boredom, on the shelves of a relative’s house, abandoned by its non-reading owners. I subsisted as a reader in high school by buying remainders sold for cheap at the Gandhi bookstore in Mexico City and collecting the inexpensive literary collections of classics and Nobel Prize winners sold in weekly installments in newsstands.
Bloom’s anecdotes in Take Arms and The Bright Book about his education at Cornell and Yale, and his extensive network of literary friendships, had an interesting effect on me: they made me value how much harder it was for me to read the same works that he extolls. Although I acknowledge that it often sounds arrogant and presumptuous, and can be irritating to many of my acquaintances, I consider my erudition — which I acquired, motivated in part by reading Bloom — to be my proudest work in progress. The Bright Book constantly reminded me of how becoming a reader and literary scholar was a daily economic and personal struggle.
My book-buying anxieties did not coexist well with my life as the scholarship kid attending elite institutions, or with the uncertainties about whether my mom would find a job or if we would be able to eat dinner every day before the next paycheck. Because the possibility of reading just any book was so valuable to me, I came to embrace the idea that the canon and the recognition of marginalized voices are never mutually exclusive, even if Bloom’s influence clouded my judgment in this regard for some time. I enjoy reading Native American writers like James Welch and Terry Tempest Williams, and African writers like Tayeb Salih and Scholastique Mukasonga, alongside the European writers that I have loved since my youth: Dubravka Ugrešić, Roberto Calasso, Julian Barnes. To move on from Bloom, I decided to alternate between Anagrama’s recent compendium of Antonio Tabucchi’s short stories and Yale University Press’s edition of Can Xue’s collection I Live in the Slums. It is beautiful to read at the same time two authors so radically different and so comparatively brilliant. They point to a wide and complex map of world literature that Bloom’s flat and hierarchical concept of genius could never capture or comprehend.
My hunger to read literature from as far and wide as I possibly can renders very obvious to me how provincial Bloom’s canonicity really is: it fails to properly place in its critical edifice any writer outside of his comfort zone. One could easily claim Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges as two of the most influential writers in the world during the second part of the 20th century. But not even One Hundred Years of Solitude, or any other Latin American work for that matter, belongs in The Bright Book’s canon of “novels to read and reread.” In this, Bloom reflects the parochialism of a literary field shaped by monolingual English departments and corporate presses adverse to translation. I have complained enough in my professional life about the utter ignorance about Latin American culture in the United States, even by the most educated of scholars. Debates about world literature, postcolonialism, and other comparatist paradigms almost always ignore cultural production in Spanish, not only a major global language, but also the country’s second language. If anything, Bloom embodies a peak version of this monolingual ethos.
The paradox here is that Bloom became, for many of us in Latin America, a standard-bearer of literary universalism while being an unexceptional representative of the provincialism of American literary criticism, in general, and of the university division of literary labor by languages, in particular. I withstand this in my profession with pure resignation, working in the field of Spanish in a university system where, for many, “literary studies” means “the English department.” After two decades in the United States, I am still struck that it is perhaps the only country (although I am not sure if Britain and France follow this pattern too) in which literature in translation does not vastly outnumber literature in the native language in bookstores.
Bloom’s Anglophone and Western canons are the natural creation of such a literary culture, and his trade-press books match the limited, Anglophone-centered selection of books available to non-specialized readers. To be clear, there are some exceptions to Bloom’s monolingualism in The Bright Book. He makes reference to reading in German, for instance, and Russian writers are very well represented. The significant presence of Tolstoy, along with Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, is, per his account, the result of his re-appreciation and reconsideration of the novels in the wonderful translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I can see why: these translations have made me love Tolstoy in a way in which the brick-like Mexican editions I read in high school, with their double-column pages and clunky translations, failed to elicit. Bloom’s recommendations can be inviting for sure. I rushed to read Hadji Murat in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, a magnificent work no doubt. My copy came with Bloom’s hyperbolic blurb — “Hadji Murat is … to me the best story in the world” — on the cover, right below the title.
I read other books mentioned in Bloom’s novel canon, like The Charterhouse of Parma or The Magic Mountain, in my teens and 20s, thanks to the aforementioned newsstand editions, cheaply manufactured hardcovers one can buy weekly for a couple of dollars. Other works required more effort. Ulysses, a book that I could not actually read in English until after graduate school, was accessible to me in José María Valverde’s wonderful translation. Published in Spain, this book was obscenely expensive due to volatile exchange rates in the wake of the 1994 financial crisis, but I managed to read it piecemeal in borrowed copies. The brilliant translation of Tristram Shandy by Javier Marías circulated in photocopies among my classmates. But after many attempts, I located a copy gathering dust in a shelf of a secondhand bookstore.
In some of the books that are more alien to Bloom, my reading them in Spanish was an advantage. In his chapter on I Promessi Sposi, Bloom attributes to Alessandro Manzoni the ability “to touch the universal because of his primordial strength of his character and personality, and his considerable ability to play with an assortment of narrative voices.” He nonetheless acknowledges that “[p]erhaps the Italian original, a language experiment in the Tuscan vernacular, loses too much even in the eloquent translation of Archibald Colquhoun.” I remember reading Manzoni in awe, and this was perhaps a matter of my luck, reading him not only in a language much closer to Italian, but also in the translation of the poet Guillermo Fernández. Fernández skillfully rendered in Spanish most of the Italian literature translated in Mexico, from Manzoni, to Lampedusa and Cesare Pavese to the poetry of Mario Luzi and Eugenio Montale. Reading Bloom’s canon in English or Spanish, in Mexico or the United States, can yield very different affects and ideas.
In 2003, Bloom received the Alfonso Reyes International Prize, granted in Mexico by the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, the International Alphonsine Society and other cultural institutions. Granted to Borges in its inaugural year, 1973, the Reyes Prize is often awarded to Latin American and Spanish critics, or to critics with strong relationship to Mexican culture. Paradoxically two of the most notable Americans to receive it, Bloom and George Steiner, might be the only awardees who lack this kind of relationship, beyond the admiration that their works elicit in the country’s literary field. The Prize is named after Mexico’s most important humanist in the 20th century, to whom, incidentally, I have devoted 15 years of essays that I just gathered in a book, Intermitencias alfonsinas.
I consider Reyes a model for my own intellectual practice. He believed in the democratization of culture as a pillar of the Polis (“I want Latin for the Left” is one of his famous pronouncements). His life as an exile, diplomat, and teacher were spent fighting for the right of Latin Americans to their Western cultural inherence. When affirming our identities is considered to be the ultimate act of cultural emancipation to anyone in a marginalized or minoritized position, I never forget that liberation likewise arrives in the form of knowledge and worldliness — which colonizers systematically deny to the colonized. Reyes knew this full well. His copious works are compiled in 26 thick volumes. It is a testament to his commitment to what was called in his time “universal literature” that one of those volumes compiles various books he wrote on Goethe, a second one contains a lifetime of writing on Mallarmé, and eight of them gather his extensive treatises on the literature and culture of Ancient Greece.
I found Bloom first, but reading Reyes has become one of my lifetime passions. I cannot share him with my Anglophone friends because he is scarcely translated: in a short compilation published by Knopf in 1950, and a more recent anthology by the Mexican press Fondo de Cultura Económica that I do not think has ever been commercially distributed outside of Latin America and Spain. The contrast with the dozens of books by Bloom one can find in Spanish is yet another example of how our interest for American and European critics never finds courtesy or retribution. Reyes exercised a mode of writing that nonetheless resembled Bloom’s in some interesting ways. Reyes was a fairly citational writer, too: he has whole essays devoted at commenting generously on books by authors like Góngora and Mallarmé that he collected with love and care. Reyes’s library had more than 25,000 books, and many of them are volumes of criticism from Latin America, the United States, and Europe. He could be pedagogical, but his conversational style was superior to Bloom’s. Reyes’s wonderful sense of humor and his generous exposition style balanced his erudition in a way that would have benefited many of Bloom’s works.
Reyes was an architect of the editorial culture that allowed Mexico’s dialogue with the great humanists of the mid-20th century. The legibility enjoyed by Bloom and Steiner in our milieu is a direct result of years of circulation of humanist criticism. Thanks to Reyes and his contemporaries, Mexicans have read in Spanish since the 1940s wonderful works of humanist criticism like Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Werner Jaeger’s Paideia, and Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition, published in Fondo de Cultura Económica, a press to which Reyes contributed. Bloom cites with great admiration one of the books published in Spanish in this period: Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. I read of all these books with great love during my undergraduate years, and they are continuously available in print Mexico.
Reading Taking Arms and The Bright Book of Life, I came to the conclusion that, while he was meaningful to me and to the literary world in which I became a scholar, Bloom did not quite deserve the Reyes Prize. His work is eclipsed by the vast intellectual domains covered by many of its most illustrious winners, from Borges or the great French Hispanist Marcel Bataillon to the essayist and librarian Alberto Manguel and the Spanish classicist Carlos García Gual, who received the award in 2020. Reyes was expansive and generous. Even if he worked within a Eurocentric understanding of Western culture that is not as acceptable in this day and age, he played a very significant role in the development of Latin American literature as it rose to international status. Without Reyes, Latin American literature would not have galvanized in the same way as it did right after his passing in 1959. Reyes was nominated five times to the Nobel Prize and was widely thought to be a likely recipient. He never achieved the place in world literature that would match his own commitment to the world at large.
In his most famous essay, “Notes on the American Intelligence” (“American” meaning Latin American), Reyes told an audience of international thinkers gathered in Buenos Aires that it was time for Latin Americans to become recognized in their universal cultural citizenship. He also said that Latin Americans were the true internationalists since we were knowledgeable both in European culture and our own, while even the most educated thinkers of Europe and the United States lacked basic knowledge of our literature and culture. This is the quip that, as his constant Mexican reader, I can raise against Bloom, after years of reading him with dedication: he was never the cosmopolitan that we took him to be. His final two books are a lovely and unmistakable testament to this. Which is, I guess, the reason why Reyes became my model in the end.
I will never stop reading Bloom, nor constrain myself to the silo of my Mexicanist career. I will never recommend anyone to not read him, or any other major critic for that matter. My anxious completionism will not allow me to stop reading or owning all of his books. Thanks to Take Arms and The Bright Book, I remembered once again that Bloom’s work, after so many pages, is only a province, a beautiful and narrow one, of the worldly culture that a Latin American reader like me can choose to own and inhabit. But it is a province I am always happy to revisit.