November 13, 2019

Finding Shelter in Shakespeare with Harold Bloom and Ginger Baker

By Stuart Mitchner

When I was very young, I read poems incessantly because I was lonely and somehow must have believed they could become people for me.
—Harold Bloom (1930-2019), from Possessed by Memory

Strange and yet unexpectedly gratifying, to open the Times one mid-October morning, ready to read the day’s news at arm’s length, or else to sling the paper angrily aside, only to hesitate, startled by the image of Harold Bloom’s all-the-sorrow-and-wonder-of-the-ages face on the front page with the fact of his death at 89. Even so, Bloom’s presence at the top of the news lends it a touch of literary grace, bringing his “people” Hamlet and Falstaff into the fire and fury of the present. In May of this year Bloom told an interviewer, “I teach Shakespeare as scripture,” his bible being The Invention of the Human (1998), in which he envisions the “pervasive presence” of Shakespeare “here, there, and everywhere at once,” as of “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” He grounds his devotion in Falstaff: Give Me Life (2017): “The true and perfect image of life abides with him: robustly, unforgettably, forever….Disreputable and joyous, he speaks to a world that goes from violence to violence.”

On another October morning a week earlier, same kitchen setting, same hour, same newspaper, the heavy weather of a world going “from violence to violence” gives way for the death of drummer Ginger Baker at 80. While Bloom’s passing recalled the quiet, thoughtful moments I sought him out as a teacher between covers, the news about Baker made me smile remembering the night in March 1968 when I saw a man whose his hair appeared to be on fire driving a set of drums like a team of wild horses, so deep in the “torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of passion,” that if someone with prophetic knowledge had assured me that the demon flailing away as if each moment might be his last would not only live through the night but for another 51 years, I’d have thought they were mad.

The Notorious Mr. Bloom

My reply to the small voice in my head insisting “you can’t put Bloom and Baker in the same column” is the framing of the Times obit with its ringside panache (“Champion of the West in Literature’s Pantheon”) and its repeated stigmatizing of “Mr. Bloom” with the term “notorious,” first directly under the headline (“Called the most notorious literary critic in America”), then under the photo (“frequently called …”), and again in the third paragraph (“frequently called …”). Meanwhile “Mr. Baker” is formally introduced as the man who “helped redefine the role of the drums in rock” with “an approach as sophisticated as it was forceful.” You have to read some 10 paragraphs farther before you get to the sublime understatement, “He was also, by all accounts, not a very likable man,” followed by a reference to the documentary, Beware of Mr.Baker, which opens with the infuriated subject hammering the filmmaker on the head with a blunt instrument. Jay Bulger had been warned: “I’d heard he was manic, dangerous, unapproachable. He sounded like Grendel from Beowulf.”

Baker’s vow to hit anyone who has a problem with him (“come see me and punch me on the nose, … I ain’t going to sue you; I’m going to hit you back”) reminds me of the line from Moby Dick quoted via Captain Ahab in Bloom’s The Daemon Knows (2015): “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” In his poetry-garnished autobiography Hellraiser (2010), Baker admits to being fascinated as a boy by the firey visuals of the London bombings and V-2 rockets, claiming “at no time was I afraid. I loved the explosions.”

“Strange Bedfellows”

Some might say Mr. Bloom would banish the “manic, dangerous” Mr. Baker from his classroom, not to mention his books, but a critic who writes about “the leathery authenticity and baked-in Americana” of The Band while teaching the Bard as scripture knows that “Shakespearean” is a world of a word capacious enough to cover the symbolic extremes of the “goodly, portly” Falstaffian humanist and the poetry-writing hellraiser with the sepulchral Cockney accent that Bloom would surely savor if he heard the drummer reciting “Pressed Rat and Warthog” — who “closed down their shop, they didn’t want to, ‘twas all they had got, selling atonal apples, amplified heat, and Pressed Rat’s collection of dog legs and feet.” Imagine Bloom seated with his idols Melville and Whitman at a Cream concert in close proximity to all that amplified heat as Baker intones over the mounting thunder of his drums and the approaching wailing electric whirlwind of Eric Clapton’s coda, “The bad captain madman had ordered their fate. He laughed and stomped off with a nautical gait.”

Listen to Baker tell his tale and you could be hearing the voice of Falstaff’s Eastcheap, or of shipwrecked Trinculo in Act 2, scene 2 of The Tempest as the storm unloads (“yond same black cloud, yond huge one, looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor”), and he finds himself forced to take cover with Caliban (“What have we here? a man or a fish? …. Legged like a man and his fins like arms! Warm o’ my troth! …. my best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabouts: misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows”).

The shade of Bloom’s Falstaff enters the scene with Trinculo’s singing shipmate Stephano, a bottle of sack in his hand. Beholding Caliban, he sees “some monster of the isle with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague …. He shall taste of my bottle: if he have never drunk wine afore will go near to remove his fit…. Come on your ways; open your mouth; here is that which will give language to you, cat: open your mouth; this will shake your shaking, I can tell you, and that soundly: you cannot tell who’s your friend: open your chaps again.”

As Bloom the teacher would remind his students, the notion that wine bestows the gift of language is the essence of Falstaff: “A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

The Best Teacher

In the May interview with William Girardi, Bloom says, “These days, whenever I read, teach, or write, I am haunted by friends who educated me:…. They seem to be in the room with me. They also appear in my dreams. I have never written a poem. My only gift, as I understand it, is to have learned to listen: to students and to ghosts…. I would like to be remembered as a teacher. Essentially I am a schoolteacher.”

Andrew Solomon, the author of Far From The Tree and one of Bloom’s former students at Yale, remembers and defends “the best teacher I ever knew” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece taking issue with the Times for “trumpeting that Bloom had failed to win the culture wars,” and with the Post itself for publishing an article criticizing him “for being part of a white, straight, patriarchal system that did not defer to identity politics.” (Thus the emphasis on the word “notorious” in the Times obituary.) Against the naysayers’ claims that the canon “excluded marginalized voices,” Solomon cites Bloom’s admiration for the work of Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe and other writers of color” while adding: “to say that someone who lionized Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tony Kushner was ignoring LGBT voices seems at best perilously naive.”

On the occasion of newspaper breakfasts, it’s worth repeating something Bloom says in his May conversation with Girardi: “As I discovered again this morning, I no longer can read The New York Times, once I have glanced at all the dreadful events. Cultural coverage is so remote from my aesthetic experience that clearly I will go on provoking tired readers….Without reading Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cervantes, and their few peers, we cannot learn how to think. And if we cannot think, then the future belongs to the Trumps of the world — that is to say, to the apocalyptic beasts from the sea.”

Whether the misery of the hour is coming from Washington or Westminster, any excuse for finding shelter in Shakespeare is not to be missed, especially when there are ample helpings of what Bloom calls by way of W.B. Yeats “abundant, resonant, beautiful, laughing, living speech.”