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Friends by Candlelight

My friend and professor Junius said the other day that being a good writer is 5% being a good writer and 95% not being distracted by the internet.


It's 1:28 AM on Monday morning - I've just finished a three-day weekend that in spite of my best intentions has landed me once again in the wee hours with the lamps lit.  I have very little required work left and I know I must get to it and get to bed if I want to make anything of tomorrow, but the texts before me won't be shut.

My Victorian Poetry class has been my hardest one of the semester.  It has the smallest workload, but three pages of poems mean truly endless hours of research and grappling.  Tomorrow we'll begin a four-week unit on Robert Browning.  I know nothing about him except that he really loved his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the two of them loved Italy, and he chose Shelley as his poetic godfather.

I picked up a few of Harold Bloom's collections of Browning criticism and I am awed.  Harold Bloom is a legendary - almost mythical - figure around here.  I spent last evening at a gathering at the Graduate Club with some 2009 YDS alumni who had returned to New Haven for a conference honoring Denys Turner.  One of those in attendance had worked for Bloom and regaled us with tales of his famous eccentricities.  Bloom used to be a member of the English faculty but decided nobody in the department was doing any intelligent work anymore and hadn't since 1968.  Yale's constitution states that they won't have any "university professors" - a post many universities give to exceptionally prestigious scholars who don't fit in any department and need to wander around.  After Bloom's pronouncement about the English department, Yale's constitution was amended to say "we will have no university professors except Harold Bloom."

As I understand it, Bloom lamented the cessation of the search for the great ideas that are the purpose of literature.  I've occasionally been surprised by the kinds of topics people present at conferences because of how beside-the-point they seem.  You can spend a whole career writing about this or that context of a writer or work without grappling with the meaning of the work.  Last evening a current PhD student in English forecasted that in twenty years English departments will all be called "cultural studies," and that the study of literature will have lost its ability to be truth bearing.  I don't believe this will come to pass, but I do think Bloom's point about refocusing attention on meaning must not be ignored.  He wants to return, it seems, to the New Critics - scholars like C.S. Lewis who knew texts had to mean something in order to justify being read over centuries.  That's the only sort of literary study that interests me.  But how it interests me!

I love about Bloom that he seems to have actually read everything.  I often want in my essays to compare writers, but there's just no way I can because of how little I actually know about them.  The entire discipline of comparative literature is really neat, but I don't think anyone can actually do it until they've been in the business for quite a long time.  I am terribly intimidated by it but love watching someone like Bloom at work.

Imagine if you did have that ability - it's almost as if you held the power to keep your dearest friends close to you at all times.  Knowledge of characters as thorough as Bloom's keeps them ever-present in the mind and eases the tension of the paradox of presence and absence.  I got a little teary tonight reading Bloom's passage about the "cognitive powers of invention" - the authorial imagination - and who in the canon has mastered the art.

"Browning does not match Shakespeare as a thinker, but no one does.  Among Shakespeare's cognitive powers of invention is the amazing ability to create human beings: Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Lear, Cleopatra, and so many more. Only Chaucer among the poets, and a handful of novelists - Dickens, Tolstoy, Balzac, Joyce, Proust - rival Robert Browning in the Shakespearean art of inventing human beings."

Inventing human beings!  Yes!  My heart caught in my throat at two names on his list - Chaucer and Tolstoy.  Ah, the humans they invented have, through painstaking study, become more real to me than I can describe because in my reader's imagination they became me.  Natasha Rostov and myself are one, and through her I live two lifetimes.  Just look at all the other names - evidently there are invented humans in those texts too of whom I know nothing.  I love these moments where I want to keep doing exactly what I'm doing - it's rare that any person wants to stay exactly where she is, but I think I can say that because to stay here will be a constant uphill climb.  There's nothing static about studying like this, and the promise that the brass ring will ever inch away from my reaching arm is the essence of my contentedness.

This muse of mine that ignites my passion seems to dislike the sun.  Perhaps I can teach her to visit at a more convenient hour, but I'll continue to meet on any terms she condescends to visit me.  It's worth it.


  1. You have the most beautiful way with words.

    "Natasha Rostov and myself are one, and through her I live two lifetimes."

    I love this sentence. I am so glad you keep this record of your wonderful thoughts! You really need to come back to the west coast sometime, I miss you!


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