Possessed By Memory is divided into six sections:
First, a two-page preface; then
Part I: 14 meditations on (roughly put) the Old Testament and Kabbalah (pp 1-75); next,
Part II, nine meditations on Shakespeare and “self-otherseeing” (similar but separate from his “self-overhearing”, see quote at bottom), (about 60 pages);
Part III includes meditations (about 30 of them) on a litany of English poets and poems starting with Ben Jonson (Shakespeare’s contemporary) and chronologically going to Charles Algernon Swineburn (pp 145-301, If you’re familiar with Bloom, the selection is expected, but not totally unsurprising);
Part IV is similarly formed, but about American poets and poetry, going from Whitman to Amy Clampitt, who lived until1994 (pp 305-468);
Lastly, Bloom adds a lengthy Coda, similar to the one he appended to Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, in which he mostly discusses Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but ends with a magnificent and melancholy meditation on Samuel Johnson and his Idler (pp 470-508).
All of these small sections are enlarded with fascinating autobiographical details and anecdotes—even ghost stories—which, again, for those interested in Bloom and his style of criticism are great, for those looking for something more “objective”, less so. Again, finally, for Bloom enthusiasts, this book is full of treasures and I recommend it.
If you’re a major fan of Harold Bloom, voraciously consuming everything he has written, then I think that it’s likely you’ll enjoy this book, and you can skip the rest of these three introductory paragraphs. If you are familiar with Bloom, but less familiar with the intimidatingly encyclopedic body of knowledge he always seems to have at hand and to which he refers constantly, then this may be one of his tougher books in recent years. Here’s an example of what I mean, and keep in mind this is a very straightforward, almost simplistic example:
"Returning to Proust is like again experiencing Dante, Cervantes, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce. The Proustian difference is that his principle characters—Charles, Morel, Albertine, Swann, the Dutchesse de Guermantes, Saint-Loup, Francoise, Odette, Gilberte, Bloch, Marcel’s mother, most of all the unnamed narrator finally revealed as Marcel—change more radically for me than even the great Shakespearean figures." (470)
In Possessed By Memory Bloom will refer to most of the authors mentioned in the first sentence in the pair above in the same way he refers to Proust in the second sentence, that is, as if his readers are intimately familiar with the authors, their works, their works’ characters, and so on. Some people love this, others hate it. It is what it is.
Thus, confronting Bloom is a defining intellectual experience, because it is humbling to the point of humiliation. If you don’t know how much you know about literature, religion and philosophy, Bloom will reveal it to you, and quickly. If you don’t know how you’ll react to being confronted by your own (comparative) ignorance, you’ll find out soon enough. At that point, you either keep reading him, or you don’t. But self-knowledge is central to Bloom’s thought, and, in his opinion, is central to all great literature.
Bloom’s knowledge, his breadth and depth of allusion, is gargantuan—thus, so too is his memory. But with a memory so big and strong, who’s really in charge? Who is possessed? Who is possessing? This book, as mentioned by some reviewers above, as well as Bloom himself in it, is a kind of revery of pseudo-meandering meditations. He has been consciously, publicly discussing his impending death for years now, and this book is his most sustained confrontation with mortality and the inevitability of annihilation yet. Many of his own reflections on death in this book are incredibly poignant and poetry in their own right.
Hopefully this is helpful.
Note: Bloom very considerately attempts to articulate specifically what he means by “self-otherseeing”, which is closely related to his important idea of “self-overhearing”, the process by which people’s consciousnesses (and thus selves) grow, and the illustration of which, Bloom argues, was first accomplished by William Shakespeare, hence, his “invention of the human”.
“By self-otherseeing, whether in Shakespeare or in life, I mean the double consciousness of observing our own actions and sufferings as though they belonged to others and not ourselves, while being aware we possess them. The consequence is a strangeness that makes us shake our heads and rub our eyes in perplexity.” (81)
- Hardcover: 560 pages
- Publisher: KNOPF US (12 February 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0525520880
- ISBN-13: 978-0525520887
- Product Dimensions: 16.6 x 4.1 x 24.2 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 862 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 133,386 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)