The Bloomian Merve Emre
How to perform authentically
The Merve Emre profile reminded me of Harold Bloom. People often dislike public intellectuals with charisma. Bloom, of course, was often also venerated. What he and Emre share is an ability to perform authentically.
Later, just before bed, Bloom eases into a chair and turns on the kitchen television to check on the progress of the Yankees game. His passionate love for the Yankees has remained constant since he was a child. He draws up his chair until it is inches from the screen.
“Ah, Little Bear, we are winning!” he cries out to his wife. “How amiable!”
That’s the full Harold Bloom you’re getting there, from the Larissa MacFarquhar profile. Everyone who gets profiled chooses whether to play with the genre or not. The smart ones play. Bloom used his personality to promote his critical agenda.
One of his sons opens the door of his house north of campus. Suddenly, Bloom emerges from a closet under the staircase and stretches out his hand in greeting. He is large, shaggy-haired and courteous… Chuckling, he swims toward a sort of Danish Lazy Boy and stretches out, nearly supine. Instantly, he is thinking aloud, his large dark eyes gazing at the ceiling…
The performance goes on. He quotes Samuel Johnson and laments he’ll never write anything as good. Then he eviscerates the entire Yale English department one by one. (Hey, this was the 1980s: the canon wars were real.) All of this is done to make a point that Bloom made again and again throughout his work.
“There is no method except yourself,” says Bloom, “and this is what they refuse to learn.” Ideologists of every description hate the self, he says. “They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual.”
There is no method except the self. That might be Bloom’s central critical idea. It’s also the point of the Merve Emre profile: and it’s what has agitated so many people. Publicity feels antithetical to substance. Charisma can seem inauthentic. Indeed, Emre talked about “techniques for cultivating charisma.”
But the true charisma is to be yourself. That’s not easy when people expect conformity; no-one thanks you for doing what they can’t. It takes some intention—some technique—to be yourself in public. You can be calculated and authentic simultaneously. In fact, sometimes you have to perform to be yourself.1
Like Bloom, Emre is often writing for the common reader. She dislikes academic criticism because “you have to pick your methodological camp.” She writes non-academic criticism, she told the Chronicle of Higher Education, so she can blend different methods—historical, personal, close reading, argument through story—in a way that “approximates what it’s like to be in a reader’s mind.”
Some critics come out of the academy and perform as themselves. That is their method. It is not the only method—it might not be your preferred method—but it works and it gets people reading. What more do we want?
The other criticism being made is that Emre’s just not that good a critic. What are the standards for getting a profile? Does she have to be Northrop Frye? I read a Simone de Beauvoir novel after reading Emre’s review. I have The Organs of Sense in my pile on her recommendation. And her edition of Mrs Dalloway is very much worth your time. She seems plenty good enough to me. And with potential.