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The Trick I Learned from Professor Harold Bloom

October 26th, 2019 by dk

Professor Harold Bloom taught me a trick that I’ve used almost every day for 30 years. Those who have been affected by Dr. Bloom’s brilliance probably number in the millions, though many of them may not know his name. His death last week leaves many fields of knowledge suddenly less fertile.

Bloom offered a senior seminar at Yale. The course was different every year. His mind moved so quickly and relentlessly, each term offered only a broad rubric of what might be discussed. Our topic was “Originality.” We read and thought together about Jesus and Shakespeare and Freud — a broad scope of work for undergraduates.

Bloom was working out a concept in front of us. He had wanted to call it “facticity” — until he learned that the word’s German transliteration was already being used to express a different concept altogether. So we threw quotes around the discarded term and continued apace.

“Facticity” posited that there are certain facts or truths or concepts that cannot be held or questioned from a particular point of view. An example from the first day of class: You cannot hate your parents so much that you wish they had never met, because that ideation would undermine your standing as the hater. If they hadn’t done that (met), you wouldn’t be here to react (hate).

We likened it to Wile E. Coyote sawing off the limb to catch Road Runner, but the tree falls over instead of the branch. That’s “facticity” in action. The concept’s corollary is this: If you assume you’ve questioned every assumption, you haven’t. There are, in fact — or in “facticity” — always some assumptions you cannot question without your tree falling on you, while the limb levitates beside it.

Bloom’s stature and scholarship were such that he didn’t have to teach undergraduates at all, but he loved to watch their minds bend when they were still nimble enough to do so. Whatever topic he was addressing, he was always teaching his students — and his readers, and his fans — how to think. He considered it his obligation to never stop.

He wrote dozens of books, but if you count those he edited and anthologies he compiled with commentary, the number swells past 600. His seminal book, “The Western Canon” is necessarily incomplete because it failed to include one book that has defined the Western canon — his own, defining it.

Do you see the trick? By twisting the train of logic, you can find where the track crosses itself. The twist reveals new angles, making the analysis both less real and more true at the same time. Our limits can humble us, even as they empower us.

I imagine that Professor Bloom would have gleefully accepted that the concept of an afterlife grew out of humanity’s innate urge to define a place where everything we knew as life seems less lively. He might have quibbled only over whether the afterlife is a human invention or a human discovery. It’s certainly profoundly human, as he was for every day of his 89 years.

If he’s in that place today, I’m happy for him and not surprised.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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