Literary critic Harold Bloom has died at the age of 89. In some circles, he’ll be remembered for his “love of literature and a relish for its heroic figures” and admiration of writers who were predominantly white and male. But he was also accused of sexual assault by the writer Naomi Wolf while she was a student at Yale in 1983, a revelation that in 2004 was met with vitriol which, in a post-#MeToo world, would be unimaginable.
Wolf detailed the incident with Bloom in a New York Magazine cover story, writing that,
Finally, Bloom suggested that he come to the house I shared with one of his editorial assistants and her boyfriend. At dinnertime. I agreed.
The four of us ate a meal. He had, as promised, brought a bottle of Amontillado, which he drank continually. I also drank. We had set out candles—a grown-up occasion. The others eventually left and—finally!—I thought we could discuss my poetry manuscript. I set it between us. He did not open it. He did not look at it. He leaned toward me and put his face inches from mine. “You have the aura of election upon you,” he breathed.
I hoped he was talking about my poetry. I moved back and took the manuscript and turned it around so he could read.
The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh.
I lurched away. “This is not what I meant,” I stammered. The whole thing had suddenly taken on the quality of a bad horror film. The floor spun. By now my back was against the sink, which was as far away as I could get. He moved toward me. I turned away from him toward the sink and found myself vomiting. Bloom disappeared.
These days, the prevailing narrative would be to believe Wolf. Consequences, hopefully, would befall Bloom. Were he still at Yale, he’d (again, hopefully) be fired. Maybe more women would come forward with similar stories. But in 2004, Wolf was not supported for accusing a powerful man who made her life hell. Instead, she was demonized.
In a piece called “Crying Wolf,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote in Slate that Wolf’s argument—that Yale, and other institutions of higher education, failed to offer an effective means of lodging complaints against professors—was “deeply flawed:”
Yale’s Grievance Board statement is posted here—and is easily available as the kind of standard response she allows us to believe, for much of the piece, that the college doesn’t have. What it seems she really wants from Yale is for its administration to bend over backward for her now that she’s come forward, and thus prove that it really, really cares about its students. When it doesn’t, she says that Yale must not be truly “accountable to the equality of women.”
O’Rourke calls this a “bait and switch,” acknowledging that while Bloom’s actions look “sleazy,” Wolf failed to do her job by trying to find out how Yale would have handled the charge.
“This is typical of the way in which Wolf’s article is disingenuous,” O’Rourke writes. “She makes a dangerous extrapolation from the personal to the political—but the personal undermines the cause that is the pretext for writing the piece in the first place.”
Then there’s Camille Paglia, whose attack of Wolf was practically gleeful, writing in the New York Observer:
“I just feel it’s indecent that if Naomi Wolf did not have the courage to pursue the matter at the time, then to bring all of this down on a man who is in his seventies and has health problems, to drag him into a ‘he said, she said’ scenario so late in the game, to me demonstrates a lack of proportion and a basic sense of fair play. Naomi Wolf, for her entire life, has been batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs and made a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure.”
Over at The Independent, Deborah Orr doesn’t agree with Paglia, but she does quibble with how Wolf’s argument is framed:
The distasteful thing about this tale is not located among the bilge Camille Paglia has spouted, but the solipsism of it. Ms Wolf says she abhors what she alleges Professor Bloom has got away with because it is “a corruption of meritocracy.” I abhor what Ms Wolf is saying because it suggests that women powerful enough in the “meritocracy” to take their place in important ‘hierarchies” should have protection from sexual harassment, through their institutions.
Naomi Wolf is far from perfect, but if MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that women shouldn’t have to be perfect to be believed.