Naomi Wolf has eased the burden of silence she has been carrying for over 20 years. In New York magazine she reveals that one evening after a dinner party, when she was a Yale undergraduate, Professor Harold Bloom of Yale placed his ‘heavy, boneless hand hot’ on her thigh. After she repelled the advance, if it was an advance, Mr Bloom took his bottle, proclaimed his innocence — or so I take it — by saying ‘You are a deeply troubled girl’, and left.
But for me, it awakened a more intimate memory. I was 27, a postgraduate student at Yale in my last term, and then, as now, a man. Unlike Naomi Wolf, I needed nothing from Prof. Bloom. I was destined for a first teaching job at Boston University. I even had an official appointment at Yale (in Yale’s exquisitely calibrated taxonomy of humiliation) as Part-Time Acting Assistant Instructor of English.
One day, walking along Temple Street, I saw Harold ambling towards me. Taken aback, I acted on instinct — and resorted to flattery. I had heard him give a wonderful lecture at a conference on Gnostic religion a week earlier. The audience was composed primarily of scholars, but there were a few disconcerting figures in the audience who looked as if they were Magus figures escaped from the pages of an Iris Murdoch novel.
I told him that I thought his lecture was beautiful. He stopped, and regarded me with his soft, yearning eyes. ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘what a lovely thing to tell an old and tired man.’ He was 47. ‘Here — let me kiss you.’ And he stepped forward, put his arms around me, pulled me to his then ample bosom, and kissed me on the mouth.
His lips, I remember, were full. They were rather chapped with the dryness of American houses in winter, even though spring had arrived. His kiss was decisive, tender, historic — a flag planted upon new territory.
What did it mean? My personal beauty was then at its peak. My locks were golden and curly. My figure was slender — it had not been bowed and thickened with the effort of pushing too many children in strollers in too many cities. I must have been hard to resist.
And what of Professor Bloom? He was a man of vast passion. A bottle of wine was enough to make him frisky. He enjoyed my beauty, yes, but then he enjoyed everything. I remember a moment in a seminar when, about to teach Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’, he gazed at the reproduction of Millais’s picture with its back view of the discontented heroine. ‘I knew Mariana was supposed to be attractive,’ Harold mused, ‘but I had no conception that she was so deliciously broad in the beam.’
As for Naomi Wolf, she says that in 1983 Harold Bloom was one of Yale’s most illustrious professors. He wasn’t then so regarded. He was famous. But in 1983, when Yale was the American capital of post-structuralist literary theory, Bloom’s teaching — which celebrated genius and the transforming power of literature — was unpopular, despised and regarded as passé.
Was there a pattern of abuse of women — and has Wolf’s agonised silence over the years caused suffering to other young women she fancies she could have protected? She has found people to tell her that Bloom had a reputation for being flirtatious. Women have told her the following tales: one was groped under the table; one had willing sex with her teacher; one may actually have been raped — although she refused to press criminal charges. All of these stories are deplorable. None of these teachers was Harold Bloom.
Naomi Wolf does not say that if she had made an official statement at the time, Bloom would have had a chance to defend himself and tell his side of the story — and Wolf would have had to listen to it.
As for me, why do I tell this story now? Is it because I have long since lost what once drew Harold to take me in his arms?