I Knew Two Men

Remembering Harold Bloom and Jacob Needleman

I knew two men—professors in later life—who were one another’s good friends while graduate students at Yale in the mid-1950s. Their friendship at that time and the subsequent courses of their lives have lingered with me as a multiple sign, something overhead that should be read and understood. Now that both have left us and the last book by one has just been published, I think about what they lived for, what they taught to generations of students. How very different they were in certain choices they made, how very close they were in background and character, and in lines of action and reflection to which they were brilliantly dedicated. I am speaking of Harold Bloom (1930–2019), the magnificent literary critic and explorer in depth of Western religion and its literatures, who taught at Yale for decades and in later years also at New York University. And I am speaking of Jacob Needleman (1934–2022), professor of philosophy for decades at San Francisco State University and of religious ideas at Graduate Theological Union, who taught with such warmth, learning, and conviction that he converted generations of students, not to a specific view but to a lifelong love of inquiry. Like his own: example truly matters. 

Harold’s friendship name for Jerry—that is how Jacob was known to friends—was Boodle-Boodle. This is just the beginning of the inexplicable. Harold told me this once when we were speaking of Jerry. I don’t know Jerry’s friendship name for Harold, if there was one, and this gap in knowledge points to others: I have in mind here to write only what I know of the two men, of their orientation in life and their writings. No interviews with those who also knew them, few Google searches, just what I know and preciously retain.

I studied English literature with Harold, focused on poets from William Blake to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, during my undergraduate years at Yale College, 1959–1962. Class met in a seminar room around a table in the Old Campus, the original site of the university and the freshman residence where we were reshaped, whatever lumpy thing we had been before, into Yale men. That had different effects on different people. Our class was dazzled by Harold’s interpretive power, his passion that seemed somehow prophetic, full of new ideas and admonition, and his limitless memorized retention of the works we studied. He wrote somewhere that he had begun “involuntarily memorizing” literature nearly as soon as he began reading. There was fate in that. We could not have known that Harold was born in the Bronx to an immigrant Jewish family of modest means, that his first language was Yiddish, soon followed by biblical Hebrew, and that by his own account he taught himself English at an early age. In class he spoke with elegance, without pretention, knowing each word.

Somehow, despite the difference in age and role, we became friends. At that time this was, so to speak, early Bloom—he had not yet written the books that brought fame, beginning with The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and on from there—and needless to say this was early Lipsey. I was eighteen and nineteen when I best knew him, he was thirty. No matter—I often walked him home after class, a route that typically took us through an old New England cemetery and up to the house at Linden Street where he and his wife, Jeanne, lived throughout their years in New Haven. I was young and quite fiery, he more than a decade older and fiery beyond measure. We had good talks as we made our way.

I remember one in particular, as it signaled a turning point I recognized only later. We had been studying Blake’s shorter verse, in which I had been particularly drawn to the brief poem “Morning.” Here are its two stanzas:

To find the Western path
Right thro’ the Gates of Wrath
I urge my way;
Sweet Mercy leads me on:
With soft repentant moan
I see the break of day

The war of swords & spears
Melted by dewy tears
Exhales on high;
The Sun is freed from fears
And with soft grateful tears
Ascends the sky.

“Harold,” I must have said, “how can we pass through the Gates of Wrath and find the Western path? Isn’t Blake asking us for that?” We were waiting for a light at the corner of High Street and Elm—even special moments have particulars. To my lasting surprise, he responded in that melancholy voice, characteristic then and always, that he didn’t expect to be able to pass through the gates to the Western path. It was as if he was measuring his personal force relative to the highest demand of the literature that was life to him. I was taken aback by his words and mood. At that time I was already measuring, with much help from others, the breadth and height of those gates and had in mind somehow to pass through. However, that is not where the topic ended: when Harold discovered the Gnostic writings of the early Christian centuries, thanks, it seems, initially to a great book, Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion (1958), he began gradually to convey in writings on religion and wisdom his affinity, really his belonging to that moment in intellectual and spiritual history. It offered him both some degree of inner liberation—only he knew what and when—and a path through the Gates of Wrath to brotherhood with the weeping, grateful Sun. Later I understood that in his lifetime the gates could never be left far behind; I knew of an intractable personal sorrow. 

Harold was a man who acknowledged teachers and models. Valentinus, the second-century C. E. Gnostic theologian and author of The Gospel of Truth, was one such. There were others closer in time: the scholars Northrop Frye and M. H. Abrams during undergraduate years at Cornell, Ralph Waldo Emerson then and always, Gershom Scholem later in Israel, in literary history the unsurpassable Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and above all, above all, William Shakespeare. Harold wrote about the Romantic poets in an early book, The Visionary Company (1961). This is not just an attractive book title; he assembled such a company, lifetime companions without regard to when they lived, with regard only to what their minds could apprehend and offer.

I need to report one further conversation with Harold before turning to the other figure in this double portrait, Jacob Needleman. At graduation in the spring of 1962, Harold and his friend, Prof. Geoffrey Hartman, whom I had come to know reasonably well, sat me down on the low stone wall surrounding Silliman College and delivered an unexpected message. “Do not become an academic, Roger. Do not become a literary critic. You are a writer.” That moment and those words have stayed with me, though just how—eventually, providentially, involuntarily—I obeyed is another story for another time.

Are the main lines of this great life, Harold Bloom’s life, now clear? A mind like no other, a love of literature probably like no other, growing fame as both literary critic and theorist, and as a polemicist on behalf of the enduring centrality of The Western Canon (1994) and How to Read and Why (2000)—the titles of two of his rewarding, firm books. Harold earned and enjoyed the friendship of living poets and academic colleagues, he did furious battle with intellectual foes, his books were almost invariably reviewed in major media, he had bestsellers, something all but forbidden to academic literary critics. To these achievements must be added his private journey, more shared with readers in his older years, from what he took to be the flawed world-view of normative religion to the liberating texture of ancient Gnosticism, its invitation to know oneself in depth as eternal and to know the fallen world for what it is.

Ekhh, Professor—this is how I often greeted Jerry Needleman when we spoke by phone (he in San Francisco, I in the New York area, though we met fairly often). Affectionate and inquiring, this guttural sound is borrowed from G. I. Gurdjieff (1866–1949), the Greek-Armenian teacher under whose umbrella Jerry and I became lifelong friends. Jerry’s background was similar to Harold’s, though his family was better established, as it happens in Philadelphia. Like Harold, Jerry was thoroughly educated in Judaism and gained from those early years both an ineradicable love of truth and an endless repertory of stories—funny stories, piquant stories, often Jewish stories. Not a burden for listeners, they were an apt resource from time to time, a way of relaxing. Jerry had another trait from his early years, shared more with children than with his companions: he was a skilled magician with coins and playing cards and such. I never worked out satisfactorily the relation between his love of magic and his lifework as a philosopher. Perhaps where the coin went and then reappeared, where the designated card went and then resurfaced, was the same place where deep and private thought occurred. Magic is about secrets and revelations—like philosophy. 

Jerry had his undergraduate years at Harvard and graduate study at Yale in philosophy, with a year at Freiburg somewhere spliced in. After a fellowship year at Columbia, he took a position—it would prove to be lifelong—with San Francisco State University, and drove out there with his few belongings one summer in the early ‘60s. At the suggestion of our teacher in the Gurdjieff school, I joined him for the trip. I don’t like to think of memory as shallow and deceptive, but it’s a shame what we do and don’t recall. From that drive, epic only to us, I remember no more than the dry-leather smell of his car and a walk at dusk through the streets of Elko, Nevada, home to a famous brothel. We didn’t avail ourselves of the local service, but our exploration offered a memorable experience of what Gurdjieff called the two natures in human beings, the one drawing us toward a probably diseased fling, the other reticent, without fear, interested in how things work. Jerry was my elder in years. He led me in Elko as in many things. I don’t know that either of us could overlook for long that he was older and more experienced, though occasionally I tried to burst that bond and smile directly. In any case, nothing was spoiled; I had no brother in my family, I had Jerry.

We come now to the swerve. This is a good Bloomian term, transferred from Lucretius’s cosmology (first century of our era) to Harold’s brilliantly original vision of the relations between predecessor poets and later poets who swerve away from daunting prior examples to free space for their own work. Both of these formidable men, Harold and Jacob, were seekers of wisdom, for a vision of the whole in which our separate lives unfold. And each, to find his way on, swerved in certain respects from the expected into unexpected territories. Harold’s search, guided both by immense intellect and by human limitation, led through literature into awesome depths of knowledge and intuition. In this noble search, it is true that he did not call on the resources of the body to help. This is a point of contrast with Jerry. As far as I know, Harold wasn’t one to get down on the floor and do Feldenkrais or yoga exercises or stand well-structured to practice Tai Chi. He was almost certainly a lifelong walker—the Yale campus and its upper residential reaches invite leisurely walks. 

I should mention that physically Harold was vast until the very late years. His love of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s fantastic character in the Henry plays, was hardly random: among other things, Harold was Sir John—not only Sir John, but the comparison is just and he welcomed it. His physicality struck me as generous and uncorrected, uncorrectable. During my undergraduate years when I would visit Harold and Jeanne at home, sometimes I would find him writing in a characteristic posture, cozily sprawled on the floor with notebook and pen in hand. Walrus-like, impressive, unique. Harold once wrote that his limits were the city limits—a witty self-perception worthy of an author he admired, Oscar Wilde. And it was true. His search for wisdom and ultimate truth passed through what he called deep reading, through literature. In effect he wagered, Pascal-like, that whatever he needed to make his own, whatever discoveries of inner freedom and decisive reconciliation, would appear in due course through his uniquely intensive explorations of literature. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?—the title of his outstanding book of 2004: he knew where to seek. I longed for him to find what he wished, and there are signs in his later writings that this was so, though he carried, I think always, a pervasive sadness lightened by good humor, by generosity.

What was Harold’s swerve? How and why did this irreplaceable, irrefutable guide to the Western literary canon become also something else, something more? Two of his writings (1992 and 1996) shed needed light: his two “Gnostic sermons.” The first was written as a contribution to Marvin Meyer’s splendid translation of The Gospel of Thomas, the second-century, arguably Gnostic compilation of sayings of Jesus. Harold thought well enough of this contribution to include it without change twelve years later in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? The second, written as a coda to his Omens of Millennium of 1996, and explicitly entitled “A Gnostic Sermon,” takes as its text a series of questions described by Hans Jonas as “a famous Valentinian formula.” Quarried from Clement of Alexandria’s writings, where it is just a prose entry, for Bloom, quite touchingly, it opens out as if it were a spacious, unpunctuated modernist poem, as follows:

What makes us free is the Gnosis
of who we were
of what we have become
of where we were
of wherein we have been thrown
of wherein we are hastening
of what we are being freed
of what birth really is
of what rebirth really is

Harold’s thought in response to these questions is one of the tenderest passages in his later writings. “Gnosticism tells us,” he writes, “that before the catastrophe of the Creation-Fall, we were in the place of rest, the ‘Fullness,’ or the Pleroma, a paradoxical world of tensely vital peace, and of a calm yet active ecstasy, hardly an easy condition to imagine, at least on a perpetual basis. Yet it seems to me the most humane and interesting account of a Heaven or unfallen condition that I have ever encountered.”

Harold’s swerve was toward this. He liked the word “vastated” and used it often enough; we mere mortals more typically write or say “devastated.” Harold had been vastated—by the inconceivable cruelty of the Holocaust, by the illnesses of close people whose lives were spoiled, by mourned losses of friends and colleagues as he aged. His nature impelled him to search past vastation to something real, deep, and unchanging, to “what is best and oldest in you, a spark in you that has always been God’s…. Who were we, when we were our original selves? What were our faces, before the world was made?” (Omens, 255, 257).

Like his friend, no less firmly, Jacob Needleman swerved. Although he could have remained solely within the spacious confines of his philosophical discipline and become inarguably a major interpreter along traditional lines, his search for truth and wisdom led him to lifelong participation in the Gurdjieff teaching and to the circle of Lord Pentland (1907–1984), a direct pupil of Gurdjieff’s endowed with extraordinary intelligence and presence. I needn’t trust myself to state Jerry’s mature approach to philosophy, enriched by the Gurdjieff teaching and his participation as pupil and later teacher for many years. In 2007, he offered a quite perfect statement in what appears to have been an interview (this, I confess, found in a Wikipedia article, surely by an author who knew him well): 

“A philosopher deals with the great unanswerable questions, which I think have answers, but not usually in the state of being that we’re asking them. In other words, these great questions that wake us up in the middle of the night…: Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all? Questions that some people make fun of. These questions … sometimes the mind can ask, but the mind alone cannot answer. And since … the center of gravity of most of our personalities is the intellect, these questions seem to be intrinsically unanswerable, and the response to these questions has to be not just in words or in interesting insights, but in the movement down from the mind to make contact with the heart and the body, which, when they work together, are like another intelligence. So that is what I think the true philosopher tries to open to—that part which can respond to these [questions] and actually live what we are speaking about.”

Jerry’s many books were written in this spirit, from his early, groundbreaking work The New Religions (1970) to Lost Christianity (1980), The Heart of Philosophy (1982)—his wonderful book on classroom work with students—and The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (2003). The occasional parallels, unsought but evident, with Harold’s writings are striking. For example, Harold had driven down through literature to a steady, reliable ground that allowed him to write The American Religion (1992), a Gnostic vision of who we are and how we think. Jerry had uncovered in the thought and conduct of Americans, from George Washington to the Ephrata spiritual community, a wisdom on which we could still rely, were we receptive and willing. Jerry was, like Harold, famous—but in a smaller circle. His swerve had consequences, nothing to be regretted.

I loved to be with Jerry. In his late years when we attended meetings together, I would naturally adopt the role of guardian, younger brother. I would pick up his cane when it fell, steady him on pathways between buildings. I so enjoyed his contributions to exchanges of views and insights. He had acquired authority. He was perfectly imperfect, and imperfectly perfect, a true soul grounded in himself, in the multiple communities to which he belonged and provided leadership, and in something beyond—a nearly Gnostic faith, though more loving, that the real self is eternal, and the fallen world deeply interesting and hungry for goodness.

I have written this homage to Harold Bloom and Jacob Needleman with nostalgia for who they were and unreserved respect for how, along differing paths, they sought the highest values and shared them with many others. I could wish that certain things had been otherwise—that Harold have an easier old age without falls and breaks (I should have looked after his cane!), that Jerry have been spared the consuming grief of losing his beloved wife six months before his own death, I’m sure of a broken heart. But no one here below can rewrite lives, the best is to hold them close just as they were lived. 

My last communication with Harold was in August 2011. I had been reading his latest book, a stunning exploration of the language of the King James Bible that returned me to a time and place of language and meanings that he and I both revered. Reminding him that I was still close to Needleman, I had written: “Dear Harold, I’ve begun reading your latest book with such happiness. This note only to tell you that I remain your grateful student.” His reply: “Dear Roger, How good to hear from you. I am 81 but begin teaching again today. Regards to Boodle-Boodle for us. Much affection, Harold.” ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2024 issue of Parabola, FREEDOM. You can find the full issue on our online store.

By Roger Lipsey

Roger Lipsey is a longtime contributor to Parabola. Among his recent books are Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down and Hammarskjöld: A  Life. In February 2019, Shambhala will publish his Gurdjieff Reconsidered: the Life, the Teachings, the Legacy.