Jewish World Review March 4, 2004/ 11 Adar, 5764
Hell hath no fury like a poet scorned
That's what happened to Harold Bloom, a celebrated professor of literature at Yale. He took a bottle of Amontillado to Naomi Wolf, when, as a senior student in independent literature studies, she invited him home to dinner in 1983. "He drank continually," she tells us in a cover story in New York magazine. She drank, too. When the candles had flickered low, and two other guests departed, she gave him her manuscript of poetry.
Instead of reading it, he got in her face, sherry breath and all, and recited the seductive poetry of a sloshed professor: "You have the aura of election upon you."
With the swiftness of a rake out of Restoration Comedy, he placed "his heavy, boneless hand" on her "hot thigh." This was not how the eager student had wanted the evening to end. If this was election, she wanted a recount. She ran to the sink and threw up.
Heloise and Abelard, this was not. Naomi Wolf did not get herself to a convent, nor was Harold Bloom castrated. The professor finished the Amontillado still in his glass, recorked the bottle, and told the maiden with vomit breath that she was "a deeply troubled girl." Naomi was not exactly a maiden - by her own telling she had long since been known by a man - but she nevertheless simmered with the fury of a woman whose poetry was scorned.
In what has to be an award-winning rationalization for writer's block, she says, "I never wrote a poem after that." So emotionally laden was the awful experience 20 years later that she burst into tears when she described the dreadful trauma to a reporter for the New York Observer. Her story had to be told to save other victims from heavy, boneless professorial hands at Yale.
She does not want us to think she was deprived of later opportunity to round her heels, but the Ivy League would never be the same. "What Harold Bloom's hand on his student's thigh set off was not a sexual crisis," she writes. "I was sexually active - and not even especially modest. An unwanted hand on a thigh from a date was nothing. Nor was it an emotional crisis. I wasn't that vulnerable. What it set off was a moral crisis, shaking my confidence in the institution I was in."
She attempts to bring down the institution with the wet powder of rumor, gossip and innuendo, and Yale is likely to survive, but the smear of a famous man was nevertheless spread across the pages of a magazine.
Like Anita Hill, who cashed in on unsubstantiated accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, Naomi Wolf exploits her acquaintance with a famous man (he had written a letter of reference to accompany her application for a Rhodes scholarship) in a "she said, she said" revelation that could have enlivened the front page of National Enquirer. If a man had written a comparable piece about a woman laced with slurs and uncorroborated detail, elevating the personal to the political, radical feminists would have demanded pounds of flesh.
Employing the language of the Puritan against The Man when she chooses, and boasting of her freedom to sexually exploit a man to advance her own ambition, Wolf draws in vivid fault lines the double standard of feminist rhetoric. She has shown herself the insensitive hypocrite before.
In her book, "The Beauty Myth," she sneered that women concerned about their looks are sellouts to vanity and frivolity, and compared cosmetic surgeons to evil doctors at Auschwitz. She wrote this calumny when she was 28 years old, still fair of face and figure, but even then she was behind the curves.
As a consultant to Al Gore four years ago, she advised the vice president to wear the "earth tones" of an alpha male to become sexually appealing to women. Perhaps this would have enhanced a heavy, boneless hand. Perhaps Harold Bloom, an alpha male by anyone's standards, wore the wrong colors.
In his short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," Edgar Allen Poe writes of the viciousness begot by a character's simmering obsession for revenge: "It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given (him) cause to doubt my good will. I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile NOW was at the thought of his immolation."
Ah, Amontillado. The nectar of the spurned poetess.
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