Harold Bloom has little time for his fellow critics and academics, yet his own swan song reveals a resentful and solipsistic mindby Jonathan Bate / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Harold Bloom identifies with Falstaff, but the character’s faults do not include being a bore
The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a way of life by Harold Bloom (Yale University Press, £25)
Harold Bloom made his name at Yale in the 1960s as an energetic and original reader of the “visionary company” of early 19th-century Romantic poets, notably Shelley and Blake. But it was with The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1973, that he began to make waves beyond his specialist field. That quirky little polemic had two great merits: a memorable title and a simple but provocative argument. According to the flyleaf of his new book, The Anxiety of Influence “overturned generations of conventional wisdom by showing that great works of literature do not spring into the world fully formed. They emerge through impassioned and intensely competitive struggles with the great works that have come before them.” Poetic influence, Bloom proposed, is “a variety of the Freudian anxiety-principle.” The model is essentially Oedipal: in order to become a “strong poet” the writer must slay his literary father-figure.
But no serious critic has ever imagined that great works of literature “spring into the world fully formed.” From Ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the neo-classicism of the 18th century, it was universally assumed that literary artists, like painters and composers, develop their voices through dialogue with their predecessors, blending imitation with variation, so carving a space for themselves in the canon. The most magisterial account of the process remains TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919). Bloom’s book was little more than a Freudian extrapolation of Eliot’s brief essay, with some Kabbalistic and Talmudic terms thrown in for effect and in order to displace Eliot’s brand of high Anglophile Christianity with Bloom’s own New York Yiddish inheritance.
The Anatomy of Influence is the 80-year-old Bloom’s final settling of accounts. It is a repetitive enumeration of the influences that have shaped him, not a fresh theoretical analysis of the nature of literary influence. Though Bloom has taken to denying his anxiety theory is Oedipal, there could be no better proof of it than the fact that he completely represses his own father-figures, most notably Eliot. Acknowledgment is given instead, not least by means of the echo in the title, to the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism (1957) was an easier influence for Bloom to absorb—it was Frye who taught him how to read Blake and to cast literary history in large-scale mythopoeic terms.
A more immediate influence upon Bloom’s theory is also written out of the sublimely self-aggrandising narrative (“I am isolated… I am a department of one”). In his opening chapter, Bloom tells of how on his 37th birthday he awoke from a nightmare and composed a “dithyramb” (that’s a fancy word for an essayistic flight of fancy) called The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence, out of which all his subsequent theory would grow. Bloom does not reveal how that essay was shaped by Harvard literary historian Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of John Keats and in particular its central chapter, “The Burden of the Mystery: The Emergence of a Modern Poet,” which argued that one of the keys to Keats’s development was his wrestling match with the mighty figure of John Milton. “I have given up Hyperion,” Keats wrote, “there were too many Miltonic inversions in it.” Jackson Bate would go on to argue that a sense of “the burden of the past” was a peculiar problem for the Romantic age, when for the first time in literary history a high premium was placed upon the idea of originality. For Bloom, in turn, the “agonistic” Romantic reading of Milton was the absolute paradigm of the anxiety of influence.
I first read Bloom in a graduate class at Harvard taught by Jackson Bate (no relation). I was impressed by the force of Bloom’s argument and the energy of his prose, but it seemed to me that his theory worked brilliantly for Milton and the Romantics but was completely wrong when it came to Shakespeare and the Romantics. For Keats, Shakespeare was always a source of consolation, never anxiety. This more benign view of Romanticism became the subject of my first book. I’ve been banging on for 25 years about “strong reading”—Bloom’s term for the way poets reinterpret their predecessors’ words—as a form of literary love rather than parricide. So it offers me some satisfaction to see that Bloom has now come to a place where he admits creative as well as destructive love into the equation of influence: “The overwhelming presence of love is vital to understanding how great literature works.”
The problem, as in all Bloom’s later books, is that his idea of literary love is deeply solipsistic. From The Western Canon (1994) to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) to Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2002), the love-affair with the literary classics takes place entirely within the mind of Harold Bloom. Cursed with both insomnia and a photographic memory for poetry, he cannot get the canon out of his head. The words of Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Joyce hammer incessantly inside him. They take possession of him so completely that he regards it as a personal affront if anyone dares to suggest that, say, the canon has been constituted by men for men to the exclusion of many great female writers, or that Shakespeare’s “invention of the human” was but part of a wider Renaissance phenomenon in which Montaigne and Donne should be given equal credit, or that “genius” is a historically circumscribed category not a universal truth.
Mention the name of Harold Bloom to academics in literature departments these days and they will roll their eyes. He has done himself few favours by branding almost all other living critics as members of “the School of Resentment” or exponents of “the New Cynicism.” His watchword has long been “he who is not with me is against me.” I still have the letter of denunciation he sent me after I suggested in the course of a broadly sympathetic review of his Shakespeare book that his tendency to drone on about the evils of New Historicism, Feminism and all the other “isms” of modern criticism meant that he ran the risk of becoming a bar-room bore, which might call into question his self-identification with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, among whose many faults being a bore cannot be numbered. There was I, thinking I was on the side of the angels, but it suited Bloom to cast me into the wilderness.
Like Coriolanus, Bloom feels the need to cry “I go alone, Like to a lonely dragon.” It suits him to imagine himself as the last defender of the great literature of the past, “disdaining the lemmings who devour JK Rowling and Stephen King as they race down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the internet.” Disdain has little to do with love: all too often the mask slips and it’s Bloom who becomes a one-man school of resentment. What he needs is a little humility, an occasional recognition that there are other labourers in the vineyard of literary appreciation: he should quietly reread the embodiment of those virtues, the letters of John Keats.