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…