The inimitable Harold Bloom marries literary theory, critical prowess, and figurative eloquence in his self-described swansong
Reviewed by Peter Craven
Harold Bloom is a marvel of a critic who is also the kind of walking mystery who seems an absolutely familiar character of the literary and critical worlds, a ham in search of his shadow. The explanation of the Bloom phenomenon and the fact that he is, since the death of Susan Sontag, the most celebrated critic of any kind in the English-speaking world is related to the fact that there are historically two Blooms who have become one. And the distinguishing quality of the famous Bloom (who is also, definitionally, the much loved—sometimes loathed—public critic) is that he does not talk in the critical manner of, say, the late Frank Kermode or his one-time antagonist Christopher Ricks—quick, considered, measuring—but like (to take a few analogies, in ascending order) Zero Mostel, Nietzsche or the prophet Isaiah.
Bloom starts out as an academic interpreter of Romanticism and his studies of everyone from Shelley to Yeats are erudite, hermeneutic and tough going; they seek to entrap the hermetic and luminous rumination that informs the visionary company from Blake on.
It's with The Anxiety of Influence (1973) that Bloom becomes a figure of vast intellectual prestige because in that book he attempts to trace the graph of how great writers—for Bloom quintessentially poets—make their art out of their competitive stance towards their precursors. Literary achievement is not a matter of raw inspiration but of the way one writer enacts a strong misreading of his predecessor; at some level he cuts him down to a size that is manageable in order to do otherwise himself. The logic is Oedipal but it is transposed to the tension between forms of literary artifice, it may not be perceptible to the conscious writer's mind.
It's not hard to see how The Anxiety of Influence crystallised a literary critical generation's circling round Freud and that it anticipated at least the ambience of what came to be known as Literary Theory, which had its greatest Anglo-American influence in Paul De Man's Yale deconstructionist disseminations and distortions of Derrida.
Bloom, however, has always disdained the relativism and rationalism of deconstruction. From the moment when he published The Western Canon in 1994, he became the apostle to the gentiles, arguing with impassioned eloquence that the great works of literature are the glory of life and an inheritance that must not be shunned—follies and stumbling blocks notwithstanding. This belief not only animates Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), a work of radical but encompassing bardolatry, redeemed by the richness of its human perspectives, but also the very alert and teacherly How to Read and Why (2000)—a superb can-do book by a master, teacher and loving reader.
The later public intellectual Bloom who embraces the common reader has always been inclined to believe, with Orwell, that "the only hope is with the proles", if by "proles" we mean sensitive common readers. It is they who can rise above the treason of the clerks committed by many literature department academics. This consists of the relativising and derogating of literary values and it happens to conspire with the trashiness of a lot of commercial, populist publishing—vested interests which have conspired in the erosion quality control. Hence the way literary fiction has become a niche market, like drama in Hollywood.
His new book, The Anatomy of Influence, is an attempt to meld the two sides of Bloom and to bring together the systematic thinker of The Anxiety of Influence and its companion volumes in the speculative and theoretical domain such as A Map of Misreading (1975), with the ruminative, garrulous lover of literature who has become a byword for the preservation and extolling of the literary classics associated with the word ‘canon’.
‘Anatomy’ is, of course, an anxiety-laden term in the history of Bloom's critical wrestlings because it is immemorially associated—or has been since the 1950s—with Northrop Frye's The Anatomy of Criticism. The great Canadian systematizer produced a remarkable taxonomy of literature as well as a notable critique of the habit of evaluation, which has proved to be all too influential in the university. Frye argued with an encyclopaedic and massive serenity against the impassioned Leavisite quest for value, where the determining of the quality of literature was an end in itself. The consequence of Frye's critique was to displace value away from the individual work and onto the total order of words, away from the restless arguing that Henry James is superior to Dickens and D.H. Lawrence to James Joyce and onto the total structure of what has been seen to be good.
This is, in a sense, where Bloom starts. Much as he has always been keen to express preference or to assign relative eminence, his own sense of literature is more encompassing than partisan and although he is a champion of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens (pace T.S. Eliot), and he reveres John Ashbery, he is not the kind of critic who would, for instance, go out to bat with brilliance for David Foster Wallace or Roberto Bolano, or for the great Anne Carson (though he has described the latter as a "wisdom poet").
‘Anatomy’ is also a term which Frye chose to honour not only Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy but in order to honour, by analogy, those encyclopaedic works of literature that contain multitudes of knowledge—Moby Dick, Proust, Ulysses, War and Peace, Don Quixote. Although Frye's Anatomy of Criticism is a kind of encyclopaedic reference book to literature, Bloom's use of the term not only represents a wrestling with his own most difficult critical angel, it is also an indication of how the creative and the critical may be seen as at least potentially cognate.
In practice The Anatomy of Influence is not only, as Bloom suggests, his major "swansong" but an ideal introduction for the kind of reader who wants to get the great canon reverencer in combination with the great theorist of influence.
From the outset Bloom seeks to clarify his theory and attempts to decontaminate it from a confusing personalism... "I recall telling Richard Ellmann [the great scholar of James Joyce] that Joyce's personal lack of such anxiety was, to me, not the issue. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake manifest considerable belatedness more in relation to Shakespeare than to Dante. Influence anxiety exists between poems and not between persons. Temperament and circumstances determine whether a later poet feels anxiety at whatever level of consciousness. All that matters for interpretation is the revisionary relationship between poems, as manifested in tropes, images, diction, syntax, grammar, metric, poetic stance."
What is also central to Bloom's methodology is the thing that brings together his formidable, if vexed, theory and his rich and sprawling critical practice, where he disdains mere scholarship, rolls up his sleeves and takes the whole of Literature as his Grub Street. The father of American deconstruction Paul De Man used to tell him that the position of criticism apropos of the original literary object must be ironic whereas Bloom argued that it must be "figurative".
If the only way to talk about literature is metaphorical then the way is left clear for the obvious bright idea that literary criticism must itself be literary in character. This is not something which was ever likely to be lost, in theory, on Harold Bloom the great admirer of Doctor Johnson but it is certainly true that in the lead up to The Western Canon Harold Bloom came out into the literary sunshine.
Here finally we had someone talking about Shakespeare's greatest comic character (a character improbably shaded with poignancy because Prince Hal breaks his heart) in a Falstaffian way—madly comic, bombastically eloquent and with great stabs of passion and a mock-heroism, which is ironic but not insincere.
Susan Sontag who could not abide Bloom said, when I defended specific instances of his judgement to her, "Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day." But what she missed in her disdain, for what she took to be charlatanism, was his sense of comedy.
In The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life is a recapitulation and refinement of the theory of influence—as difficult in its way to refute, as it is to give full assent to—in combination with some of the most pressurised criticism Bloom has written. It is not characteristically talky—as his subsequent new book about the Bible, In the Shadow of a Dark Rock, triumphantly is—but it includes this kind of eloquence which, however analytical, is nothing if not figurative.
The greatest ellipsis in Hamlet is its long foreground, in which the prince's soul has died. We have to surmise why and how, since the magnitude of his sickness-unto-death preceded his father's death and mother’s remarriage. Our crucial clue is the prince's relationship to Yorick, who bore the boy on his back a thousand times and exchanged so many kisses with an affection-starved child. The signature of the play Hamlet is the mature prince holding the skull of Yorick and asking it cruel, unanswerable questions.
Never mind that here Bloom indulges in a psychological backstory to out-Bradley Bradley. This is speculative criticism, a knife-edge away from being too far out, but there is no denying the intensity of the creative engagement nor the way the prose poetry, for want of a better word, is linked to a superb analytical method: denotative and precise.
The deep if ascetic magic of this major new book by Bloom is that it presents the influence theory at full stretch while also presenting a world of deeply pondered literary exempla. As with Bloom's own great influence, this Anatomy, like Frye's, is likely to be read less for the scaffolding of its theory than for its brilliant encapsulations of the insights of a critical lifetime.