(This review originally appeared in The Quarterly Conversation)
Not far into his new book, The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom provides what attentive readers could consider an explanation of sorts for his curious status in both the general literary culture and among academic critics. “More than a half a century as a teacher,” he writes, “has shown me that I am best as a provocation for my students, a realization that has carried over into my writing. That stance alienates some readers in the media and in the academy, but they are not my audience.”
There is no doubt that Bloom has proven to be a “provocation” beyond the classroom, and in a way that often “alienates” rather than productively challenges, which is no doubt the effect Bloom hopes to have on his students. Most recently Bloom has provoked the “media” to purvey an image of him as an elitist, curmudgeonly defender of tradition and scourge of the popular, a literary dinosaur still roaming the earth even though the climate in which he finds himself has irreversibly shifted. Bloom thus seems to appear to some “ordinary” readers as a rather menacing figure whose views stand as a challenge to their reading habits, or as a rather pompously comic figure whose opinions can be safely dismissed. Bloom himself actually anticipates this latter response to his books in his frequent self-identification with Sir John Falstaff, although it is Falstaff’s refusal to be anything other than himself that Bloom most prizes.
But if Bloom has alienated literary journalists and casual readers by being willing to make distinctions and to assert literature’s seriousness of purpose, before his current incarnation as kind of public critic, he also alienated his original scholarly audience as well, although for a time he was considered not an apostate from academic criticism but among its most cutting-edge practitioners. While today Bloom is perceived as an enemy of “theory,” during the 1970s he was himself a prominent, even notorious, theorist whose Freudian-based account of poetic influence scandalized his more traditional colleagues and even led to his being grouped among the more radical theorists such as Derrida, de Man, and Foucault. Eventually it became clear that Bloom’s invocation of Freud and Nietzsche was part of an attempt to account for the power of great works of literature, not to diminish their value, and Bloom gradually began to provoke the scorn of “advanced” critical theorists, a scorn he freely returned by dubbing them members of the “school of resentment.”
So if the book reviewers and the academic critics no longer represent Bloom’s audience, who is his audience? One could uncharitably conclude that Bloom constitutes his own audience of one, but the very fact that he turned to a “popularizing” approach to both literature and his own ideas about literature and that he has now produced what he calls “my virtual swan song, my [attempt] to say in one place most of what I have learned about how influence works in imaginative literature” suggests that he does want to reach an audience of potentially sympathetic readers outside the academy, who might still be persuaded by the depth of his commitment to poetry (understood as the primal source of all “literature”) and his understanding of literary history to value great poetry more highly——if not as passionately as Bloom himself (which might be impossible), then more than both the culture at large and academic literary study currently allows. That Bloom does emphasize “great” works of literature perhaps seems hopelessly old-fashioned, an attempt to prop up one of the pillars of Western culture, but finally Bloom is less interested in celebrating greatness per se, whether in people or in civilization, than he is in conveying to the reader the power of poetry at its most vital.
Bloom signals in The Anatomy of Influence an awareness of the ways in which his previous books have been misunderstood, if not deliberately misconstrued, and thus the first chapter of the book attempts to clarify what Bloom has actually written in such books as The Anxiety of Influence and Agon. Perhaps the most serious misconception about Bloom’s theory of “influence” is that influence is something tangibly felt by a writer through his/her consciousness of a precursor writer acting as inspiration. But as Bloom points out, “Influence anxiety exists between poems and not between persons.” While in some cases a poet might be aware of this anxiety “at whatever level of consciousness,” for the literary critic “all that matters is the revisionary relationship between poems, as manifested in tropes, images, diction, syntax, grammar, metric, poetic stance.” One could say that Bloom’s approach to the reading of poetry requires both close attention to the text—looking for the tropes, images, etc.—and an awareness of literary history, the ways in which the poem’s manifest qualities maintain a connection, however much the poem seeks its own autonomy, with the poems that have already been written and that inevitably prompted, directly and indirectly, the new poem. “Poetic thought is always a mode of memory,” writes Bloom. “Primarily this is the memory of prior poems.”
Bloom’s approach thus diverges from that of the New Critics, against whom Bloom was reacting in his critical work of the 1960s and ‘70s, whose too-exclusive focus on “the tropes, the images, and the diction” for Bloom inappropriately separated the individual poem from “poetry.” One cannot sufficiently appeal to the former without also appreciating its place in the development of the latter, since the poem will always be marked by the “anxiety” produced by the unavoidable operation of influence. In The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom called for “a wholly different practical criticism” than conventional close reading, one that gave up “the failed enterprise of seeking to ‘understand’ any single poem as an entity in itself.”
Let us pursue instead the quest of learning to read any poem as its poet’s deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or poetry in general.
The Anatomy of Influence is also an attempt to clear up misapprehensions of what Bloom intends by such a formulation as “deliberate misinterpretation.” Bloom’s own notion of the “misreading” has itself been misread, even deliberately, but this is merely a “weak” misreading that is simply a matter of getting Bloom wrong. A strong misreading is a “creative” one, indeed where poetry is concerned it is the very fountainhead of creativity. It is a type of defense mechanism whereby the poet (as what Bloom calls an “ephebe,” a poet-in-the-making) wards off the potentially debilitating power of the precursor by “swerving” away into a new expression or stance. In a sense the poet’s misreading is also “wrong,” but because of the nature of literature as a form of expression, there can finally be no wrong reading by a strong poet or critic:
. . . correct readings are not possible if a literary work is sublime enough. A correct reading merely would repeat the text, while asserting that it speaks for itself. It does not. The more powerful a literary artifice, the more it relies upon figurative language.
“Misreading” does not mean mischaracterizing or misidentifying a text’s proper meaning, since there is no proper meaning to strong works of literature. It is a figurative transformation of a “discourse” that is itself inescapably figurative.
Misreadings of Bloom, to the extent they are not simply willful attempts to distort what he means, represent a failure to understand that for Bloom criticism is also unavoidably a “resort to figuration.” How could the effort to comprehend “highly figurative language” be anything but figurative, unless it is outright an attempt to tame it, to restate it in other, inevitably reductive, terms? (If the poem could be expressed that way, why wasn’t it?) “To practice criticism,” according to Bloom, “is to think poetically about poetic thinking.” Thus those who expect that Bloom will match his privileging of the aesthetic qualities of literature with systematic, detailed close readings of individual texts are perhaps disappointed to find instead what can seem like generalizations or simply Bloom’s own passionately expressed appreciations. Those unprepared for Bloom’s “figurative” style of criticism perhaps take his formulations too literally, or don’t understand his excursions into Jewish mysticism or classical authors. To the extent that his erudite and declamatory method causes misunderstanding, The Anatomy of Influence does arguably work best as a summing-up and a corrective.
Bloom is probably perceived by some casual readers as dauntingly “serious,” and The Anatomy of Influence might help to correct the mistaken assumption not so much that Bloom does take literature seriously (the book’s subtitle, “Literature as a Way of Life” unequivocally signals this fact), but why he does so. Bloom is no moralist or academic taskmaster, certain that reading great books is good for us. While he does often identify with Samuel Johnson, a stern moral critic if there ever was one, as Bloom tells us in a brief chapter on Johnson’s critical influence, “Johnson as a literary critic means most to me in his apprehension of Shakespeare,” whose centrality to the Western literary tradition is made emphatically clear throughout The Anatomy of Influence. (In many ways the influence of Johnson on Bloom is the latter’s own creative misreading, reaching for the “Romantic strain” in Johnson that values imagination over “stability.”) Bloom expresses only disdain for Matthew Arnold, the other great moral critic, whose reasons for advocating a Western canon are not Bloom’s.
Although he professes devotion to Johnson, Bloom’s stronger alliance is to Walter Pater.
“As a disciple of Walter Pater and his ephebe Oscar Wilde,” he confesses, “I am an Epicurean literary critic, reliant upon sensations, perceptions, impressions.” Bloom values Shakespeare because he so capaciously provides these sensations and impressions, giving us access to the “sublime,” which is Bloom’s highest measure of aesthetic success. He follows Pater in regarding the sublime “as the adding of strangeness to beauty.” Bloom further associates strangeness with “uncanniness,” which is the “estrangement of the homelike or commonplace.” Shakespeare is the most distinguished creator of the sublime in literature:
Shakespeare, when you give yourself completely to reading him, surprises you by the strangeness which I take to be his salient quality. We feel the consciousness of Hamlet or Iago, and our own consciousness strangely expands. The difference between reading Shakespeare and reading nearly any other writer is that greater widening of our consciousness into what initially must seem a strangeness of woe or wonder.
If Shakespeare or any of the other writers Bloom discusses in The Anatomy of Influence are good for us it is because of this “widening of consciousness,” not because they instruct or enlighten us. The sublime is a form of pleasure, although it is a “difficult pleasure,” one that can prompt both “woe” and “wonder,” or a complex intermingling of the two. It may thus give rise to the closest facsimile of an authentic religious experience, at least for Bloom, who otherwise professes no religious belief, his attachment to the Jewish tradition notwithstanding. Those of us who are willing to follow Bloom through his version of the canon and the anxieties of influence that bring it into being, his invocations of Kabbalah and Longinus, his insistence on “misreading” as the source of innovation, and his sometimes oracular pronouncements and judgments because his commitment to the value and integrity of literature is so palpable and his insights are indeed so provocative perhaps at this point might begin to resist Bloom’s outlook as excessively metaphysical, a private perspective that provides Bloom with a “way of life” the rest of us can’t really share.
Such resistance to the intensity of Bloom’s search for the sublime may provide the most cogent explanation of the accusation he is a “snob.” For Bloom, literature offers the truest access to the widening of consciousness he seeks, and books he judges do not promise such access are simply not worth taking seriously. And Bloom has seemingly so narrowed the range of works he does take seriously, and employs such arcane means of finding their value, he leaves the impression only he knows how to find it, that the canon he celebrates belongs to him. Even though an acquaintance with the numerous volumes of essays on various authors and works Bloom has edited (the Chelsea House series) will demonstrate that his approbation extends to many more writers than his reputation as a critical taskmaster would suggest, nevertheless he perhaps unavoidably cuts a somewhat embarrassing figure in an era when taking literature seriously is often seen as an offense to the democratic equality of taste, if not a outright complicity with a legacy of cultural imperialism.
The Anatomy of Influence is not likely to alter this perception among those who temperamentally could never take literature seriously because they take nothing seriously, or those for whom it is too frivolous to be taken seriously, but there ought to be readers in the sizable group fitting neither of these descriptions who could separate the ponderous manner Bloom at times affects in defense of what he fears are besieged literary values from potentially valid descriptions of the process of literary influence and of what precisely is original in the work of the writers Bloom examines and thus justifies their inclusion in the canon. If close reading is not always Bloom’s chosen avenue of approach to these writers, the extended, bravura analysis of, for example, Hart Crane’s The Bridge just might convert readers to Bloom’s view that Crane is an unjustly overlooked poet, and his discussion of the influence of Hamlet on Milton’s Paradise Lost might itself convince the reader the “anxiety of influence” is real.
The book as well is structured in a way that clarifies the line of descent of influence in both English and American poetry. The numerous chapters devoted to Shakespeare recapitulates many of the essential points Bloom made in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, but they also allow him to delineate Shakespeare’s influence on subsequent poets from Milton to Yeats, while his extended discussion of Walt Whitman allows him to do the same thing with the American poets who follow Whitman. Readers should get from The Anatomy of Influence an encompassing perspective on English language literary history (with a few detours into other languages as well) that provides the opportunity to assess whether Bloom’s account of how a tradition establishes and perpetuates itself seems convincing. Since any particular poem or any particular poet can acquire full significance only from within such a tradition, the book also could be said to offer a final statement of a theory of how poetry gets written. This may ultimately be the most important contribution Harold Bloom has made to the study of literature, and The Anatomy of Influence is if nothing else a useful condensation of Bloom’s exploration of the source of “poetic thinking.”
Readers who do find what Bloom has to say in The Anatomy of Influence worth contemplating will still want to move from it to The Anxiety of Influence, which remains arguably the most powerful version of the theory. Whereas in the new book Bloom announces that, in a critical climate he calls the “New Cynicism,” he wants to modify his conception of the anxiety of influence by redefining it as “literary love, tempered by defense,” in the first book he is much more willing to emphasize the more direful aspects of the poet’s struggle for expression in the shadow of the precursor poet. “If the imagination ‘s gift comes necessarily from the perversity of the spirit,” he writes there,
then the living labyrinth of literature is built upon the ruin of every impulse most generous in us. So apparently it is and must be—we are wrong to have founded a humanism directly upon literature itself, and the phrase “humane letters” is an oxymoron. A humanism might still be founded on a completer study of literature than we have yet achieved, but never upon literature itself. . . .
If all writers are in a sense indebted to other writers through influence, it is not the sort of influence that would lead the best of them to feel part of a “community”:
It does happen that one poet influences another, or more precisely, that one poet’s poems influence the poems of the other, through a generosity of the spirit, even a shared generosity. But our easy idealism is out of place here. Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.
In The Anatomy of Influence Bloom somewhat softens this appeal to the self-centered, exclusionary forces (both Freudian and Nietzschean) that contribute to acts of true creativity, but it seems unlikely through his notion of “literary love” he now intends to suggest that the poetic impulse is a beneficent and convivial one after all. However, what Bloom really seems to reject is not the belief that literature represents a supreme human achievement but the “idealism” that would overlook the struggle involved or assume that the purpose of poetry is to benefit “humanity” in general. As Bloom indicates, it is possible to conduct through the study of literature an activity that is “humane” in its ambition, but this would have to be a literary study that does not distort or deny the source of literature in the depths of the “perverse” persistence of the human imagination.
Bloom’s engagement with both poetry and poems occurs most vitally in the depths of imaginative expression, his Paterian inclination toward “sensations” notwithstanding. In The Anatomy of Influence he reinforces his view that influence “works in the depths of image and idea, and produces intricate evasions that nevertheless bud and bloom.” It is “at its deepest . . . remote from echo and allusion, though it does not exclude them,” and is not primarily “an affair of stylistics.” As someone who belongs to that group of readers who willingly forms the audience for Harold Bloom’s provocations, I here find myself provoked to my own strongest objection to Bloom’s critical method. While a focus on “image and idea” does not “exclude” attention to style, in general to the surface features of a literary text, Bloom’s preoccupation with the “deep” and to some extent impalpable elements of the text too easily dismisses the relevance of “stylistics” in the experience of literature, even in determining the nature of “influence.” If influence can only be traced “between poems,” it seems somewhat arbitrary to assume it can be discerned more readily in those qualities of the poem that are to an extent invisible than in those that are manifestly visible.
Harold Bloom is in many ways a model of the literary critic urging readers to pay close attention to the works of literature we read. But for Bloom this attention is not first directed at the formal or stylistic features that we would immediately regard as “aesthetic.” Those features are in a sense taken for granted by Bloom, even as it is the aesthetic power of the poem that makes available the “deeper” content he is after. Reading for content is of course a common enough practice, even among literary critics, but ultimately Bloom’s pursuit of the evidence of influence as he understands it does threaten to become a Quixotic one (not that Bloom would necessarily consider this an unflattering description), the object of the pursuit to seem an esoteric one the importance of which is paramount primarily to Harold Bloom. There is still much to be learned from Bloom’s provocations, but probably his kind of reading can’t really be done by anyone else.