May 25, 2011
Harold Bloom: An Uncommon Reader
by Sam Tanenhaus
At the age of 80, with almost 40 books behind him and nearly as many accumulated honors, Harold Bloom (left) has written, in “The Anatomy of Influence,” a kind of summing-up — or, as he puts it in his distinctive idiom, mixing irony with histrionism, “my virtual swan song,” born of his urge “to say in one place most of what I have learned to think about how influence works in imaginative literature.”
Influence has long been Bloom’s abiding preoccupation, and the one that established him, in the 1970s, as a radical, even disruptive presence amid the groves of academe. This may surprise some who think of Bloom primarily as a stalwart of the Western canon, fending off the assaults of “the School of Resentment” and its “rabblement of lemmings,” or as a self-confessed Bardolator, swooning over “Hamlet” and “Lear.”
Not that Bloom abjures these subsequent selves. There is much canon fodder in this new book, along with reaffirmed vows of fidelity to Shakespeare, “the founder” not only of modern literature but also, in Bloom’s expansive view, of modern personhood and its “infinite self-consciousness.”
“For me, Shakespeare is God,” he declares at one point, and in other places he says much the same thing, in much the same words, a reminder that to read Bloom once is in a sense to reread him, so often does he repeat himself. Twice he asserts that Shakespeare’s greatest creations are Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago and Cleopatra; twice that “The Tempest” and “The Winter’s Tale” are tragicomedies and not romances; three times that “Titus Andronicus” parodies the tragedies of Shakespeare’s defeated rival Marlowe. Prospero, Bloom shrewdly observes, “is one of those teachers who is always convinced his auditors are not quite attentive.” So too Bloom, himself a “professional teacher” for 55 years now, has perhaps learned that the most efficient way to get your point across is to keep making it, the classroom sage’s version of staying on message.
But a repetitive Bloom, even in his late season of garrulity, still has many arresting things to say and says them, often, with exquisite precision. He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century — and one of the most protean, a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose-poet-pamphleteer, as deeply versed in the baroque aestheticism of Pater and Wilde as in the categorized intricacies of the kabbalah and Freud, and thoroughly steeped in several centuries’ worth of English and American poetry, acres of it committed to memory. He charmingly insists (twice) that he is a “common reader,” though one whose lifelong passion for the gnarled, incantatory verse of Hart Crane began before he turned 10 and who first read “Paradise Lost” (“thrilling to Satan and falling in love with Eve”) at 13.
Bloom’s life, with its rise from bleak poverty to almost unheard-of celebrity for a literary scholar, pleads for a full-blown memoir, and the most stirring passages in “The Anatomy of Influence” tantalizingly hint at the one he might yet write, enlarging on reminiscences, fleetingly given here, of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater performances he attended as a child and of his father “bringing me a toy scissors for my third birthday in 1933, when the Depression had left him, like many other garment workers, unemployed.”
One yearns also for lengthier exposition of Bloom’s first years at Yale in the 1950s, his memories of that time recently prompted, he says, when his wife brought home the DVD of “The Good Shepherd,” Robert De Niro’s portrait of the C.I.A., its early scenes set among the Gothic towers of Yale, “that quasi university centered on the undergraduates of Skull and Bones.”
To Bloom, first as a grad student and then a young professor, these sons of the patriciate “seemed the enemy, if only because they assumed they were the United States and Yale, while I was a visitor,” via the Bronx High School of Science and a scholarship to Cornell, where he had been an undergraduate prodigy.
At Yale he instantly dazzled, not to say intimidated, his professors, though he omits this fact (common knowledge when I was a graduate student, briefly, in the Yale English department in the late 1970s), instead recounting how the first essay he wrote for the formidable William K. Wimsatt was “returned to me with the ringing comment, ‘You are a Longinian critic, which I abhor!’ Much later, gossip reached me that my fierce former teacher had abstained from voting on my tenure, telling his colleagues, ‘He is an 18-inch naval gun, with tremendous firepower but always missing the cognitive target.’ ” Deliverance of a sort came in 1973, when the English department’s eminence, Robert Penn Warren, at last invited Bloom to lunch. “We had been colleagues for many years but our few previous conversations had been difficult, as his friends were my enemies.”
In truth, Bloom’s outsize gifts were lavishly rewarded from the start. His specialty was the English Romantics, then just emerging from a long period of disfavor imposed by the New Criticism, the big theory of its day and the forerunner of post-structuralism, almost as rigid in its linguistic fixation. The New Critics, the best of them skilled technicians in the art of close reading, narrowed their study to individual poems, each seen as an airtight mechanism or operating system that, if painstakingly dissected, would yield its hidden meaning, usually reducible to a cluster of ironies and paradoxes.
In a pair of important essays written with Monroe Beardsley, a philosopher of art, Wimsatt had tried to correct two persistent errors embedded in outmoded pre-New Critical literary analysis, “the affective fallacy” and “the intentional fallacy”: the first the naïve belief that a work’s meaning and value owed anything to how audiences received it; the second the belief that knowing a poet’s stated design or intention would improve one’s understanding of his art, when every great poem was best read as an autonomous entity.
New Critical theory tended to negate the presence of authors, who disappeared into their “impersonal” texts. The student instructed in its method learned to refer not to Keats or Tennyson, but to “the poet” or “the speaker,” a disembodied voice. A master practitioner was another of Bloom’s senior Yale adversary-colleagues, Cleanth Brooks, Warren’s fellow Kentuckian and his collaborator on a pair of popular textbooks, “Understanding Poetry” and “Understanding Fiction.”
Brooks’s interpretive readings exuded austerity and an air of meticulous control. “We are not dealing with Gray’s political ideas,” he had explained, giving a last tug to his latex gloves before commencing surgery on the etherized patient of “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.” “We are dealing with what the ‘Elegy’ ‘says’ — something that is not quite the same thing. Any doubt as to this last point should be dissipated by a consideration of the resolution of the poem.”
In some respects Brooks’s belief that poems were transcendent creations prefigured Bloom’s own, at least in his current prophet-of-decline phase. One can easily imagine Bloom warning today, as Brooks did in “The Well Wrought Urn” in 1947, that if “every poem is an expression of its age,” then “the poetry of the past becomes significant merely as cultural anthropology, and the poetry of the present, merely as a political, or religious, or moral instrument,” precluded from communicating universal truth. “We live in an age in which miracles of all kinds are suspect,” Brooks lamented, “including the kind of miracle of which the poet speaks.” The poet in this particular instance was the Shakespeare of Sonnet 65:
. . . what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The snag came with “miracle.” For Brooks, as for so many New Critics, literary thaumaturgy was ultimately not “just” literary. It inclined toward religious doctrine — High Church Protestant or Roman Catholic. And Brooks had political ideas too. In 1936, when he was a 30-year-old professor at Louisiana State University, he had written an essay, “A Plea to the Protestant Churches.” Drenched in the dogma of the Southern Agrarians, this little manifesto reproached liberal clergymen for embracing the New Deal, with its implication of an “all-pervading economic determinism embedded in such a phrase as ‘You can’t turn back the clock,’ ” and its adumbration of darker heresies, including “collectivization, the liquidation of certain classes” and, worst of all, the displacement of “the Christian God” by “the communist God.”
This ideology, by no means unique to “the well-wrought Cleanth Brooks,” as Bloom elsewhere has called him, consorted easily with the ideas held by the saint of the New Criticism’s ecclesiastical formalism, T. S. Eliot, the “worthy custodian of Anglo-Catholic conservative royalist European culture,” as Bloom puts it, adding, “My favorite of all Eliot’s dicta was that, being a Christian, he was prohibited by his faith from his not always polite anti-Semitism.”
But Eliot was “a great if tendentious poet,” Bloom concedes, indeed the model poeta doctus, trained in philosophy, adept at languages and also an exemplary modernist, who by sardonically appending endnotes to “The Waste Land” anticipated later critical excursions, Bloom’s included, into intertextuality, the web of connections linking one poem to another. Eliot was additionally a critic, a malignant one in Bloom’s view, but mightily influential. It was he who had demoted the Romantics, finding them muddled and vaporous, and elevated the 17th-century “Metaphysicals” George Herbert and John Donne, both clergymen.
With Eliot enthroned as “the Vicar of Academies,” it was “no accident that the poets brought into favor by the New Criticism were Catholics or High Church Anglicans,” the young Bloom pointed out, or that “academic criticism of literature in our time became almost an affair of church wardens.” So he wrote in “The Visionary Company,” his comprehensive study of the Romantics, published in 1961, its heroes the radical dissenters Blake and Shelley.
Though this early book challenged the supremacy of “Neo-Christianity,” it wasn’t especially unusual in its critical approach, apart from its generalizing tone and its commanding use of historical context. After conversing with Bloom in 1965, or rather absorbing “cannonades of lecture,” Alfred Kazin, rapt but awed, was heartened when “I realized that his interest is in literary history.”
Bloom had given no hint, it appears, that he was soon to collapse the whole of that history into a time-warped psychodrama or dream narrative. And yet even today, when not denouncing “the New Historicism and its ilk,” Bloom is attentive to years and dates, at times supplying them in the cozily informative tones of a PBS documentary: “In 14 consecutive months, from 1605 to 1606, Shakespeare composed ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ He was 41 to 42 and clearly upon his heights as a dramatist.”
Kazin’s encounter with Bloom predated, by two years, Bloom’s first steps toward self-reinvention. He describes this transformation, in his new book, as a literal awakening, on his 37th birthday, from a nightmare that impelled him to spend a day feverishly writing a “dithyramb” that evolved into “The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.” Published in 1973, it remains, with the possible exception of Northrop Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism” (to which Bloom’s new book pays sly if debunking homage), the postwar era’s most original work of criticism, still spellbinding and bewildering.
Bloom’s primary insight was that contemporary literary study imputed a false benignity to the act of poetic invention, when in reality it grew out of competitive struggle, pitting young poets against their elders. This was not a new idea. Samuel Johnson, the originator of modern criticism, had observed that it is “always dangerous to be placed in a state of unavoidable comparison with excellence,” the pressure especially intense in the case of the aspirant who “succeeds a celebrated writer.”
Picking up this thread in his book “The Burden of the Past and the English Poet,” published in 1970, the Harvard scholar Walter Jackson Bate had wondered “whether we could find any more comprehensive way of taking up the whole of English poetry during the last three centuries — or for that matter the modern history of the arts in general — than by exploring the effects of this accumulating anxiety and the question it so directly presents to the poet or artist: What is there left to do?”
Revise, frenziedly, was the answer Bloom gave. Poets wrote new poems by rewriting old ones, not through calculated thefts of the kind Eliot owned up to, but unconsciously, through stealthy appropriation. “What is Poetic Influence anyway?” Bloom asked. “Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers?” Thus did Bloom, almost 40 years before the advent of the “digital humanities,” envision with Nostradamus-like exactitude the morbid endgame of critical dissection.
Instead, Bloom fashioned a tour de force of quasi-prophetic argument, much of it written in a private language, complete with arcane “Star Trek”-worthy terminology (“clinamen,” “askesis”), in keeping with the 1970s fashion for theory (imported from France). He also drew on the full range of speculative thinkers, from the ancients Lucretius and Valentinus through Vico, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, up to Lacan and Paul de Man. The point was not to formulate (yet another) “new” criticism but to propose and then enact an antithetical or “agonistic” style of literary analysis, a “Romantic and prophetic humanism” parallel to visionary poetry and, like it, inspired by creative appropriation.
In Bloom’s expanded “dithyramb,” influence seethed with conflict and tension. The “strong” modern poet waged a Nietzschean struggle against a chosen, or repressed, elder, coming into possession of anterior masterpieces through his own misreadings or “misprisions,” which were in fact “dialectical” reimaginings of the antecedent work. “Weak” poets, slavish imitators, fell out of the equation. Unable to wrest the divine or “daemonic” spark of true inspiration from their precursors, they could manage only derivative efforts that withered into oblivion.
The critic’s role in all this was to map the secret genealogy, uncovering the true ancestor of the belated poet, difficult to do because strong poets ingeniously masked or concealed their actual influences. The critic, his antennae sharpened, was the poet’s secret sharer or, perhaps, his unrecruited psychoanalyst. “If to imagine is to misinterpret, which makes all poems antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading.” This erased the barrier separating critic from poet. Each, an impassioned reader, annexed the functions of the other.
For the strong misreading poet and critic, there was but one ambition, to achieve the sublime, the highest form of spiritual-aesthetic exaltation, mingled with intimations of terror, first described in antiquity by Longinus (Wimsatt, to whom “The Anxiety of Influence” was dedicated, had gotten that right). Bloom did not contrive this from nothing. His Cornell mentor, M. H. Abrams, had examined all manner of “expressive theories” of poetry in “The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition,” an exhaustively researched project, 10 years in the making, completed around the time Bloom left for Yale. Abrams drew a direct line from Longinus to the Romantics. “A conspicuous tendency of Longinus,” he wrote, “is to move from the quality of a work to its genesis in the powers and state of mind, the thought and emotions, of its author,” characterized by the “bold and frequent use of metaphors.” Longinus also prefigured the Romantics through “his reliance on ecstasy instead of analysis as the criterion of excellence.”
Bloom, updating Abrams, added another element, Freudian psychoanalysis. Here too he had a model to follow, Lionel Trilling, who as early as 1940, in his essay “Freud and Literature,” had recommended Freud’s interpretive system as a means both to understand “how, in a scientific age, we still feel and think in figurative formations, and to create, what psychoanalysis is, a science of tropes, of metaphor and its variants, synecdoche and metonymy.” Bloom, going further, absorbed Freudian themes into his theory. The “family romance,” with its conflict between fathers and sons, became a “trope” for poetic competition between early poets and latecomers; “sublimation” became the modern iteration of the sublime.
The inner history of literature was, in sum, the continuous crisis of belatedness. This was the general condition of the post-Enlightenment intellectual, and it was allegorized, with dramatic force, by English-language poets, who, as they struggled to invent new poems, first resisted and then matched the examples of great precursor poets — above all Shakespeare and Milton, whose dominance seemed obliteratingly total.
The revelation came in Bloom’s “misreadings” — the linkages he found. He made the reader see how John Ashbery really had emerged from Wallace Stevens, just as Stevens had from Whitman; that Browning harbored the ghost of Shelley; that Tennyson issued from Keats. The point was not that “father” and “son” sounded alike. Much of the time they didn’t. The affinities occurred outside the familiar realm of echoes and allusions, of intended references.
Bloom’s theory, he explains in his new book, was the offshoot of his own reading habits, principally his freakish capacity for memorization. He discovered it in childhood, and it never left him. In the early 1960s, he “memorized at first hearing” W. S. Merwin’s “Departure’s Girl-Friend,” a poem of some 40 lines, after Merwin gave a reading at Yale. And even now “I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory.” The ability to grasp poetry in this way is rare but not unprecedented. Bloom’s hero, Samuel Johnson, had it as well. “His memory was so tenacious,” Boswell writes in his great biography, “that he never forgot anything that he either heard or read. Mr. Hector” — Johnson’s schoolmate — “remembers having recited to him 18 verses, which, after a little pause, he repeated verbatim, varying only one epithet, by which he improved the line.”
Nor is this gift to be confused with the muscled-up feats of the “memory athletes” reported in Joshua Foer’s book, “Moonwalking With Einstein.” It is akin, rather, to the mathematical or musical prodigy’s prehensile grasp of hidden structures. In Bloom’s case, the structures were verbal. Once he read a poem it reverberated incessantly inside his skull, colliding with other poems. “If you carry the major British and American poets around with you by internalization,” he remarks, “after some years their complex relations to one another begin to form enigmatic patterns.”
Enigmatic indeed. In later books — “A Map of Misreading,” “Kabbalah and Criticism,” “Poetry and Repression” — Bloom elaborated, with increasing eclecticism, on his “revisionary ratios,” until, in a book like “Agon” (1982), he offered interpretations like this of Nietzsche and Wilde: “A trope is thus a way of carrying a perpetual imperfection across the river of Becoming, while thinking we carry a goddess. But what trope is troping the concept of trope here? Transumption or metaleptic reversal, I would say, which is Nietzsche’s favorite figure, the entire basis of his Zarathustra’s rhetoric.”
By this time, Bloom had burrowed into a cave, its lamplit forms and shapes merging into an occult mythos scarcely intelligible even to other scholars. “Bloom had an idea,” Christopher Ricks said; “now the idea has him.” Cynthia Ozick, meanwhile, called him an “idol-maker.” In contrast to Cleanth Brooks, who had said, “I am not one of those people who believe that man can live by poetry alone,” Bloom, the self-described “secularist with Gnostic proclivities,” believed exactly that. For him great poems were sacred vessels. Which made it all the more remarkable when he remade himself in the 1990s as a public explainer of literature, with his crowd-pleasing books on the Western canon and Shakespeare.
“The Anatomy of Influence” is Bloom’s effort — his last, he says — to recalibrate his great theory, only shorn of its “gnomic” obscurities and written in “a subtler language that will construe my earlier commentary for the general reader and reflect changes in my thinking.” One of those changes is that over time his notion of influence has become more orthodox, growing closer, in its sensitivity to echo and allusion, to the approach of the hated New Critics.
In a superb chapter, “Milton’s Hamlet,” Bloom shows how the Satan of “Paradise Lost” is the offspring of Hamlet, each a soliloquist who stands at a remove from the tragedy that engulfs him, puzzling out eloquent conundrums that press toward “depths beneath depths,” limitless self-consciousness. “It does not matter that Satan is an obsessed theist and Hamlet is not,” Bloom writes. “Two angelic intellects inhabit a common abyss: the post-Enlightenment ever-augmenting inner self, of which Hamlet is a precursor, intervening between Luther and Calvin, and later Descartes and Spinoza.”
This is Bloom’s style — or “affect,” as he might say — and has been for some time. The prose is at once elliptical and swollen with portent. But it remains forcefully strange, in its strategic commingling of the invented and the factual. Hamlet is as real a presence, and as independent a thinker, as Luther or Descartes — as real as Shakespeare himself, and a rival to him.
The subtitle of Bloom’s new book, “Literature as a Way of Life,” is not an overstatement. For him, great authors don’t merely imitate life or capture facets of being. They create “heterocosms,” alternative but accessible worlds, open to us all. He had always been an esoteric populist, like his first subjects, Blake and Shelley. And he has achieved a new serenity, having made peace even with Yale, its campus now populated by “wonderfully varied” students, wise in their own way. “Whatever one’s personal tradition,” he has learned, “one teaches in the name of aesthetic and cognitive standards and values that are no longer exclusively Western.” Anxiety, after all, is a universal condition.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the Book Review.
A version of this review appeared in print on May 22, 2011, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: An Uncommon Reader.