28 November, 2011Issue 17.4Literature

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Influencing Harold Bloom

Angus Brown

BloomHarold Bloom
The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life
Yale University Press, 2011
368 Pages
ISBN 978-0300167603


The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, by Harold Bloom, tries to make sense of a career that spans more than 50 years. Although Bloom takes his subjects very seriously, this is not a work of serious scholarship. The book is necessarily broad and Bloom makes no secret of its populist intent: there is enough autobiographical detail to keep the casual reader interested, and his judgements on Shakespeare, romanticism, and American poetry are more pleasingly put than they are anything new. Suspended somewhere between memoir and literary criticism, the results are by turns frustrating, inspiring, infuriating, and unexpectedly moving.

Since 1959, Bloom’s research interests have ranged from romantic to contemporary to American poetry, from gnosticism to the Bible. He has cast himself as a defender of the Western canon and a champion of Shakespeare, but it was the publication of The Anxiety of Influence in 1973 that made his name as a literary critic, and that book still defines his career nearly 40 years later. Put brutally, Bloom’s theory of influence amounts to a literary “survival of the fittest” via Sigmund Freud: all poets must confront their literary forebears; the strong poets will overcome their immediate influences while the weak poets will fail to do so and languish in mediocrity. The Anatomy of Influence is a retrospective of a lifetime’s careful reading considered under the shade of this idea, his most famous and abiding insight.

Shakespeare and Walt Whitman loom large in The Anatomy of Influence, and extended sections of commentary make up a substantial number of chapters devoted to their work. Bloom discusses more than 30 other writers as well, but never strays far from the two poets he loves best. Bloom deliberately excluded Shakespeare from The Anxiety of Influence, claiming that the great poet of the English language belonged “to the giant age before the flood, before the anxiety of influence became central to poetic consciousness.” That was then; now Shakespeare is construed as the patriarch of Bloom’s theory of poetic influence. Bloom argues that the Bard is an influence on everyone. Even Shakespeare’s early work influences his later work. “Shakespeare”, Bloom writes, “invented us”. This marks a return to the argument Bloom made in Shakespeare: Inventing the Human (1998). It is the most ambitious claim of The Anatomy of Influence, and arguably of Bloom’s career, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What Bloom means by “Shakespeare invented us” is that Shakespeare is the father of modern English-speaking language, culture, and humanity; he is the ultimate influence.

The reader is asked to accept this argument almost entirely on the basis that Harold Bloom is making it. There is undoubtedly a strong case to be made here, but Bloom is not the right critic to make it. The effect of Shakespeare on humanity cannot be proved without recourse to social and cultural history. In the absence of convincing argumentation and scholarship, Bloom’s grand vision of Shakespearean influence relies heavily on hyperbolic axioms. They run from the enthusiastic (“Shakespeare most mattered because his men and women are ever-living representations of complete human beings”), to the metaphysical (“Hamlet centers the literary cosmos, Eastern as well as Western”), to the unconvincing (“Confusing Shakespeare with God is ultimately legitimate”), until the inevitable admission, “For me, Shakespeare is God.” For me, this is where Bloom’s rhetoric gives out—and where Bloom gives up. Although Shakespeare proves too much of a giant to be explained in terms of influence anxiety, these chapters, while ultimately unsuccessful, are worth a look. Who wouldn’t want to watch Bloom grapple with God?

The Anatomy of Influence, then, reconsiders The Anxiety of Influence with a view to explain, not the theory itself, but how the theory can work within the entire Western literary canon. Instead of presenting a unified theory of influence Bloom gives us a selection of the strongest arguments from his back catalogue. Readers hoping for a serious and sustained consideration of the book that made Bloom’s name will be disappointed. The influence of Northrop Frye is mentioned only in passing, while T. S. Eliot is given even shorter shrift. (Bloom describes him as “one of the worst literary critics of the twentieth century”.) The critical provenance of Bloom’s theory of influence, then, is not up for discussion, but nearly everything else is.

The Anatomy of Influence is at its best in the introduction and after Bloom’s bout with Shakespeare. In the clear and convincing chapters on the poetic influence of Epicurus and Lucretius, as well as in his magisterial commentaries on Whitman, the reader is treated to the musings of one of the great literary critics of the 20th century completely in his element. As with the chapters on Shakespeare, quotables abound, but here they strike the right tone. Amusing swipes at Matthew Arnold (“the most overrated of all critics, ever”) chime with interesting asides on Freud (“the Montaigne of his era”), but Bloom can get carried away in his search for the soundbite. Take these appraisals of contemporary letters: “Cynicism abounds. Reality is becoming virtual, bad books drive out good, reading is a dying art.”; and “I will no longer strive with Resenters and other lemmings. We will be folded together in our common dust.” This is Bloom the pantomime villain. These sententious mutterings as well as shadowy allusions to “New Cynics” and other abstract non-threats are unnecessary and feel a little forced, if not contrived, to play up to his contemporary, curmudgeonly, public image.

It is, instead, Bloom’s use of autobiography that really pulls the book along. The strongest and most revealing moments come when Bloom’s sheer faith in poetry breaks through his bluster. In a passage considering Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, the reader is confronted with an uncharacteristically vulnerable image of the author:

Last year I lay five months in the hospital with a broken back and other maladies, and lost myself day after day reciting “Lilacs” to myself soundlessly. I possess it now by more than memory since in part it was the angel of my modest resurrection.

This is only a brief moment in an overly long book, but these two sentences are worth all the mean-spirited zingers that Bloom can muster. The title of the first draft of The Anxiety of Influence was “The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence”. Here, Bloom steps beyond his cranky comfort zone; he lets us see the angels that attend his writing, and it is both inspiring and somehow very sad.

In this scene in the hospital, the book’s subtitle “Literature as a Way of Life” is shown to be more than a platitude, as it hints toward the articulation of a belief in literature that is religious in its intensity and sincerity. At heart, this book is a meditation on what it means to give a life to literature. The sacrifices Bloom has made in pursuit of his obsession haunt his prose and his bullish critical persona. The isolation from colleagues and the academy is bitterly celebrated. The only contemporary Bloom recalls with any fondness is his dear friend, the late literary critic Angus Fletcher. The strength and endurance of Bloom’s passion for reading is admirable but the loneliness which it appears to ensure is difficult to ignore. The inward turn that opening a book or chanting a poem represents is at the centre of both his solace and his solitude. At the beginning of The Anatomy of Influence Bloom states that, “My book isolates melancholy as the agon of influence” before less confidently adding, “perhaps I write to cure my own sense of having been overinfluenced since childhood by the greatest Western authors.” Bloom’s 39th book is sprawling and digressive, flawed, and often grumpy. But it is more than melancholy; most of all it is a testament to an extraordinary faith in literature.

Angus Brown is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford.