More Reflections on Harold Bloom

by Mark Wallace

Following my reflection of yesterday on The Anxiety of Influence (1973), I wish to return to the subject of Harold Bloom. Although my opinion of Anxiety is low, about Bloom in general I am somewhat ambivalent. Bloom is an interesting figure by virtue of the fact that working within academia he has produced critical writings that have attained a degree of recognition outside of that system. That is a lamentably rare occurrence; most academic literary critics write stuff that only other academic critics want to read, or maybe even can read – the language of academic criticism can seem designed to deter the potentially interested layperson. Even people very interested in literature do not tend to read academic stuff to get fresh perspectives and insights.

Bloom himself is something of an anti-establishment figure, attacking current trends in academia, and being loudly opposed to Theory. He has said “The individual self is the only method” (The Western Canon, 23). This obviously places him at odds with current practice, which doesn’t allow much room for the “individual self” of the critic, instead expecting that critic to work with existing critical frameworks. But for Bloom, there are no existing frameworks, and the individual response to literature is all. I must say I find this approach quite attractive. Most critics I enjoy have prioritized the individual response, and many critics I enjoy least have attempted to fit specific works to pre-existing general methodologies. But the appropriation of existing methodologies is almost unavoidable in the current academic climate, so one can only look on in envy at a character like Bloom who works within the system while making no concessions whatsoever to prevailing practice, and achieves considerable success. His success may, of course, be precisely because he doesn’t follow prevailing practice, for this practice has served to distance academia from any sort of outside following it could have hoped to build.

Bloom has no problem admitting his outsider status, rather he prides himself on it. In The Anatomy of Influence (2011), he notes: “Even in the university [Yale] I am isolated, except for my own students, since I am a department of one” (5). I was reminded here of that YouTube video “So you Want To Get A PhD in the Humanities”, when the girl says she wants to go to Yale because Harold Bloom teaches there, and the professor tells her: “Harold Bloom is a misogynistic narcissist. He’s not even in Yale’s English Department. They gave him his own Department of Humanities because nobody could fracking stand him.” This sounds plausible.  Even in print, Bloom is narcissistic, overbearing and self-indulgent. But that (admittedly fictional) young student’s love for Bloom is also revealing. Bloom deals in the emotions of reading; he unmistakeably delights in reading, and even when making those big unsupported assertions at which he specializes, he’s engaged and engaging – infuriating, perhaps, not never dry. And maybe it comes down to that, in the end – Bloom may be wrong, he may be unsystematic, careless, hyperbolic, but his stakes are high, and that in itself is compelling.

So I think Bloom is an important figure not because he’s a writer I particularly enjoy (I disliked Anxiety and A Map of Misreading (1975); I quite enjoyed, with qualifications, Anatomy. The Western Canon (1994) is on my to-read list), but because he represents a form of writing that is rare in the academic system, one where the writer has a very clear and very personal viewpoint, where he is able to articulate a direct response to a literary stimulus, and, by virtue of this, to illuminate how we read and to make us remember, if we have forgotten, why we read.

Bloom, Harold, The Anatomy of Influence (YUP, 2011)

—————–, The Anxiety of Influence ([1973] OUP, 1997)

—————–, A Map of Misreading ([1975] OUP, 2003)

—————–, The Western Canon ( New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994)