The Victorian Sage

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Tag: harold bloom

More Reflections on Harold Bloom

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)

On Looking Into Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence

Recently I began studying the various film/ TV adaptations of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. With a so often-adapted book, a new version is inevitably greeted with a certain scepticism: “Another one? Why? What can they possibly have to add to all the others?” In trying to come up with answers as to how a text like Oliver Twist is approached in these times, I found myself devoting a close reading to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973). I also looked at his 2011 book on a similar theme, The Anatomy of Influence. Bloom’s theory, going by the name alone, seemed a perfect fit for my subject. However, I have abandoned the idea.

It is interesting to read Bloom’s own reflections of Anxiety made in Anatomy, almost 40 years on, with Bloom now 80 years old and intending Anatomy to be his last full-length work. They are:

The Anxiety of Influence, published in January 1973, is a brief, gnomic theory of poetry as poetry, free of all history except literary biography. It is a hard read, even for me, because it is tense with anxious expectations, prompted by signs of the times, which it avoids mentioning (Anatomy 5).

“Gnomic” is a nice word. And, yes, Anxiety is tough going. On first glance it seems quite a humble admission of Bloom’s that his famous work is a “hard read”. On reflection, however, I think it’s rather devious. Bloom is here asking that his work be judged not by its identifiable content, but that we see it as being the product of Bloom’s grappling with big questions concerning his own time, which he avoids mentioning. Is Bloom here tacitly admitting that Anxiety, on its own terms, doesn’t stand up, and trying to create new terms for it to be judged on, leaving these terms so vague as to be unchallengeable, and hoping that people will read into that resonant phrase “signs of the times” (referencing the Bible and also the once-celebrated essay of that name by Thomas Carlyle – of whom this blog will almost certainly have more to say anon) something appropriately profound? I think this is what he’s doing, but the only part of it I agree with is that the book decidedly does not stand up as literary criticism.

The basic tenet of Anxiety is that all poetry proceeds by “misreading” previous poetry, and that especially since Milton, all western poetry has been struggling to create a space for itself where no space exists, because all his been said. Therefore, poets lie to themselves, “misreading” the precursor so as to convince themselves that the precursor left something out, or failed to go far enough, or got something wrong. So modern poetry is a “poetry of exhaustion”, and “poetry will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength” (Anxiety 10). Poets themselves might deny that what they are doing is misreading the precursor, but Bloom sees this is a defense mechanism – the anxiety manifests itself as a denial of anxiety.

Bloom also places himself in a sense above the poet here, telling him “You don’t know what you’re writing, but I do. I see through your motivation to the anxiety”. I think this is quite central to Bloom’s theory, and I see it as deriving from Bloom’s own anxiety – the anxiety of not being a poet! Bloom has, I think, an obvious ambivalence towards poets. On the one hand, he clearly cares deeply about poetry and has made it his life’s vocation. Even his harshest critic would have to admit his writing has passion. On the other, though, what are we to make of it when he says that the latecoming poet “experiences the shame and splendor of being found by poems – great poems – outside him” (Anxiety 26). Where does “shame” come into the reading of great poetry? And what about excesses of rhetoric like “the modern poet is a befouled version of himself” (Anxiety 62)? At times like this, one wonders how Bloom arrives at such a word as “befouled”. What sort of aggression towards his subject can lead to writing in these terms? More than anything, I think Anxiety is Bloom’s attempt to assert himself against poets; much as he may admire them, he can’t quite forgive them for the fact that he himself is not a poet. Thus the poet in Anxiety, certainly the modern poet, is a pathetic and deluded figure, stumbling through his helpless misreadings of his greater predecessors. This is the critic’s revenge against those who do what he writes about doing.

As for Bloom’s central contention, surely one cannot deny that modern poets have experienced forms of life unavailable to Milton and the other precursors, the Covering Cherubs, and so cannot help being different and finding new reflections on the human condition. I’m sure this obvious point has been put to Bloom, so he may have an answer, but I don’t find it answered in Anxiety. In any case, Anxiety is a book more often name-checked than explored in detail. The title itself provides a nice catch-phrase with which to talk about the psychology of creation. As for the nuts and bolts of Bloom’s theory, well, it doesn’t have any. What it does have is inflated rhetoric, obscurantism and pretensions towards the status of poetry. In fact, in Anatomy Bloom refers to Anxiety as a “dithyramb” and claims he wrote the first draft in a “state of metaphysical terror” (Anatomy 3) after waking from a nightmare. What is being evoked here is the language of poetic creation. And maybe Anxiety is a great poem, or maybe that’s Bloom’s alibi for having created a work of criticism that doesn’t work as criticism. In any case, if you’re looking for insight into the psychology of Harold Bloom, read this; if you’re looking for insight into the anxiety of the latecomer poet (or, in my case, adapter), best try something else.

Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence ([1973] OUP, 1997)

—————–, The Anatomy of Influence (YUP 2011)

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