Harold Bloom: The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, 357pp.

When did the Bloomian age begin? Most of us were first exposed to it in his 1973 work, The Age of Anxiety, though its outlines are present in his early work on the Romantic poets. This new book is to be, he says, his “final reflection upon the influence process”, the question which has dominated his critical thinking. It is also where his abiding influence will longest be felt because he identified influence as the missing mechanism of the discipline of Literary History and replaced conventional notions of it (as a kind of gentlemanly passing on of batons) with a fraught, agonistic relation between poets (or between poems) in which the later poet creatively misreads his predecessor according to an interesting set of “revisionary ratios” laid out in the 1973 book. If we are serious readers, we will be forced to acknowledge that we live in a post-Bloomian world.

Interestingly, The Anatomy of Influence begins not only with the assertion that this will be his last look at this question, but also with an admission of failure. He wanted this book, he tells us, to be based on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy a book which he says (in a turn of mind so characteristic of Bloom that we pass over it) his “hero and mentor”, Dr Johnson, read “to pieces”. The book we have, Bloom’s Anatomy is, actually, a failed project:

Even before a debilitating series of mishaps and illnesses, I could not sustain the challenge. Traces of Burton’s marvellous madness abide in this book, and yet it may be that all I share with Burton is an obsessiveness somewhat parallel to his own . . . My book isolates literary melancholy as the agon of influence, and perhaps I write to cure my own sense of having been overinfluenced since childhood by the greatest Western authors.

Essentially there is nothing in the book that can in any way be called a departure or surprising development. A large section is devoted to Shakespeare, his relation to Marlowe and his influence on later writers. A second section deals with what he calls the “anxieties of Epicurean influence” with essays on Leopardi, Browning, Yeats and Merrill and the final section focuses on Whitman and the various writers who, in some way or another, come under his “priorness”: Lawrence, Crane and a group of more recent poets, Ashbery, Ammons, Merwin, Strand and Charles Wright.

In keeping with the model of Burton, though, there is – as the passage I quoted above probably suggests – a lot more throughout this book in the mode of personal reminiscence. These reminiscences are of texts and people, and both are revealing. When it comes to texts, we are exposed to a kind of greedy precocity: “I recall first reading the poem [Paradise Lost] when I was thirteen, thrilling to Satan and falling in love with Eve . . ..”, “I began reading Finnegans Wake as a Cornell undergraduate in October, 1947 . . .”, “It is seventy years since I first fell in love with Hart Crane’s poetry in early summer, 1940, as I approached my tenth birthday”, “For sixty years now, since my nineteenth birthday, I religiously reread, every six months, A Tale of a Tub and its outrider, A Digression Concerning Madness. I have just finished reading it again, for what may be the 120th time, and I realize I now possess it by memory”. This is exhilarating, of course, and music to the ears of fellow readers such as myself who have always felt themselves to be foot-soldiers in the army of which Bloom is one of the senior commanders (to steal and adapt a metaphor from Clive James). But it is also daunting and might well frighten an adolescent in a bookshop trying to decide between another Stephen King novel and a book of poems. There are at least two drives behind serious reading: the first is an obsession and the second is a desire to explore novel lands (though many will argue that it masks a desire to annex new lands). One of the pleasures of reading criticism is that we respond to another who, though better than us, experiences the same impulsions. One of the biggest problems for a reader of Bloom is that Bloom’s voyages of discovery occur so early in his life that we never have the excitement of first meetings: all Bloom’s readings are rereadings. And these rereadings are so impregnated with criticism’s second drive – the desire to make sense of one’s reading and so, in some way, to control it – that the explorative sense of reading is lost and we are left only with the obsessive, the theorist.

The anecdotes which concern people are all intriguing. Often these are Bloom’s teachers (the formidable New Critic, W. K. Wimsatt, was an undergraduate teacher of Bloom and hated his approach: Bloom, admirably, declines all temptations to get square), older and admired practitioners (such as Burke, Empson, Barfield) and, most interestingly, poets. I think there is a lot of unconscious comedy in these encounters as poet after poet is confronted by a Bloomian interpretation of his or her poetic career. Ashbery, for example, when visiting Bloom and being asked to inscribe copies of Flow Chart and the first volume of his Library of America Collected Poems, chooses passages which, according to Bloom, are “clues to Whitman-in-Ashbery”, though readers might interpret the second – “And it will be but half-strange, really be only semi-bizarre” – differently. Ashbery would know what he was getting and what he was doing but it is hard not to detect a flicker of dis-ease behind the eyes of other poets as they are brought onstage and subjected to Bloomian dicta. Amy Clampitt, for example, has the opening of her “Beach Glass” seen in terms of Hamlet:

Shuffling, as Clampitt was aware, is a rich Shakespearian word employed three times in Hamlet . . . Whether the ocean possesses two touches of Claudius to one of Hamlet, we just don’t know. I jocularly asked Amy Clampitt that once when out walking with her and Harold Korn, her husband and my old friend from undergraduate days. Always reticent, Clampitt replied only with a smile.

Reminiscences, unconsciously comic or not, makes this a rather valedictory book looking backward to origins as much as forward to the future history of reading. This latter, is, at any rate, very bleak: “A difficult poet”, he says of Browning, he “is now in the shadows, the age of the reader being past”. And if the age of reading is past, then Bloom positions himself not as an originary figure but as a closing one: consciously or unconsciously, he is the last of the greats.

Put crudely, the decline of the reader and of reading has, for Bloom, a double origin. First is the takeover of University English departments by what he calls the “Schools of Resentment”. These are defined in various ways but have, at heart, a reductiveness. Those unable to tolerate the idea of talent and genius go looking for explanations of creativity in social backgrounds. Bloom has a lot of fun with these, pointing out that Shakespeare and Massinger share very similar backgrounds, but the core of his contempt is their desire to reduce what the reader perceives as an enlightening and exhilarating genius. Other members of the Schools of Resentment are the special pleaders: feminists, Afro-Americans, gays: all carrying on their shoulders the chip that their identity is insufficiently recognised. And then there are the Cultural Studies materialists for whom, as he says, “intense literary experience is merely ‘cultural capital’, a means to power and glory within the ‘parallel economy’ that Bourdieu labels the literary field”. But these are merely corruptors of the potentially intelligent young. “The strongest adversary for deep reading”, he says at the opening of his chapter on Whitman and Lawrence, is neither “theory and cultural studies”, nor the prevalence of the visual, but “the extraordinary profusion and speed of information”. I think there is a deep truth here: serious reading is a solitary and obsessive activity and whereas Dr Johnson was well up with social, political and cultural developments in the eighteenth century, Bloom, his twentieth century successor, probably looks rather out of touch with the world and the situation is only going to get worse for those who are Bloom’s successors.

Reentering Bloomland with this new book, I am struck by two things. The first is what a highly stratified universe it is. Writers are divided in strong, not-so-strong and weak (a Bloomian code for the crude critical judgements of ‘good’, ‘OK’, ‘bad’), and between these writers – or, as Bloom increasingly suggests, between their works – is an agonistic relationship leading to the intricate set of misreadings that is the foundation stone of Bloom’s world. Again, increasingly, the “strong” writers are codified to the point where Shakespeare (hardly present in early Bloom) becomes the central figure, not so much because he institutes the most misreading but because, with his sense of characters overhearing themselves and thus discovering an interiority which is the hallmark of modern life, he – as Bloom often says – creates us. And then of course there is the hierarchy of readers with “strong” readers like Bloom at the top and weak readers – those who reduce – in various lower levels. This remorseless activity where judgements of value seem to have to come before value-free explorations which might eventually lead to such judgments, worries me and certainly makes me feel uncomfortable – though that might just be an Australian sensitivity.

The second is the extent to which Bloom’s project fights, not always successfully, against what he hates most: reductiveness. Although Peter Porter in “The Western Canoe” memorably says of him, “At least he’s not the Theory Fairy”, he is, after all, a high theorist with an intricate and often elusive response to literary relationships. Also, he can be, on a bad day, highly reductive: the chapter on Tolstoy in The Western Canon is, for example, just bad criticism never, for a moment, engaging the two crucial questions that Tolstoy poses for all writers and readers: “How on earth does he do that?” and “Why can’t I do it?” More significantly, since influence is, as he says, a labyrinth, his theory tends to rely on hidden evidence. This appeals to the Gnostic in Bloom but it runs dangerously close to the vice of the special pleaders for whom he has so much contempt: the very absence of direct evidence is a strong argument for the existence of whatever is being sought since strong connections have to be hidden from the eyes of the herd. And finally, there is the obsessiveness of Bloom’s own quest. It is admirable but it too skates close to being reductivist. It can produce passages which, for a common reader in a bookshop, must seem completely mad, as for example, the opening paragraph of the chapter on Hamlet:

The place of the tragedy Hamlet in Shakespeare’s canon is suggestively parallel to that of Mark’s Gospel in the English Bible. Remarkably, Mark’s Jesus finds his way back to the J or Yahwist portion of the text of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers. He is for Yahweh alone and not for the God of the Priestly Writer or the Deuteronomist. His Yahweh is personal, passionate, and thus very far from a theological god. It is doubtless strange of me to say this but something of the Marcan Jesus, abrupt and startling, abides in the aura of Prince Hamlet.

At all points here a reader wants to shout out that no it isn’t, no he doesn’t, no he isn’t and no, it doesn’t. What Mark’s Jesus shares with Hamlet is that both ended up being obsessions of Harold Bloom.

I realise that in this paragraph I am beginning to sketch out a case contra Bloom but although this is fairly easily done, it would be a shame to let anything obscure the greatness of the achievement, the brilliant, humane and loving personality behind it, and the marvellous and electrifying example that a supreme reader has on lesser readers. As I’ve said, as an Australian I feel uncomfortable with the hierarchic notions of strong versus weak (readers as well as writers). Somehow the leveller in me wants to celebrate – when I read poetry – a pan-human creativity which emerges in infinitely varied poetic products, rather than celebrate the complexities of the most excellent and the complexities of the relations between them.

But this raises the issue of what the true task of criticism should be. In the forty-ninth chapter of The Decline and Fall, (a work quoted by Bloom though he gives the impression that he thinks that the fall of Rome occurs in the final chapters whereas it occurs halfway through. Gibbon’s great work is about the middle ages, not the classical world) Gibbon quotes the tenth century Bishop Liutprand describing Romans as among the most disgusting human beings on the planet and Gibbon in one of his acid footnotes comments that “for the sins of Cato or Tully, Minos might have imposed as a fit penance the daily perusal of this barbarous passage”. I’m not sure what Hell, Heaven or Purgatory Bloom with his Gnostic and Kabbalistic leanings ( “I am a Jewish, Gnostic heretic”) might finish up in, but I would be happy to prescribe for him, throughout eternity, the weekly exercise of writing a thousand word review of a book by a new novelist or poet in which he was forbidden to use (a) the words “strong”, “weak”, “best” or “better” and (b) any names of any authors who had appeared in any of his earlier critical works.

Published in Australian Poetry Journal, 1.1 (2011), 100-105.