You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Shaman

The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life
By Harold Bloom
(Yale University Press, 357 pp., $32.50)

With The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom has promised us his “swan song” as a critic. Fat chance. After some thirty original books and hundreds of edited volumes; after more than fifty years of brilliance, boldness, bombast, bathos, and bullshit; after Shelley, Blake, Yeats, and Stevens; anxiety, misreading, repression, and revision; Orphism, gnosis, Lucretius, and the Kabbalah; Shakespeare, genius, the canon, and the Book of J; after evidence of a logorrhea so Niagaran even death will be hard-put to shut it off, there is little possibility that Bloom has given us his “final reflection upon the influence process”—which in Bloomspeak means his final reflection full stop, since everything he writes is wrapped around that fixed idea. The Anatomy of Influence is not only not his last book, it’s not even his last one this year. Already in September came an appreciation of the King James Bible, billed, inevitably, as the book that Bloom had been writing “all my long life” (or at least since his agents noticed that 2011 marks the translation’s four-hundredth anniversary). “The culmination of a life’s work”: is that the last one or the latest one? Neither: it’s the one he published thirteen years ago. The Harold Bloom Show, we can rest assured, is good for many seasons yet.

Before we get into this any further, I should mention that Bloom and I were once employed by the same academic department. I hasten to add, lest there be a question of bias, that my decade at Yale left me feeling little toward him one way or the other. I never even met the man. Having fulfilled the dream of academics everywhere by renouncing as many obligations toward his home department as practicably possible—meetings, committee assignments, duties in the graduate program, every responsibility except undergraduate teaching—Bloom had long since become, as he likes to put it, “a department of one.” I think I only saw him about three times.

Which is not to say he wasn’t sometimes on my mind. At a certain point during my sojourn at the institution, I started to develop the Heart of Darkness theory of the Yale English department. Conrad’s novel is about colonialism and racism and the shadowed reaches of the human heart, but it is also a dissection of bureaucracy. My first clue came when I realized that my chairman was a perfect double for the manager of the Central Station, that creepy functionary who has “no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even,” who “could keep the routine going—that’s all.” But what clinched it was the recognition of the role that Bloom played in the paradigm. Bloom was Mr. Kurtz. (Marlow, broken by his African ordeal, was any number of my senior colleagues, their souls crushed by the tenure process. The “pilgrims”—that pack of hopeful fools who set off into the jungle in pursuit of a chimerical fortune—were the graduate students.)

I mean this in the best possible way. Remember that Conrad prefers Kurtz immeasurably to the rest of the Company lot. Bloom, like Kurtz, disturbed the hell out of his colleagues, all the people who were trying to clamber up the greasy pole by playing by the rules. Bloom, like Kurtz, ignored the rules and was strong enough to impose his own. Bloom, like Kurtz, was the shadowy genius who had sequestered himself in his private domain and was managing to produce, by methods however “unsound,” more material than all his colleagues put together. (This was after the days of the Chelsea House series of critical collections, when Bloom and his “factory” of full-time assistants and freelance graduate students were cranking out as many as fifteen volumes a month.) Bloom, like Kurtz, was a legend, a rumor, a vaguely malevolent presence (or absence) to be spoken of in awed and envious tones. What was not to like?

But in recent years the parallel has taken a less flattering turn. Opinion has long been divided on Bloom. Some regard him as little more than a blowhard, the promulgator, in indigestible prose, of theories both empty and obscure—a pontificator, a narcissist, a mountebank. Others—by far the majority in the popular press—have anointed him the critic of the age. One assessment ranks him with F.R. Leavis and Edmund Wilson as among the greatest English-language critics of the twentieth century. Another pairs The Anxiety of Influence, his major theoretical statement, with Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (one of the works to which the title of Bloom’s new book alludes) as the most original volumes of criticism since World War II.

Both positions strike me as excessive. All alone with Leavis and Wilson? What about, to grab only the first handful, Empson, Trilling, Frye, Kermode, and Said? The originality of Bloom’s theoretical position is harder to gainsay, but originality is often nothing more than eccentricity, and the influence of Influence is easier to doubt. When I think of the most important works of postwar criticism, I think of Frye’s Anatomy, Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin, Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, Said’s Orientalism, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, and Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men—books that launched or largely defined, respectively, myth criticism, narratology, reader-response criticism, deconstruction, postcolonial criticism, feminist criticism, New Historicism, contemporary Marxist criticism, and queer studies. The Anxiety of Influence—idiosyncratic, impacted, hermetic—launched nothing, except more books by Bloom. “Harold,” as a professor of mine once said, “is a world unto himself.”

Still, he really is a brilliant critic—and I say this in full cognizance of the fact that “brilliant” is the most overused word in the academy. (The most underused, of course, is “boring.”) Meeting Bloom in 1965, Alfred Kazin, fifteen years his senior and long established as one of the nation’s leading critical authorities, was hit by a wave of intellectual insecurity: “Bloom ... formidable to me, leaves me feeling like I know nothing and have read nothing of the English Romantics ... Fascinatingly gifted and fascinatingly complex man.” But Kurtz is brilliant, too. What befalls Conrad’s creation is what’s befallen Bloom in recent years. Megalomaniacal excess, unchecked by external restraint—“You don’t talk with that man,” says his acolyte of Kurtz, “you listen to him”; “No one edits,” says Bloom of himself, “I edit. I refuse to be edited”—has collapsed into a kind of emptiness. “The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham”: the “public Bloom” of the last two decades, the celebrity critic who pronounces on everything under the sun, is basically a Wizard of Oz routine. “Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last”: Bloom continues publishing with superhuman frequency, but he stopped saying anything new a long time ago.

TO SAY THAT BLOOM has turned himself into a celebrity is to recognize that he has conspired, with ample help from the media, to make his personality more significant than anything he does, and that everything he does now serves to keep that personality afloat before the public. Bloom is the story, and more and more, Bloom’s story is the story. Under the guise of its “last will and testament” billing, the new book continues the strategic disclosure of biographical information, dropping bits of memoir in the mix. The narrative, to be sure, is compelling, even if it strains credulity at times. Born in 1930, Bloom grew up, the son of a garment worker, in the Yiddish-speaking Bronx. Precocious beyond measure—he has admitted to reading four hundred pages an hour and claims to have memorized a thirty-seven-line poem at first hearing—in another time and place he would have been an illui, a rabbinic prodigy, committing vast tracts of the Talmud to memory and unleashing his interpretive appetites upon the Law. Instead, at the age of ten, he says, “already deep in Blake and Shelley, Whitman and Shakespeare,” he discovered Hart Crane at the Fordham University Library. His conversion was sealed. Now it’s much of English poetry, and a good bit more besides, that he’s managed to house in his brain.

At twenty-five, after stops at Cornell and Oxford, he joined the Yale faculty. It could not have been easy to be a Jew at Yale in the mid-1950s, especially not a Jew as unassimilable as Bloom, and by his own account it was not. “When I was twenty-four or thereabouts” (“a marginal graduate student and faculty instructor”), “this cohort among my students”—the Skull and Bones crowd—“seemed the enemy, if only because they assumed they were the United States and Yale, while I was a visitor.” English as a field was notoriously anti-Semitic, and English at Yale, needless to say, was no exception. I have seen a picture of the department from back then, and it looks like a game of What Doesn’t Belong: a lot of WASPs, one woman, and Harold Bloom. A rumor that was still blowing around the halls when I got to the place had it that they didn’t want to have to tenure Bloom, but he published so fast he didn’t give them a choice.

Bloom made his bones as a critic of Romantic poetry. A first book on Shelley was followed by The Visionary Company, a poem-by-poem explication of the entire Romantic canon and the first public sign of his vast ambition as a critic. Volumes on Blake and Yeats followed, then the strongest of his early books, The Ringers in the Tower, which included a pair of seminal essays on the Romantic tradition, “To Reason with a Later Reason” and “The Internalization of Quest Romance.” Along with his eventual Yale colleagues Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, Bloom was at the forefront of a critical movement that challenged the idea—still the popular view of poets such as Wordsworth—of a Romanticism at home in Nature. Instead, Bloom argued, Romanticism registers a fundamental alienation of the mind from Nature, a desire to free the self, by means of the imagination, from what Blake called “the universe of death”—from natural determinism, natural limitations. By Romanticism, moreover, Bloom meant not only the canonical figures of the Romantic period, but the main line of poetic tradition from thenceforth all the way through modernism and up until the present day—an idea first advanced by Kermode but amplified by Bloom to displace Eliot and Pound from the center of modern poetry in favor of Yeats and Stevens, with Whitman as the crucial relay point between the centuries.

Bloom has offered two explanations, not necessarily incompatible, for the turn his work took next. In one, he began to develop the theory he would first sketch out in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) during the seven years he worked on Yeats (1970). In the other, rather more humid one, tendered at the start of the new book, he awoke from a nightmare on his thirty-seventh birthday in a “state of metaphysical terror” and spent the next three days composing a “dithyramb” (not a word one encounters often outside of Thus Spoke Zarathustra) on the subject of poetic influence. This was after fourteen years of semi-conscious brooding on the question (“I was a very emotional young man”). Working out the consequences of his inspiration would occupy him for many years more

IN BLOOM’S CONCEPTION—which owes a debt, as he acknowledges, to Walter Jackson Bate—literary influence is not the benign and occasional or optional thing it was previously taken to be. Instead, poets necessarily struggle, consciously or not, with their greatest precursors—struggle to assert their voice, their originality, in the face of prior achievement. Most poets—“weak” ones, in Bloom’s parlance—are defeated by the struggle. The “strong” ones wrest a partial victory (partial, because the contest deforms both poet and poetry) by “misreading” or “revising” the predecessor. The anxiety, Bloom has always insisted, is in the poem, not the poet; poems, which are always about other poems, are achieved anxieties. Bloom is the Freud of criticism, putting poems on the couch to make them confess, often under a good deal of interpretive duress, their guilty secrets.

Lying behind the theory—which Bloom elaborated with a great deal of mettle, a great deal of learning, a great deal of exotic jargon (clinamen, kenosis, apophrades, and so on), and rather a conspicuous dearth of clarity (strange shapes moving in the mist is my impression of much of his theoretical writing)—was the old Romantic need to assert the self in the face of anything that threatens its metaphysical freedom: to establish, in Emerson’s phrase, an original relation to the universe. The great enemy, in other words—embodied, for the poet, by the literary canon—was History, time, the Nietzschean “it was.”

The self-referential aspect of Bloom’s theory is all too obvious. The Anxiety of Influence enacts what it describes. By creating a theory of poetry that was founded on the notion of a struggle with tradition, Bloom entered his own struggle with tradition—critical tradition. His idea about originality is itself a strong bid for the same quality. (Bloom is fond of quoting his mentor Kenneth Burke’s dictum that one needs to ask what a writer intended to do for himself by composing a given work.) To put it another way, Bloom’s theory seems all too transparent a projection of the academic’s own predicament onto the work of the poet. It is the professor, above all, who labors under the existential need to be “original,” to find, as they say, “the much-needed gap” (a mocking twist on the review-article boilerplate of “this much-needed study fills a gap in the literature”). Poets don’t come up for tenure.

BE THAT AS IT MAY, Bloom’s ideas, as he elaborated them across a half-dozen more books, came to center on notions derived from gnosticism, the ancient body of mystical beliefs. Gnosticism held that the world of matter, created by inferior gods, represents a fall from a condition of divine unity or fullness. Each of us contains a fragment of that godly fire, a spark trapped within our material selves—which means not only our bodies, but our minds or psyches as well, our intellectual and moral beings. Our true soul is hidden to us, occulted: salvation consists of achieving gnosis, experiential knowledge of that daemon. (This is very far from “self-knowledge” as we ordinarily understand it.) All this matters because Bloom finds gnostic ideas, which persisted well beyond the ancient world, to be widespread in modern spiritual thought, not only at the heart of the Romantic tradition, but also in what he calls the American religion, which he sees as having emerged in the nineteenth century in such sects as Mormonism, Southern Baptism, Christian Science, and others—and which, he says, has little to do with Christianity.

Romanticism sought to overcome the world of death, in the wake of the loss of religious explanations and comforts, by creating what Stevens called “supreme fictions”: new systems of symbolic meaning to redeem the cold universe of matter. Bloom sees gnostic ideas—Emerson’s Over-soul, Whitman’s “real Me”—at the center of those attempts; but more to the point, gnosticism serves as a supreme fiction for him. Beneath the jargon and the self-inflation, there is in Bloom an undersong of yearning, of spiritual hunger, a lonely person’s need for solace and belief. What eloquence his writing has—its subsidence, sometimes, into calm simplicity—what claims his work to be the thing to which he says all criticism should aspire, wisdom literature, originates in this urge. (“The ultimate use of Shakespeare is to let him teach you to think too well, to whatever truth you can sustain without perishing.”) The pathos of his thought, as he wrestles the poetic angels for their blessing, lies just in the fact that he both believes and disbelieves his fables of redemption. The ecstatic certainties of Blake or Whitman—imagination’s infinitude, the soul’s immortality—are not for such as him. He is condemned, instead, to Stevens’s melancholy skepticism. Supreme fictions, but only fictions—held together, for the space of the verse, by poetic lines of force.

BUT IF GNOSTICISM, and the poets whom he reads in its image, furnish Bloom with imaginative consolation, they do so for a very unattractive reason. Gnosis leads to freedom from time and nature and death, but also from the final thing that most conditions us: other people. Anything that lies outside the self, in Bloom’s conception, constitutes a threat to the self. His career represents a long effort to negate that threat. Bloom must surely be the most solipsistic critic on record. Harold is, indeed, a world unto himself.

And as he piles up book on book, it’s only getting worse. The corpus of the public or post-theoretical Bloom, which began in 1990 with The Book of J, represents a sort of slow self-contraction. As the rigor has drained from his writing, the sense of intellectual adventure, all that’s been left is the self-assertion. The Western Canon (1994) introduced the notion of Shakespeare as the center of literary history. The prime influencer uninfluenced, the one man free of History—God the Father, God the Son—Shakespeare seems to have rotated for Bloom into the divine position previously occupied by Gnostic entities. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) confirmed the suspicion. The Bard, says Bloom, created us. Not played a leading role in shaping our consciousness, which is plausible, but created us: him alone, and us entirely.

Since then, turning always in the same eddies, Bloom says little that is new, and often little altogether. The new volume, the sixth since Shakespeare, despite its author’s claim “to render my appreciations fresh and not reliant upon earlier formulations”—a sadistic joke, in retrospect—is nothing but a roundelay of the same old terms, concepts, authors, readings. It is not, as promised, “a critical self-portrait,” and does not explain what it means to say that literature is “a way of life” or “is itself the form of life, which has no other form.” “Why has influence been my obsessive concern? How have my own reading experiences shaped my thinking? Why have some poets found me and not others? What is the end of a literary life?” None of these questions is answered, or even addressed.

Instead we get the usual rundown, the form Bloom’s books have mostly taken since The Western Canon: thin, rambling, largely disconnected remarks on a series of works and authors. The chapter on King Lear has no apparent point. Of Shakespeare’s sonnets we learn essentially nothing but that many of them “touch very near the limits of art.” Fifteen lines from Mark Strand—supple, shifting, suggestive—are glossed in their entirety with the influence-spotter’s rhetorical question, “Is that final tercet Strand or Stevens?”—a query that surely means little, in either sense, to anyone else, and a typical example of the diminishing returns of Bloom’s critical method.

Bloom, it seems, talks only to himself. His language hinges on a set of private terms he rarely bothers to explain: “cognitive music,” “negative theology,” “apocalyptic,” “daimonic,” “canonical,” “sublime,” “antithetical,” “revisionary.” Judgments are made, then made again a few pages later; anecdotes are told, then told again in a subsequent chapter. The argument turns to Hamlet, and all the extras take their usual marks: “woe or wonder,” “free artists of themselves,” “the prince thought much too well,” “Hamlet centers the literary cosmos.” But argument is not the right word. Bloom’s prose goes by free association: 

What we know foremost about Hamlet-the-mystery is that he does not love us, or, indeed, anyone in the play, except perhaps the deceased Yorick. Iago loved Othello until that mortal God passed over him. Hamlet has a deep affinity with the loveless Edmund the Bastard. Criticism cannot sound Edmund to his limit, nor can it sound his half-brother Edgar, who is consumed by his love, both for Gloucester and for Lear.

Hamlet-Iago-Edmund-Edgar—a kind of literary Tourette’s. None of these statements—none of which Bloom hasn’t made a dozen times before—proceeds from the one before it. (“No one edits.”) It’s like listening to your dotty Aunt Matilda, except she doesn’t charge you $32.50 a pop. Or more to the point, like Krapp’s Last Tape, a monomaniac’s soliloquy, with Beckett’s implicit meaning of “last” as merely “latest.”

Bloom talks for himself, as well. How to explain all this, if not as an act of private communion? Avedon knew his business when he photographed the critic with his eyes closed. Bloom doesn’t explicate, he davens. His habitual assertions-Dostoyevsky’s nihilists descend from Iago, Milton never shows us Lucifer unfallen, and so on—must carry a special charge of meaning and feeling for him, the reason he can never utter them enough. His verbal touchstones make a sort of litany. “Sublime,” “canonical,” “daimonic”—these, for Bloom, are a Catholic’s “incarnation, “resurrection,” “Christ the Lord”: holy terms that trigger a predictable emotional response. When I hear Bloom blurting out a sentence such as this (of which there are many in his recent work)—“If you lived most of your life in the twentieth century, then the writers of your time were Proust and Joyce, Kafka and Beckett, or if you loved great verse more than fictive prose, the poets of your era were Yeats and Valéry, Georg Trakl and Giuseppe Ungaretti, Osip Mandelstam and Eugenio Montale, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Luis Cernuda and Hart Crane, Fernando Pessoa and Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz and T.S. Eliot”—I think of a worshipper telling his beads. Except that Bloom, as he says, is a “sect of one.” The reader is relegated to the visitor’s gallery. We watch him give himself a pleasure that we cannot share.

FINALLY, AND MOST DAMNINGLY, Bloom talks only of himself. Harold fills up everything with Harold. He speaks of Shakespeare, Whitman, Crane, but it always is of Harold that he speaks. It is his Shakespeare, his Whitman, his Crane; his feelings, his enemies, his obsessions. (Kurtz: “My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas.”) Like the Hermetic god, Bloom in his work is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. One Harold fills immensity. In the new book, he tells us not only that “Bloom” “seems to me the most literary of names,” but that he insists on referring to Joyce’s Bloom, one of the most important literary characters of the twentieth century, as “Poldy” (Molly’s nickname for her husband), because, essentially, this town isn’t big enough for the both of them. Bloom pictures the literary world as a labyrinth of interconnected texts, but at the center of that labyrinth is a figure with the head of Harold Bloom. Reading him reminds me of the scene in Being John Malkovich where the title character enters the portal that leads to his own brain to find himself in a world where everybody looks like him, and all they can say is “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” In the world of Bloom, every author looks like Bloom, and all they can say is “Bloom, Bloom, Bloom.”

Another senior colleague, himself a scholar of Romantic poetry, once told me about a conversation he had with a student. Literature, he suggested to her, is about our relations with other people. But, she protested, Harold Bloom says that it is about our relations with ourselves. Well, he replied, that’s Harold Bloom. The solipsist recasts the world in his own image, and the image is itself one of solipsism. Bloom’s work can only be understood as a vast assertion of critical will to power—hence the universal theories, the reading lists, the foreclosing judgments, the wild interpretive claims. Every poem embodies the anxiety of influence; Hamlet centers the literary cosmos, Montaigne is the “crown of all possible essayists” (the future thus annexed with the past); “Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays, twenty-four of them masterpieces”; the Yahwist author was Bathsheba; Claudius was Hamlet’s father; T.S. Eliot had a homosexual affair.

Burke’s dictum again applies: what is Bloom trying to do for himself? His celebrated readerly omnivorousness can be seen as nothing less than a desire to defend himself from literary history by ingesting it. Everything outside the self is a threat to the self. If all of History is Bloom—looks like Bloom, is ordered by Bloom, is contained in Bloom—then he is the original and only. Bloom likes to say that criticism is, or should be, a form of literature. “To practice criticism, properly so-called, is to think poetically about poetic thinking.” But since poetry, in Bloom’s conception, bespeaks a desire to negate History, he has told us all we need to know about his project. Poetry and criticism, he has long asserted, both necessitate misreading or misprision. Both begin in a love for the work of the past—a flooding of the soul—that quickly develops into a need to defend oneself against it. This may or may not be a good way of writing poetry, but it is no way at all to write criticism.

Marlow chose Kurtz above the Company men, and I vastly prefer Bloom-the old Bloom, not the hollow sham he’s now become—to the general run of academic criticism, the kind of thing he used to call the School of Resentment and now refers to as the New Cynicism. His criticism is personal, passionate, spiritually urgent, knows that “literature is necessary if we are to learn to see, hear, feel, and think.” It does not despise literature or seek to lecture at it from the glorious heights of political correctness. I listed some of the most influential works of postwar criticism before, but I didn’t say I thought they were all necessarily worth a damn, still less the epigones they spawned. Yet Marlow only had a “choice of nightmares”: Kurtz or the Company. We can do better. Though he wouldn’t have us think so—a mass of “academic impostors” on the one hand, our great literary panjandrum on the other—Harold Bloom and the New Cynicism do not exhaust the universe of critical possibility.

I think instead of Frank Kermode. Kermode, who died last year, was every bit as learned as Bloom, every bit as wide-ranging, every bit as prolific and certainly every bit as smart, and already by the 1980s, before Bloom launched his media campaign, he was customarily referred to as the greatest living critic in the English-speaking world. His temperament was circumspect, judicious, moderate, even modest, always open to new perspectives and new ways of thinking. He never placed himself above the books (or the reader), and he addressed general and scholarly audiences with equal grace. His prose was lapidary, lucid—jeweler’s work. He published to the last—a book on Forster in his ninety-first year—and because he didn’t think he knew it all, he never lost his curiosity. That is my idea of a critic; and if the popular imagination has a different one now, we know whom to thank. Harold Bloom is fond of inveighing against the vulgarity of American culture, but by setting himself up as a kind of literary shaman, he has done his part to vulgarize it.

William Deresiewicz is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 6, 2011, issue of the magazine.