A critic offers his final thoughts
By Michael Dirda
June 3, 2011
The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, by Harold Bloom, Yale University Press, 357 pp., $32.50
Yale professor Harold Bloom, who has written with the weary authority of an ancient sage at least since his late 20s, is now legitimately a patriarch. He reminds us, again and again, in The Anatomy of Influence that he has entered his 80s, hints that these pages register his last thoughts about Shakespeare, Whitman, and his beloved Hart Crane, and seems to suggest that this is a final summing up. Certainly that subtitle, Literature as a Way of Life, would strongly imply some sort of memoir or critical credo. Alas, the text doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. While the book is packed with Bloomian insights—many of them ideas from earlier work—it remains essentially a collection of essays and explications de texte.
Of course, given that Bloom is one of the strongest critics of the century, those analyses, of Giacomo Leopardi, William Butler Yeats, or James Merrill, are of obvious merit. But if you’ve read the Yale master’s key works—The Anxiety of Influence; A Map of Misreading; The Western Canon; Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human—very little in these pages will be new to you.
It pains me to say this, given that I don’t just admire Bloom, but also find him a surprisingly endearing cultural icon, half Eeyore, half Falstaff. When he’s not going around all sad-eyed and plangent, he’s likely to be complaining that “there live not three good critics unhanged in all America, and one of them is fat, and grows old.” Besieged by ravening hordes of ideologues, Bloom has long proclaimed himself the last champion of aesthetic criticism. When Childe Harold to the Ivory Tower Came, he soon discovered that the barbarians of ideology and political correctness were within the gates. In years past, he duly fretted about “theory” and cultural studies, though more recently he has begun to worry that “visual culture will end imaginative literature.” In one splendid diatribe, Bloom derides the academy’s current flood of “comma counters, ‘cultural’ materialists, new and newer historicists, gender commissars, and all the other academic impostors, mock journalists, inchoate rhapsodes, and good spellers.” Against their advocacy of what he calls “the New Cynicism,” he now argues—like any good Augustinian—that love should be the basis for all worthwhile criticism.
“I define influence simply as literary love, tempered by defense. The defenses vary from poet to poet. But the overwhelming presence of love is vital to understanding how great literature works.” This seems absolutely right to me, though in the past Bloom’s theory of influence argued for a much bloodier oedipal arena, where poets needed to kill their poetic fathers to clear imaginative space for their own work. Far more benignly, he here describes poetic thought as simply “the memory of prior poems” and influence as “the transmission of poetic stances and vision.”
Bloom began his career as a romanticist, with a particular interest in Blake and Shelley, but for the latter half of his career he has made Shakespeare the center of his thinking. He views the playwright as the dominant figure in Western poetry, the onlie begetter that later poets must challenge if they hope to achieve a canonical authority of their own. In American literature, Walt Whitman operates as our “Central Man,” and Bloom spends the second half of The Anatomy of Influence outlining the afterlife of Whitman in the work of Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and even, somewhat surprisingly, T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land, he asserts, is the “unacknowledged descendant” of Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Throughout these pages, Bloom periodically sounds a personal, even intimate note, mentioning briefly his encounters with W. H. Auden and Anthony Hecht, reminding us that he rereads William Morris’s poetry every few years, warmly recommending Michael Moon’s Norton edition of Leaves of Grass. At such moments, the formidable critic might almost be mistaken for an old-style bookman: “Emerson’s major achievement is his Journal. . . . Purchase a complete set of the Journal, preferably in an older edition rather than in the elaborately over-edited Harvard version, and read it every evening across a few years until you have finished it. You will learn the mind of America, which remains to a disturbing extent Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mind.” I, for one, wish Bloom would write in this avuncular way more often, and simply lay bare, without any critical swerving, the adventures of his soul among the masterpieces.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his identification with the larger-than-life Falstaff and Samuel Johnson, Bloom has little interest in the comic. Instead he values almost exclusively what Longinus called “the sublime,” those works which, in Bloom’s own phrase (with an echo of Wordsworth), “are capable of giving you a sense of something ever more about to be.” It is this high seriousness, this sense of power and intensity, of strangeness and enlargement that he reveres in poetry.
Reprising arguments from earlier books, the critic devotes the first quarter of The Anatomy of Influence to meditations on Shakespeare and his greatest characters: Hamlet, Lear, Falstaff, Iago, Cleopatra, Edmund. With the classroom teacher’s weakness for superlatives, Bloom writes: “With the possible exception of King Lear, Hamlet is most certainly the supreme artistic success in Western literature.” He claims that, aside from Lear, Macbeth “experiences the most turbulent emotions in Shakespeare.” While the querulous might be tempted to murmur “assertion is not proof,” Bloom is, in fact, challenging the reader to stop and reflect, perhaps even riposte with a counterexample. Might Dante’s Commedia be a greater artistic success than anything by Shakespeare? Aren’t the jealous Othello’s emotions at least as turbulent as Macbeth’s?
The Bloomian pronouncement is, in fact, his preferred, distinctly Johnsonian mode of criticism. “I cannot think of another twentieth-century poem in any Western language that rivals ‘The Second Coming’ in rhetorical power.” Shelley is “the Hamlet of lyric poets.” “I myself, if I could reread yet once more only a single novel in English, would choose Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–48). No single character in [Henry] James, not even Isabel Archer, has the Shakespearean richness of Clarissa Harlowe.” Stated so defiantly, these claims all sound convincing, but where’s the evidence? Sometimes, it’s true, Bloom will juxtapose a passage of, say, Whitman with a poem by D. H. Lawrence or A. R. Ammons, then point out their similarities. This is better criticism—and more useful pedagogy, as well—even if too much of it makes for dull reading.
Like several of Bloom’s late works, The Anatomy of Influence feels somewhat sloppy, as if it hadn’t been closely copyedited by its author. For example, the expression “woe or wonder”—from Horatio out of Hamlet, but perhaps with a nod to J. V. Cunningham’s classic study, which uses the phrase as its title—is repeated at least three times. Many of the same points about Shakespeare’s characters are made, egregiously, over and over, in one essay after another. Did Bloom not notice? Does he not care? The kindly may view these repetitions as instances of a good teacher making sure that his students remember the main points of the course.
In the end, though, The Anatomy of Influence strikes me as a quietly generous book, one in which Bloom acknowledges his mentors, from M. H. Abrams and Northrop Frye to William Empson and Kenneth Burke; speaks warmly of his writer and scholar friends (Robert Penn Warren, Angus Fletcher, John Hollander); and repeatedly points the reader to a score of academic studies by other critics, some of whom may well be former students. Still, to appreciate the book—and nearly everything else since the early, brilliant, yet almost conventional The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1960)—one must accept Bloom’s peremptory and declarative manner. Certainly he annoys. Influence between languages, he contends, “never induces anxiety,” but leaves the reader wondering just why it would ignore borders. Yet surely the shadow of Flaubert must have troubled Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, while Hemingway notoriously imagined himself in the ring battling it out, sometimes with Stendhal, sometimes with Tolstoy. No matter. Turn the page and Bloom will soon be making an observation that seems spot on: “After Hart Crane, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas, impacted density of rhetoric, metric, affective intensity cannot increase without sacrificing coherence.”
Oh, well: This is Harold Bloom. He may be past 80 now, yet he remains the prodigy, even the enfant terrible, he has always been. There is no one remotely his like—some will say “thank God!”—in all of modern criticism.
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.
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