The anxiety and influence of a critic.
By James Wood, October 16, 2019 in newyorker.com
Sometimes all you remember of a teacher is a voice—“a way of happening, a mouth.” I never met Harold Bloom, but like many of his readers, I thought I knew his voice very well. Bloom, who died on Monday, wrote like a teacher; his every utterance projected pedagogically, and I always assumed he wrote much as he talked in class. This quality had great appeal but wasn’t an unmixed blessing on the page. He wrote ceaselessly, torrentially, and as he churned away he easily became vatic, windy, merely reckless where he had once been adventurous. Late Bloom repeated and recirculated his favored obsessions, cross-referencing himself in ecstasies of unearned fulfillment. He was easy to parody; I praised and derided Bloom at different times, and once succumbed to the mischievous parody itch, as surely generations of his students had, too: “Only Don Quixote can rival the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, and even Emerson at his strongest—stronger, here, even than his belated rival, Nietzsche—is not quite a match for his ultimate precursor, J’s Yahweh, though I concede that the greatest Jewish genius after Jesus, Sigmund Freud, would not have agreed with my heretical opinion.”
So he wrote too much, and wrote too fast. But the powerful writer is easy to parody because of a certain strangeness and consistency (think of Cormac McCarthy, whom Bloom so championed); in this sense, Bloom was a wonderfully particular stylist. My teasing version is, perhaps, just frustrated admiration. You mistook him for no one else: the late, popular style was a faded fan, but it was still recognizably Bloom’s old peacockery. The leaping links, hieratic cross-referencing, and amusingly camp self-involvement—the sense you got that everything made sense inside Bloom’s head, that everyone connected with everyone else within the huge Oedipal family he had made of literature—had been there from the beginning, somewhat masked by the scholarly density and relative propriety of his early work. There is a way in which Bloom was always speaking his own private language, and gradually publicizing that privacy on his own odd terms. Maybe that’s what strong critics do.
There were several Blooms, or perhaps we should think of a pistil and its petals. At the center of these selves was the teacher who gave his celebrated classes at Yale for nearly fifty years. (The writer Naomi Wolf, a former student of Bloom’s, has alleged that these classes led to unwanted sexual advances; Bloom denied the accusation.) From this core of private reading and public sharing came a flaming variety of performances: the early champion of Romanticism, at a time (the late nineteen-fifties) when English departments, still in thrall to the scrupulous meanness of T. S. Eliot and the New Criticism, were reluctant to take romantically “religious” poets like Shelley and Blake very seriously; the Freudian theorist who speculated powerfully about how writers struggle with their predecessors; the critic who (along with Robert Alter and Frank Kermode) changed the way that literary studies appraised the Bible; and the mainstream popularizer, a well-paid exhorter with some residual insight, who issued books such as “The Western Canon,” “Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages,” and “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds.”
The early work, including “Poetry and Repression” and “The Anxiety of Influence,” customized a lexicon of somewhat forbidding rhetorical terms—clinamen, askesis, agon—which Bloom then employed with joyously irresponsible confidence, like some English aristocrat who insists on using his mangled French everywhere he goes, and at high volume, too. The technical language fell away as he wrote his more popular books, such as “The Western Canon” and “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” but the structures of thought that underlay that rhetoric did not. I’m reminded of one of his loveliest formulations, his insight that Shakespeare’s great soliloquists change and develop by “overhearing themselves.” Bloom can be faulted for not changing and developing, for not overhearing himself attentively enough. But we, the audience, were lucky enough to get the chance to listen in on his declamations.
Take the Freudian “map of misreading” that Bloom drew and then lovingly embroidered over the decades. Like most good inventions, it is simple, easy to use, and above all, obviously true. This is why everyone still uses the term “anxiety of influence,” and knows what the phrase means, without having to have read a word of Bloom. Writers learn to write by reading and adapting their predecessors; the true originals are very rare, which is why critics talk so much about “traditions” and “influence.” Literary studies, when Bloom was coming of age, tended to advance a rather smoothly linear notion of inheritance and invention: writers took what they needed from their great precursors and discarded the rest. You can detect the traces of the predecessor in the inheritor, even if the inheritor disowns any knowledge of the inheritance. That was about the Freudian limit of the New Criticism.
Bloom went much further: he was interested in precisely those traces. In Bloom’s scheme, literature is like a quarrelling family, and the critic becomes the Freudian analyst who can sort out the mutilated patterns of stress and resistance. To come after a great poet, like Arnold coming after Wordsworth and Keats, is a source of anxiety. The younger poet deals with this anxiety by “strongly misreading” the more powerful predecessor, so as to be able to swerve away from his massive and obstructive presence. The weak misreader is the poet who gives in to that anxiety of influence. But all poets, strong or weak, are misreaders of their predecessors, because there is no easy, disinterested way to read one’s ancestors, just as there is no easy, disinterested way to be a child of one’s parents. As many have charged, the theory works best within a patriarchal canon. But you could, for instance, make a perfectly Bloomian case that Virginia Woolf’s refusal to grant any greatness to her precursor, George Eliot, in “A Room of One’s Own” —a book in which Jane Austen and Emily Brontë are the only writers praised as having written as themselves, as entirely free women—represents a massive psychic and literary swerve around the dominating presence of that great Victorian whom Woolf both admired and had to surpass.
And who was Bloom strongly misreading? If we were doing a Bloomian reading of Bloom, we might notice his intense hostility to T. S. Eliot, and we might notice that Eliot, in his essay, from 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” had elaborated a theory about the relation of new writers to their predecessors. Eliot argued that when a new work of art is created, the tradition that preceded it is forced to shift a bit: “something . . . happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” Both Bloom and Eliot see tradition as a kind of family. Eliot sees how we push around our ancestors; Bloom sees how our ancestors push us around. In this sense, Bloom was haunted by the New Criticism within which he grew up, which is why the word “strong” wobbles so much in his work. Bloom uses it Freudianly, to mean a writer’s ability to wrestle with the father figure. But he also seems to use the word to mean something like aesthetic power, where “strong” just means “great”: Shakespeare is a “strong misreader” of Marlowe because . . . he was a greater poet. Indeed, as Bloom got older, and as he wrote more generally for wider audiences, “strong” became a rather lazy description for writers he approved of. At such moments, the old value system of the New Criticism (in which, say, Shakespeare was just deemed a “greater” writer than Milton, or Wordsworth was declared ineffably “finer” than Shelley) could be heard speaking through Bloom’s Freudian terminology.
So was Bloom a weak misreader of Eliot and the New Criticism, or a strong one? What will last of his work? Surely the anxiety of influence really does enrich our sense of how literary inheritance functions. Its permanence seems assured. But Bloom’s Freudian turn can also be seen as part of a larger movement in literary criticism. Despite his assertion that he had nothing to do with deconstruction (the most famous export of Yale’s English department in the seventies and eighties), despite his tiresome denunciations of feminism and theory and “political correctness,” there’s a natural alliance between Bloom’s way of reading and deconstruction, both modes scouring texts for the secrets they cannot successfully repress. And Bloom’s work on religion (his book “The American Religion,” from 1992, is inspired and insane), and on the Hebrew Bible has had a wide and decisive influence. Even among the popular hasty writing, the manufactured introductions (all those Chelsea House editions), the endless and undemanding arrangements of his beloved “Western canon”—like someone rather obsessively patting and plumping his cushion, to make his fond seat comfier—there are always stray insights and fugitive jewels to be found. Bloom loved Emerson’s (very Freudian) line about how, in the great writers, we recognize our own rejected thoughts—“they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” That’s true of Bloom, too, at his best—both the inspired analyst and the eloquent returner of those rejected thoughts.
- James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007. In November, he will publish “Serious Noticing,” a selection of essays.