Bloom, Harold (Vol. 24)
Harold Bloom 1930–
American critic and editor. See also Harold Bloom Criticism (Volume 103).
Bloom is an important, if sometimes controversial, literary critic whose theories are based, for the most part, on his readings of English poetry from Romanticism to the present. Central to Bloom's criticism is his belief that writers in the modern period suffer from what he calls "the anxiety of influence." These writers are anxious because they fear that their poetic voices will be muted by those of the past, that they can say nothing original, achieve nothing profound.
As Bloom perceives it, poets gain a voice, and thus a place in the history of literature, as they revise and sometimes displace their predecessors' work. Because he believes all poets build on the "misreadings" of their literary ancestors, Bloom has little interest in analyzing the meaning of a poet's words. Bloom is extremely concerned, however, with how intensely poets struggle to assert themselves as unique imaginations against the long line of poets who have by chance come before them. For Bloom, a poet's genius is defined in this struggle to be heard.
Bloom introduced his version of the theory of influence in The Anxiety of Influence. In addition to laying the foundation for ideas that are developed in later volumes, this book is a clear indication of the extent to which Bloom has been influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. In Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, Bloom was no longer merely concerned with the struggle between individual poets and the past, but rather proposed his concept of "revisionism" which Helen Vendler defines as "a later text challenging an earlier text"; Bloom then employed this theory in relation to psychoanalysis and Gnosticism.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
JEROME J. McGANN
One of the essential qualities of every Romantic aesthetic is revisionism. We say that Romanticism breaks certain rules, or alters them; or we say that it attacks or changes various traditional forms of thought and order. To do so, of course, implies a deep consciousness of the past, which in fact all Romantics have. Antiquarianism is a very Romantic activity. But a Romantic consciousness recovers only to transform.
Though Harold Bloom has his own unmistakable way of speaking of these matters, they represent the subject he has always been most concerned with, as The Ringers in the Tower illustrates very well. Romantics are obsessed with history, both past and future. Bloom concentrates upon their relation to the past in order to show how frequently the Romantic writer sees himself as a sick rose. All past greatness inclines to take the form of an invisible worm which so hunts the life of the aspiring Romantic that Bloom imagines him indulging terrible secret wishes, dark loves.
Somewhere in the heart of each new poet there is hidden the dark wish that the libraries be burned in some new Alexandrian conflagration, that the imagination might be liberated from the greatness and oppressive power of its own dead champions….
Bloom's observation introduces his suggestive discussion of "Keats and the Embarrassments of Poetic Tradition," one of twenty-one essays...
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PAUL de MAN
Like most good books, Harold Bloom's latest essay is by no means what it pretends to be. [The Anxiety of Influence] calls itself, in subtitle, "a theory of poetry" and claims to be corrective in at least three ways: by debunking the humanistic view of literary influence as the productive integration of individual talent within tradition; by contributing, through a refinement of the techniques of reading, to a more rigorous practical criticism; and by enriching the taken-for-granted patterns on which academic literary history is based. Under the aegis of a general theory, this large order brings together ideological, textual, and historical criticism, in a combination that is no longer unusual in recent influential essays on literature. The "corrective" aspect is not new with Bloom, who has never been inhibited by the orthodoxies that dominate the field and has always shown himself willing to go his own way. He has been corrective in the best sense of the term, not out of a vain desire to assert his originality, still less because he wants to set up his own orthodoxy as a center of influence, but because he has always tended to be more attuned to the language of the poets than to the reigning academic trends. Even with regard to the critics to whom he is indebted—Northrop Frye, Meyer Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate—he has never been paralyzed by undue anxiety. He can be called, in his own terms, a "strong" critic and it does not come as a surprise...
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Fame, Borges once wrote, is a form of incomprehension, and perhaps the worst. Harold Bloom's theory of poetry has a sort of fame, at least by hearsay, and is largely uncomprehended. This is partly Bloom's fault. If some of the more militant phrases from The Anxiety of Influence are often heard flying among the martinis, it is because he wrote them intending to provoke us…. Bloom constantly writes as if he were simultaneously inventing gunpowder and telling us a particularly bloodcurdling bedtime story. The story concerns what Bloom says is "the saddest truth" he knows about poets and poetry, the truth that no poet is as original as he thinks he is, that the very notion of originality is more often than not a defensive myth, designed to shelter poets from the awesome power of their predecessors…. [In] Bloom's view poetry results from a battle to the death between fathers and sons. It is a scene of "savagery" and literature is "built upon the ruin of every impulse most generous in us." Bloom says he finds all this "distasteful," and I'm sure he does; but he writes about it with the relish of a vampire flexing his fangs. And beneath it all, of course, lies a deep belief in the omnipresence of aggression. Bloom thinks that while the sublimation of sexual instincts may or may not play a part in the genesis of poetry, the sublimation of aggressive instincts is "central to writing and reading poetry," and is "almost identical with the total...
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A Map of Misreading continues Bloom's determined attempt to incarnate and prolong Romanticism, to convince us that literature is essentially a heroic daemonization, centered on "the fearsome process by which a person is reborn a poet." The poet, or at least the post-Miltonic poet, is an indomitable Spirit who feels the curse of belatedness and takes arms against his predecessors, slays them by misreading, so as to create a space in which his own poetry can take place, as an antithetical completion of his precursors' supposed qualities. The theory of poetic influence itself is extremely valuable, and if this book adds little to The Anxiety of Influence it is because it so blatantly fails to live up to its claims: "This book offers instruction in the practical criticism of poetry, in how to read a poem, on the basis of the theory of poetry set forth in my earlier book."
Bloom once knew what this involved; in the days of The Visionary Company he had some sense of what it might be like to show someone how to read a poem, but he has now effectively slain his past and fully acceded to a new oracular role. One hopes to learn from his book how to recognize a relation of influence, how to identify in a poem the slaying of a precursor, what it looks like for one poem to be a misreading of another, or for a late poet to become in his poem the ancestor of his predecessor. Juxtapositions and assertions we have in plenty, but...
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Geoffrey H. Hartman
With an audacity and pathos hard to parallel in modern scholarship, [in The Anxiety of Influence] Bloom apprehends English literary history from Milton to the present as a single movement, calls it Romanticism, and even while making it exemplary of the burdens of Freudian or psychological man, dooms it to a precession which looks toward the death of poetry more firmly than Hegel does. For there is, in his augury, no compensation arising from the side of Science, Religion or Criticism. "The strong imagination comes to its painful birth through savagery and misrepresentation. The only humane virtue we can hope to teach through a more advanced study of literature than we have now is the social virtue of detachment from one's own imagination, recognizing always that such detachment made absolute destroys any individual imagination."… Bloom's embrace of Western poetry since the Renaissance is a final, desperate hug in the knowledge that there is nothing else.
The result is not as disheartening as it might seem. To make so many poets available to us in a new light, even if that proves to be a twilight … tells us that the "quickening power" of creative verse is still recognized among us. Bloom's resolute pessimism, in fact, is the shade from which he sees beauties that many of his contemporaries overlook. The valetudinarian perspective is so intense that each artist appears in turn as a new and splendid farewell…. Wordsworth is...
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His theory of poetic influence has been the leitmotif of Bloom's writings for many years, but it is only recently that he has presented it in full-blown theoretical fashion. He is indefatigable. In 1973 he published The Anxiety of Influence, a frantically allusive and aphoristic manifesto which ran through the "ratios of revision" in a rather exasperating way. Shortly afterward came A Map of Misreading, in which Bloom expounded his views more congenially, and adorned them with some extremely fine textual explications. Kabbalah and Criticism is his latest meditation on the subject, and at least two more titles have already been announced. While hardly "the cardinal work in Harold Bloom's critical enterprise," as its nonsensical dust jacket claims, Kabbalah and Criticism is nonetheless valuable in evaluating Bloom's entire enterprise. It is an intriguing, unconvincing book.
Bloom's theory was initially elaborated to explain the tradition of modern English verse, and his command of that tradition is breathtaking. Milton, Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Stevens, Ashbery—these are among the chief protagonists of Bloom's dramas of revision. But Bloom has also looked beyond the confines of English poetry for support and corroboration. There is, of course, Freud, whose patronage for such an Oedipal theory is readily available. And there is Nietzsche, who ceaselessly argued for the life-enhanching potency of error, and...
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Bloom had an idea; now the idea has him. For, still asking himself what there is left for him to do, but unable to bring himself to leap off in full career from what has become a juggernaut-bandwagon, [in "Poetry and Repression" he] has nothing left to do but to say the same things about new contests and with more decibels. He is running out of prize-fights. Blake vs. Ezekiel; Wordsworth vs. Milton; Shelley vs. Milton; Keats vs. Milton (the Muhammad Ali of it all); Tennyson vs. Keats; Browning vs. Shelley; Yeats vs. A. N. Other … too many of these squarings are return-fights demanded by Bloom's promotion. And the decibels start to defeat their own purpose. Bloom's whole strenuous rhetoric of struggles and opponents comes to sound more and more like shadowboxing. Or fixed wrestling: Wordsworth "holds Milton off so triumphantly, without even always knowing that he is engaged in a wrestling match."
Anybody would think from Bloom's vocabulary that poetry is the ring and not the book. Or that the laurel is a green beret. Poetry is "a psychic battlefield upon which authentic forces struggle for the only victory worth winning," he writes, but "authentic" is just the word I'd not choose for Bloom's determinedly violent exertions. Critics rail; figures of speech murder; effects battle; poetry menaces and must assault; and Bloom's course on the-anxiety-of-influence becomes an assault course. A poem is made to sound like a deep shelter: "I want...
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[Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism] was not conceived as a book, it does not read like a book, and there is no need to defend it as a book. Any collection of essays and addresses composed in the span of a few years by a single powerful mind will tend to return to the same questions, and to urge (even covertly) the same views; only in that sense is this a book. I have no objection to Bloom's calling his central subject to our attention by his one-word title; and his preface does remind us that, although his topics and audiences may vary, he is himself in the grip of a powerful myth of struggle which he recommends, yet again, to our attention.
The myth is the story of what Bloom now calls "revisionism." This means, briefly put, the polemic impulse; whatever you say, I want to argue against, correct, go you one better, revise your myth into a version more my own. In its crudest form, this is the murder of the father by the sons, the original parricide by the filial generation treading down the version of life inscribed by the father so that they may inscribe one of their own. People obsessed with revising others are, we may say, perpetual sons, fixed in sonship and rivalry. The delectation of parricide appeals to certain temperaments (and maybe to those of one sex more than to others); and perhaps there are countermyths equally powerful (those of symbiosis, bestowal, and benevolence, for example). Bloom's myth is not the only...
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[Brackets in the following excerpt do not signify editorial changes.—Ed.]
Harold Bloom's terminal case of transumption has been brought on by too much "strong reading," a morose exercise for which according to his statement Emerson and Freud bear part of the blame, and which Bloom doesn't scruple to characterize as "not less aggressive than sexual desire." Reading. Wow. Tell it to your local librarian. (Academic criticism is dead, of which Professor Bloom is the latest assassin and heir: The Breaking of the Vessels is his latest and most desperate book, a scant hundred pages, as thin as an instruction manual for a stationary bicycle but far more aggressive, the glummest and grimmest funerary Bloom yet to get laid—if you'll pardon the expression—on the tomb of academic criticism.)
Meanwhile, as a slow (though strong) reader confronted by a crux, I'm not sure whether Bloom is presenting us here with an agonistic image (reading and writhing?) or a Scene of Instruction or a pragmatic self-engendering or a valorization of ephebes or an analogue to poetic closure or an ellipsis of further figuration or a rebound of intertextual echo or a revisionary ratio or another of his bitter sprigs of Freudian catnip ("The innocence or primal virtue of reading"—he means "The idea of the innocence, etc."—"is a last social mystification, akin to the"—he means "the idea of the"—"sexual...
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