Ruin the Sacred Truths

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

This short, challenging book is the text of Harold Bloom’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University for the 1987-1988 academic year. To understand it, some awareness of Bloom’s principal concepts argued in his fifteen-or-so previously published works is required.

Harold Bloom received his B.A. degree from Cornell University in 1951 and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1955; he has taught at the latter since that time, attaining the Sterling Professorship of the Humanities. He is commonly regarded as a leading luminary of the most distinguished university English department in the United States, and indeed as one of the most original and challenging literary theorists in the English- speaking world.

In the 1950’s, when Bloom began writing, American criticism was dominated by such New Critics as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and William K. Wimsatt, who shared a formalist approach to the literary work as an artifact whose structure of meanings was fully explicable within its language, with no reference required to the author’s biography or the social conditions of the text’s time. This view of literature tended to prefer Metaphysical poetry and modernist writing to Romantic works—a scale of values challenged by Bloom.

Bloom’s first three books, Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959), The Visionary Company (1962, 1971), and Blake’s Apocalypse (1963), emphasize the importance in Romanticism of imaginative vision. Bloom regards Percy Bysshe Shelley as a major prophetic voice, one of a line of poets, beginning with William Blake and reaching to the twentieth century’s Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, who form a “visionary company of love,” imbued with a blazingly vitalizing imagination. Blake stands as Bloom’s model, with his words and vision superbly harmonized.

Probably Bloom’s most ambitious and influential book is The Anxiety of Influence (1973), in which he uses the work of Sigmund Freud to launch a daringly original theory of literary creation: Poets live anxiously in the shadow of “strong” poets who have preceded them, as children are oppressed by their parents. Those poets who idealize their inheritance turn out to be second-rate writers or worse; on the other hand, poets who are powerful enough to react against the tradition towering over them, undermining their precursor’s power, are those whose strength earns them a niche in literary history. Such a concept constitutes a revival of the Protestant Romantic tradition of John Milton and Blake, Shelley and William Butler Yeats, in preference over the conservative, Anglo-Catholic line of John Donne, George Herbert, Alexander Pope, and Gerard Manley Hopkins advocated by T. S. Eliot and his disciples.

In Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), Bloom regards the landscapes of poetic tradition and criticism as indistinguishable, since both begin with anxiety and engage in creative misreadings of texts. A critic, by seeking to determine a literary canon, is expressing a will-to-power over a writer’s work akin to a poet’s struggle for self- origination. Bloom draws his most arresting examples from biblical sources, arguing that the New Testament is a weak work relative to the Old Testament, lacking the force to defend itself against the influence of its predecessor.

In Poetry and Repression (1976), Bloom reverses the common reading of Freud’s views that has sublimation take precedence over repression. He equates sublimation with the New Critics’ notions of closure and resolution, as a coming to rest. Asserting the primacy of poetic sublimity, he insists on an arch-Romantic view of poetry as agonistic vitalism, restless, heroic, resistant to formal fulfillment, marked by uneasing conflict and rebellion.

Bloom’s criticism thus seeks to place Romanticism at the center of Anglo-American literary history, proclaiming its attributes as the type and model of great literature—at least, great poetry. In Figures of Capable Imagination (1976), he focuses on what he calls the American Sublime, identifying visionary strains in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, and A. R. Ammons. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (1976) places...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, April 15, 1989, p. 1423.

Choice. XXVI, July, 1989, p. 1830.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, December 1, 1988, p. 1712.

Library Journal. CXIV, January, 1989, p. 85.

National Catholic Reporter. XXV, May 12, 1989, p. 28.

The New Leader. LXXII, April 3, 1989, p. 16.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, March 2, 1989, p. 22.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, February 26, 1989, p. 18.

Washington Times. January 2, 1989, p. E7.