Bloom's canon of great books revived the issue of literary quality. Illustration by Martin Rowson
Sacred Cows

Chronicles of an epic egomaniac

Tackling Harold Bloom

I cannot think of Harold Bloom, the once-famous literary critic who died last month at 89, without pondering the old story of the curate’s egg. It has a double relevance to Bloom. Not only does it suggest the wild unevenness of his work, it also, in its gentle humour, suggests a feature of Harold Bloom the phenomenon that is perhaps not as remarked upon as often as it should be. I mean the aura of preposterousness that has always attached itself to the literary concession of H. Bloom.

Just as some comics — Charlie Chaplin, say, or Buster Keaton — are funny partly because of their physical presence, so it was with Harold Bloom. Many observers have commented on his “Falstaffian” persona, not because he was dishonest or drunken, but rather because of his ample and dishevelled physical presence underwritten by a touch — or more than a touch — of megalomania.

I first became aware of Bloom in the mid-1970s when he was at the end of his Apostle-of-English-Romanticism phase. His first book, I believe, was about Shelley and there followed others on Blake, for example, and a conspectus called The Visionary Company, a polemic in the guise of a rehabilitation. Bloom was part of a renegade, mostly Jewish, movement that set out to challenge the starchy New Critics and their demigod, T.S. Eliot, whom Bloom loathed. The fact that he undertook the campaign at Yale, a hotbed of the New Criticism, made the enterprise all the more piquant.

That was phase one of Harold Bloom. Phase two was inaugurated in 1973 with a comically unreadable bit of “theory” called The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. This bijou promoted Sigmund Freud (“possibly the best mind of our century”) to the top of the Bloomian pantheon and elaborated a theory of literary influence that relied heavily on Freud’s notion of Oedipal conflict. It also introduced readers to two of Bloom’s signature generators of nonsense: logically incontinent pronunciamentos and a pretentious jargon that dispensed more fog than light.

A lovely example of the former comes at the beginning of Anxiety: “There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.” Please do not be so much like the Cretan liar as to ask whether the interpretation according to which thereare no interpretations but only misinterpretations is itself a correct interpretation. And please also avert your eyes when encountering that “and so”. Can he really mean  “therefore”?

As to the jargon, chew on the six “revisionary ratios” that Bloom hawks to innocent readers with the promise that they illuminate the anxious metabolism of the influence he claims to be setting forth: Clinamen, in which an author “swerves” or deliberately misreads a precursor in order to make room for his own efforts; Tessera, in which a later author pretends to be carrying on the work of a predecessor while actually undermining it; Kenosis, which Bloom defines as a “breaking device similar to the defence mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions” (as Francesco says at the beginning of Hamlet, “For this relief, much thanks”); and Apophrades, which Bloom defines as — but why bother? This squadron of Greek terms serves to stun and obfuscate, not illuminate.

A much-remarked irony about this phase of Harold Bloom’s work is that, although deliberately set up in opposition to the dreaded T. S. Eliot, it is actually deeply consonant with Eliot’s own idea of literary influence as set forth in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” minus the gibberish and (pardon the pleonasm) Freudian scaffolding. “No poet,” Eliot observed, “no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.

His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” At the very least, you can see why Harold Bloom would be anxious to have people not read T. S. Eliot. It might make him, H. Bloom, look bad.

Books like The Anxiety of Influence and its successor A Map of Misreading show Bloom in competition with his Yale disciples of deconstruction and kindred anti-literary exercises in academic lucubration. A Map of Misreading was even dedicated to Paul de Man, the Belgian-born Nazi sympathiser and propagandist and, for a few heady years, the dean of deconstruction at Yale.

But Bloom soon repudiated his affiliation with this species of nihilism, enrolling it all in what he called the School of Resentment. Henceforth he rejected feminists, deconstructions, Marxists, poststructuralists, Foucauldians, and other prophets of turning literature into a species of politics. This was the moment when Bloom became, sort of, a darling of conservatives.

The main testament for this surprising courtship was The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, which appeared in 1994. Bloom now insisted that there was a canon of great books and great authors. He even appended a long list of some 800 examples at the end of the book. Many people made fun of that list, but it did dust off the question of literary and aesthetic quality and put it back into circulation.

The last phase of Harold Bloom, implicit in his earlier work, concerns Bloom the Gnostic. These were the years that saw Bloom shift his attention away from literature to religion, conceived not as a boring orthodoxy, but as a field upon which Bloom’s deepest interest in religion could unfold its wings: himself. For many of us, the English critic James Wood summed up this side of Bloom’s enterprise when, in the mid-2000s, he described it as “vatic, repetitious, imprecisely reverential, though never without a peculiar charm of his own — a kind of campiness, in fact — Bloom as a literary critic in the last few years has been largely unimportant.”

I doubt whether very much of Bloom’s work will survive. His chief interest, even when he pretended to be commenting on Romantic poetry, was always himself

Just to take a peck at another part of the egg, I should also note that Bloom’s labours found plenty of buyers. He was simultaneously Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and Berg Professor of English at New York University, and presumably the recipient of the two fat salaries that each post carried with it.

He was a man of enormous energy and omnivorous literary appetite. He wrote 40-odd books (as well as, some might say, 40 odd books), edited dozens more, and compiled, or at least put his name to, scores of anthologies. No recollection of Bloom seems to be complete without mentioning that Naomi Wolf (q.v.) claims that he once put his hand on her “inner thigh”. Scholars wonder whether it would have been better had he contented himself with her outer thigh, but in either case the charge, which Bloom denied, seems to me besides the point; therefore I shall forbear to mention it.

I doubt whether very much of Bloom’s work will survive. His chief interest, even when he pretended to be commenting on Romantic poetry, was always himself, a subject that naturally will fail to exert the same fascination on others as it did on him.

The critic Eric Ormsby noted that “one of Bloom’s most annoying traits as a literary critic has been his abiding assumption that whatever an author may think he has written, Bloom knows better.” This is true. But what makes it all rather sad is Bloom’s astonishing egomania. No matter what he was ostensibly writing about, the tune came from Walt Whitman, and the text was always “Song of Myself.”

Jean-Paul Sartre said that man’s “fundamental project” was to be God. But since, according to Sartre, God did not exist, this project was doomed to failure. It was just that conjunction which Sartre thought rendered man a “useless passion.”

St Augustine saw deeper, I think. He acknowledged the regular temptation to think of oneself as God, but he put it down to the “perverse exaltation” begot by pride. I do not remember whether Harold Bloom writes much about Augustine. I doubt that he would find him a sympathetic foil.

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