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The Faith of Harold Bloom

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Dominique Nabokov
Harold Bloom, New York City, 1994

In a recent lecture, Harold Bloom declared to a group of freshmen that he and Lear were the same age. Lear is indeed eighty years “and upward,” and when one pictures Bloom lecturing on King Lear to undergraduates it is hard not to think of the last lines of that play, pronounced by Edgar:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Most who are young today will never read or write as much as Bloom has over the years. As for Edgar’s injunction to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” Bloom has heeded it for some time now. When the academic study of literature succumbed to what Bloom calls the “storm of ideology” in the 1980s and 1990s, he unleashed his wrath upon the School of Resentment, defending the independence of imaginative literature and decrying its reduction to the status of social documentation. The Western Canon (1994) in particular was an aggressive counterassault on some of the ideological froth that was passing for literary criticism in American universities, as well as a defensive reaction against the notion that the “literary” could arise anywhere outside of Bloom’s narrowly circumscribed circle of inclusions.

Bloom calls The Anatomy of Influence “my final reflection upon the influence process,” and it is a follow-up to his 1973 classic The Anxiety of Influence, which argued that writers had to be understood in connection with the preceding writers whose influence they had absorbed and had in various ways to reject. Gentler in tone than The Western Canon, the new book exerts a degree of restraint on the bombast and braggadocio that Bloom has inflicted on readers in the past. In my view, he would have done better to call it “Literary Love”—the title of the first chapter—for the book reaffirms his enduring passion for some of his favorite poets: Shakespeare, Shelley, Yeats, Whitman, Stevens, and Crane foremost among them. Lucretius, Longinus, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burton, and Walter Pater are among the many critics and thinkers who receive reverential homage. The book also contains moving tributes to friends and mentors, both dead and alive. In the same sentence he speaks of “my late friend Anthony Burgess and a living friend, Angus Fletcher, who is my critical guide and conscience.” One cannot ask for more worthy friends than that; or the late William Elton, author of King Lear and the Gods, which Bloom singles out on at least three occasions.

Bloom’s epigraph quotes Tolstoy on the need for critics who would “guide readers in that endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art, and bring them to the laws that serve as the foundation for those linkages.” Bloom fulfills the first mandate, guiding us through a labyrinth of literary connections—some of them direct, as in the case of Shakespeare and Milton, some of them indirect, as in the case of Swinburne and Crane—between the thirty or so British and American writers he deals with here. He does not fulfill the second, most likely because he believes that the process of literary influence defies rigid laws.

In this book as well as in his 1973 study, Bloom understands literary influence as a form of spirit that moves freely, covertly, and for the most part deviantly through the history of literature. He draws attention to a famous passage in Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry:

For the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.

Bloom’s conception of influence amalgamates this Romantic notion of an invisible inner spirit and the Epicurean notion of the clinamen, or swerve. Just as atoms, in Lucretius’ account, occasionally swerve from their otherwise straight fall in the void, so too “great” writers will wriggle right and left, opening up a margin of creative freedom for themselves within the otherwise oppressive tyranny of tradition—the way Yeats, for example, swerves from Shelley in his turn to the myth of Byzantium. “You must fall,” writes Bloom, “but freedom is in the swerve, in falling with a difference.”

To help him align Shelley’s doctrine of “invisible influence” with the Epicurean doctrine of the swerve, Bloom argues that “Lucretius and his tradition taught Shelley that freedom came from understanding causation.” Lucretius exerted an important influence on Shelley, to be sure, yet if we believe Bloom, Shelley’s Lucretianism was really a form of Nietzscheanism avant la lettre: “Shelley preceded Nietzsche by surmising that causes and effects alike were fictions.” Is this the “freedom” that comes from understanding causation, namely that we “surmise” it to be a fiction?

A page later Bloom writes: “Shelley, Whitman, and Stevens are the most Lucretian poets in the English language.” That is an indefensible statement from one point of view (certainly Shelley and Whitman strove for ecstasy rather than ataraxia—the state of spiritual tranquility evoked by Lucretius). But in Bloom’s labyrinth of influence, deviancy is everything. Thus Shelley’s spirit of “invisible influence” correlates with the Lucretian swerve insofar as both break free from the deterministic laws that suppress freedom. Since the creative spirit swerves within a confined space, the labyrinth of influence is forged by the irregular, if not random, network of connections that such swerves have created in various pockets or regions of literary history.

Bloom may be a Caesar among literary critics, yet he is also an English professor who, in this book, presides over a restricted academic canon that belongs primarily to English departments. Only the section on the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (ten pages in all) deals in any depth with a non- Anglophone author (Lucretius providing the tenuous link between Leopardi and some of the writers in this labyrinth). In its broad outlines The Anatomy of Influence begins with Shakespeare, moves on to Shelley, then on to Whitman. Along the way Bloom convokes several authors who were influenced, in one form or another, by any given member, or members, of this trio: Milton, Samuel Johnson, and Joyce in the case of Shakespeare; Browning, Swinburne, Pater, Yeats, and Crane in the case of Shelley; Lawrence, Stevens, and others in the case of Whitman—with many overlaps between the groups. A number of other authors (Dryden, Pope, and Emerson among them) are brought into this underground chamber where literary voices across the centuries call out to one another, echo one another, or resonate with one another. The chamber is large, to be sure, yet for the most part it remains a province of English departments.

Bloom devotes one third of his book to Shakespeare, who continues to astonish and “wound” the critic by his “unique gift of producing human beings in full, depth beneath depth.” Some of the claims here have been made by Bloom before: that Shakespeare anchors the Western canon; that he put on stage the full spectrum of human drives and disordered emotions; that he “invented us”—a brazen statement that Bloom glosses here as meaning that “we would have been here anyway…but without Shakespeare we would not have seen ourselves as who we are.” Bloom also reiterates his claim that the biggest influence on Shakespeare was neither Marlowe, Chaucer, the Bible, nor Ovid but himself. Yet the chapter contains several new insights as well, above all regarding Shakespeare’s creation of characters who are in irresolvable conflict with themselves. I pondered at length the remark, made in passing, that “in Shakespeare, I do not find that anyone ever truly listens to anyone else,” perhaps because it conjures for me the sinners in Dante’s Inferno. I was also struck by Bloom’s statement that Marlowe exerted his greatest “impact,” if not influence, on Shakespeare by teaching him the immense power theater could exert over an audience:

I envision the young Shakespeare attending a performance of Tamburlaine and watching the audience with fascination. The possibility of the sublime of power—King Lear, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra —was born at the moment of Marlowe’s impact upon Shakespeare.

In his self-confessed “Bardolatry,” Bloom does not shrink from comparing or even identifying Shakespeare with God: “Confusing Shakespeare with God is ultimately legitimate.” That is because “in cognitive originality, sweep of consciousness, creation of language, Shakespeare surpasses all others.” Yet even if we concede that Shakespeare’s world-creating and character-creating powers are somehow godlike, a question arises about exactly which God Shakespeare resembles the most, for history gives us not one God but many gods, or one God in many guises, if one prefers. Bloom does not raise such a question yet his Bardolatry forces it on us.

The god that Shakespeare resembles is neither Virgil’s providential god nor the benevolent Creator that shone so luminously in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but a darker, perhaps post-Christian God who defects from his own creation. I say this because I agree with Bloom when he writes:

We need a more precise word than detachment for Shakespeare’s stance in plays and sonnets, but I am never quite sure what it might be. Indifference is wrong. Shakespeare cares more for Falstaff than most scholars do, yet he allows his rich singularity to die broken by betrayed love. Remove comes closer, since Shakespeare is the major dealer in ellipsis among all the great writers.

While he delved deeply and imaginatively into the world of the characters he created, Shakespeare himself—the author and individual in his personal perspectives—absents himself from his plays, and to a large extent from his Sonnets as well. In this regard he differs from Dante, whose individual self remains the ultimate protagonist of the Comedy. It is precisely by removing himself from his work that Shakespeare most resembles the elliptical, Godot-like God of the modern era who withdraws from the scene of history, leaving us to wonder about his nature, motives, and purposes. Even those in the modern era who still believe that God loves us are obliged to acknowledge that he often allows us to die broken and betrayed.

In his conversations with Gustav Janouch, Kafka reportedly remarked:

God dwells in [darkness]. And that is a good thing, because without the protecting darkness, we should try to overcome God. That is man’s nature.

These are the words of a modern individual speaking in the wake of what Nietzsche called the death of God. Something similar could be said of Shakespeare. Like Kafka’s Deus absconditus, he withdraws into a protective darkness that prevents us from getting a secure handle on him, hence from overthrowing him.

Bloom remains cold to all historical or historicist approaches to literature not only because he believes in literature’s aesthetic independence, but because he exalts certain tenets of what he calls “the American Religion” (the title of his excellent book of 1992), in particular the tenet that the individual’s inner self lies beyond the reach of time and the fallen world of creation. This inner self is like Lucifer—the shining angel—before he became Satan. Bloom claims that the American religion locates God deep within the unworldly, uncorrupted core of individual selfhood. Ralph Waldo Emerson—the “theologian of our American Religion,” as Bloom calls him—“knew only the God within.” The Emersonian God within transcends history, “which for all of us is what it seemed to Joyce’s Stephen, a nightmare from which we want to awake if only we could.” Emerson had no such nightmares: “History…was no burden for Emerson, who willed it out of existence.” When the past has no purchase on you, “then no tradition whatsoever can make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

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