Summoning Up the Kabbalah

Kabbalah and Criticism

by Harold Bloom
Seabury, 127 pp., $6.95
Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom; drawing by David Levine


It is Bloomsday for the study of literature. The stale air of academic literary criticism now bristles with the heated language of the works of Professor Harold Bloom of Yale. Seminars and symposia hunt for “precursors” and “ephebes,” instate or banish poets from Bloom’s canon of modern English poetry. His favorite contemporary poets are called “new laureates.” His many admirers greet his books rhapsodically, and adulatory reviewers speak of his genius. It brings to mind Roethke’s holy prayer: “…and may I never use the word ‘brilliant.”‘

What all the fuss is about is an absorbing if inflated theory of how a poet becomes a poet. This happens, says Bloom, in a life-and-death contest with the poetic tradition. The young candidate for imaginative accomplishment begins in thrall to “a dead man (the precursor) more outrageously alive than himself.” From this precursor, who may be a fusion of various antecedent poets, the aspiring poet or “ephebe”—the term is Stevens’s—inherits not simply stylistic devices but the very pitch of his imaginative existence, his very manner of being in the world. His fledgling individuality is inundated by the oceanic presence of the precursor; the young poet embarks by submitting to love with his poetic father.

Such love, however, is an abdication of self, and the great poets are those who chafe beneath this dybbuk’s existence, and endeavor to resist their own self-devouring mimetic passion. These poets experience what Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence,” which is his way of describing the humiliation of owning someone else’s soul. By the rising fire of this anxiety, love changes in finest Empedoclean fashion to strife, and a war with the father commences. Bloom’s work attempts to chart the battles in this war for poetic identity, to outline the various strategies by which the poet overthrows his enfeebling masters. These range from clinamen, the first critical swerve away from the influence of the precursor, to apophrades, by which the father’s work reappears as if it was itself begotten by the son. By way of such “ratios of revision” the poetic self is born, and from the anonymity of apprenticeship attains finally to a ferocious independence itself intimidating for its own poetic progeny.

What is required to secede successfully from the sphere of the father is what Bloom calls “strength.” All great poets are strong. Strength for Bloom, as for his mentor Freud, consists essentially in a capacity for winning identity by driving cart and plough over the bones of the dead. The weak remain redundant, trapped in the half-existence of an echo. The strong, however, transform the tradition, and they do so by deliberately misreading it. Their interpretations must, if they are to be productive, be misinterpretations. Thus Bloom offers “a map of misreading” as a guide to the modern poetic tradition, because tradition can develop only by a rebellious distortion of what came before.

To achieve identity is…

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