By Matt Hanson
“What is the function of literary criticism in a Disinformation Age? Read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate: that is the art of literary criticism for the present time.” — Harold Bloom
Critic Harold Bloom has passed away at the ripe old age of 89, jettisoning this mortal coil for a niche in the great and infinite Borgesian library in the sky. Most of his obits have focused on his widely known loves and hates, generally his lifelong obsession with defending the canonical writers of Western literature. It feels strange to write about him now, after venerating him for so many years. And because I don’t find him as inspiring as I once did. So much of what Bloom offered seems old hat now. His resolute advocacy for what used to be called “the best that had been thought and said,” his insistence on the centrality of Shakespeare who, as he proclaimed, “invented the human,” and his scorn for the scholars that he believed politicized literature (a cadre he resentfully named “the School of Resentment”). Reflecting on my youthful passion for the self-described “Bardolator Brontosaurus Bloom,” I now think that there was more in his work than many people gave him credit for — and less than he seemed to think there was.
The first thing to be said about Bloom is his staggering erudition. Word has it that he had indeed read and reread pretty much everything — novels, plays, poetry, criticism, and philosophy. He apparently knew the entirety of Paradise Lost by heart as well as much of Shakespeare and could recite volumes of verse at a moment’s notice. You’ve just got to love anyone who teaches themselves English, as the youngest child of Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews who emigrated to the South Bronx, by sounding out the epics of William Blake. He was always fond of mentioning in interviews that his life was changed by finding Hart Crane’s slim volume of poetry White Buildings in the Bronx library as a preteen: the brilliant, doomed Crane became a perennial touchstone. Bloom grew up precociously knowing that all he “ever really wanted to do was read and talk about poetry,” having no real idea that there were places like Harvard and Yale where you could make a living at it. Eventually, he ended up teaching at both.
“Literature as a way of life” is the subtitle of one of his later books, and that could serve as the unofficial motto for his vision of the heroic reader. Bloom’s advocacy for treating a serious study of literature, and by extension all art, as a way of life rather than merely a way of filling one’s time, is noble. An embrace of art has profoundly changed innumerable minds over the centuries, if only because it offers proof that there are indeed other worlds out there, other ways of thinking and feeling — an invigorating alternative to whatever happens to be your particular daily grind. He was a celebrator of reading as a means toward winning what he called “primal freedom,” and liberation was worth fighting for. There is another way to make sense of his well-documented penchant for feuding and hurling invective. His working class upbringing in a rough-and-tumble Depression-era New York City (his garment-worker father could only afford to give him a pair of scissors as a birthday gift) no doubt contributed. His buddies from the neighborhood were in perpetual war with racist knuckleheads from the next block over.
Bloom wrote many books, maybe too many, but the one that seems to have stayed the most vital is 1973’s The Anxiety of Influence. Here he provocatively suggests that literary writers are consumed with the struggle for originality. Poets are initially inspired by the work of a strong predecessor; when they try to create something new, they inevitably find that older poets have already gotten there first, causing an Oedipal anxiety, or agon after the Greek term for athletic competition. This intimidating influence (which smothers creativity) must be overcome somehow, or the work will never be more than derivative. Artists find themselves emulating their heroes, and in wrestling with a previous creator’s work they overthrow what could be overbearing influence through creative misreading. The hope is that the contest will lead them to coming up with something original.
It’s a pretty useful a theory of artistic creation. The deeper you study a particular figure in any artistic field you see evidence of this archetypal pattern of emulation, influence, and transcendence. Sometimes artists openly acknowledge the debt they owe to their predecessors, but for others it is the last thing they’re willing to cop to. Put in pop music terms (which Bloom himself would have disdained): it seems like every singer-songwriter these days wants to be Bruce Springsteen. But Bruce grew up wanting to be Bob Dylan, and Dylan in his youth idolized Woody Guthrie, and Guthrie traded songs with Leadbelly, who just wanted to sing his way out of jail. In failing to be like someone else, you end up becoming who you are.
The questions this theory raises are as provocative as the solutions it offers. For one thing, who says which two works or authors in question are battling it out? And who decides when the fight is over and whether the result is an original work or a pale imitation of the real thing? Playing spot-the-influence is fun as a scholar’s party trick, but it’s hard to miss that Bloom himself, with all his omnivorous learning, appointed himself as the best qualified judge (referee?) of this volatile tussle. And then there’s the irritating presumptiveness that comes when writers claim influence. Once, at a reading, I heard a poet offhandedly remark that there was “lots of Whitman and Dickinson” in the poems she was about to read. Oh, really? I wondered — hopefully not groaning out loud. Well, thanks for the heads-up. Are you sure there isn’t any Keats or Browning lurking around that you’d like to inform us of while you’re at it?
I used to silently cheer when Bloom named some of my personal favorites in his roll call of essential writers. There’s a special kind of bond that develops between reader and critic when the latter writes appreciatively about a beloved artist. But insisting (ponderously) that we must read more Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Stevens, and Proust (to name only a few) isn’t exactly a stop-the-presses bulletin. Plenty of people have, are, and will continue to read all of these folks very passionately, thanks. Pretty much all of the august names the critic revered are still receiving plenty of ardent readerly attention, despite Bloom’s lamentations to the contrary.
Back in the ’90s, the canon wars took up quite a bit of the cultural oxygen. Bloom robustly manned the barricades, hurling invective at those whom he accused of destroying high-grade literary study. A lot of the hand-wringing about declining literary standards looks, from today’s vantage point, like a self-defeating waste of time. Reading is no longer a culturally central activity, a fact that even Bloom admitted in his later years. Pitting Shakespeare against gangster rap turned Bloom’s worship of the mighty into a conservative-baited parlor game. Besides, Shakespeare wrote as filthy and violent as could be if the situation called for it; and the best rappers are as sensitive to the nuances of storytelling, form, and vocabulary as any sensitive poet.
It’s not well known, but Bloom was pretty firmly to the left politically speaking, but his defensiveness about his narrow and pitiless definition of high literary value overshadowed almost everything else about him. I am all for investigating the canon, if for no other reason than to happen upon some fascinating, long-lost literary gold mines. If we read to discover beauty, wisdom, and awe — in a word, the sublime — and we neglect the very books that have served up that experience for millennia, then we will be much the poorer for it.
But it isn’t intellectually healthy to immerse yourself in the past so deeply it turns the contemporary into mush. The value of diligently reading the classics is that they can help you to inhabit the present, i.e., your life, more fully. Bloom might have agreed with this point to some extent, but his many tin-eared pronouncements, including his highly publicized trashing of the Harry Potter series, slam poetry, Stephen King, or David Foster Wallace’s magisterial Infinite Jest (of which he said, with mind-boggling denseness, that it contained “no thought”), only made his relentless plugging of the Great Dead White Men seem increasingly self-regarding, myopic, and just plain crabby. I once wrote a piece about him in which I characterized him as a grandmother. I meant that affectionately, but this dogmatic fussiness can be applied to Bloom in both positive and negative senses. William Deresiewicz took it a step further in his brilliantly devastating critique of Bloom’s bombast, entitled “The Shaman.”
In some ways, I understand Bloom’s revulsion at our era’s stridently politicized approach to literature. Eviscerating a text by way of the iron spikes of race, class, and gender analysis quickly becomes old as well as increasingly robotic. The didactic approach stunts the free growth of the imagination. I’m dubious about literature’s political uses in general — I agree somewhat with Bloom that a political reading of Shakespeare is less interesting than a Shakespearian reading of politics. For example, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg used the Henriad to penetratingly analyze the Bush family.
But, at the same time, it’s fatuous to ignore the reality of brutal power relations throughout history. Who decided just who would be allowed to write, read, discuss, and interpret texts? Ignoring, trivializing, or lambasting these issues is obtuse and can lead to crass victim blaming. Addressing past injustices and drawing on one’s erudition to challenge conventional assumptions is how we mitigate the burden of history. An important part of reading should be taking the traditions that have been handed down and reinventing them in new and playful ways, thereby making them your own. You shouldn’t shun the Great Dead White Men, but love their work in ways that subvert calcified power structures. Many classics, both modern and ancient, were imaginative rewrites of earlier stories and myths. You learn the rules so you can break them, as the old saying goes.
In other words, to draw on one of Bloom’s lovely Emerson-inspired phrases, reading should be about “taking back what is yours, wherever you may find it.” We should read the giants because they offer us guidance, especially to writers, who will use them as indispensable points of departure. Bloom was often disappointingly evasive about who he thought our great contemporaries were — he’d mention people like Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth — but only sporadically. And at a time that their value had been already pretty well established. It would have bolstered today’s reading community if this eminent and influential critic had deigned to put his imprimatur on humble scribblers who hadn’t become household names.
In the end, ironically, Bloom may have turned out to be something of a popularizer despite himself. Books like How to Read and Why, The Western Canon, and Genius were best sellers, a pop perch very few works of literary criticism ever reach. I’m sure I’m not alone in pointing out how reading his extensive excerpts from ancient books, many of which I’d previously only vaguely heard of, turned me on to some of the most profound reading experiences of my life. He gave me an education that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Still, at times his long excerpts would end with a pat summary of what had come before, pointlessly reminding the reader that it sure was good writing. The Bloom Stamp of Approval for the masses.
Unlike too many other critics, Bloom doesn’t approach reading as a moral duty or prescribe it as good mental exercise. Books are a calling, an invitation to do the deepest work of the self. It was, for this critic, almost a religious activity: like prayer, it is usually done in silence and solitude. And he has a point: pursuing what he called the “difficult pleasures” found in literature was and is a fine way to spend one’s life. It seems fitting to conclude with a quotation about the Bard from the grand old Bardolator himself, though it’s fair to say that, even when he alludes to Shakespeare, Bloom’s also referring to all the other literature and art worthy of the name: “Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. . . . he may teach us how to accept change in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.”
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.