Harold Bloom — a glimpse of the sublime

The best literary criticism pays homage to writerly greatness and offers a glimpse of its own imagin

I vividly recall, with mingled affection and amusement, my first essay written for William K Wimsatt Jr, returned to me with the ringing comment, "You are a Longinian critic, which I abhor!" Much later, gossip reached me that my fierce former teacher had abstained from voting on my tenure, telling his colleagues, "He is an 18-inch naval gun, with tremendous firepower but always missing the cognitive target."

The single treatise we have from the more properly named Pseudo-Longinus should be translated as "On the Heights". But by now we are unable to do without On the Sublime, even though "sublime" as a word remains bad currency. So too is aesthetic, which Walter Pater (after its popularisation by Oscar Wilde) wanted to restore to its ancient Greek sense of "perceptive".

To be a Longinian critic is to celebrate the sublime as the supreme aesthetic virtue and to associate it with a certain affective and cognitive res­ponse. A sublime poem transports and elevates, allowing the author's "nobility" of mind to enlarge its reader as well. To be a Longinian critic, for Wimsatt, however, was to flout a key tenet of the New Criticism, the tradition of which he was a fierce proponent.

The New Criticism was the reigning orthodoxy when I was a graduate student at Yale. Its defining feature was a commitment to formalism. The meaning of the so-called critical object was to be found only within the object itself; information about the life of its author or the reactions of its readers was deemed merely misleading. Wimsatt's contribution to the New Critical canon includes two highly influential essays, "The Affective Fallacy" and "The Intentional Fallacy", both co-written with the philosopher of art Monroe Beardsley. First published in 1949, "The Affective Fallacy" launched an assault on the then pervasive belief that the meaning and value of a literary work could be apprehended by "its results in the mind of its audience". Wimsatt attributed this so-called affective fallacy to two of my own critical precursors, the sublime Longinus and Samuel Johnson.

The New Criticism has now long since ceased to dominate literary studies. Yet the countless critical fashions that have succeeded it have been scarcely more receptive to Longi­nians. In this respect, the New Critics and the New Cynics are unlikely partners in crime. In the long Age of Resentment, intense literary experience is merely "cultural capital", a means to power and glory within the parallel "economy" that Pierre Bourdieu labels the literary field. Literary love is a social strategy, more affectation than affect. But strong critics and strong readers know we cannot understand literature, great literature, if we deny authentic literary love to writers or readers. Sublime literature demands an emotional, not an econo­mic investment.

For more than half a century I have tried to confront greatness directly, hardly a fashionable stance, but I see no other justification for literary criticism in the shadows of our Evening Land. Over time the strong poets settle these matters for themselves, and precursors remain alive in their progeny. Readers in our flooded landscape use their own perceptiveness.

As an aged critic, I go on reading and teaching because it is no sin for a man to labour in his vocation. My hero of criticism Samuel Johnson said that only a blockhead would write for anything except money, but that is now only a secondary motivation. I continue to write because of the hope that the voice that is great within us will rise up to answer the voice of Walt Whitman or the hundreds of voices invented by Shakespeare.

The inescapable condition of sublime or high literature is agon: Pindar, the Athenian tragedians and Plato struggled with Homer, who always wins. The height of literature commences again with Dante, and goes on through Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton and Pope. Implicit in Longinus's celebration of the sublime - "Filled with delight and pride we believe we have created what we have heard" - is influence anxiety. What is my creation and what is merely heard? This anxiety is a matter of both personal and literary identity. What is the me and the not-me? Where do other voices end and my own begin? The sublime conveys imaginative power and weakness at once. It transports us beyond ourselves, provoking the uncanny recognition that one is never fully the author of one's work or one's self.

My reflections on influence from the 1970s onwards have focused on writers of imaginative literature, especially poets. But influence anxiety is not confined to poets, novelists and playwrights. It is a problem for critics as well. Poetry and criticism each in its own way involves coming to terms with the overwhelming flood of images and sensations that Pater called "phantasmagoria". Both Johnson and Pater experimented with different genres of writing, but both made their mark primarily as critics. For each, literature was not merely an object of study but a way of life.

In my own judgement, Johnson remains the major literary critic in all of western tradition. Even a glance at a comprehensive collection of his writings shows the variety of the genres he attempted: poetry, biographies, essays, book reviews, lexicons, sermons, political tracts, travel accounts, diaries, letters, prayers and an invention of his own, the bio-critique in The Lives of the English Poets. Add the drama Irene (a failure) and the novella Rasselas (a grand success), and something of Johnson's restless, rather dangerous energies can be intuited.

Johnson should have been the great poet after the death of Alexander Pope until the advent of Blake, but an authentic awe of Pope inhibited him. Johnson abandoned his poethood, praising Pope as perfect in judgement, invention and verbal style. And yet Johnson knew better, so far as judgement and invention were concerned: Homer, Shakespeare, Milton . . . It is not that Johnson was a Pope idolator, but a complex guilt prevented him from the stance of the strong poet that his gifts merited and demanded. Doubtless the human guilt was filial. Michael Johnson, his father, was 52 when Samuel, his first child, was born. The father kept a bookshop in Lichfield. During his final months, a melancholy man and a failure at all things, he asked his son, also given to "vile melancholy", to attend his bookstall for him in a nearby town. Johnson's pride prevented him and he refused his father, who died soon after. Exactly 50 years later, the formidable critic went to Lichfield and took "a postchaise to Uttoxeter, and going into the market at the time of high business, uncovered my head, and stood with it bare an hour before the stall which my father had formerly used, exposed to the sneers of the standers-by and the inclemency of the weather".

I regard Johnson as my critical forerunner, since my life's work from The Anxiety of Influence until now seems to me more Johnsonian than Freudian or Nietzschean, a following of the great critic in his quest to understand literary imitation. I turn to Johnson on Shakespeare and Milton, Dryden and Pope, and he induces me to reflect freshly upon them and has the knack of making all four later and himself earlier, as though they were influenced by him. That particular imaginative displacement does not mark the critical work of Dryden and Coler­idge, Hazlitt and Ruskin, yet enters again with Pater and his Aesthetic school: Wilde and Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Wallace Stevens.

What can be the function of literary criticism in a Disinformation Age? I see aspects of the function but only by glimpses. Appreciation subsequent to overt evaluation is vital. For me, Shakespeare is the Law, Milton the Teaching, Blake and Whitman the Prophets. Being a Jew and not a Christian, I need not displace the Gos­pels. What could a literary messiah be? When I was young, I was baffled by modernist or New Critics. So unreal now are their polemics that I cannot recapture my fervour against them. Turning 80 had an odd effect on me that 79 did not. I will no longer strive with Resenters and other lemmings. We will be folded together in our common dust. Read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate: that is the art of literary criticism for the present time. l

This is an edited extract from "The Anatomy of Influence" by Harold Bloom, published by Yale University Press (£25) on 31 May