The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As a Way of Life

The first essay of Harold Bloom's I read, when I was an undergraduate, was entitled "The Breaking of Form". This was his contribution to Deconstruction and Criticism, a collection that had been published in 1979 as a kind of manifesto for the Yale school of deconstructive literary critics.

Bloom was never more than an ad hoc member of that fearsome band. Its leading lights were Jacques Derrida, a regular visitor to Yale in the 1970s, and Paul de Man, chairman of the university's department of comparative literature. "The Breaking of Form" was a statement not of belonging, but of Bloom's separateness and of his rejection of what he saw as de Man's "serene linguistic nihilism". It ended with a resounding defence of an "art that will not abandon the self to language" against the "abysses of Deconstruction's ironies".
In his new book, which he describes as an intellectual "self-portrait", Bloom, who is 80, recalls how he and de Man would argue about the nature of criticism. For de Man, the study of literature was a way of doing the philosophy of language by other means. For Bloom, to "practise criticism" was to "think poetically about poetic thinking". Indeed, it was as a critic more attuned to the language of poets than to prevailing academic trends that he first made his name in the early 1960s, with books on Shelley and Blake.

Then, in 1973, came probably his best-known book, The Anxiety of Influence, a "theory of poetry" in which he argued that a poem is always the product of a struggle between a poet and his precursors. A "strong" poet is one who masters the "anguish of contamination" by his influences. (In The Anatomy of Influence, Bloom reminds us that the agon of creativity is also the struggle of the "master of self-conscious creation with himself". And in this, as in most other respects for Bloom, Shakespeare is exemplary, the "paradigm for self-influence".)

Looking back at The Anxiety of Influence at a distance of nearly 40 years, Bloom says that it reads to him today like an "attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students". He has been writing in a self-dramatising, hectically defensive mode ever since, doing battle with "resenters", "cynics" and sundry other enemies of literary authority.

Bloom has made it his vocation to inoculate the wide reading public against the dangerous seductions of literary theory. (He insists here that he is a "populist" rather than a "populariser" - by which he means, I think, that he is registering something affirmed by "common sense" but which academic critics have allegedly trained themselves not to believe: that "there is such a thing as great literature".) Like much of his work over the past two decades - one thinks, in particular, of The Western Canon (1994) and Genius (2002) - The Anatomy of Influence crackles with a rhetorical energy more suited to the public lecture than the graduate seminar. However, it also shares many of the shortcomings of those earlier books.

Bloom's judgements about the "strong writers" he venerates (Shakespeare and Walt Whitman pre-eminent among them) are not argued, but rather enforced by monstrously erudite fiat. He doesn't demonstrate the merits of the close, patient reading that might be thought to be the critic's stock-in-trade, so much as merely assert them. The effect of this is to suspend his subjects (or idols) in a melodrama of "greatness", obscuring the very distinctiveness that, on his own definition, constitutes their genius. l

The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As a Way of Life
Harold Bloom
Yale University Press, 384pp, £25

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0