Frye Alert: Anatomies


Bloom interviewed by the New York Times

Here’s a review of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence in The Brooklyn Rail.

It’s difficult to be fully comfortable with Bloom when it comes to Frye. Frye himself suggested that Bloom’s “chief anxiety of influence” related to him. The reviewer notes, for example, that Bloom says he derived his title from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which he claims to love. It is also, of course, an unmistakable echo of Anatomy of Criticism, which Bloom recently claimed he can no longer read.

From the review:

Bloom has carried the banner for “secular canonization” for a long time, and notes that he fought for it first with the distinguished critic Northrop Frye and later against the New Cynicism. “For more than half a century I have tried to confront greatness directly, hardly a fashionable stance,” he says, “but I see no other justification for literary criticism in the shadows of our Evening Land.”

How is this “secular canon” established?

The weapon of choice in Bloom’s arsenal is the pronouncement. The book abounds in statements that can only be accepted or denied and that are not supported by anything more than the power of his assertions and explanations.

This nicely encapsulates the fact that the subjective response at the centre of Bloom’s criticism is only on the periphery of Frye’s. It is also a reminder that while criticism may include value judgments, it cannot be based on value judgments.

Jonathan Allan’s earlier post on The Anatomy of Influence here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Frye Alert: Anatomies

  1. Joe Adamson

    As you suggest, Mike, Bloom’s allusion to his love of The Anatomy of Melancholy is an embarrassment and an obvious tell of how closely and Oedipally tied he is to Frye. The allusion even feels somewhat plagiaristic, since Frye repeatedly noted his great affection for Burton’s masterpiece. It is like a child’s braggadocio, or, more to the point, the vanity of someone who even at this late stage of life does not know himself. I am reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) story about Frye who, when asked what he thought of some eminent American critic’s attacks on his work, replied: “it’s like a chihuahua trying to fuck an elephant.”

    Like the droning voice of the ego at the end of Beckett’s Unnameable, Bloom for some reason thinks he must keep talking, or, as the reviewer you cite so rightly puts it, making “pronouncements.” At this point, Bloom’s remaining audience is captive to an out-of-date reputation. He is long past prime and his critical voice has become tedious, if not irrelevant.

  2. Jonathan Allan

    The title of Harold Bloom’s book is not an easy one. The earliest title of the book was “The Anatomy of Influence”; however, throughout the time that Bloom was writing the book, the title did change, at one point, to “The Living Labyrinth,” which though having affinities with Frye also has affinities with other writers, I think, for instance, of Borges here. At any rate, for a period of about 18 months, the book was called “The Living Labyrinth” (for instance, see this December 2009 review in the New York Review of books

    It seems to me that Bloom was very aware of the influence of Frye in the composition of this book and most explicitly in the title of the book. It is interesting to note that Bloom disavows Frye almost immediately in the book, the second paragraph of his book reads (after the Praeludium): “I do not recall reading any literary criticism, as opposed to literary biography, until I was an undergraduate. At seventeen I purchased Northrop Frye’s study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, soon after its publication. What Hart Crane was to me at ten, Frye became at seventeen: an overwhelming experience. Frye’s influence on me lasted twenty years but came to an abrupt halt on my thirty-seventh birthday, July 11, 1967, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day in composing a dithyramb, ‘The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence.” Six years later that had evolved into The Anxiety of Influence, a book Frye rightly rejected from his Christian Platonist stance. Now in my eightieth year, I would not have the patience to reread anything by Frye, but I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory, recite might of it daily, and continue to teach him.” (3)

    When reading this, and when aware of the letters exchanged between Bloom and Frye, it is impossible not to think that Bloom is killing the influential father almost immediately so as to say, see I’m done with Frye. But that isn’t quite the case. Frye’s voice haunts his last book.

    As for the reference to Burton, these is even documented in the letters, Bloom writes in 1969 (two years after the supposed demise of Frye’s influence on Bloom), about his dithyramb, “The Covering Cherub”: “Implicitly that contains a theory of Poetic Influence, and one that is consonant with your [Frye] work as I know it. I can understand why you do not see Poetic Influence as an anxiety of melancholy, as I do, because of what you call the myth of concern.” The misreading at play between Bloom and Frye is, in essence, the Anxiety of Influence at work. To read the letters alongside Bloom’s work, is to read an autobiography, a struggle to reclaim oneself out of the bottomless dream of an overwhelming influence.

    All of this said, I think that the friendship, the antagonism, the relationship itself (both in the private and public spheres) between Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye remains one of the most exciting examples of the strength of literary studies, criticism, and theory. These are two critics who were exceptionally aware of each other: Bloom aware of Frye as influence, and Frye (equally if not more so) aware of being the influence.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *