Quote of the Day: “Harold Bloom on Literary Criticism”

Our quote of the day doesn’t refer to what was said but what was not. A recently published interview with Harold Bloom under the title, “Harold Bloom on Literary Criticism,” in which he reviews twentieth century criticism but makes no reference to Frye.

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15 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: “Harold Bloom on Literary Criticism”

  1. J. Allan

    “If I were to be asked, “Harold, can anything in your life’s work survive?” I would not know what to answer. I would think that if anything should survive, it would be this new book, because it is my summa. It is my swansong on the question that has occupied me throughout my long life, which is the question of literary and poetic influence. I’ve written it and rewritten it and cut it down. If anything by me deserves to survive, it’s The Anatomy of Influence. Whether it will survive, I have grave doubts. Only a few literary critics survive. Whether I will be one, I do not know.”

    Oh Prof. Bloom, if anything should survive, let it be “The Anxiety of Influence,” precisely because it is the most exciting work.

    And why does Prof. Bloom continue to hide his relation to Northrop Frye when there are so many instances where he acknowledges Frye?

    In “Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument,” Bloom writes: “My specific critical debts are to the Blake studies of S. Foster Damon, J. Middleton Murray, David Erdman, and especially Northrop Frye” (10).

    Bloom remarks in an interview with Imre Salusinszky: “in terms of my own theorizations … the proper precurosor has to be Northrop Frye” (62).

    In 1961, Bloom writes to Frye: “I’ve just received copies [of The Visionary Company], and a brief, painful glance at the book has told me what I already knew, that fourteen years of being a student of your writing has made me an echo-chamber at worst, and perhaps a good student at best.”

    Admittedly, in 2009, Prof. Bloom wrote: “Frye’s influence on me lasted twenty years, but came tumbling down on my thirty-seventh birthday, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day in composing a dithyramb, ‘The Covering Cherub or Poetic Influence'”, which became The Anxiety of Influence. However, what we ought to note is that in “The Covering Cherub,” Frye is acknowledged and referred to, while in The Anxiety of Influence, he has been excised, deleted, or wholly repressed.

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  2. Michael Happy Post author

    In The Anatomy of Influence Bloom dismisses Frye as a “Christian Platonist,” which is misleading enough to be considered dishonest. It’s hard to believe he doesn’t know that.

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  3. J. Allan

    In his preface to the Anatomy, Bloom writes: “In later years, whenever I lectured at Toronto, Frye would introduce me with considerable polemic fervor, making clear that his Methodist Protestantism was very different from my Jewish Gnosticism” (vii).

    Frye, of course, did speak to their religious differences, in “The Meaning of Recreation,” he writes writes: “Certain elements of criticism which have preoccupied Harold Bloom, the conception, for example, of the ‘anxiety of influence’ and the fact that every poet misreads and misunderstands his predecessor, and has to if he is to speak with his own voice, depend again on this matter of recreation. The archetype of all of this is in the Bible, at least in the Christian Bible, where the New Testament’s conception of the Old is, from the point of view of Judaism, a preposterous and perverse misunderstanding.”

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  4. Ed Lemond

    A few weeks ago I wrote to Harold Bloom, asking him to contribute to a special edition of the journal ‘Ellipse’ which the Frye Festival is co-editing, as part of our contribution to the centenary. He wrote back:

    Dear Mr.Lemond:
    I remain dedicated to Norrie’s memory and regret I cannot contribute.
    Harold Bloom

    I see affection and I’m not sure what else in those words.

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  5. J. Allan

    While there is no hiding the fact that I am a fan of Bloom, Professor Bloom has always been generous when I’ve written to him about Northrop Frye, particularly while writing my article on Bloom and Frye.

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    1. Michael Happy Post author

      At the risk of pushing this issue way too far, your gratitude to Bloom is understandable, Jonathan. But the evidence beyond your experience of him suggests that Bloom’s attitude to Frye is suspect. It seems to be driven by a personal conflict in which he reflexively misrepresents Frye in order not just to dismiss him, but to keep him out of contention altogether — what else could a mischaracterization like “Christian Platonist” be intended to do? Bloom knows better.

      As a “Frye enthusiast” (as I was recently described), I gladly admit that it annoys me. But, enthusiasm aside, Bloom’s behavior is distressing because it is so furtively dishonest. A scholar in his privileged position should be counted on to practice his craft as disinterestedly as it is possible for him to do. If it becomes apparent that he’s abandoned good-faith principles in order to perpetuate what appears to be an unresolvable Oedipal conflict, then we should feel free to comment on it.

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  6. J. Allan

    I wouldn’t disagree with commenting on aspects of the relation at all. I think this is one of the most engaging, exciting, and provocative relations in literary theory of the twentieth century, precisely because it is so conflicted, and yet, productive. We cannot deny, regardless of our affinities for one critic or the other, that Bloom and Frye will hold a place in the history of literary criticism.

    With regards to Christian Platonism, Imre Salusinszky writes in his chapter on/interview with Bloom: “And just as Frye in the 1960s, built an entire social philosophy around his particular brand of Romantic-Christian-Platonism, so Bloom since the late 1970s has been extending his vision from poetry into all areas of social life, religion, politics and philosophy: in all of these arenas he discerns the *agonistic* struggle for individual assertion” (47).

    I imagine this is a point worth contesting.

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    1. Michael Happy Post author

      That looks like a got-me, Jonathan, but those are Saluszinksy’s words. I’m not sure that Frye would describe himself “as” these things, but he would readily acknowledge that they are influences, but only after being fully transformed by his uniquely independent and capable sensibility. As he once said of his encounter with Vico, “By the time I was done, there was very little Vico left.”

      Frye was not a “Christian” in any conventional sense, even though Bloom seems to pretend he was. His teenage epiphany that allowed him to discard the “shitty garment” of Methodist fundamentalism into the gutter, as he put it, meant a wholesale rejection of Christian dogma, including the transcendence of God — “the old stinker in the sky,” as he repeatedly calls him. The issue of the transcendental also arises with Plato: there are no eternal forms in Frye, and those who attribute this to him (again, as Bloom seems to) are misrepresenting him. What there are are archetypal concerns which are not outside the human sphere, but are immanent within and specific to the human condition. Immanence is in fact always the word to use to begin make sense of Frye — there is no God “out there” we can know about; it is same with eternal forms. But there are clearly prevailing human concerns (including the notion of the divine, which Frye also addresses) that manifest archetypally.

      As to Romanticism, the one term Bloom does not include in his characterization of Frye as a “Christian Platonist,” that’s a fair estimation which Frye would undoubtedly accept. He said that everything he learned he got from Blake (which, again, is why he cannot in any conventional sense be called a “Christian”). Divinity is immanent, it is embodied by the human-divine, for which human works of art are an expression. As a Romantic, Blake also inverts the traditional top-to-bottom cosmos of authority that had prevailed previous to the Romantic revolution. I think that Frye makes it clear that we are still living through the consequences of that revolution.

      Now, not to make this a pissing contest, but please note that, as with McLuhan, Frye is unfailingly generous when using his own reputation to further the interests of others. Despite his misgivings about McLuhan’s work, Frye regularly cited it and pushed hard to make sure that Understanding Media won the Governor-General’s Award. We’ve already seen what McLuhan’s response to this generosity was. We see the same sort of thing with Bloom: a little snide, passive-aggressively dismissive, and, well, ungracious. Frye, again, despite his misgivings about Bloom’s work, advocated that he receive the McArthur “genius” grant. Now Bloom can’t seem to find the time to say a few nice words about Frye. His introduction to the re-issue of Anatomy a decade ago sneakily undermines it, and, as Ed Lemond notes here today, he evidently can’t summon up ten minutes to dash off a couple hundred kind words of praise. This is a pattern of behavior.

      Why this matters, beyond an “enthusiast’s” pique, is that Frye has been so readily dismissed by those who really ought to know better. It is a matter of interest to me, at least, because this evidently has to be talked around. When you know where people like McLuhan and Bloom are resistant, and perhaps even why, that’s clearly an advantage. I do, however, note that genius is very often resisted for the wrong reasons, usually based upon envy and fear. I think I see that at work here.

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  7. J. Allan

    I don’t think my intention is to “get-you”; instead, I think, it is more about recognizing that the relationship is complicated.

    But, to be clear, Frye was uncomfortable with Bloom’s work, a point he makes known in private notebooks and letters to colleagues. But Bloom and Frye have repeatedly acknowledged their respect for one another.

    Bloom is doing precisely what Bloom’s theory sets out to do, the Anxiety of Influence is, as Emily Apter writes: “a theory of psychic poetic engendering and literary father-killing” (Translation Zone 179). So we can either dismiss the Anxiety altogether and call it petty antagonism, or we can acknowledge that perhaps the Anxiety of Influence extends beyond poetry and reaches criticism and theory.

    I don’t think it is Bloom’s role to defend Northrop Frye anymore than it is my role to defend Bloom or Frye. To be fair, I’ve been called a Frye apologist, and I’ve been called a Bloom apologist. I don’t really think I’m an apologist for either one, what I do think is that I am interested reader of one of the most productive literary relations during the twentieth century. As I’ve noted here before, I’ve written an article on Frye and Bloom, and I’d be more than happy to pass along copies of the article.

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    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Sorry about the got-me thing, Jonathan. It didn’t come out as intended — it was supposed to be banter. But when you’re writing like you’re talking the nuance can get lost.

      It’d be great to post anything you’d care to send. One of the nice things about a forum like this is that it is relaxed enough to make it more like free-wheeling conversation. You just hope it does not become a debate over who was the best captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard.

      I don’t think I suggested that Bloom is, as you say, “obliged” to “defend” Frye. I do, however, believe that it is ungracious of him not to offer an appraisal worthy of his contribution. Addressing twentieth century criticism without a fair estimation of Frye’s place in it is like trying to address Classical philosophy without mentioning Socrates and the dialectical method. As I said earlier, I am suspicious of the intellectual integrity involved when such courtesies are not offered, especially if it costs exactly nothing to extend them. If refusing to do so is a measure of the anxiety required to get the job done, then I cannot agree that it’s worth the effort. It is not, in any event, literary criticism. Although it is certainly theory.

      The benefit of literature and all of the arts is that they present an imaginative vision that appeals to the best in us rather than merely upbraids us for failing to meet that standard. The first is the magic of recognition; the second is the drudgery of just getting through the fucking day. These sorts of discussions are probably necessary, but they don’t necessarily offer up a big yield in the short term. Over the long haul, however, they do seem to have the charm of remembered adventure, and that alone makes them worthwhile. Whatever we hope to gain by this sort of exchange, it shouldn’t in the end be much more than the pleasure of breaking the routine and taking in the sights.

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  8. Bob Denham

    Frye certainly thought that Bloom’s anxiety theory extended to critics. It’s clear that Frye was Bloom’s critical forebear. It’s no less clear that Bloom wanted to kill off his critical father.

    As for whether or not Frye was a Christian, he said he was.

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  9. Michael Happy Post author

    Hi Bob. I didn’t mean to suggest that Frye was not a Christian; I know that even at the very end of his life he described himself as a “plainclothesman for the United Church.” I only intended to make the point that he wasn’t a Christian with anything that could be described as a dogmatic faith, to the extent that he regularly observed that a transcendent God “always turns out to be Satan.” That is why I say he can’t be called a Christian in any “conventional” sense. If I’ve got this wrong, I stand corrected.

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  10. Christopher

    Despite owning and reading many of Bloom’s books, I’m increasingly convinced that Frye was the greater critic by far, and that most of Frye’s complaints about Bloom’s positions are very valid indeed, whereas few of Bloom’s criticisms of Frye stand up to the cold light of day.

    Most of Bloom’s attack on Frye’s “opinions” turn out, when one consults the original text, to be mere caricatures. They aren’t really Frye’s opinions at all: Bloom is being willfully perverse. Frye, on the other hand, generally DOES accurately paraphrase Bloom before he finds fault with something Bloom avers. I don’t think anyone has seen the weaknesses and inadequacies of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” approach to literary criticism more clearly than Frye.

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