The Influence of Anxiety

I’d like to add to the recent discussion thread on Harold Bloom

The reason Bloom, in this interview, does not mention Frye in his list of “my greatest influences” is that Frye’s influence ended when Bloom had a nervous breakdown and began to write nonsense after deciding that literature was primarily “based upon agonistic competition,” as he puts it in the interview. It is all about the Oedipus complex and castration anxiety. It is all about which writers are greater, stronger, more powerful than others: in other words, which writers Bloom identifies with, and which ones he dismisses. His judgment of Poe is a perfect instance (see his attack on Poe in the New York Review of Books, “Inescapable Poe”): “Poe’s survival raises perpetually the issue whether literary merit and canonical status necessarily go together. I can think of no other American writer, down to this moment, at once so inescapable and so dubious.” He ridicules, for example, the overwrought prose style of the narrators in Poe’s great tales, a style that is in fact carefully attuned to the states of mind of the characters, who are often criminally insane or on the threshold of consciousness. It is as if a critic were to ridicule Mark Twain’s prose style in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the narrator writes ungrammatically and uses cuss words. In contrast, Frye regarded Poe as a literary genius.

Here is how Bloom sums up his ‘literary theory’ of influence: ”I use the Shakespearean term ‘misprision,’ which is a kind of deliberate creativeness. The later work overturns an earlier work in order to get free of it. The new poem, new story, new drama or new novel is a creative misreading of the work that engendered it.” Literature is thus reduced to a Nietzschean or Oedipal struggle between grand creative minds. When literature is not that, for Bloom, it is the “touchstone theory” all over again: as he quotes Curtius, literature is “a reservoir of spiritual energies through which we can flavour and ennoble our present-day life.” Is this really what literature is all about? A kind of aesthetic and spiritual gilding of our prosperous middle-class life? Such an ennobling influence, however, doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Bloom. Read the interview, which starts, not very nobly, with a rant about attacks on the canon and his “desperate” but futile attempts to defend the curriculum of great books against the invasion of feminist Visigoths:

I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has.

It is interesting that Bloom began his jeremiad around the same time he broke with Frye. That’s over forty years, I guess, of not temporising. But this harangue is no better than Lynne Cheney (“not for me”) and Alan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind. It is the tedious and angry voice of a reactionary. Frye was certainly concerned about the ascendency of ideological criticism but he countered it with a defence of the liberality and autonomy of imaginative culture. He did not speak contemptuously (“all this business about gender, etc.”), and he never whined and railed. He did not dismiss other people’s genuine concerns, even when he thought they were misguided; he tried to engage them, with as much graciousness as possible. And then there is Bloom’s vanity, transparent throughout, and the maudlin sentiment, the name-dropping, the emphasis on close “personal” friends (“Those are the five books. Four of them are by personal friends, and one is by someone I corresponded with.”), the nauseating idolatry of genius, and the wheedling allusions to the enormous number of enormous books he has written, one volume after another dedicated to the memory of his own opinions.

As Frye points out,

Criticism founded on comparative values falls into two main divisions, according to where the work of art is regarded as a product or as a possession. The former develops biographical criticism, which relates the work of art primarily to the man who wrote it. . . . Biographical criticism concerns itself largely with comparative questions of greatness and personal authority. It regards the poem as the oratory of its creator, and it feels most secure when it knows of a definite, and preferably heroic, personality behind the poetry. If it cannot find such a personalty, it may try to project one of out of rhetorical ectoplasm, as Carlyle does in his essay on Shakespeare as a ‘heroic’ poet.

Bloom is not a serious critic or a serious literary theorist. He has no critical theory to speak of. He is an extremely well-read man with an inflated ego and a photographic memory. It is no accident that he feels the need to present such a personal list of great works of literary scholarship, a list of the works that most influenced him, not the profession, as the interviewer requested. It is exactly what he does with literature. His books, as he says himself, reveal a man “desperately trying to battle for canonical standards.” It is the critic as judge, as maker of value-judgments. Frye, of course, demonstrated the perversity of such a basis for literary study in his polemical introduction to Anatomy; it is an essay that is always worth reading again, because value-judgments, like bedbugs, seem impossible to eradicate: they just keep coming back in new mutations. Enough of Bloom. Frye has already summed it up: “The odious comparisons of greatness, then, may be left to take care of themselves, for even when we feel obliged to assent to them they are still only unproductive platitudes.”

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3 thoughts on “The Influence of Anxiety

  1. J. Allan

    From the National Post, Bloom and Fashion:

    “And to the most recent parade of couture shows, Daphne Guinness toted Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. If you’ve ever tried to read Harold Bloom while in an otherwise good mood, you’ll know this is less a book than a clumsy instrument of self-torture; still, the title suits her as an unassailable fashion plate and patron who’s also needy enough to tweet endless self-pics in Blanche DuBois-approved lighting.”

  2. Jonathan Allan

    From another (positive) review of “The Anatomy of Influence”:

    “More than a half a century as a teacher,” he writes, “has shown me that I am best as a provocation for my students, a realization that has carried over into my writing. That stance alienates some readers in the media and in the academy, but they are not my audience.”

    There is no doubt that Bloom has proven to be a “provocation” beyond the classroom, and in a way that often “alienates” rather than productively challenges, which is no doubt the effect Bloom hopes to have on his students. Most recently Bloom has provoked the “media” to purvey an image of him as an elitist, curmudgeonly defender of tradition and scourge of the popular, a literary dinosaur still roaming the earth even though the climate in which he finds himself has irreversibly shifted. Bloom thus seems to appear to some “ordinary” readers as a rather menacing figure whose views stand as a challenge to their reading habits, or as a rather pompously comic figure whose opinions can be safely dismissed. Bloom himself actually anticipates this latter response to his books in his frequent self-identification with Sir John Falstaff, although it is Falstaff’s refusal to be anything other than himself that Bloom most prizes.

  3. Christopher

    I have a lot more time for Bloom than Mr. Adamson evidently does, but I’m sorry, that review by Daniel Green is a very bad piece of writing: abrasive, dismissive, and devoted to knocking down straw men. With friends like Green, Bloom doesn’t need enemies.

    I admire Bloom, with reservations, but Green fails to adequately address a single one of the most serious objections to Bloom’s approach that have been laid out in all the years since he first formulated his Anxiety of Influence theory. One can admire Bloom’s critical gifts and yet still feel, as Frye felt, that the Anxiety of Influence is “a perverse application of a quite sound critical principle,” that Bloom’s theory diverted his talent away from the practice of close reading (“what is the poem trying to tell us about the human condition?”) into incessant, obsessive influence-chasing (“who influenced the poet?” “Who is the poet responding to?” “does he surpass or fail to surpass his precursor’s achievement?” “greater than? less than? equal to?” and so on.)

    Compare, for instance, what Bloom has to say about Finnegans Wake with what Marshall McLuhan, for example, has to say about it. Bloom devotes his entire chapter on FW in THE WESTERN CANON to tracing out Shakespeare’s influence upon Joyce, teasing out a series of anxious allusions to Macbeth, Lear, and other Shakespeare plays. McLuhan, meanwhile, tells us what he believes Joyce’s perspective on human history was, what influence the emergence of the alphabet had on the the course of history, what important lessons McLuhan believed Joyce had in store for 20th century man navigating an electrified, technological world, etc.

    Bloom’s approach is solipsistic and yields limited rewards. So what if we know Shakespeare was an intimidating influence on Joyce? Who cares if Shakespeare made Joyce feel anxious about his own abilities? That doesn’t give a reader a single reason to bother reading the 600 plus pages of Finnegans Wake. Teasing out a web of influences doesn’t tell us a damn thing about what makes FW a great work of art. Telling us over and over and over again that Joyce had a lifelong agon with Shakespeare – who cares? 10,000 other authors also had an “agon” with Shakespeare – the real question (which McLuhan, but not Bloom, attempts to answer) is what can we learn about life from reading Joyce? And why should we read Joyce rather than those thousands of other Shakespeare agonists?

    There are many things to like about Bloom, and many things not to like. Anyone can see that the “literary snob” dart sooner or later gets aimed at anybody and everybody who demands canonical standards. So? Who the hell doesn’t already know that? That Bloom has been vilified by a mob is true enough, but his detractors are not simply limited to bellicose devotees of Harry Potter, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or Stephen King horror stories. Not all of his detractors are aesthetic levellers, though many of course are.

    Does Green bother addressing the more serious complaints about Bloom articulated by Frye, Terry Eagleton, Joseph Epstein, Cary Nelson, Roger Kimball, Neil Kozodoy, Marc M. Arkin, amongst others? What about the harsh criticisms of his BOOK OF J by Biblical scholars who pointed out serious errors in his Hebrew? Bloom presents himself as an expert reader of the original Hebrew, yet when he was caught out in numerous translation errors, his response was to indignantly accuse his detractors of being orthodox religious dogmatists (i.e. You only attack my reading because you’re a hidebound reactionary!).

    This has been a lifelong pattern with Bloom and some of his supporters, like Green. Don’t address the actual arguments of detractors: simply take a tantrum and then spend your time knocking down straw men, then lambast your latest critic the next time you give a newspaper interview.

    Not every complaint about Bloom is from a P.C. pompom-waver who’s mad at him for not appreciating Alice Walker. Green’s defense of Bloom was lazy and intellectually unserious. For an example of what GENUINELY irritates Bloom’s detractors, here’s a typical instance (scroll down the page and read the letter from James Hoyle):

    I don’t find this sort of thing in Frye. Frye always addressed his critics politely, responsibly, and head-on. He didn’t necessarily change his views, but he sought to clarify them and never assumed his detractors were simply idiots for failing to bask in the light of Norrie’s ineffable genius.


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