Harold Bloom | Critical Review by Denis Donoghue

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Harold Bloom.
This section contains 3,385 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Denis Donoghue

SOURCE: "The Book of Genius," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4788, January 6, 1995, pp. 3-4.

In the following review, Donoghue questions Bloom's choices and methods in the formation of a literary "canon".

In 1970, W. Jackson Bate published The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, in which he argued that the crucial predicament of English poets since the eighteenth century has been their conviction of belatedness: they feel that they have come into poetry too late and are forced to look with envy and dismay upon, "the Giant Race, before the Flood". Keats told his friend Richard Woodhouse that "there as nothing original to be written in poetry; that its riches were already exhausted—and all its beauties forestalled". Not that every poet was daunted by giants. Blake, in a more spirited mood than Keats, wrote: "Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead." But the dead masters persisted, darkening the living.

In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom took up Bate's theme and turned it into a general theory of poetic influence. The sense of belatedness, he maintained, disables the weak poet but provokes the strong poet to challenge his precursors, thereby increasing his strength. Anxiety, he argued, is not to be avoided; the canon is its fulfilment:

A canon, despite its idealizers from Ezra the Scribe through the late Northrop Frye, does not exist in order to free its readers from anxiety. Indeed, a canon is an achieved anxiety, just as any strong literary work is its author's achieved anxiety. The literary cannon does not baptize us into culture; it does not make us free of cultural anxiety. Rather, it confirms our cultural anxieties, yet helps to give them form and coherence.

In some of his books Bloom has followed Bate in thinking the anxiety of being influenced a modern phenomenon, but in other books, and now in The Western Canon, he writes of it as if it were perennial, the one story and one story only of great literature. Blake challenges Milton, Milton confronts Shakespeare, Shakespeare overcomes Chaucer and Marlowe, Chaucer engages with Reccacio, and so on till we find Pindar in primal conflict with Homer.

Bloom's extension of the theory of anxiety to cover all strong writers completes the logic of his theory of poetry: it is a theory of genius, and genius scorns every condition except that of the belatedness on which, we see, it thrives. Bloom's books since The Anxiety of Influence have been elaborations of this theory. No circumstance or force at large, religious, political, social, or economic, is allowed to circumscribe genius. If you think that Wordsworth respects the energy of the natural world and is often enthralled by its manifestations, you err: he is most powerfully Wordsworth when he enforces his imagination against "the strong enchantments of nature". If you agree with Coleridge that we receive but what we give, you are still in error. Nature, culture, history, society, the pleasure of being in the world: none of these matters to genius, of which therefore we can say nothing. In the presence of genius and its works, we can express only wonder, awe, admiration, Bacon's "broken knowledge". The spark of pneuma which a strong reader recognizes as genius is unconditioned except for one consideration, the fact that it has to sustain the burden of being late. Genius knows how to deal with that.

Genius is Bloom's choice word, but he surrounds it with a few more accessible ones. Personality, will, self, subjectivity, introspection: these are his main terms of reference and admiration:

Shakespeare invented the perpetually changing, endlessly growing inner self, the deepest self, all-devouring, the self first perfected in Hamlet and still ravening on in Satan.

The true use of Shakespeare "or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais", according to Bloom, "is to augment one's own growing inner self". Elsewhere he writes:

When I read, say, "The Poems of Our Climate", by Stevens, or "The End of March", by Bishop, I encounter eventually the overwhelming self-revelation of a profoundly subjective consciousness. When I read, say, "Skunk Hour", by Lowell, or one of Berryman's sonnets, I confront finally an opacity, for that is all the confessional mode can yield.

It never occurs to Bloom—or rather, he never lets it stay in his mind for long—that a poet's scruple might consist precisely in letting a grain of sand remain opaque, irreducible. Bloom insists that every constituent of reality be dissolved by one's subjective consciousness: he is evidently a convinced philosophic idealist. In "Notes towards a Supreme Fiction", Stevens writes:

     From this the poem springs that we live in a place
     That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
     And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

No doubt. But while Stevens is writing superb poems that brood upon this quandary, Bloom is feeling exasperated. His mind resents meeting anything in the world of a different order from itself, and he requires poets to appear to remove the opaque phenomenon for his satisfaction. He admits that Kafka accepted "the primacy of fact", but apparently that is no reason why Bloom should. He is appeased only by flares of "the egotistical sublime", to which he thinks himself, it would seem, the last elegiac witness:

All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality.

In other words: good readers are returned to "the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness".

It follows that genius expresses itself in two forms. One of these is self-creation, uttering itself as prophecy, whether in Milton's Satan or in Blake. Bloom writes of "the aesthetic anguish at not being self-begotten", and he quotes with exhilaration one of the passages of Paradise Lost in which Satan seems to me most absurd:

      We know no time when we were not as now;
      Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
      By our quickening power….

The other form of genius expresses itself in the creation of characters. A motto for this might be taken from Hamm in Beckett's Endgame: "Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark". This should make a difficulty for Bloom, to begin with, because the creation of characters is not inherent in a subjective consciousness. Keats and Hazlitt clearly understood this in relation to Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Bloom is not deterred. Contradicting himself freely because he contains multitudes, he says that "literary character is an imitation of human character", and that "the meaning and value of every character in a successful work of literary representation depend upon our ideas of persons in the factual reality of our lives". But he reduces the difference between the two modes of genius by saying that Shakespeare, following Chaucer's Pardoner, makes Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello change, modify themselves "not only by their actions, but by their utterances, and most of all through overhearing themselves, whether they speak to themselves or to others". Bloom writes of Shakespeare's plays and of other works of literature as if they contained nothing but their characters; and of these as if their supreme form of communication were the soliloquy. His theory, in its bearing on Shakespeare, amounts to this: by acts of the objective or histrionic imagination, presumably, Shakespeare invented Hamlet; but then he endowed him with a great subjective imagination, making him, more than anyone else in the plays, "the free artist of himself". Bloom quotes that phrase from Hegel's The Philosophy of Fine Art, and it gives the gist of his own chapter on Shakespeare.

Bloom describes himself as a literary critic, but in The Western Canon he has chosen not to be one. What he practices is the psychology of authorship, ego psychology for which literature supplies the occasions. No wonder Shakespeare is "the major psychologist in the world's history". As for aesthetic considerations: the aesthetic and the agonistic are one, Bloom asserts. But the agonistic is a psychological premiss, not a literary one. I don't understand why Bloom continues to call himself an aesthetic critic; he shows no interest in literary form, structure, questions of narrative, style, or tone, the fellowship of word and word, syllable and syllable. He doesn't seem perturbed by having to quote Dante in English prose, or by the multiplicity of misquotations that disfigure The Western Canon. If one is a literary psychologist, the verbal detail doesn't matter much; one quickly translates the words on a page into an approximate gesture of the self, and discusses that instead of the words.

I am not the first to remark that the substance of Bloom's work is psychology. Reviewing The Anxiety of Influence, Paul de Man noted that the book marked a relapse on Bloom's part "into a psychological naturalism". From a relationship between words and things, or words and words, as de Man said, "we return to a relationship between subjects". De Man tried to save Bloom from himself, drawing him back from the "agonistic language of anxiety, power, rivalry, and bad faith", but the effort has failed. In The Western Canon, Bloom is more a psychologist than ever. So the contradictions in his books hardly count. Reading great literature will do you neither harm nor good, he says at one point, but it may teach you how to overhear yourself when you talk. On the other hand, in his introduction to Odysseus/Ulysses (1991), he refers to "the healing work of a literary culture, which implicitly seeks to cure violence through a normative mimesis of ego, as if it were stable, whether in actuality it is or is not". I don't understand how a society which apparently can't be redeemed by "religion, science, philosophy, politics, social movements" can be brought to peace by ego psychology, in my view a justly discredited myth.

Bloom's version of the Western canon is meant to sustain this myth. He ascribes canonicity to authors rather than to works, and to authors in only one disposition:

Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare; it is the image of the individual thinking, whether it be Socrates thinking through his own dying, or Hamlet contemplating that undiscovered country.

Later it turns out that "the Western Canon is Shakespeare and Dante". Separate chapters are given to Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Molière, Milton, Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Woolf, Neruda, Beckett, Borges and Pessoa. After Wordsworth, the names become somewhat arbitrary. We have Jane Austen and George Eliot but not Balzac, Henry James, Flaubert or Conrad. We have Virginia Woolf, represented by Orlando, a novel not at all canonical, rather than a greater writer, D.H. Lawrence. We have Joyce but not Yeats or T.S. Eliot. How the chosen writers rather than some mute inglorious Miltons succeeded in entering the canon Bloom doesn't say. "The authentically daemonic or uncanny always achieves canonical status", he insists, but he has nothing to say about the process which leads to that result. Or about the readers who have joined to make the writers canonical. "L'oeuvre propose, l'homme dispose", according to Roland Barthes, but Bloom has no time for such a notion. Indeed, on the large question of canonicity, he has little to contribute. I am surprised that he has not intervened in this debate, in which many wise things have been said during the past two centuries. My favourite writers on this theme are David Hume in "Of the Standard of Taste" and Frank Kermode in The Classic, Forms of Attention and History and Value. Hume's values may be hard to recover, but Kermode's argument that certain works of art become canonical by being "patient of interpretation" has the great merit of acknowledging the work of readers as well as of writers. Bloom is content to say that certain writers are canonical because of their originality and strangeness, a variant of Pater's "strangeness and beauty"; but that is all he says.

When the flurry of assertions has passed, we return to the particular chapters of The Western Canon, some of which are wonderfully perceptive while others are disappointing. The chapter on Shakespeare has a certain grandeur of eloquence, especially on Hamlet and King Lear, which we have not heard since A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. But I wish Bloom would condescend to do some close work. He asks us to contrast a passage in Othello (III, iii) with a passage from Paradise Lost, but he doesn't lead the way. "You can hear John Keats and Walter Pater in Iago's crooning", Bloom says, quoting:

    Not poppy, nor mandragora
    Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world
    Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
    Which thou ow'dst yesterday.

Iago is not crooning. What we really hear in those lines, for the one and only time in the play, is Iago speaking in the voice of "the Othello music". Why Shakespeare gave Iago a few moments of that music is a question Bloom hasn't asked.

The chapter on Emily Dickinson is one of the best, an entirely fresh reading which draws attention to three or four poems normally ignored. The claim Bloom makes for Dickinson—"the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries"—is difficult either to establish or to refute. Unfortunately, he misquotes poems 419 and 761 from Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Dickinson, and acts interpretatively on the misquotations. Of the modern chapters, the best is on Beckett. Bloom ignores Beckett's later fiction, but his commentary on Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape is superb.

The most disappointing chapters are on Whitman and on Joyce. That Whitman's imagination was autoerotic and onanistic is a standard view and mildly interesting, I suppose. There are poems, notably "Spontaneous Me" and the twenty-eighth section of "Song of Myself", which are regularly quoted to make the case. But the matter is far more complex than Bloom allows. A full commentary would require a close reading of "Song of Myself" and would take into account many difficult passages, such as Whitman's reference to "the sick-gray faces of onanists" in the first version of "The Sleepers", and the line in "I Sing the Body Electric" that reads: "Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? or the fool that corrupted her own live body?" Meanwhile Bloom says, not surprisingly, that "Whitman's ultimate romance is with Whitman".

The problem with the chapter on Joyce, "Joyce's Agon with Shakespeare", is that Joyce did not conduct an agon with Shakespeare. Bloom's sole evidence is the National Library chapter of Ulysses, in which Stephen Dedalus elucidates his theory of Shakespeare as father and son. Bloom takes this theory with amazing gravity, but in fact it is high comedy, a lark shared between Stephen, Lyster, Russell, Eglinton, Best, and Mulligan. The proper response to the theory is Mulligan's shout, "Eureka!" Bloom's commentary on this chapter of Ulysses is not helped by further misquotations. Twice on the same page he botches one of Joyce's most ravishing sentences: "We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves." In Bloom's transcription, "meeting" becomes "meet" and "brothers-in-love" becomes "brothers-in-law".

I was surprised to find Bloom regarding Finnegans Wake as "Joyce's greatest achievement". H.C. Earwicker, Anna Livia, Shem and Shaun are hardly characters, at least in the sense in which Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, Iago, Macbeth and Lear—Bloom's paradigms—arecharacters. Nor are they Satanic self-begetters. Bloom spends only a few pages on the Wake and in the end merely says that it is "the most successful metamorphosis of Shakespeare in literary history". He seems uneasy with the book, as well he might be, and he returns to Leopold Bloom with relief and pleasure. Of Leopold as a character—whom he calls Poldy, as Molly Bloom does—he says:

Poldy has a Shakespearean inwardness, far more profoundly manifested than the interior life is in Stephen, or Molly, or anyone else in the novel. The heroines of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James are more refined social sensibilities than Poldy, but even they cannot compete with his inward turn. Nothing is lost upon him, even though his reactions to what he perceives can be humdrum. Joyce favors him as he favors no one else in his work.

This is fair, though "profoundly" prejudges the question: there is no way of knowing what, if anything, is lost on Leopold, since we can read only what he found or fancied.

The Western Canon should have ended on page 514, with Beckett's Krapp saying:

Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.

But Bloom wouldn't leave well alone, he had to accost his opponents—"all six branches of the School of Resentment"—and put them to shame: Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians, "the rabblement of lemmings". I am sorry that he confronts these people with mere oppugnancy. He doesn't name any of them or report their arguments. I am impelled to wonder how assiduously he has read their work. He dismisses Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism without naming its author. Looking on the dark side of our profession because it is less trying on the eyes, Bloom keeps alluding to "our current squalors". He sucks melancholy out of any song, and writes as if he were all alone unhappy. "The shadows lengthen in our evening land", he intones, "and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing." It is all very odd.

Bloom adds to the canon three American writers, John Ashbery, James Merrill and Thomas Pynchon. There must be something good and right in a cultural situation that has brought to prominence three such splendid but difficult writers. There must also be something to be said for the cultural forces that have published The Western Canon and gained for it a vast readership, far larger than any exemplar of the School of Resentment has ever enjoyed. I assume that darker forces have compelled Bloom to add to The Western Canon an appendix setting out a list of writers canonical and not yet canonical. He has divided the list chronologically into the Theocratic Age, the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age and the Chaotic Age. I want to believe that Bloom himself did not compile the list, a gathering so eccentric that it includes Gloria Naylor but not Cavalcanti. This part of the book belongs to the history of marketing.

It is unlikely that I will read The Western Canon again for its official programme, the assertion that there is indeed a canon and that the substance of it will prevail against much folly. The book is too personal to be read in that way. But I will read it again to hear Bloom's voice. The book is best read, I think, as his autobiography. Setting aside its mere argument, we can warm to its eloquence, even to its grandiloquence. Bloom loves literature. Furthermore, he prefers great literature to merely good literature, and good literature to bad literature. He is also right to say that "expanding the Canon tends to drive out the better writers, sometimes even the best, because pragmatically none of us (whoever we are) ever had time to read absolutely everything, no matter how great our lust for reading". Strange, then, that he names for the Chaotic Age many books that are most unlikely ever to become canonical. But enough: let us think of Bloom not as a legislator or a polemicist but as a writer. At his frequent best he is a lord of language, and while I grow tired of his neo-Nietzschean clatter and the accelerated grimaces by which he associates himself with Zero Mostel, I keep relishing his art of surfeit. I find him quite wondrous, even when I don't believe him. The tragic style suits him, he has grown into it, with Johnson as his chosen master. But I smile when I hear Bloom, two years younger than me, saying that "in early old age, I find myself agreeing with Nietzsche, who tended to equate the memorable with the painful". That has not—not entirely—been my experience.

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