Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Anatomy of Harold Bloom’s Influence

with one comment

The release of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence, a grand summation of a life in letters by a major critic at the age of eighty, gives me a welcome excuse to reflect on the legacy of our leading reader, canonical champion, and defender of the great books. As I’ll point out below, Bloom has severe limitations as a critic of contemporary literature, and he’s often made himself into a figure of fun. His evolution from serious academic into something close to a brand name hasn’t been entirely painless. But there’s no doubt that he’s one of our greatest living intellectuals—his omission from both editions of the Prospect public intellectuals poll is a crime—and his impact on my own life and reading has been surprisingly substantial.

First, the bad news. Bloom has various minor shortcomings as a writer—notably his tendency to repeat himself endlessly, with slight variations, which makes me suspect that his books lack a strong editorial hand—but his real problem is that he no longer seems capable of discussing authors with anything other than unqualified praise or sweeping condemnation. When he’s talking about Shakespeare or Tolstoy, no one is more eloquent or insightful, but he seems incapable of performing nuanced readings of lesser writers. This leads him to brusquely dismiss certain authors of unquestioned canonicity, such as Poe, and into such travesties as his attack on the National Book Awards Medal for Stephen King, in which his only evidence was a critique, also completely nonfactual, of J.K. Rowling. (As I pointed out at the time, this is sort of like saying that Steven Spielberg can’t be a good director because Attack of the Clones was a lousy movie.)

It’s clear, then, that we shouldn’t turn to the current Bloom for credible opinions on contemporary culture, but for deep, almost aspirational readings on authors whose canonical eminence is undisputed. And he remains unmatched in this regard, both for his passion and his readability. At times, it isn’t clear what his point is, except to create in us a state of mind receptive to being changed by literature—which is a worthwhile goal in itself. And his isolated insights are often exceptional. His thoughts on the strangeness of the Yahwist—as in the uncanny moment in Exodus 4:24, for instance, when God tries to kill Moses—and his writings on Joseph Smith, whom he considers a great American prophet, have deeply influenced the novel I’m writing now. And his observations on sexual jealousy in Othello have shaped my understanding not only of that play, but of Eyes Wide Shut:

Shakespeare’s greatest insight into male sexual jealousy  is that it is a mask for the fear of being castrated by death. Men imagine that there can never be enough time and space for themselves, and they find in cuckoldry, real or imagined, the image of their own vanishing, the realization that the world will go on without them.

In recent years, Bloom has become less a literary critic than a sort of affable cheerleader, moving past his old polemics on “the age of resentment” to simply extoll the cause of close reading of great books for the pleasure they provide. It’s a simple message, but a necessary one, and one that he is qualified above all other living critics to convey, with his prodigious reading, infinite memory, and nervous, expansive prose. I’ve always been a sucker for canons—I tried to read all fifty-four volumes of the Britannica Great Books series in high school, came close to applying to a similar program at St. John’s College, and finally ended up in the Classics—and Bloom remains my primary gateway into the great books, as he is for many of us. For that, his influence has been incalculable, and I’m glad we still have him around.

One Response

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  1. Eyes Wide Shut, Great Books…, Harold Bloom…to the Yahwist. Is this a cluster of names to be given to a just found channel system on Mars?

    victor

    July 24, 2019 at 5:56 am


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