August 2011

Josh Anderson

nonfiction

The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life by Harold Bloom

There are no texts but only relationships between texts, Harold Bloom assures us in his epochal A Map of Misreading, first published in 1975, the second in what must now be considered a trilogy on influence. The first, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, introduces the Freudian concept of anxiety -- masculine and erotic as it is -- to the realm of literature. As A Map makes clear, though, this anxiety is not the writer's but the text's. Bloom has finally graced us with his capstone on poetic influence in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, his most personal work yet, which further deepens our appreciation for the complex familial relations that strong poetry, novels, and plays possess. The subtitle hints at the passionate final note this book strikes, one that places emphasis on the subjective pleasure we can all receive from reading, assures us we are as connected as we are separate.

Bloom has an unfortunate reputation for bemoaning the decreasing value our society places on this pleasure and in this volume goes so far as to blame the counterculture of the 1960s, institutionalized as it has become during his career. While the literary reading public might be shrinking, it certainly isn't the fault of some ideological bogeyman. He goes so far as to blame most of our serious problems (from war to aesthetic decline to ecological disaster) on old political and cultural radicalisms and not the powerful corporate influences that engulf our society -- the real menace should be obvious. So it's with great relief that I note Bloom largely avoids such tedious sociological digressions and instead focuses himself on the pleasure principle: "Literature for me is not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life, which has no other form." For Bloom, possessing a poem by memory is to also be possessed by the poem. We are all a part of Shakespeare just as he is a part of us, even if we don't read him.

One of Bloom's key ideas is held in the title to the third chapter, "The Influence of a Mind on Itself." Here it is Shakespeare that dominates the discussion, as he does for most of the book -- just as often lurking in the background. There is, in Bloom's esteemed estimation, no other writer who so thoroughly influenced him. "The burden is that Shakespeare, more even than Dante, is too immense to be accommodated by those who came later unless he is modulated into a lyrical ancestor," Bloom argues. So far away did Shakespeare roam from his contemporaries (Marlowe, Johnson, Kyd) that he still eludes us today. He was so idiosyncratic, avant-garde even, that he created characters so true they stood outside him. In a genuinely genius moment, Bloom makes the case that Falstaff replaced Marlowe as Shakespeare's greatest precursor: "Shakespeare's auditors and readers fell in love with Falstaff because he carried the secular blessing: 'Give me life!'" His plays are so unbounded that they bleed out into other plays -- Hamlet into King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream into The Tempest.          

After Shakespeare there is nothing but struggle in literature. Bloom puts the emphasis on Americans in A Map, but the unease is universal: "The crux of the matter is a fundamental question for American poets. It could be phrased: In becoming a poet, is one joining oneself to a company of others or truly becoming a solitary and single one? In a sense, this is the anxiety of whether one ever really became a poet, a double anxiety: Did one truly join that company? Did one become truly oneself?"

The stronger poets are always the singular ones -- "Milton believed in Milton" -- but the problem of influence doesn't go away, as the poet's work is eternally linked to other poets' work. Writers, especially critics, continually attempt to render experiences afresh with the words of the dead: "All critical reading of difficult texts is mediated by others, to one degree or another." Bloom finds his voice through Lucretius, Samuel Johnson, Emerson, and Whitman.           

In Whitman, Bloom finds the multitudes in life expressed like no other writer. Irony allows the great American poet to express the totality of an examined life. Whitman recognizes in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" that "I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can, / Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me / Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all." A gentle solipsism lies at the heart of these words -- Epicurean delight is taken in the vision of the world and that is enough to form and reform a poet. Like Shakespeare, Whitman too revises, reconsiders himself as he wanders along the shore. He overhears himself just as he overhears other bards.

There is no escaping the past, no matter the diligence in rewriting. In Bloom's model, the links to the past are forever binding. While analyzing the relationship between James Merrill's work and Yeats's, Bloom notes that "strong poets do not choose but are found by the imaginative register of blood kindred," suggesting that at least part of the development of an artist is unconscious. There is an undeniably strong urge in many writers to commune with other writers -- Merrill infamously used a Ouija board to interact with dead artists in his poems -- and we glimpse the impulse in the anecdotes from Bloom's own life: he takes phone calls from Merrill regarding Blake; shares lunch and arguments over Emerson with Robert Penn Warren; houses Auden for a speaking engagement at Yale. These bits, small as they are, are tremendously enchanting and only heighten our awareness that literature is itself the form of life, whether we want it to be or not.           

Like any good critic, Bloom gives a particular shape to life, and it's in his own form. His allegiance to American, Romantic, and gnostic concerns color his reading of poets like John Ashbery, which means he completely disregards the Francophilic and experimental tendencies that Ashbery exhibits in The Tennis Court Oath. Bloom spends most of his analysis on the revisionist long poems like Flow Chart; it's the Ashbery that is "wistful, tentative, hesitant, imbued with a far-seeing quality best called nobility" who most interests Bloom. The echoes of Whitman in the long lines of his sprawling epic lead Bloom to hear Ashbery in Whitmanas much as he hears Whitman in Ashbery. The age of Ashbery, as Bloom puts it, is Ashbery's because he manages to so fully swerve away from the external muse. He becomes the great poet of his time by undercutting one of the central aphorisms in Flow Chart: "Repetition makes reputation." In fact, it's more often than not reputation that makes repetition (as we find in much of Bloom's lesser works). Great writers defy themselves as much as they defy other writers, and their words stay on because they so defy readers' expectations.

Hierarchies and reputations may well be the by-product of Bloom's aesthetic approach to literature, but they remain mere by-products. What really matters is the internal transformation that literature allows -- that reformulation of expectations: "We all carry about with us the histories, shorter or longer, of our shadows. Poetry is not, cannot be therapy, but in a time when all spirituality is tainted by political exploitation, or by the depraved cultural politics of the academy and the media, a few poets can remind us of the possibility of a more authentic spirituality." Our greatest poets are precise word surgeons who pull off the thick skin we've developed to show just how complex we can be, how many multitudes we contain if we are simply able to admit them. The Anatomy encourages not only rethinking our great poets, but also our habits, our rhetoric, our relationships -- the very shape of our lives.

The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life by Harold Bloom
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300167603
368 pages