Canonizers Feastby William S. Niederkorn
The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life
(Yale University Press, 2011)
Among academe’s devotees of Shakespeare and the rest of the literary quality, there’s everyone else, and there’s Harold Bloom. Other distinguished professors are busy mining the canons of their authors for statistical data, or trying to make biographical connections, or fitting works into the context of the vagaries of an era. They are analyzing, Bloom is synthesizing. Bloom, in communion with the literary firmament, makes connections in his own head, a head that holds a prodigious amount of the work he loves and has already canonized.
His method, he admits in his new book, The Anatomy of Influence, is subjective, but he revels in it. He practices a “personal and passionate” criticism, “a kind of wisdom literature, and so a meditation upon life.” Literature, to him, “is itself the form of life, which has no other form.” He follows the tradition of Samuel Johnson, Walter Pater, Paul Valéry, critics whose work has influenced the direction of poetry. He quotes conversations about literature with friends, colleagues, and poets.
This personal approach has its advantages, for him and for his students and readers. For intellectuals and the intellectually curious, he can be an inspiration, making them want to read in greater depth. He uses words that are not in every dictionary—apotropaic, acedia, metaleptic—but he uses them precisely and repeatedly, so students can learn them. His writing has an honest ring to it. You can be sure he means what he says, and he makes his main thoughts, ideas, and conclusions clear by restating them in different contexts.
From the start of his long career, Bloom battled academic orthodoxy, and he continues to contend with more recent manifestations of it, in particular what he calls the New Cynicism, which he defines as “a cluster of critical tendencies which are rooted in French theories of culture and encompass the New Historicism and its ilk.”
At Yale he is the Sterling Professor of Humanities and, he notes with pride and perhaps a sense of resignation, “a department of one.” At 80, after 55 years teaching and almost as many publishing critical juggernauts, he has written what the book’s dust jacket calls his summa, and what he calls his “virtual swan song,” revisiting his favorite authors and literary works and touching again upon his most important contributions to literary discourse.
His seminal contribution, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), and the new book, which echoes that title, are his guides through a labyrinth that is very much of his own devising, in which he is Daedalus, King Minos, Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur all rolled into one.
The Anatomy of Influence, whose title also derives from Robert Burton’s 1621 treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy, is his “final reflection” on this subject, which has occupied him since 1967 and served as his main approach to literature.
“Influence anxiety exists between poems and not between persons,” he says. The new book, then, is a re-examination of the literary genealogies of what Bloom considers the most important poetic works, which influenced which and in what ways, including negative responses, misreadings, and the influence of Shakespeare’s work upon Shakespeare’s work.
The weapon of choice in Bloom’s arsenal is the pronouncement. The book abounds in statements that can only be accepted or denied and that are not supported by anything more than the power of his assertions and explanations. He doesn’t dubiously beat around the bush. He takes aim and shoots. Some statements are credited contextually, but there are no footnotes at all, so it is sometimes hard to know what is original and what is not.
Clearly he wants to engender a response, in student and reader alike. He intends for his pronouncements to inspire them to think about what he says and make a decision to agree or disagree: “More than half a century as a teacher has shown me that I am best as a provocation for my students, a realization that has carried over into my writing.”
The pronouncements that reflect responses he has received in his many years’ teaching resonate strongly, for instance, when he says: “I have never encountered a playgoer or reader who likes Prospero. It is not only his nervous severity that troubles us. More unsettling is the effect of his magical art. If the opening tempest was merely an illusion, then how can we trust any event or appearance in this play, since he has contrived them all? . . . The love between Miranda and Fernando is not illusive, though also plotted by Prospero. He provides the context yet not the natural magic of their mutual falling in love.”
Other pronouncements take more effort to evaluate: “Robert Browning quarried from The Tempest his still under-esteemed dramatic monologue ‘Caliban upon Setebos,’ a far subtler development of Shakespeare’s grotesquely pathetic yet sublime creature than our current bad conscious permits us.” Rereading the Browning poem confirms all but the final aspersion.
With his “all but unique gift of producing human beings in full,” Shakespeare, to Bloom, is a divine creator.
“My own subjectivity from the age of 10 on was formed by reading poetry,” Bloom writes, and he follows his subjective synthetic method as far as he can. “For me, Shakespeare is God,” he says. “The First Folio for me is also the First Testament.” He defends his idolatry: “Confusing Shakespeare with God is ultimately legitimate. Other writers—Eastern and Western—attain sublimity and can give us one to three memorable beings, their self-representations included. Shakespeare’s singularity prevails: about a hundred major roles and a thousand minor ones who exist oddly separate from our apperceptions.”
His deification of Shakespeare is tempered by his view of the best literature as irreligious: “Poetry at its strongest does not and cannot ‘believe’ that something is so.” From a literary standpoint, if God is not so, Shakespeare can be God as much as anyone can.
On the other side of idolatry, Bloom’s esteem for Shakespeare gets a dollop of cult initiation for good measure. Encountering Shakespeare’s “larger consciousness,” he says, “we metamorphose into a provisional acceptance that sets aside moral judgment, while wonder transmutes into a more imaginative understanding.”
Milton gets some exaltation, as well. An “idolator of the sacred Milton,” Bloom views Satan, like Hamlet, as having an independent existence, with a life of his own, operating in the world beyond what the author wrote, and entering into discussion as a real person. “Satan did not attend Harvard or Yale, Oxford or Cambridge. Doubtless he assiduously studied Talmud until expelled by furious rabbis.”
Bloom is not being facetious. He writes: “I brush aside all academic critics—dryasdusts and moldyfigs—who tell me that Shakespeare and Milton are dramatic poets while Hamlet and Satan are mere personae. Nonsense. Hamlet and Satan are poets setting out for themselves in violent dissociations from their rivals, Shakespeare and Milton.”
In a chapter titled “Milton’s Hamlet,” Bloom asserts that Hamlet is the primary influence on Milton in his depiction of Satan. First, he notes, both characters make good use of soliloquy. Then, before quoting 82 lines of a Satan soliloquy, Bloom says, “Hidden in these sonorous tonalities is the voice of the Prince of Denmark,” and at the conclusion of the quotation he writes, “Depths beneath depths: this is Hamlet’s infinite self-consciousness.”
That’s about it for proof. These notions may be helpful in stimulating the thoughts and imagination of an “ephebe,” by which Bloom means “the young deep reader who dwells in the solitude where she or he goes apart to encounter the imagination of Shakespeare.”
An ephebe might venture to ask: What about Faustus, who also favors soliloquies? Some lines in the quoted Satan soliloquy even echo the spirit, as well as the “sonorous tonalities,” of Faustus’s lines. Satan: “Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell: myself am Hell.” Faustus: “Whither should I fly? / If unto God, he’ll throw me down to hell.” It was Marlowe, not Shakespeare, who preceded Milton in depicting a fallen angel, Mephistophilis, and doesn’t the superman Tamburlaine bear a closer resemblance to the celestial and infernal powers Milton portrays than the hesitant, prevaricating Dane does?
If Bloom under-acknowledges Marlowe’s influence on Milton, he gives Marlowe abundant credit in other ways. “The Rival Poet who flickers on and off in the Sonnets increasingly seems to me Marlowe.” There is good evidence to support the idea, but Bloom cites the subjective appeal it has for him: “To integrate Marlowe with an equivocal male muse is to touch the negative sublime and is worthier of Shakespeare’s uniqueness.”
Elsewhere Bloom speaks expansively of what he calls Shakespeare’s apprenticeship to Marlowe: “We can believe that the defining moment of Shakespeare’s life and work came when he first attended Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and observed the enthrallment of the audience by the power of Marlovian rhetoric.”
Or we can believe otherwise. Perhaps it was reading Ovid. Who knows what Shakespeare’s defining moment was, or if there was only one?
Bloom has carried the banner for “secular canonization” for a long time, and notes that he fought for it first with the distinguished critic Northrop Frye and later against the New Cynicism. “For more than half a century I have tried to confront greatness directly, hardly a fashionable stance,” he says, “but I see no other justification for literary criticism in the shadows of our Evening Land.”
The Anatomy of Influence abounds in pronouncements like these: “In cognitive originality, sweep of consciousness, creation of language, Shakespeare surpasses all others.” “Shakespeare is the Law, Milton the Teaching, Blake and Whitman the Prophets.” Whitman “is and always will be not just the most American of poets but American poetry proper.” “Browning and Whitman are the major poets in the language after the High Romantics, surpassing even Yeats and Stevens.” Giacomo Leopardi is “certainly the strongest of Italian poets since Dante and Petrarch.” Beckett “became a strong fourth with Joyce, Proust, and Kafka as the masters of prose fiction in the 20th century, transcending Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.” “The poets of my generation of the highest order are John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, and James Merrill.”
Literary works are similarly ranked: “Nothing, even by Shakespeare, overmatches the double play of Henry IV.” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is “unsurpassed by anything else written in this hemisphere, in any language: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Yiddish.” The conclusion of Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge” is “unmatched in American poetry since Whitman and Dickinson.”
The play’s the thing, the characters merely parts of the thing, but even characters get their standings. “Hamlet contains virtually all women and all men.” “The succession of the grandest Shakespearean characters moves from Falstaff and Rosalind through Hamlet on to Iago, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Prospero.” “Shakespeare’s most capacious consciousnesses are those of Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago and Cleopatra.” Bloom intones this foursome’s names often, sometimes with Hamlet preceding Falstaff.
Poets’ names are invoked sequentially so many times in the book that they could well induce a hypnotic trance of mystification: Dante, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth. Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley. Donne, Johnson, Sidney, Spenser. Shelley, Leopardi, Whitman, Stevens. Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Eliot. Bloom says: “Names are magical for all great poets, who seek immortality for their own. Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Whitman. What is there not in a name, when it is one of those?”
These rhythmical sequences evoke the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast in the Book of Daniel, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.” One Talmudic theory connects these words with units of weight in whole, diminished and divided amounts, auguring a destiny of degeneration and dissolution.
The artist Henri Matisse had another way of looking at canonical names. In 1947, when Matisse was 78, he addressed this issue in his cutout series, Jazz: “The great art historians, haven’t they written that the Japanese artists of the great art epoch changed their names again and again throughout their lives to remain unknown? They wanted to safeguard their freedom.”
The point of the quotation is not to raise a question of whether in the totalitarian state of England during the Renaissance, some poets or playwrights for reasons similar to their Japanese counterparts might have hidden their identities, but to show how futile, if not fatuous, it is to score or rate poets and their works. “Nothing,” Ben Jonson said, “is more preposterous than the running judgments on poetry and poets.” Even Bloom admits, “No critic can hope to receive more than a passing grade here.”
In The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom notes, “there is an undersong of foreboding.” In The Anatomy he makes it explicit. “The United States becomes more and more a plutocracy, theocracy, and oligarchy.” Culturally, we’ve got problems: “Cynicism abounds. Reality is becoming virtual, bad books drive out good, reading is a dying art.” The science-fiction world of Fahrenheit 451 is real: “Those who go on reading deeply—a universal remnant, in all generations and in all lands—will preserve what they will come to possess by memory.”
Bloom says we are living in a Disinformation Age, but for disinformation, our age is distinguished from previous ages only as a matter of degree. The biography of Shakespeare is a case in point.
Shakespeare did not leave us even a letter, much less an autobiography. None of his contemporaries wrote his biography. After the reputed bard died in 1616, no biography aside from short antiquarian sketches like those in Thomas Fuller’s Worthies (1662) and John Aubrey’s Brief Lives (1696) came out until Nicholas Rowe’s slender “Account,” a muddled piece of work if there ever was one, published as a preface to his 1709 edition of the plays.
Later, documentary evidence was produced, such as Shakespeare’s will with its interlined bequests of rings for “my fellowes, John Hemynges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell.” The will was discovered in 1747, in the middle of the forgery-plagued 18th century, decades before the renowned forger William Henry Ireland set himself up in business. Forgeries were rampant in the 19th century as well, with John Payne Collier, the foremost Shakespeare scholar turned forger, leading the charge.
Rowe and the documentary evidence are the primary contributors to the wax ball of Shakespeare lore that biographers have pored over for three centuries. Adding bits and spinning the legend in their own fashion, each biographer sculptures a portrait, and that, in turn, becomes material for successors to work over. All of the sanctioned contributors to this grand critical club take that ever-growing wax ball of quotable authorities, add more subjective impressions, and further the flourishing Shakespeare biographical tradition.
Walt Whitman didn’t buy it: “Only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.”
Bloom ignores that remark, but he does show a degree of frustration with the wax ball: “We have absurdly detailed information about Shakespeare’s life but absolutely nothing that relates to his inwardness.” The debate raging over Shakespeare’s religious convictions irritates him. “In old age, time becomes urgent, and this makes me unwilling to tolerate learned ignorance. I dismiss as irrelevant anyone trying to argue that Shakespeare wrote as an ardent Christian, whether Protestant or recusant Catholic.”
But he accepts tradition on the whole. “I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions,” Bloom writes, and that can mean fervent leaps of faith. Trying to imagine Shakespeare as an actor, with scant evidence to go on, leads him to guess that Shakespeare played Antonio, “with Burbage exuberantly rendering Shylock.” There is no record of what parts Shakespeare played, much less parts he played last, but Bloom writes that Shakespeare “evidently gave up acting while he prepared Othello and Measure for Measure for production.”
He salutes the traditional tendentious conjectures about The Tempest, that Bermuda is located “in the Mediterranean somewhere between Italy and Tunis” and that Prospero’s exit and Shakespeare’s are at least coincidental: “Prospero departs with Caliban for Milan, where every third thought will be the grave awaiting even the greatest of magi. Shakespeare departs soon after for Stratford to live without players and audience. We do not know why.”
This exit is a vexing question for all Stratfordians, and Bloom considers it carefully: “Shakespeare’s few peers through the age wrote until they died, but Shakespeare abandoned his art. Why? We never will know, yet he seems to have created nothing for at least the last three years of his life. Why did the greatest figure in imaginative achievement shrug and resign himself well before his fiftieth birthday?”
Anthony Burgess’s surmise, that Shakespeare had syphilis, is one possible answer, but Bloom dismisses it, saying that outside the Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun it “has no other warrant.”
A second theory is also dismissed: “Other Bardolators have suggested that Shakespeare had hoarded more than enough money for his Stratford retirement and simply wearied of writing for the theater. I think we do him wrong, he being so majestical, to offer so weak a surmise.”
That “majestical” echo of Marcellus’s comment on the ghost in Hamlet is not where Bloom leaves the matter. His own diffuse answer seems to be that Shakespeare was so detached that he could just walk away from his role as God.
In a more realistic frame of mind, Bloom admits, “You can reread, teach, and write about Shakespeare all your life and never get beyond finding him an enigma.”
One aspect of that enigma stems from Bloom’s acceptance of the traditional order of the dating of Shakespeare’s plays: “A beautiful weariness is entertained by Shakespeare after his extraordinary Antony and Cleopatra. Coriolanus and Timon of Athens are in flight from high tragedy…Cymbeline is an anthology of self-parody, and even The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest tone down earlier intensities.”
An ephebe might ask: If the chronology is so enigmatic, isn’t it reasonable to suspect that it is wrong? Wouldn’t it make better sense if Coriolanus, Timon, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, and Tempest preceded Antony and Cleopatra?
In collecting 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio in 1623, Bloom notes, “Ben Jonson advised the actor-editors, doubtless reflecting on his own just audacity in having brought forth his Works in a folio of 1616 (which, however, did not contain his plays).” While Bloom is wrong on the parenthetical point (Jonson’s 1616 folio contains nine of his plays), he could be quite right in suggesting that Jonson proposed his own folio published seven years earlier as a model for Shakespeare’s.
Jonson arranged the plays in his folio chronologically, in the order in which they were composed and first presented. If the actor-editors followed Jonson’s plan, they arranged the Comedies in their order of composition and presentation, and the same for the Tragedies, departing from this scheme only for the Histories, which are all named for kings of England and placed in the order of their reigns.
“I have learned that my function is to help you get lost,” is the final ringing statement of Bloom’s introductory essay, “The Point of View for My Work as a Critic.” Bloom is quite compelling when he is “lost” himself.
“The longer I read, teach, and meditate upon Hamlet, the stranger the play becomes to me,” he says. Using “ellipsis” to mean something left out of the play that needs imaginative interpretation, he writes: “The greatest ellipsis in Hamlet is the long foreshadowing, in which the prince’s soul has died. We have to surmise why and how, since the magnitude of his sickness-unto-death has to have long preceded his father’s death and mother’s remarriage.”
A striking resolution of that ellipsis was proposed by the distinguished Welsh scholar Lilian Winstanley in her remarkable 1921 study, Hamlet and the Scottish Succession. Her theory that the play reflects contemporary history was further developed by Abel Lefranc in “La Fin du mystère d’Hamlet,” a long chapter in his untranslated 1945 work À la découverte de Shakepeare. Lefranc—who attributed Shakespeare’s plays to William Stanley, the Earl of Derby—was a distinguished professor of the illustrious College de France for over 30 years, succeeded by Paul Valéry, whose thinking on influence influenced Bloom.
Bloom ponders a question, bequeathed to him by his mentor Kenneth Burke, “What was Shakespeare trying to do for himself, as person and as poet-dramatist, by composing Hamlet?” A response gleaned from Winstanley and Lefranc is that Shakespeare was showing what a mistake it would be for Elizabeth to allow James VI of Scotland to succeed her. “The ‘holocaust of dead’ in Hamlet . . . is not one whit more remarkable than the mass of assassinations in 16th century Scottish history,” Winstanley writes. “The English of Shakespeare’s day had a bitter prejudice against Scotland, and very largely on account of this anarchy.”
“It would be, I think, unfair to say that Hamlet is the portrait of anyone; he is more subtle, more interesting, more many-sided than any human being ever has been or could be.” That sounds like vintage Bloom, but it is vintage Winstanley, making peace with the academics of her day before announcing her finding that to create Hamlet and Hamlet, respectively, “Shakespeare has taken from the story of James I all that was most tragic and most pathetic, and from his character all that was most enigmatic, most attractive, and most interesting.” These appropriations include the “theme of the man whose father has been murdered, and whose mother has married the murderer,” as well as “the central traits of Hamlet’s character: the hatred of bloodshed, the irresolution, the philosophic mind, the fear of action, the hesitation to punish which is half weakness and half generosity.”
James, Bloom says, was the “wisest fool in Christendom” and “might be remembered as James the Wise if not for his absurdities. To this day he is the only intellectual among the British monarchs.” He also speaks of “Hamlet the intellectual.” But there is an even more telling Bloom pronouncement that adds a new wrinkle to the Winstanley-Lefranc theory.
When Mary Queen of Scots was pregnant with James, her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, caught a clever Italian musician, singer, and courtier, Davide Rizzio, half dressed, in her bedroom closet and, soon after, murdered Rizzio in Mary’s presence in her apartments (just as Polonius is murdered in Gertrude’s, as Winstanley points out). Subsequently, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, murdered Darnley, and then married the queen.
Bloom writes: “Yorick, the imaginative father who loved and nurtured the little boy till he was seven, can be regarded as the grandest ellipsis in Hamlet’s elliptical tragedy. No one need be gulled by Hamlet’s disgust as he beholds Yorick’s skull.” Both Rizzio and Yorick were court entertainers.
To the Elizabethan court, well aware of what had happened in Scotland, the subtext of Hamlet was obvious. Bloom’s identification of Yorick as Hamlet’s father suggests a key addition to Winstanley’s Scottish succession theory: that Yorick reflects Rizzio.
Only about one-third of The Anatomy of Influence is devoted to Shakespeare. But the progression Bloom takes, from Shakespeare to Milton to Shelley, and from Whitman, where American poetry hit its peak, to his progeny, is Mene, Mene in long form.
If you view literature as Bloom does, as a perpetual contest—agon is his word for it—then decline is inevitable. If you think competition is the primary motivation for playwrights and poets to produce work, achievements can only keep dropping from generation to generation. If our culture is “essentially Greek,” as Bloom avows, it is following the Greek culture’s declining trajectory, from Homer to Aeschylus to Menander to oblivion.
After Shakespeare, the best poets, according to Bloom, were influenced by Lucretius and Epicurus. He mentions the “sublime indifference” of Epicurus, and Lucretius’s regard of “sexual love as a calamity and a disease.” Specifically, “what makes Shelley, Whitman, and Stevens poets of the Lucretian sublime is their freedom from banal religions.” The Epicurean emphasis is on “pure sensations, mental perceptions, and feelings, ideally of pleasure,” subordinating reflective thinking. “To think by seeing, to apprehend by sensation, is to inhabit the imaginative cosmos of Epicurus and Lucretius, where Shelley, Swinburne, and Whitman had moved and had their being,” Bloom says.
“Freedom for Epicurus emanates from ataraxia, a kind of sublime indifference that renders you immune from anxieties and irrational fears.” That may sound like Republicanism in the Taft era, but it’s not. As Bloom states: “Epicurean politics is a deliciously absurd notion. You would not know, reading my favorite 19th century critic, the sublime Walter Pater, that he writes in the age of Gladstone and Disraeli.”
Bloom’s anatomy of Lucretian influence on Shelley and Whitman—and through Shelley on Yeats, Browning, and Hart Crane—contains many gossipy pronouncements on the poets’ sexual proclivities: “Shelley and Byron shared a preoccupation with incest, which Byron accomplished with his half-sister.” “Whitman’s powerful account of his self-explorations seems an equally exultant celebration of orgasm brought about by masturbation.” “[D. H.] Lawrence’s joy, which he makes into aesthetic gratification, presumably was enabled by overcoming prior sexual overexcitement through the agency of anal intercourse.” Crane’s “initial (and final) heterosexual relationship” was “his surprising love-affair with Peggy Baird Cowley, divorced wife of his old friend, Malcolm Cowley.”
Contending that poetic imagination is best stimulated by thwarted desire, Bloom seems to recommend a neurotic condition, at odds with his faith in Freud. In his discussion of Yeats, the “Anglo-Irish reactionary, who was even quasi-fascist in his views” yet still the “major poet of the 20th century,” he states that the poet’s “daimon, or opposing self, is also his muse, the unattainable Irish beauty Maud Gonne,” who was “perpetually frustrating him into poetic greatness. As Yeats ruefully came to realize, nothing could have been worse for his poetry than marriage to Gonne.”
He says without taking exception: “Yeats had remarked that the tragedy of sexual intercourse was the perpetual virginity of the soul. Touching the universal, Yeats unexpectedly becomes a wisdom writer.” And candidly Bloom remarks, “I suspect that most of us, as we pass into old age, brood on lost love and unfulfilled desire.”
Sexual orientation has nothing to do with it. For the making of the poet, the “thwarting of desire matters far more than the name and nature of the desire,” Bloom says. An ephebe might ask: Why would a good union with a loving mate be a hindrance to poetic success? Why would it be better to suffer under the deprivations of submission to an imperious muse?
The thwarted-desire idea is related to Bloom’s focus on death, and the two preoccupations seem to influence each other. “Whitman awakens to a different imaginative meaning of death because of a homoerotic encounter of 1859-60, while John Keats awakened to a new sense of death because of his unfulfilled desire for Fanny Brawne.”
“Poetry exists to postpone death, to hold it off,” he writes. “As a great Romantic poet, Crane perpetually confronts the central theme of that tradition: the power of a poet’s mind over a universe of death.” Elegies and tragedies make up the bulk of the literature Bloom reveres.
His preference in Shakespeare is for the tragic. The foursome of Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra are all cycling downward. Bloom gives comedies short shrift. Several are not even mentioned in The Anatomy of Influence; others are mentioned dismissively. “As a devout Falstaffian I cannot endure The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona is little better, despite an adorable dog.”
In the tragic view of the world, death is pervasive. The hero, and often several others, will die. Every breathing moment is tinged by the knowledge that death is on its way. In the comic view of the world, death is nothing and all that matters are the immediate concerns of striving for love, fun, money, success—pursuing any shade of happiness from the mundane to the sublime.
By the end of The Anatomy of Influence, the writing on the wall, Mene Mene, extends to Bloom’s own judgment too. It is easy to concede that Shakespeare is on top in English literature, and not too hard to accept Milton and the Romantics on the next rung, followed by Whitman, but Bloom’s more contemporary canonizations are disappointingly bland and academic.
A statement in the introductory chapter casts a pall over the entire book, when he recounts having “the belated realization that my curious revelations about influence came in the summer of 1967 and guided me to a stand against the great awakening of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
In abetting the forces of reaction that turned back that era’s achievements, Bloom shares responsibility indirectly for developments even he now laments: how “we have approached bankruptcy, fought wars we cannot pay for, and defrauded our urban and rural poor,” and more directly in the cultural realm for how “in the wake of French theorists of culture like the historian Michel Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu the world of letters is most often portrayed as a Hobbesian realm of pure strategy and strife.”
Like Caroline Astor in the Gilded Age of New York society, Bloom uses his preeminent position to maintain an exclusive list of acceptable company. It seems a reasonable bet that in a generation or two the canonized Merrill, Ammons, and Ashbery will be joined or displaced by poets excluded from Bloom’s feast. As one of his uncanonized writes:
Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen,
and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.
And don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin
and there’s no telling who that it’s naming,
for the loser now will be later to win.
ContributorWilliam S. Niederkorn