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Thursday, March 15, 2007


Posted by Daniel Green on 03/15/07 at 06:00 AM

Tom Lutz asserts that Harold Bloom (along with Francine Prose) believes the current generation of politicized literary scholars (what Bloom terms the “school of resentment") “are all looking at something besides the text itself, by which they mean a book that is read without theory, without reference to other values, and without mediation of any kind.”

Lutz associates this view that we should return to “the text” with New Criticism, but nowhere in his essay does he reveal (if he knows) that Bloom was actually hostile to New Criticism. He considered its approach so limiting and so dismissive (in the practice of most of the New Critics, at least) of the Romantic poets, whose work Bloom so loves, that he deliberately designed his own theory of poetic influence as a corrective, if not an outright rejection, of New Critical biases. Lutz goes on to associate both Bloom and New Criticism with such disparate figures as Mortimer Adler, E.D. Hirsch, and John Sutherland, simply because they appear to endorse the idea that learning to appreciate the “text itself” is an important part of literary education.

In a move apparently intended to show that Bloom doesn’t practice what he preaches (or doesn’t understand the foundation of his own practice), Lutz cites H. L. Mencken’s witless attacks on “The New Criticism” (as delineated by J. E. Springarn in 1911), which putatively show that academic criticism is inherently theoretical, “criticism of criticism of criticism.” But again, since Bloom is/was not a New Critic, it’s hard to see how this undermines Bloom’s own approach to the “text itself.” The New Critics did indeed have a “theory” of the literary text as something dynamic and inherently dramatic (and reading as the experience of the text’s dynamism), but it is not Bloom’s, however much he might accept the underlying emphasis on the integrity of the literary text, free of the demands made on it by those with their own personal and political investments.

But of course Bloom does have a theory. No one who remembers the scholarly debates of the 1970s and 1980s could think otherwise, as Bloom played a major role in these debates precisely as a theorist of literature, a proponent of the Freudian notion of the “anxiety of influence.” Far from being considered a conventional formalist, someone who believed a text should be read “without mediation of any kind,” Bloom was taken as a radical, even a postmodernist, a critic who was taking literary study away from its proper focus on the “text itself” into very a-textual speculations about the role of poetic influence and its rather violent Freudian implications. Anyone who’s read and taken seriously books such as The The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Kabbalah and Criticism, and Agon would know that the accusation Bloom is some kind of retrograde enemy of “theory” is ridiculous on its face.

Thus, at least as far as Bloom is concerned, Lutz’s invocation of his name as one of those who demands a book be read “without theory, without reference to other values, and without mediation of any kind” is simply incorrect. This is not a matter of interpretation. Some investigation of Bloom’s work, even of secondary explications of that work (a simple Google search, perhaps) would immediately reveal that Lutz’s account is a caricature of the role Bloom has come to play in current literary discourse (the aging curmudgeon) but has nothing to do with what he’s actually written. Even a book such as How to Read and Why, a deliberate simplification of Bloom’s ideas about the value of literature, reveals that he does not hold the naive view of reading Lutz attributes to him.

Unfortunately, the caricature of Bloom is widely accepted. Just recently Sandra at Bookworld (otherwise a nice, thoughful litblog) opined that she had contracted “Bloom Syndrome,” a “condition in which the sufferer is unable to read any work of literature unless it is deemed Significant by Harold Bloom and which often results in the reader losing the will to live/read, crushed under the weight of canonical imperatives.” To the sin of thinking that the “text itself” is what literature is all about (and in Bloom’s case looking to account for the text by emphasizing the writer’s confrontation with his predecessors, an emphasis that highlights the continuity-through-conflict of literature) is added the annoying belief that the literary tradition is meaningful and worthwhile, that “some books are better than others.” It’s telling that in our culture someone who becomes associated with beliefs such as these is lampooned as a pathetic fogey who apparently thinks those old books are important or something.


I feel like I started this current Valve mini-focus on Bloom (here, followed by Scott getting interested over the course of many Acephalaous posts and posting here).  So I’ll reiterate my theory about why Bloom produces the reactions that he does: he’s the closest that we have to a serious conservative literary theorist.

That means that two countervailing embracements / rejections of Bloom will both fail.  The characterization of him as one of the reactionary or radical right rejectors of contemporary literature and criticism fails, because Bloom is both influenced by theory and intellectual enough to follow his theories where they lead, instead of where the Culture War would take him.  The characterization of him as therefore non-conservative also, I think, fails.  From the small amount that I’ve now read of Bloom, I’d say that his theories are certainly conservative, from the general narrative of decline that he favors, in which priority is so important that later writers must be progressively more exhausted, to the unquestioning traditional gender roles in his imagery, in which e.g. the encounter of the poet and his precursor is like the encounter of Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads (imagine trying to apply this analogy to stereotypical mother/daughter modes of influence).

So, yes, non-conservative literary studies people (i.e. almost all of them) may well dislike or reject Bloom because of his conservatism, but that doesn’t mean that the radical right can adopt him as a fellow know-nothing.  I think that he’s best viewed as the proponent of a rival theoretical tradition that never was.  I’m learning a good deal from reading his works, although I don’t agree with any of his assumptions. 

His role as “aging curmudgeon” complicates this, of course.  Luther Blissett complained, for instance, that Bloom didn’t appreciate contemporary avant-garde poetry.  Well, calcification with age is an occupational hazard of conservatives.  I don’t think that there’s anything in Bloom’s theory that would reject the contemporary avant-garde, and Bloom didn’t reject the avant-garde of his day, so what he does in his 70s shouldn’t be held against his earlier work.

By on 03/15/07 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, right: the “school of resentment” is the exact counterpart of Silliman’s “school of quietude”.  It’s not quite like “Dhimmicrat” or “Rethuglican”, because it groups together people who don’t consider themselves to be part of a cohesive group.  ("Theory" fails as a similar example because people who do theory do consider themselves to be doing theory and generally agree on what that means; they just don’t admit it whenever someone else tries to use the word.) As such it’s like “statist” as used by U.S. libertarians, or “neoliberal” as used by most leftists—a convenient pejoritive bin for everyone not close to the speaker.  Bloom, as usual, comes closest to the temptations of culture war when he’s talking about what other people believe, not what he believes.

By on 03/15/07 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bloom was a massively important figure in my intellectual maturation, if for no other reason than the reading list at the end of The Western Canon. His effect on what I read was hardly conservative; in fact, I learned about Blanchot and Bataille through recommendations by Harold Bloom. In addition, I frequently have recourse to The Anxiety of Influence in my current critical work, and I agree that Bloom’s method is kin to post-structuralism (see, for example, his emphasis on aporia).

I agree with Rich’s excellent assessment of Bloom’s sexism and emergent muddleheadedness.

Let me add a couple additional criticisms, based on his new writing, his recent interviews, and his book on Shakespeare (The Invention of the Human).

Bloom loves to talk about his reading. He claims to read very quickly, and he emphasizes the number of books he’s read and re-read. His need to praise his own mechanical powers of consumption encourages a disciplinary obsession with quantity and memory that isn’t necessarily relevant to the production of good literary criticism.

He indulges in mystification. Not only does he grant literary works magical powers, such as the power to contain characters who “exceed” the work and live beyond the page, he also wastes a lot of time praising those mysterious moments of inspiration and genius that birthed the work. Bloom will go on for pages and pages about the kernel of unknowability in Don Quixote, as though recommending awe could suffice for a reading.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/15/07 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This whole business of this or that intellectual approach getting in the way of the text needs to be retired. And reading about texts needs to be distinguished from talking and writing about texts. We all bring expectations and preconceptions to texts when we read them. So what?

And talking and writing about the texts themselves requires some concepts about texts. There’s no escaping some kind of mediation then. What’s at issue is the nature of the mediation and the critic’s awareness of that.

By Bill Benzon on 03/15/07 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich sez:

Well, calcification with age is an occupational hazard

...and that would have sufficed, without any qualifier about conservatism. FYI. :)

By waxbanks on 03/16/07 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel: while I don’t think Bloom ever officially repudiated his early work, he almost never refers to it or its ideas.  The whole “anxiety of influence” has become, in Bloom’s later work (starting from *The Western Canon*), a simplistic notion of achieving greatness by stealing fire from an earlier great artist.  Bloom’s “theory” becomes the quasi-religious myth it always was: a mixture of Prometheus and Jacob wrestling the angel.  All subtlety and complexity are abandoned.

And while Bloom’s not a New Critic, he has become a text-only critic.  His early theoretical work brought all sorts of philosophy and psychoanalysis to bear on literature; after *The Western Canon*, it’s only Bloom and the primary text.  Thus, his acolyte, Camile Paglia, can write that dreadful volume of college undergrad response papers on lyric poetry and call it criticism. 

Actually, I like that: Bloom doesn’t write New Criticism; he writes undergraduate response papers.

By on 03/16/07 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: Bloom’s books since The Western Canon have almost all been works of popular rather than academic criticism. Thus, while he may not often refer specifically to “his early work,” it still underlies everything he writes. It is simply expressed in a different way for a different audience.

By Daniel Green on 03/16/07 at 12:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, I’d argue it’s the other way around.  Bloom’s later work proves what many readers long suspected: the early work was his attempt to secure a position in the realm of sublime critics, and so he did it through the channels of cultural capital open at the time, such as psychoanalysis and tropological criticism.  Once deconstruction or extreme textualism were “co-opted” by the “school of resentment,” Bloom turned to new channels of cultural capital.  The truth of the early work, all along, was the later work—not vice versa.  What seemed like theory was simply Bloom casting his oracular judgments in the discourse of professionalism.  And let’s remember that there’s not much “there” there in the early work.  It’s basically a theory of tropes tied rather crappily to a theory of authorial psychodynamics.  But the psychodynamics are themselves simply tropes (Bloom is always up front that he reads Freud not as a scientist but as a strong poet-critic), so basically, we’re in a world that is reduced to texts.

By on 03/16/07 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: Whatever you say.

By Daniel Green on 03/16/07 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The text itself vs. symptomatic readings, or aesthetic approaches vs. the psyche-polit-hist-post’ approaches has to me always seemed a false choice. And a distraction, really.

Sure, there are political and canonical commitments at stake, but those are a matter of political and canonical commitments and do not imply any particular method or protocols of reading.

The reverse, however, is not the case.

Thank goodness there are critics and scholars who Do read texts closely (even texts themselves) while pursuing the implications of their reading protocols and political commitments.

By on 03/25/07 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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