In defence of Harold Bloom
I wonder how much of Harold Bloom’s output, interminable if not immortal, James Ley actually knows (ABR, May 2021).
Bloom’s earliest books – The Visionary Company, Shelley’s Mythmaking, and The Anxiety of Influence – were ground-breaking as well as rather gutsy for American readers. The Visionary Company included Hart Crane – famously dismissed by R.P. Blackmur – as the only American poet in a book containing readings of the canonical British Romantics. It not only in a sense reintroduced the culture to Romanticism but re-welcomed Crane to a conversation dominated by slavish worship of Modernism, especially T.S. Eliot. I remember reading it when I was twenty, instantly confirmed in my own passion for Crane, the joy of one’s youth (but of nobody else I knew at the time). Bloom’s book on Shelley makes the case, now routinely made by others, that Shelley was among the great religious poets. As for Anxiety, whatever its idiosyncrasies, it changed the vocabulary of literary criticism and extended the range of psychological criticism, and especially of Northrop Fry’s anatomies (Fry was Bloom’s teacher). That book, weird as it is, has always been more important to poets and artists than to critics of literature, especially academicians who are frankly frightened by its central claim, not because it is incontestable but because it eliminates ‘source hunting’ from serious consideration.
It’s hard to see how this ‘thoroughly institutionalised creature’ was that at all. The institution could only contain him by isolating him safely from the rest of the institution (he was not an official member of Yale’s English Department), but could hardly justify ridding itself of this brilliant nuisance, who taught his courses without a book, reciting from Shakespeare, Yeats, etc. As for his ‘assertions’ of the value of literature in a ‘democratic age’, that’s simply not borne out by the range of his work’s interests. Listen to Bloom on Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison or Emily Dickinson. Poetry has no politics, or if it has, it is not ‘democratic’. Art is not a democracy. In his Autobiographies, and long before the muse of ugliness ruined his prose, Yeats says that ‘intellectual freedom and democracy are incompatible’. Whether it is applicable to the crises of the moment, crises of representation and identity, it is still worth considering.
James Ley replies
I thank Professor Barbarese for taking the time to respond to my article. I am well aware that Bloom’s stance was grounded in his love of Romantic poetry and that his early criticism was forged in opposition to the anti-Romantic Eliotian orthodoxy that was pervasive at the time. I pointed this out in a review of an earlier book by Bloom, in this very publication (ABR, April 2016). There is no denying he was a singular figure; I am, however, inclined to take the fact that his ideas were shaped in opposition to the institutional culture he first encountered in the 1950s as confirmation of my basic point. If the author of The Necessity of Atheism can be reinterpreted as a religious poet, then surely it is not too much of a stretch to describe a critic who spent his entire adult life on the faculty at Yale disagreeing with his fellow academics as ‘institutionalised’.
I am not an ‘academician’, which is perhaps why I am not at all frightened by Bloom’s ideas; I simply find them implausible. The breadth of his reading is not the issue, nor is it in question. My objection is the narrowness of his interpretative focus and the cloistered view of literature he advanced. I trust I am not misunderstanding Professor Barbarese when I take his claim about the undemocratic nature of art to be affirming the notion that all writers are not created equal. I suppose there is something a bit undemocratic about the fact most of us will never be as good at writing poetry as Shelley. But art is democratic in the sense that it is available to everyone and addresses a common reality. One can only imagine that the author of ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ would be astonished at the suggestion that poetry has no politics. As for Yeats’s claim that intellectual freedom and democracy are incompatible, I respectfully submit that it is complete nonsense.