The Magic Bloomschtick

Colin Burrow

  • The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon by Harold Bloom, edited by David Mikics
    Library of America, 426 pp, £25.00, October, ISBN 978 1 59853 640 9

Harold Bloom, who died at the age of 89 just before the publication of The American Canon, made his name in 1973 with The Anxiety of Influence. It was a great title, which soon became a catchphrase. The book itself used a crazy-paving of vocabulary drawn from the Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Lucretius and Freud to explain how Romantic and post-Romantic poets relate to their predecessors. Authors for Bloom don’t in a simple way learn from earlier writers. What he termed ‘strong poets’ have ‘the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death’. By doing so they manifest and struggle to overcome the anxiety of influence: ‘each poet’s fear that no proper work remains for him to perform’. The Anxiety of Influence set out a range of psychic and rhetorical defence mechanisms for overcoming that anxiety and turning it into poems. Bloom’s Freudian model of literary relationships has often been criticised as self-parodically male. The boys in the canon scrap in the sandpit. One steals a spade from another, bends it a bit to make it his own, and then donks his daddy on the head with it. He becomes the biggest boy in the pit.

There is a tiny bit of truth in that caricature. The anxiety of influence is a way of describing what Bloom called the ‘dark truths of competition and contamination’ that connect a writer with a predecessor. But it encompasses both the psychological anxieties in the author – Oedipal rivalry with literary parents, the fear of death and failure – and the evidence within a poem that it is avoiding or transforming the work of an earlier author. It is therefore at once, perplexingly, a psychological and a rhetorical concept. It is not just a way of explaining how writers feel about other writers, but a way of thinking about how poems relate to and seek to depart from earlier poems, and how by doing so they insert themselves into a canon of works.

Although Bloom’s professed masters in The Anxiety of Influence were Nietzsche and Freud, he is probably best regarded as the intellectual child of the great 19th-century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and his admirer the poet Walt Whitman. Bloom inherited rhetorical tics from Emerson, in particular a penchant for the resounding statement that hypes its own grandeur to the skies. He also took from him intellectual priorities: a cultural omnivorousness combined with a determination to make his own idiosyncratic identity the centre of all identities. He brought in his own extraordinary range of reading, a feisty resistance to the world around him, and a constant spray of humour that sometimes makes you wonder if he could possibly have believed what he was saying. But you can’t really understand Bloom without understanding if not Emerson then the way Bloom understood Emerson.

The main aspect of Emerson that mattered to Bloom was his tendency to regard individuals as shards of the godhead: ‘The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.’ This feeds into what Bloom calls ‘the American sublime’, in which a writer believes he is not just part of the universal being, but a kind of god himself, whose existence precedes all other existences and whose voice is potentially the voice of everything. Bloom’s conception of authorial identity also built on Emerson’s essay on the ‘American Scholar’ (1837), for whom experiencing the world is a continual expansion of the ego:

The world – this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I run eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech. I pierce its order; I dissipate its fear; I dispose of it within the circuit of my expanding life. So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion.

This shows what is both astonishing and terrifying about Emerson. His ‘I’ (used eight times in six sentences) grasps, takes, pierces, vanquishes and plants, rather than, say, listening or looking or quietly commenting. It is terrifying not least for the exuberant ease with which Emerson identifies his experience of the world with colonial domination: he doesn’t just discover himself through his experience of external reality, but seeks through experience to extend his zone of dominion over the dumb abyss.

That concern with dominion runs through Emerson’s understanding of literary influence. He regarded himself as a spokesperson for a nation that sought political and economic independence from the Old World through the cultivation of self-reliance. Self-reliant citizens made a self-reliant nation and a self-reliant literature that should not imitate Greece or Europe:

We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?

Self-reliant Americans are urged to ‘insist on yourself’. There are two features of Emerson’s argument here which distinguish it from a standard late Romantic defence of the creative power of an author. One is his emphasis on the ‘we’ that seeks national independence. The other is less obvious: he borrows from and transforms, with a quite conscious irony, the 84th Epistle of Seneca, which is about the imitation of earlier authors. Seneca says authors should be like the bee, flitting around and taking savours from hither and yon, and then transforming them into a savour of their own. Resemble an author as a child resembles its father, he advises, not as a picture resembles its sitter. Emerson transforms and suppresses that influence even as he writes about the ideal of American independence from Greece. Seneca’s family resemblance to a predecessor becomes a self-portrait: ‘It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model.’

That privy debt to Seneca is an indicator that hidden deep down within the quest for independence and self-reliance that drives Emerson there is an awareness that everyone is indebted to everyone else – that influence is everywhere and even underpins the claim of a writer to be a universal genius. In his essay ‘Shakespeare, or the Poet’, Emerson argues (though that’s the wrong verb: Emerson seldom argues, he unitedly states) that Shakespeare, in whom ‘the rude warm blood of the living England’ circulated, absorbed the voices of the world around him in a way that enabled his genius to speak for everyone. This part of Emerson was the origin of Bloom’s wildest work, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), which argued that Shakespeare departed from the ‘cartoons’ of Marlowe in order to invent a universal, plural humanity in Falstaff and Hamlet. Emerson, however, also identifies genius with a kind of financial dependency: ‘The greatest genius is the most indebted man. A poet is no rattlebrain saying what comes uppermost, and, because he says everything, saying, at last, something good; but a heart in unison with his time and country.’ Shakespeare was ‘the generic catholic genius, who is not afraid or ashamed to owe his originality to the originality of all’. So a genius, for Emerson as for Bloom, is at once a universal spokesperson, a speaker for the nation, a self-portraitist, a person in debt to everyone, and a massively self-extending colonial ego.

The other big influence on Bloom was Whitman’s endlessly voluble Leaves of Grass (why did my fingers want to type Lives of Gas?), first published in 1855 and revised throughout Whitman’s life. In it the Emersonian quest for a self that is at once fully itself and representative of a nation animates a series of soaring visions which wheel across the people and the activities of America, dipping into and seeking to become one with their multifarious tasks. Whitman’s weakness is that he feels the need repeatedly to say what he is doing, that ‘a song make I of the One form’d out of all.’ But, like Emerson, he equates literary activity in America with a transforming ironical absorption of the Old World. This is apparent from his jaunty address to the Muse:

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard ‘Removed’ and ‘To Let’ on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus

For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you.

The ‘please’ there is a lovely touch of faux humility, but Whitman is not as polite or as exuberant as he wants to sound. Cancel all debts to the Old World and then transpose its powers to a new domain. Go on, Muse, you know you want to. And the question Whitman poses shortly after this fantasy of cultural transposition indicates how and why he mattered so much to Harold Bloom: ‘We do not blame thee elder World, nor really separate ourselves from thee,/(Would the son separate himself from the father?)’ If this is combined with Whitman’s declaration in ‘Song of Myself’ that ‘He most honours my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher’ then you have a distinctly proto-Freudian articulation of a peculiarly American cultural problem. The Old World is father and teacher, the source of debt and influence, from whom the son wants to spring free. And the way to spring free is to destroy the teacher and to teach others to destroy you.

Bloom’s concept of a ‘strong’ poet came directly from the muscular Americanism of Whitman. ‘A strong being is the proof of the race and of the ability of the universe’ could be Bloom’s phrase, though in fact it is Whitman’s. And Bloom’s concept of a ‘strong’ author is also completely infused with Emerson. In The American Canon Bloom quotes repeatedly Emerson’s declaration that ‘Nothing is got for nothing.’ This comes from the start of Emerson’s later, proto-Nietzschean essay ‘Power’, first printed in 1860. The mercantilist poverty of that phrase takes the breath away. You love an author, but the love wanes and turns to pain; the pain and revulsion is the foundation of what is new. As Emerson (or is it Bloom?) put it: ‘It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail,’ or more creepily, ‘The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.’ The strong long to create the strong whom they know will destroy them: that is their weakness.

When Bloom is seen as a child of Emerson and Whitman, the anxiety of influence begins to look less like a canny importation of Freud into the field of literary relations, and more like a specifically American articulation of a wider postcolonial problem. How is a culturally derivative nation to regard itself as autonomous? How is a new nation to take over (from) the Old World and lay claim to its muses? That question is shadowed in interpersonal form by Freud’s family romance: how is a child that becomes strong to register its difference from its parent? What The Anxiety of Influence did was to take a distinctively 19th-century American set of cultural problems about influence, psychologise them, and then re-export them to the Western canon from which American writing principally derived. It did so in florid Emersonian rhetoric which Bloom made all his own, and which is often wonderful to read.

But if it is true that nothing can be got for nothing, then there is a price to pay. Bloom’s enthusiastically American view of influence risked turning the complex cultural and individual relationships that enable new writing to take place into a zero sum game of innovation and covert erasure, in which everyone is striving endlessly towards an achieved egoism which is equated with freedom from or domination of the other: or, as Bloom puts it in The American Canon, ‘Influence anxiety is related to our horror of space and time as a dungeon, as the danger of domination by the Not-Me.’ Writing is a way of fighting for a voice and a space of one’s own, and you don’t just bleed when you give life to a later writer. You die.

It will be clear that I don’t like this view of literary relationships. If I’m honest, it makes me uneasy to the depths of my crusty Old World rationalist heart. The giddy egotistical rhetorical raptures by which Emerson and Whitman persuade themselves and their readers that they can, singly, be all, and that the industrious forging and felling and building and levelling of the United States can lure the muses from Parnassus and make them build a new estate on the banks of the Susquehanna, give me first a faint rush of exhilaration, then make me feel chippily European, and then bring me out in a communitarian rash. The self is nothing if it does not communicate, and communication is rootedly reciprocal. The reciprocal can be aggressive and can provoke anxiety, but it does not have to do so. Bloom didn’t see things this way. The American Canon several times cites Emerson as saying ‘that which you can get from another is never instruction, but always provocation.’ What Emerson actually said, in the Divinity School Address of 1838, was subtly different: ‘Truly speaking it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject.’ ‘Provocation’ there does not mean pushing another into resistance. Emerson is saying that others can provoke you towards an understanding of truth, but you have to do the intuitive understanding of it yourself. In his appropriation of the phrase Bloom nudged Emerson towards the interpersonal agon which he regarded as the principal characteristic of human and literary relations. He would, I am sure, have regarded himself as therefore a ‘strong’ misreader of Emerson, but the word ‘strong’ might alert us to the violence with which he reinterpreted his master.

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There is a much deeper problem with the Bloomian model of influence. The ability to write and to inspire others is often referred to as a ‘gift’ in the sense of a native skill, and that is because earlier writing offers readers things which can be got for nothing, for which a dead author demands no return, and which provoke not defensive reactions but pleasures, skills, beauties, which can be drawn from what is read without diminishing the substance from which they are taken or that of the person who acquires them, since these are not finite possessions but transferable gifts that can grow and change. The ego may be founded on wave upon wave of reactions and violences of which it is only partially aware, but it is also founded on words, and words can be the communicants of gentle relationships between people and nations as well as violent ones. You might feel awe, yes, or a melancholy sense that these great things are no more when you read something fantastically good. But literary relationships are a zone in which literally and literarily something can be got for nothing. When you read you might hear voices of the dead that make your hair stand on end, or that trigger in you a thought analogous to the founding thought and prompt you to write a response that grows from the times you live in, and differs from the earlier text simply because times and thinking and words have changed. The teacher is not destroyed or diminished by this, and indeed may be enhanced by the transformation. You may see new things in the earlier text, and so give something back to it. Psychic import duties do not have to be imposed on what one learns from another since literary borrowing does not diminish either the store from which it draws or that which it supplies.

But the idea of the ego as a potential god within that seeks to encompass and swallow up all around it is the deep, hidden nasty within American culture which makes it at once so powerful and so attractively repellent. In The American Canon this world in which ‘all secretly believe themselves to be no part of the creation and all feel free only when they are quite alone’ is presented as the defining quality of the American mind and the American sublime. Bloom acknowledges that its energies are deeply equivocal: ‘Place everything upon the nakedness of the American self, and you open every imaginative possibility from self-deification to absolute nihilism.’ The self-deification becomes, Bloom argues, outright auto-eroticism in Whitman, and in Trumpland ‘Self-Reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness.’ But this focus on the two extremes of the American self – self-deification and absolute nihilism – indicates where Bloom believed the real literary action is at. The quiet, uncertain zones of the perplexed or quizzical self, of the deracinated or bewildered person trying through writing to make a place for himself, of the writer who thinks, on the one hand, that Europe might offer a delicious spectrum of sophistication but, on the other, that it might contaminate something innocent in the self, were really not for him. Bloom’s American self always resounds the glory of its solitude in its barbaric yawp. And that is the price of having Emerson as variously ‘the mind of our climate’, ‘the fountain of our will’, ‘the inescapable precursor, the literary hero, the mind of the United States of America’ – does he repeat himself? Very well, he repeats himself.

As Frank Kermode once said, literary canons ‘negate the distinction between knowledge and opinion’. They make beliefs about what we should know into what we do actually know. That is why they are both necessary and dangerous. They are necessary because you can’t read everything, and a set of books that make sense when read together is a pretty good foundation for understanding other things in the world, as well as other books. They are dangerous because they can become self-limiting. Only the features of a work that make it canonical are seen as important, or, perhaps, seen at all, and works that do not display those features are ignored. When The Western Canon appeared in 1994 it provoked outcries at what it excluded, outcries that Bloom (a believer that all communication is provocation) stirred up by repeatedly deploring what he termed the ‘school of resentment’, which he claimed sought to attach value to fictions not because of their aesthetic qualities but because of the gender or ethnicity of its authors. The American Canon is more inclusive than The Western Canon, as though its author – and its editor, since the book has been assembled by David Mikics from pieces written over the past half-century – was provoked by the reaction to his earlier book into seeing a wider world of writing. There are chapters on black authors (Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Robert Hayden, Jay Wright) as well as on 12 women writers. Toni Morrison (‘a child of Faulkner’) is given shorter shrift than she deserves and told off for being ideological, but some of these chapters – particularly the one on James Baldwin’s prophetic language – are great introductions to writers who might well have made Bloom feel uneasy about his determination to see the American canon as an expression of the homogeneous Emersonian mind of ‘our’ nation. The rocklike reflectiveness of Ursula Le Guin and the ‘deep subjectivity’ of Elizabeth Bishop are evoked with a real warmth. When Bloom considers a poem at length, as he does Marianne Moore’s extraordinary poem ‘Marriage’, he often takes you places you never thought you might go. But these chapters can display the anxiety of someone who wanted to show he was standing his ground against the school of resentment even when he was operating on its favoured terrain. So he says of Hurston that she was ‘refreshingly free of all the ideologies that currently obscure the reception of her best book’, and of Moore that ‘some day she will remind us also of what current politics obscure: that any distinction between poetry written by women and poetry by men is a mere polemic unless it follows upon an initial distinction between good and bad poetry.’

In general, though, the price of admission to The American Canon (nothing here is got for nothing) is having to do the anxiety thing, or trying to make yourself appear to be your predecessor’s predecessor, or believing that your self is not a part of creation but a sublime and all-absorbing singularity. So Hemingway ‘stems ultimately from the Emersonian reliance on the god within’. Hart Crane ‘keeps to his lifelong programme of so transuming his wealth of forerunners as to make them seem belated and himself their ever-early if sacrificial replacement’. Wallace Stevens, whom I have always read as a poet of light and of things emerging surprisingly from sound and from the air around him, is ‘a spirit so full of itself that there is room for nothing else’. Robert Frost ‘(in this like Whitman himself) is the son of Emerson’. Faulkner ‘acutely felt the need to be his own father’. Bloom’s preoccupation with literary paternity occasionally makes The American Canon a little too much like a manual of horse-breeding, in which a stallion’s fetlock recalls that of a previous winner of the Kentucky Derby: ‘Even as his poetic father is Stevens, Ashbery’s largest ancestor is Whitman, and it is the Whitmanian strain in Stevens that found Ashbery.’

Almost everything that is strange about this version of the American canon can be traced back to Bloom’s Emersonian preoccupations. So the chapter on Henry James argues that Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady is ‘one of Emerson’s children’, who illustrates a drive for self-reliance at any cost. I’m not convinced that this claim gets any purchase on the dark intricacies of James’s Americoeuropean world, with its intimate interdependencies, invisibly wrong steps, its cataclysmic betrayals beneath a silky rustle of sophistication. But if Portrait of a Lady is to belong in Bloom’s canon, Isabel the orphan has to become yet another child of the remarkably polyphiloprogenitive Emerson. Edith Wharton, inevitably, displays a ‘classic instance of the anxiety of influence’ in her relation to James. At these moments the self-propelling magic Bloomschtick often seems to whizz right on past its subject matter.

Many American authors just don’t fit into Bloom’s canon. He had a loathing of T.S. Eliot (he generally didn’t think well of American writers who tried very hard to be European) which he overcame enough to claim (in a three-page essay) that Whitman ‘is the daemon of The Waste Land, the corpse planted in its forsaken garden’. The dry statement that ‘the nymphs are departed’ in ‘The Fire Sermon’ does look as though Eliot the editor had taken a blue pencil to Whitman’s typically over-expansive line in the ‘Song of the Redwood Tree’, ‘A chorus of dryads, fading, departing, or hamadryads departing’, even if it seems unlikely that Eliot drowned Uncle Walt full fathom five in Phlebas the Phoenician, or tilled his blood into his rose garden. Bloom’s American canon does not include Ezra Pound (barely mentioned), let alone Charles Olson or Ed Dorn, and Frank O’Hara is just one of the ‘comedians of the spirit’. Among novelists, Bloom had no time for John Updike’s sharp analyses of suburban excess (he is accused of ‘churchwardenly mewings’ against Emerson, which may explain his banishment), or Marilynne Robinson, one of the best living anatomists of the tangled relationship between faith and community in America. But the American canon does include Philip Roth, as well as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, in whom Bloom found dark offshoots of the gnostic belief that the self is a shard of light which has its origins outside the creation, a belief he regarded as the foundation of the greatest American writing. A chapter is given to the wilful spiritual shrivelling enacted in the satires of Nathanael West, but no mention is made of John Steinbeck’s evocations of the interconnected networks of pain and peoples that make up nations and localities. Elsewhere Bloom expressed a dim view of Steinbeck, perhaps because he unobligingly responded more to the communitarian than the individualistic side of Emerson. But Steinbeck surely belongs in any American canon.

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The most revealing chapters in The American Canon are those about poets whom Bloom adored, but who seemed to shrink away from the forcefulness of his critical vocabulary. Emily Dickinson is the clearest instance. She was one of the relatively few women writers given a chapter in The Western Canon, and is praised here for her ‘cognitive strength’. The price of her inclusion in the canon is to be seen as another Bloomian victor over the past: ‘Her agon was waged with the whole of tradition, but particularly with the Bible and with romanticism,’ and ‘like Milton and the High Romantics, she excels at the difficult art of making herself prior to what genetically precedes her.’ Bloom argues that she transforms Emerson’s wonderful essay ‘Circles’ by making not the circle but the circumference her good, and states that her originality ‘usurps immense spaces of consciousness and language, and imposes contingencies upon all who come after’.

I may well be an effete British softy, and certainly wouldn’t claim to be ‘strong’, but I don’t hear Dickinson as engaging in any kind of agon with Emerson, unless her resistance to his habitual language of force could be regarded as a pacific negative agon. And it seems strange to say that her poems ‘usurp immense spaces of consciousness’. It is an Emersonian fallacy to suppose that an author who opens up spaces in which to think is necessarily claiming to own them, rather than inviting others to gaze into them. Indeed, to identify imaginative activity with spatial expansion and control may well be the root disease of the colonial imaginary and, who knows, of the entire American canon and maybe the wider Western canon too. But not everyone has to suffer from or for that ailment. Dickinson is a poet who can take away the pre-formed concept and leave you spinning. She does that not by force or by a conscious, or (as I hear her) even unconscious, desire to transform or overwhelm a predecessor. Her poems are driven by a desire to work things out and think them through, as in this characteristically quizzical and counter-competitive poem:

The Poets light but Lamps –
Themselves – go out –
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns –
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference –

The radiant and inherent generosity of a poem, its ability to share and spread light and extend its glow beyond the vision and the death of its author, has seldom been more purely or powerfully evoked. Part of its marvel lies in the way the word ‘Circumference’ is used to end it, as though the poem widens at its conclusion into a boundless gyre. Dickinson wrote to her obtuse critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson that ‘my business is circumference,’ and for her that word does not suggest a boundary but carries an etymological play on ‘bearing around’. It suggests a circulating continuance, a light of the world disseminated through the ages. The dashes around ‘go out’ make the phrase stand out, and highlight Dickinson’s characteristic rethinking of the received thought: something that ‘goes out’ like a candle doesn’t need to be extinguished because it can also ‘go out’ in the way a poem does when it is disseminated across a wide circumference.

I suspect that what I would see as the pacific force of Dickinson’s unthinking Bloom would have regarded as just another way of describing a ‘revisionary ratio’, or a means of impressing her originality on her predecessors and successors. But in this case the emphasis on power and strength that Bloom’s critical vocabulary inherited from Emerson and Whitman, as well as from Freud and Nietzsche, is alien to the instincts and vocabulary of the author to whom he applies it. Dickinson is not thinking (adversarially) against a predecessor, but is doing what the best poets do, trying to think behind the words they have been given, whether those words come from a newspaper, from an essay, from a hubbub on the street, from a story told in church or on their grandmother’s knee, from a whisper in the ear from the muse, or from another poem.

A truly significant literary critic needs two key abilities: the intellectual strength to construct a coherent structure of judgment that suggests how some texts might matter more than others, and the ability to recognise that texts which don’t fit that larger structure may be all the better for being misfits. Frank Kermode and T.S. Eliot had both of these qualities. Bloom had the first ability to the max and the second to a degree. For Bloom, an Emersonian American scholar to the last, what he read had to fit the controlling schema of his mind. In this respect he resembled that archetypical American obsessive, Melville’s Ahab: ‘The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.’ That is at once a superb expression of obsessiveness and a very American ironical denunciation of it. Ahab’s ‘fixed purpose’ is to hunt a whale. You can run a railroad ‘laid with iron rails’ from the Eastern to the Western seaboard, and along the way you can take imaginary relish with Whitman in the labour and sweat that it takes to build it, while joyously celebrating the plains and hills across which it carves its path. But the one place you can’t run a railroad over is the vasty depths of the sea. The multitudinous seas of literary interconnections don’t want railroads driven through them either. Harold Bloom will be remembered as a great provoker – of thought, of laughter, and of resistance. He didn’t permanently reconfigure the literary landscape, but the idiosyncratic path he tracked across it is one few could follow.