No Comment, Six Questions — August 11, 2011, 12:46 pm

The Anatomy of Influence: Six Questions for Harold Bloom

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Harold Bloom, Yale professor and celebrated literary critic, has a new book — his thirty-eighth — entitled The Anatomy of Influence. In a sense it is an updating of The Anxiety of Influence, the classic work on literary relationships that he published forty years ago, but it is also an intensely personal work, a profession of love for literature as an art form, and for the artists at its apogee. It is also, inevitably, a book about a life well lived — and lived in the universitas litterarum in multiple senses. I put six questions to Bloom about his new book.

1. You were one of the first writers to draw a parallel between America in the early twenty-first century and the final volume of Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire. What events first set you thinking about George Bush’s America and the decline and fall of Rome? Has the arrival of Barack Obama in any way changed your view?

It is a banal truism that the cultural present both derives from and reacts against anteriority. Twenty-first-century America is in a state of decline. It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline that the imperial presidency of George W. Bush retraced and that continues even now. We have approached bankruptcy, fought wars we cannot pay for, and defrauded our urban and rural poor. Our troops include felons, and mercenaries of many nations are among our “contractors,” fighting on their own rules or none at all. Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us. An institutionalized counterculture condemns individuality as archaic and depreciates intellectual values, even in the universities. — From The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life.
Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press, © 2011 Harold Bloom.

There are so many parallels, too many — the two presidents Bush can be compared to many of the late emperors. But one of the most striking parallels is this: Rome went down using barbarians to fight its wars, dispensing with its institutions and traditions. And America, forsaking its tradition of citizen-soldiers, has been using contractors to fight its wars. Let’s not deceive ourselves, the government calls them “contractors,” Blackwater or whatnot, but they’re mercenaries, and they present the same problems the Romans faced with their barbarian armies.

Obama is a great disappointment to me. I was taken in by him when he began his campaign. He is obviously a person of some intellect, and he has genuine rhetorical skill. He looked at one point like a Marcus Aurelius. But now we have to call him a pseudo-Aurelius, because as president he’s been mostly a continuation of his predecessor, fighting Bush’s wars and accepting his changes. With the campaign coming, the old Obama who worked such charm in the last presidential elections will reappear, but this time we shouldn’t be fooled. I probably should have voted for Hillary.

2. In your current work, you continue with arguments you’ve made about “American religion,” which you associate especially with Emerson and Whitman, and link to Gnosticism as well as to indigenous American denominations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christian Science, and Unitarian Universalism. Is it fair to say that American religion de-emphasizes faith in favor of self-discovery? Do figures like Emerson and Whitman help you distinguish American Protestantism from mainstream European Protestantism?

From 1988 to 1991, I lectured in the South and Southwest. I met Mormons, Pentecostals, Baptists — members of American religions that have distinctly American attitudes. The essential difference between these believers and the old Protestants of Europe has to do with their attitude towards Jesus. They believe they have a personal relationship with Jesus and that he loves them as a person; they treat him as if he were living with them now and speaking to them about their current problems. Eighty-eight percent of Americans — almost nine out of ten — say that God loves him or her on a personal and individual basis. This notion has nothing to do with the Protestantism found in Europe; neither does it have anything to do with Judaism and the notion of the covenant. The whole idea of a “Judeo-Christian heritage” is nonsense, anyway: these are two separate traditions. The attempt to bring them together reflects a political agenda, not an effort to seriously understand either.

3. You call Emerson “a great poet in prose, and a very good one in verse,” but whereas most Emerson scholars would point to his essays first, you choose his journals as his “major achievement.” Isn’t there something fundamentally un-Emersonian about their prolixity, their lack of chiseled detail and heavily imposed form?

No, the journals represent the pure Emerson. You shouldn’t think of them as “journals.” They do have clear order and form, but they are the keys to understanding him. Don’t invest in that over-edited Harvard edition, but do buy the complete journals — better, one of the old editions — and wade deeply into them. You’ll find the inner Waldo:

Whilst I adore this ineffable life which is at my heart, it will not condescend to gossip with me, it will not announce to me any particulars of science, it will not enter into the details of my biography, and say to me why I have a son and daughters born to me, or why my son dies in his sixth year of life. Herein, then I have this latent omniscience coexistent with omnigorance. Moreover, whilst this Deity glows at the heart, and by his unlimited presentiments gives me all Power, I know that to-morrow will be as this day, I am a dwarf, and I remain a dwarf. That is to say, I believe in Fate. As long as I am weak, I shall talk of Fate; whenever the God fills me with his fullness, I shall see the disappearance of Fate. I am defeated all the time; yet to Victory I am born.

That entry dates to April 1842. Magnificent. The essays are wonderful. The poems are very good. But the journals: sublime.

4. The great Emersonian poet, in your reckoning, is not Emerson but Whitman. You give him pride of place in the American poetic canon, but you also see him as receding from us: “The persona of Walt Whitman… scarcely is available to us any more in sociopolitical terms.” But even in Whitman’s times, in the gilded age, America was a land of plutocrats and railroad barons, whereas in the America of the twenty-first century, the balance has finally swung on sexual politics. Whitman’s homosexuality is accepted and the kind of artistic vision it led to is arguably better appreciated, especially by the young. What is it about our times that makes it increasingly difficult to approach Whitman?

Our national poet, like the national poets of Europe, mysteriously does not so much reflect as project us. Shakespeare is so vast that England domesticates him by revising even the great tragedies into hopefulness, and sometimes I am left staring at a Christian (even a Catholic) Shakespeare irrelevant to Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. Whitman, after we stopped neglecting him, has been weakly misread as a rebel, an antiformalist, and a sexual pioneer. I am always misunderstood when I ask what would be the consequence if it were discovered that Robert Browning was in the closet (with Henry James) while Walt cavorted with whores. Neither sexual orientation had any cognitive or aesthetic value in itself. — From The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life.
Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press, © 2011 Harold Bloom.

Of course it’s true that America was as much a plutocracy during some of Whitman’s life as it has become again today; and it’s true that we’ve seen a turning point in attitudes about homosexuality. But I mean to speak of Whitman’s aesthetic, not his politics. Whitman was a heroic individualist; he was marked by enormous kindness towards his fellow man. From 1863 to 1867, he tended to between 35,000 and 40,000 men in hospitals — Yankees and Confederates alike. He did this as a volunteer, as a lover of humanity. He brought them bags of peppermint, sips of brandy; with pencil and a scrap of paper he noted what the prisoners cherished: a pudding, or some candy. How silly it is to label Whitman a homosexual and be done with it. “I am large. I contain multitudes,” he writes, and it is so. What matters about Whitman? His delicacy, his evasive metaphorical intensity. But we live in an age which is slow to appreciate such subtle qualities; we live in an age of distractions.

5. You quote Paul Valéry: “No poem is ever finished, it is merely abandoned.” This line seems apt for many of the poets you discuss — Whitman and Hart Crane, certainly. But is it universally true? Do some poets not in fact write to achieve closure?

No, Valéry is right — this is true of all serious poets. It comes back to the other theme of his that I take up in the book, namely the influence of a mind upon itself and of a work upon its author. Take Milton’s “Lycidas.” Or consider Whitman and his long engagement with his own poems, but then also his influence on so many American poets. Whitman is the most consistent influence on American poetry from his era forward. He is and always will be not only the most American of all poets, but also American poetry proper, our champion against the European tradition. But like Shakespeare, Whitman’s power unfolds in his self-possession — in the manner in which he exhausts his precursors and develops finally in relation to his own prior work. This reflects a lifelong engagement with that work. If we go through the archives of Hart Crane at Columbia University and choose a poem like “To Brooklyn Bridge,” for instance, we can see how he reworks a concept step-by-step over years so that in the end little survives of what was first written. Or we can examine successive drafts of a Yeats poem. In the final version, only part of the original remains. There is a desperation to get it right, a heartbreaking process. That is proof of Valéry’s concept. And it is also, in a sense, true of every great poet. The Anatomy of Influence is a Valérian investigation — it looks into how certain powerful writers first were possessed by their precursors and then possessed them in turn.

6. We recently posted footage of your marvelous reading of Wallace Stevens’s “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” When you begin to work your way into a poem, do you find that intoning, or reading the poem aloud, is essential to its appreciation?

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We start the academic year early here at Yale, and by the end of this month I’ll have two classes — one of them devoted to Shakespeare, the other to poetry. For my poetry students, there is a process I commend — take a poem that finds you, I will tell them, read it to yourself, then go to a quiet place, to your own space, and chant that poem, come to possess it. Find the space that the daimon of that poem inhabits and occupy it yourself. Then I ask my students to read the poem aloud in class. At this point in my life I find I’ve spent far too much time talking in class myself, and it is a pleasure for me now to listen to them. They are very bright, maybe brighter than students from decades ago, though also perhaps less well read. But I’ll ask my students also to begin a process of exegesis, to pull apart the thoughts of the poem, to delve into the words used, and that also is a process of appropriating, of coming to possess the poem, making it your own. But back to your point: poetry is an art of sound as much as an art of the printed word. The great work of poetry is to help us become free artists of ourselves. That work requires us to hear, and not merely to read, the poetry.

This process is also immensely important to the training and preparation of the mind. It was essential to the old tradition in education, a tradition to which we bid farewell in our graduate schools in the sixties. Now we live in an age of distraction, an age dominated by bombardment coming from the screen. Poetry, the process of making poetry your own, can be a refuge from that bombardment. But it’s also an essential disciplining of the mind, preparing one to think and speak critically and well. We live, too, in the age of the Tea Party, a movement that cherishes stupidity and zealotry and hates thinking, reading, and teaching. If these people had their way, we’d be done with teaching. It shows the weak-mindedness that has descended upon America, the proclivity for nonsense and political hatred, the disrespect for literature, history, and serious thinking. There is only one remedy to the current predicament, and that is to encourage people to think independently. And that, in turn, begins with reading. People need to remember the best that has been said and thought in the past. That is the starting point, and that is the path, out of our current appalling situation.

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