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Candidates for Survival

A talk with Harold Bloom

Ellen Spirer

Harold Bloom knew "by age eleven or twelve that all [he] really liked to do was read poetry and discuss it." Now William de Vane Professor of Humanities at Yale, he is perhaps best known for his theory of the anxiety of influence, which sees the history of poetry in terms of ongoing struggles of "sons" against "fathers"; according to Bloom, all poets create with a fear of repeating, or drawing upon, previous poets’ achievements. Reminiscent as this is of Freud’s Oedipus theory, Bloom insists that he is no Freudian, and he is likewise at pains to distance himself from such contemporary schools of criticism as Deconstruction and Hermeneutics. He calls himself, rather, "a fairly straightforward Emersonian": "Emerson said that the reader or student was to consider himself or herself as the text and all actual received texts or works of literature as commentaries upon the reader or student....That amounts to what is regarded as a kind of radical personalism, but it seems to me simply a pragmatic approach....Novels and poems– texts of any kind–matter only if we matter. We come first, they come second. They are there for us, we are not there for them."

Boston Review: What do you think the future looks like for literary criticism in America?

Harold Bloom: Oh, I have no idea. Who am I to prophesize? I do suspect very strongly that at this time American poetry is in better condition than the American criticism of poetry, and that in my own generation, John Ashbery, James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, those three at the very least, and probably also some others, increasingly do look like the strong successors to, say, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop in previous generations. But I cannot find much of great interest to me in the criticism of contemporary American poetry. There is a lot of critical journalism going on, but I look in vain for, say, a first-class study of John Ashbery. I think there’s a great deal of confusion about criticism these days. As I keep saying, it’s obsessed with method and that is bound to be misleading. And again as I keep insisting, there is no method except yourself – no matter who you are. And indeed that which is called Deconstruction is curiously enough a highly idiosyncratic self, that of my friend Jacques Derrida. But it is no more that that, and where it is applied by others it produces some very frustrating results.

BR: You have said that Ammons and Ashbery as well as Robert Penn Warren are "probable candidates for survival." Just now you mentioned James Merrill.

HB: Yes, of course. Mr. Warren is of a previous generation. He’s about to have an 80th birthday. Right there near you on the table are the proofs of the new edition of his selected poems which will be published for his 80th birthday.

BR: And what makes these poets more eternal, more likely to survive, than others?

HB: Well, the whole question of the canonical is one I am always much engaged in. It is very difficult to answer such a question with a formula of any kind. Certainly one clear element in what makes for canonical strength is a sort of generative force which aligns a large body of recent, strong poetry with the poetry even of the immediate past so that authenitcally, it seems both to join itself to that past, and also to augment it or to fight it, but very much on its own terms and on its own grounds. Another is its power of producing strong readings which, in turn, in their own right, become fecund and engender other strong readings. The tests for the canonical do not vary strongly from age to age. It is a question of a kind of space or ground being a very complex matter. The only thing I’m certain of in this regard – and obviously you need to know a great deal more about what does or does not make implicitly for the canonical in a new body of poetry – the only thing I’m certain of is that all of the current wave of what I suppose you would have to call neo-Marxism in ideological and economic and class interests are not served and perpetuated by the canonical process. I do not believe that to be the case at all. I think it is rather a question of a kind of necessary internal violence which is carried out upon us by a particular poet or group of poets.

BR: What do you think is the value of studying literary criticism, aside from just studying literature, today?

HB: I don’t make distinctions between studying literature and studying literary criticism. Literary criticism is in the first place a particular branch of literature, a particular genre. And in the second place, it is one which is synonymous with literary study. The study of literature is the reading of literature. The reading or study of literature is the criticism of literature; there is no distinction there. The question therefore in my view becomes "what is the value of literary study?" to which my answer would be "literary study is inescapable." Western culture has been founded upon literary study ever since the Greeks made Homer into their first textbook. So willy-nilly, we study literature whether we study it overtly or not. It has become the canonical basis for our society. It is not possible to study any other so-called subject without in some sense studying literature. We are a literary culture. We are certainly no longer a religious culture. Those who dream of our becoming a scientific culture have largely learned that they were mistaken. We have become a technological society, but the notion of technological culture is, I think, an oxymoron. We are willy-nilly a literary culture. Philosophy, science, religion have in different ways been dimmed, and as they dim further and further – and this is a process which has been remarked on for centuries – increasingly imaginative literature takes their place. I don’t say that this is a good thing, I don’t know that it is necessarily a bad thing. I only know that it is a process which is constantly increasing in intensity and appears to be inescapable.

BR: Today, university professors must publish a considerable number of articles and books in order to attain tenure. Some people have commented that this leads to an excess of second-rate literary criticism.

HB: Yes, but I don’t think that this is new. I think there has always been an excess of second- and third- and ninth-rate literary criticism, just as there has always been an excess of second- to ninth-rate poetry and second- to ninth-rate imaginative literature in general. I don’t think this is really a factor in the over-production of mediocre work. I think there has always been an overproduction of mediocre work. Sometimes it is journalistic; sometimes it is scholarly or pseudo-scholarly; sometimes it is a question of academic advancement. But I don’t think one would either improve or cause to further deteriorate the whole level of literary discourse if you abolished tenure rules. This is not to actually pass any opinion whatsoever upon whether or not academic scholarship or the publication of that which passes for criticism should or should not be a factor in academic promotion. I’m not passing any judgment on that matter. I just suspect that the human urge to expression is such that the quantity of garbage in every age, in terms of its relationship to the quantity of authentic work, probably does not vary greatly.

BR: What’s the value of those second- to ninth-rate critics?

HB: No value whatsoever. And I repeat one should also ask the question, what is the value of all this bad poetry? There are literally tens of thousands of poets writing in the United States today, and literally thousands and thousands of them publish, and not just in magazines, they publish volumes. Every day, literally, unsolicitedly, volumes of poetry, published and unpublished, reach me in the mail. It is a never-ending flow. One thing is for sure: the notion put about by poets and many academics that even a fiftieth rate poem is ipso facto worth more than first-rate criticism is an absurdity. To prefer, say, Mrs. Felicia Hemans to William Hazlitt because she wrote poems and he wrote criticism is an obvious absurdity. In the same way, I think the future age will find that to prefer the late Sylvia Plath to Mr. Kenneth Burke because she ostensibly wrote poems and he wrote criticism will seem equally absurd. That remark makes clear that I do not share the current esteem for the work of the late Sylvia Plath who seems to me an absurdly bad and hysterical verse writer.

BR: How often are you surprised by a volume of poetry you receive? How often do you find something really good?

HB: Maybe once a year. One gets a real surprise once a year. And that’s a good thing if you can find something once a year.

BR: Are you disappointed by today’s literature?

HB: Not really. There are a few figures writing now who are very powerful writers indeed. Probably the most powerful living Western writer is Samuel Beckett. He’s certainly the most authentic. In this country, it is Thomas Pynchon in prose, and as I say Warren, Merrill, Ashbery in verse. I think there is some problem of decline. Most of the figures who have enormous contemporary reputations in the American novel have very mixed achievements indeed – whether it is Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer, or who you will. Pynchon, at his best is, I think, a very remarkable writer. The current poets, the ones I’ve mentioned now, Merrill, Ashbery and so on, are remarkable poets. There is no living figure in the world’s poetry comparable to Montalli or to Wallace Stevens. Beckett is a major writer I think by any standards. I think as one goes toward the end of this century there is a certain entropy at work in the current state of the novel or poetry in German or French or Italian or Anglo-Americans. It is not perhaps what it was a generation ago. But how to account for that I’m uncertain.

BR: Do you think it will improve?

HB: I really do not know. Clearly, Seamus Heaney is a very good poet; he is not William Butler Years. Geoffrey Hill is a very good poet; he is not Thomas Hardy. James Merrill is a very fine poet indeed; he is not Wallace Stevens. I think it is true in general there is much more of a problem in twentieth century western culture than anyone is willing to acknowledge and much the greatest figures in all of the arts – the painters, the poets, the novelists, the composers – were all born in the last third of the nineteenth century. And here we are in 1985. Very few of the really major figures in twentieth century western artistic culture were actually born in the twentieth century. I know that this is a disputable observation, but it’s one that I think I would stick by.

BR: Why do you think most modern Jewish poetry is so bad?

HB: I think it is mostly very bad indeed – if you mean contemporary American Jewish poetry or even to some extent contemporary Israeli poetry, which is by no means as good as it is held out to be. Partly it’s the immense difficulty that is involved in the whole issue of Jewish cultural transmission, and, I think, the kind of fossilization of Jewish culture which is involved in trying to maintain a second century formulation eighteen centuries later. Partly it is because there is a long tradition of setting the category of the religious above and against the category of the aesthetic, with all the problems of representation which are involved with Jewish tradition. Partly I suppose because the burden of belatedness which is now so great in general in Western poetry becomes peculiarly heavy for someone who would have to accommodate the enormous weight and complexity of Jewish history and of Jewish culture. There are some contemporary American Jewish poets, including Irving Feldman and John Hollander, who do manage to write very effective poetry in a deliberately Jewish context, but they are so far at least anomalous. They are very individual cases for the most part. However limited the achievement of novelists like Bellow, Roth, and Malamud may or may not be, it is very hard to see their equivalents in American Jewish poetry.

BR: Why do you call yourself a Jewish Gnostic?

HB: (Laughs) Partly for polemical reasons, partly because I have a religious temperament and my culture is Jewish culture or American Jewish culture. And the more deeply I read Jewish literature, from the Bible to the present day, the more I become convinced that what we now regard as the normative Jewish literature is essentially a fossil going back to the second century of the common era. It is based upon a strong reading of the Hebrew Bible, but it is not the only possible strong reading of the Hebrew Bible. Clearly the tradition of Jewish gnosticism which goes from at least the second century of the common era to the present day and of which the late Gershem Scholem, who is the principal historian and scholarly expositor and modern theoretician, represents a very strong reading also of the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish tradition and it’s one which seems to me to account much better the whole nightmare of Jewish history than the normative Jewish religion possibly can do. The problems of theodicy, of how to bring together the Talmudical vision of God with the actual fate of the Jews in the twentieth century, seemed to me insoluble whereas a Gnostic perception of God and of religion more than adequately accounts for the dominion of evil. It’s a vexed subject.

Originally published in the February 1989 issue of Boston Review



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