I wasn't the only one on a Harold Bloom quest on Saturday: two copies of The Western Canon and one of How to Read and Why purported to be in the library, but were obstinately absent from their shelves. (I can only assume that the many avid readers of this blog ran out and beat me to it.) Still, I managed to track down A Map of Misreading, a discursive essay on poetry from 1975 (miraculously still in print!) and duly spent my lunch hour in dialogue with the venerable critic.
I've read a good deal of criticism in my time, in most of its guises - Marxist, feminist, New Historicist, post-modernist - but Bloom is something else entirely: an aesthete to his core and a passionate reader above all. He speaks often in "A Map.." about the "person-within-the-poet" and the "poet-within-the-poet", differentiating between the mundane individual and their creative alter-ego. Similarly we might distinguish the poet-within-the-critic from the critic-within-the-critic as Bloom oscillates wildly between hard-core exegesis and mystical declamations. He asserts that:
"Poetic strength comes only from a triumphant wrestling with the greatest of the dead, and from an even more triumphant solipsism..."
"Every strong poet in the Western tradition is a kind of a Jonah, a renegade prophet...only catastrophe and the dialectic of cosmic love and hate can govern poetic incarnation..."
It's immediately clear that our new critical hero is as much interested in the how and why, in the psychology of the poet, as he is in the poems themselves...in fact, he probably wouldn't recognise the differentiation. Indeed, his central thesis is predicated on the very anxieties that the poet labours under, and on the assumption that all poems grow from other poems and other poets: that influence is operating in the bowels of all Britain's greatest works. That Shelley's ouvre is at once engendered by and at war with Wordsworth's, that Hardy's late poems are part of a process that began with Coleridge. And all this in Bloom's prose, which flies in the face of usual critical practise by making an art of itself, all heavy with Classical allusion, unabashedly overwrought and deliciously verbose.
Most shocking however, and so alien to todays professional scholars, is Bloom's refusal of passivity; he absolutely sees himself as part of contemporary and future literary endeavour:
"What we can do is give poets the deadly encouragement that never ceases to remind them of how heavy their inheritance is."
All this inspired Esther and I to embark on a survey of his Western Canon to see how "well read" we are by Bloomian standards. Answer? Not very. Out of upward of 300 possible titles/authors, I've only really read a desultory 58, while Est, with her Classical background, scored a more respectable 77. Poop. I'm put to shame with statements like:
"...once the reader is conversant with the Bible, Homer, Plato, the Athenian dramatists and Virgil, the crucial work is the Qu'ran."
Hrumph. Virgil and assorted bits of the Bible down down, just all the rest to go.