Book Review: The Anatomy of Influence, by Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom started reading great poets as a young child. Not every ten-year-old can claim to become possessed by the poetry of Hart Crane, and not every reader of poetry goes on to commit hundreds and hundreds of great poems to memory. It is this very fact that makes Harold Bloom’s huge literary consciousness so endlessly fascinating. Reading and memorising great works of literature is like a kind of oxygen to Bloom.

Bloom is now eighty years of age, still teaching and holding study groups on the great writers and their work. For Bloom, we learn, teaching others is also a process of teaching oneself; literary insights and perspectives are exchanged back and forth between professor and student in a process of cross fertilisation. It is no wonder then that Bloom insists on describing himself as a “common reader”. No professional title or accolades are needed to absorb the wonders of great literature, only a love of reading.

Ostensibly, The Anatomy of Influence reprises a perennial theme of Bloom’s work: the struggle writers have against the influences that form them when trying to create their own individual voices. Tolstoy may have railed against Shakespeare’s King Lear, but ended his days in a very Lear like fashion. Page 200 explains in more detail:

“Once again, influence anxiety, as I have seen it, takes place between poems, and not between persons. Temperament and circumstances determine whether or not a later poet feels anxiety at whatever level of consciousness. All that matters for interpretation is the revisionary relationship between poems, as manifested in tropes, images, diction, syntax, grammar, metric, poetic stance.”

A Fascinating Journey to the Centre of Literary Consciousness

The Anatomy of Influence is subtitled Literature as a Way of Life, and it very much mixes these two themes. Bloom rambles pleasantly along, dropping names by the dozen. It is these references to poet-friends that gives the book an autobiographical aspect. Literary criticism for Bloom is not just about the reader and the written word, but also about conversations, discussions and disagreements with poets and writers about the complex and deep interrelationships between writers and their work. Again, The Anatomy of Influence is fascinating as a journey to the centre of Bloom’s literary consciousness. Much of the discussion is complex and deep, but as always with Harold Bloom, he doesn’t write for a specialist audience.

While many of the themes and concepts may be difficult to grasp, often demanding deep concentration, Bloom’s prose always has an intriguingly light feel to it. As mentioned earlier, there are tantalising snippets of autobiography in this book. A follow up volume that concentrates more on Bloom’s literary friendships, and how they have influenced him, let’s say a literary autobiography, would be an exciting prospect. As it stands, The Anatomy of Influence mixes a modest amount of autobiography with enormous amounts of Bloom’s capacious literary consciousness. It makes the book a rich treat that must be digested slowly and with care.

The Anatomy of Influence, by Harold Bloom. Published by Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-16760-3

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