Presidential Lecture Series
spacer
spacer spacer Harold Bloom

spacer

ARCHIVE
CALENDAR
LECTURERS
HAROLD BLOOM
BIBLIOGRAPHY
EXCERPTS
INTERVIEWS
REVIEWS
LINKS
LINKS
SYMPOSIA
HUMANITIES AT STANFORD
spacer

REVIEWS OF WORKS BY HAROLD BLOOM



The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry

A Map of Misreading

Kabbalah and Criticism

Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens

Agon: Toward a Theory of New Revisionism

Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief From the Bible to the Present

Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages





The Anxiety of Influence : A Theory of Poetry

New York : Oxford University Press, 1973.

The story concerns what Bloom says is "the saddest truth" he knows about poets and poetry, the truth that no poet is as original as he thinks he is, that the very notion of originality is more often than not a defensive myth, designed to shelter poets from the awesome power of their predecessors...The most brilliant of Bloom's critical moves is also his most perverse. It occurs at the end of The Anxiety of Influence, where Bloom, having identified five relations of sons to fathers (swerving, completing, emptying, displacing, diminishing, or, in Bloom's terms, clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis), reaches his sixth "ratio," as he calls these relations, apophrades, the return of the dead. The fathers return in the poetry of the sons, but defeated now, so that the sons seem to be the fathers' precursors...Bloom is suggesting that a writer can devour his father, and that we can watch this cannibalism take place on the page.

Michael Wood
New York Review of Books
April 17, 1975

In his description of influence as a cunning, malicious distortion of tradition Bloom gives a displaced version of a very genuine problem...It is not the weakness of the present, but the strength attributed to the past that is mystifying...the book deals with the difficulty or, rather, the impossibility of reading and, by inference, with the indeterminacy of literary meaning. If we are willing to put aside the trappings of psychology, Bloom's essay has much to say on the encounter between latecomer and precursor as a displaced version of the paradigmatic encounter between reader and text...The main insight of The Anxiety of Influence is the categorical assertion that this reading can be a misreading or, as Bloom calls it, "misprison" ...The main interest of The Anxiety of Influence, is not the literal theory of influence it contains, but the structural interplay between the six types of misreading, the six "intricate evasions" that govern the relationships between texts.

Paul de Man
Comparative Literature
Summer 1974


A Map of Misreading

New York : Oxford University Press, 1975.

A Map of Misreading adds six rhetorical tropes, six psychic defenses, six sets of imagery and three movements of creation to Bloom's original six ratios of revision, and these items taken together, form a map of misreading by means of which we can perceive the basic pattern of the lyric poem...I confess that a vision as large as this is a lot larger than I need. Bloom, like a good apostle of influence, is not as original as his manner sometimes makes him look...But the sincerity of this book, to use a word that seems very strange in this context, the sheer care for poetry which governs both this work and its predecessor, is unmistakable and most impressive.

Michael Wood
New York Review of Books
April 17, 1975

A Map of Misreading continues Bloom's determined attempt to incarnate and prolong Romanticism, to convince us that literature is essentially a heroic daemonization, centered on "the fearsome process by which a person is reborn a poet." The poet, or at least, the post-Miltonic poet, is an indomitable Spirit who feels the curse of belatedness and takes arms against his predecessors, slays them by misreading, so as to create a space in which his own poetry can take place, as an antithetical completion of his precursors' supposed qualities...Poetry feels the burden of the past more than the poets, who, as Bloom must admit, are often unconscious of the role they are playing in poetry's family romance...What emerges from A Map of Misreading, and the more forcefully because against all the author's explicit defenses, is the necessity of focusing not on the heroic poets but on poetry itself, on the historical and dialectical relations between texts, on literature as a tradition and institution with its own adventures."

Jonathan Culler
The Yale Review
October, 1975


Kabbalah and Criticism

New York : Seabury Press, 1975.

Bloom's survey of poetic tradition is systematically ahistorical because for him literature is, as Stephen Marcus once put it, somewhat sarcerdotal. His theory of influence requires a poetry which is wholly introverted and reflexive, an elevated and self-sufficing realm of discourse which itself provides all that is necessary for its interpretation. Poets are the elect, denizens of mysterium tremendum oblivious to everything but their own sacred history. In this classically Romantic view, biography, psychology, society, history - indeed, all the profane matter of the workaday world-can only be an embarrassment or an insult to poetry. The identity of the poet is entirely other than the identity of the man, "the meaning of a poem can only be another poem": the tattered mantle of his precursors the New Critics appears to have fallen on the ephebe Bloom.

Leon Weiseltier
New York Review of Books
February 19, 1976

In the present book we are indeed shown many parallels between Bloom's esoteric system and the great arcane tradition of the exiled Jews...Despite the erudition and the wealth of reference to other systems, Bloom's own system is proudly reductionist and self-enclosed. Poets interact only with other poets. Experience, personal discovery, private anguish or joy, life itself-these count as nothing compared to the towering presence of the precursor. None of this would matter very much were it not for the fact that Bloom's recent work is being hailed by his distinguished colleagues, friends, and disciples as if it were the critical achievement of the century.

Robert Towers
New York Times Book Review
December 21, 1975


Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens

New Haven : Yale University Press, 1976

This book completes Harold Bloom's efforts begun in The Anxiety of Influence, and continued in A Map of Misreading and Kabbalah and Criticism, to map out a functional poetics of the lyric...The four books are aimed at an audience which has read most of the canon of English and American lyric, and which remembers most of what it has read, so that no echoes will be missed...Such intertextual echoes result, as Bloom has conclusively shown, from the many ways in which a poet manifests his struggle with antecedent style...Both of the chief conflicts described in Bloom's account of poetry - the poet's struggle with his (internalized) poetic models, and his struggle with his own psychic resistances - have the merit of being deduced from visible elements in a text, whether a poetic echo of some sort or a clear jolt or alteration in the structure or the process of the text...Until the literary meaning of a poem is understood - and about this Bloom is indisputably right - absolutely nothing of worth can be said about its moral or metaphysical ideological impact.

Helen Vendler
Times Literary Supplement
"Defensive Harmonies"
June 25, 1976

It is not so much the jargon that annoys one, though it is tiresome enough, as the extraordinary vanity of the discourse, its assumption that we are interested not only in its conclusions but in every wavering thread of cognition that leads up to these conclusions...I find it significant that the book contains no index, nor a single note on its sources...It seems impossible to arrest the text, to stem the flow of words, to grasp a single point that can be simply weighed and tested. Gradually one's eyes glaze over, the mind goes numb. Somewhere in the background Professor Bloom is misreading away, tireless and wonderfully pleased with himself.

David Lodge
New Statesman
March 19, 1976


Agon : Towards a Theory of Revisionism

New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Agon is the latest installment in Harold Bloom's elaborate theory of poetic creation as a desperate wrestling with forebears, inaugurated in 1973 by The Anxiety of Influence ...in his vision of literature the personality of the author is primary, the text secondary; writing is always ancillary to voice, and, consequently, poetic texts are not merely an endless dance of linguistic signifiers but have a referential aspect, rooted in the experience of the poet and reaching toward the experience of the reader...The ultimate issue for me is that the kind of critical exposition I like to read and would like to practice presupposes the existence of a community of shared literary experience, which is to say, literary tradition, while for Mr. Bloom tradition is "the trope of usurpation and imposition," a course of internecine warfare carried out under a facade of continuity. Mr. Bloom's single truth about conflict has considerable explanatory power in regard to certain writers, and it surely has instructed us all that neither literary creation nor interpretation is so innocent as we once thought.

Robert Alter
New York Times Book Review
January 31, 1982
The full text of this review is available online. See the listing of New York Times book reviews.

It is part of Mr. Bloom's theory that poetry, too, is uncanny, confronting us with our own rejected or repressed thoughts... Agon itself reads rather like poetry, which is not surprising, for Mr. Bloom believes that "the idea of poetry is always more founded upon the idea of criticism than criticism ever is founded upon poetry." "Criticism," he says, "is not so much prose poetry as poetry is verse criticism."...At times, Mr. Bloom seems to see criticism as an analogous performance, almost a counterpoint to the poem. What he does in his reading of poems - that is, when one can tell what he is doing - is to create an atmosphere of tense receptivity, of high expectation. He tones us up for the effort of the poem, bullies and cajoles us into condition... In a Freudian mood, Mr. Bloom says that "no one 'fathers' or 'mothers' his or her own poems, because poems are not 'created' but are interpreted into existence, and by necessity they are interpreted from other poems."...But often - too often, perhaps - Mr. Bloom is more eloquent in describing and elaborating his own critical cosmology - for that's what it is - than he is in interpreting poems.

Anatole Broyard
New York Times Book Review
January 2, 1982
The full text of this review is available online. See the listing of New York Times book reviews.


Ruin the Sacred Truths : Poetry and Belief From the Bible to the Present

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Harold Bloom's "true subject, as a critic," he tells us in the first chapter of Ruin the Sacred Truths, "has been what traditionally was called the sublime." The subject may fairly be called a challenging one, somewhat exhausting, even, for most of us cannot keep our attention at that height for very long...How we read anything must depend upon what our minds are full of, from whatever source. Mr. Bloom has been familiar with the Hebrew Bible since his childhood, and in his dreams Freud "always appears as Yahweh the Father, complete with cigars and Edwardian three-piece suit." For those of us who unfortunately know no Hebrew, and in whose dreams Freud hardly puts in an appearance, things may look different... It is almost as if Mr. Bloom is all the time trying to direct our attention away from the actual work and toward his own sublime conceptions...One is left with the suspicion that Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or even the Yahwist J might have their own reservations if, somewhere in the Elysian fields, they chanced to read this book.

C. H. Sisson
New York Times Book Review
"Conceptions More Sublime"
February 26, 1989
The full text of this review is available online. See the listing of New York Times book reviews.


Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection

New York : Riverhead Books, 1996.

Bloom discusses at length the Gnostic roots of angelology, prophetic dreams, and so-called "near-death" experiences, which usually incorporate an encounter with a very Gnostic Being of Light. In each case, he demonstrates that these contemporary phenomena have roots in the Iranian millennial spirituality that produced Zoroastrianism, and traces their subsequent development in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam...The result is a tense and sometimes conflicted book, as the reader watches a great mind wrestle with an attempt to express the inexpressible. Bloom takes refuge in tracing the origin and development of alternative theologies that nip at the interstice between God and humanity, and his description of Gnostic Christianity, Jewish Gnostic Kabbalists, and the Gnostic elements of Islamic Sufi mysticism is comprehensive and often engaging. Yet the core of Omens of Millennium is a call for us to reach within ourselves and grasp that spark of divinity, and in that respect it is difficult not to agree with Bloom's own admission that such a call is perhaps more suited to a poet or a saint than to a scholar.

Peter Quincy
Boston Book Review
"Bloom the Heresiarch"
August 1, 1996
Full text of this review available on-line

A fascination with near-death experiences, alien abductions, angels and prophetic dreams has reached a "particular intensity" in the U.S. as the millennium approaches. Or so says Bloom in this dazzling, maverick study in literature and comparative religion. Pausing often to unpack his own religious convictions, which are rooted in Gnosticism, a mystical belief system whose elusive history he traces to early Christianity, Kabbalistic Judaism and Islamic Sufism, Bloom contends that such "omens of the Millennium" are in fact debased forms of Gnosticism...Bloom explores how images of angels, prophecies and resurrection have always mirrored anxieties about the end of time, and how these images have been domesticated by popular culture. This book's brevity and eccentricities diminish its force as polemic. As a critical performance, however, it's a tour de force, highlighting a secret history of mystical thought whose visionaries and poets call out to each other over the centuries.

Publishers Weekly Review
July 1, 1996
Full text of this review available on-line.


The Western Canon : The Books and School of the Ages

Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994

Professor Bloom's theatricality is evident in his studied despair over what he regards as the inevitable death of reading and in his savage indignation at the feminists, multiculturalists, Marxists and historicists, all of whom he sees as merely diminishing literature with what he characterizes as their tendentious social agendas...As he repeats throughout his text in various words, Shakespeare and Dante are everything..."The Western Canon is Shakespeare and Dante. Beyond them, it is what they absorbed and what absorbs them."... his misreading only serves as one more appetizer in a book that leaves you voracious for the work of the writers he includes in his canon. Professor Bloom may end in studied despair over how the School of Resentment, as he calls those with a social agenda, is thwarting the study of literature. But you know that he will shortly revive his spirits by plunging back into his canon like a badger into his burrow. What is sad is that for the rest of us there is hardly enough time even to begin the reading.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
New York Times Book Review
"The Gossip is a Hiccup, but the Book a Banquet"
October 17, 1994
The full text of this review is available online. See the listing of New York Times book reviews.

The Western Canon is a heroically brave, formidably learned and often unbearably sad response to the present state of the humanities. "After a lifetime spent in teaching literature" at Yale University, Harold Bloom writes, "I have very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise."...Framed by "An Elegy for the Canon" and "An Elegiac Conclusion" - both despairing reflections on the present state of literary studies - this magnum opus focuses on 26 writers from among hundreds whom he later lists as canonical. Mr. Bloom regards the 26 not only as great artists, but as the chief representatives of their literary cultures... Originality and strangeness are for Mr. Bloom the chief qualities that make a work canonical. It is on these qualities that he concentrates, but always with an emphasis on literary influence that can only be described as obsessive... The Western Canon concludes with four appendixes in 36 pages listing those works from remote antiquity to the present that Mr. Bloom regards as canonical, or potentially so. It is sobering to think that in recent years most of these authors, who collectively have bequeathed us those thousands of poems, plays, epics, stories and novels that constitute our literary heritage and much of our historical and cultural memory, have been dismissed, sometimes with contempt, as "dead white European males."

Norman Fruman
New York Times Review of Books
"Bloom at Thermopylae"
October 9, 1994
The full text of this review is available online. See the listing of New York Times book reviews.





DISCUSSION || CALENDAR || LECTURERS || SYMPOSIA || HUMANITIES AT STANFORD

Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University