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Harold Bloom on the Canon and Creativity

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 25, 2011 02:45 PM

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Harold Bloom, who will turn 81 this July, has been one of America's most fascinating literary critics for nearly half a century. In his newest book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, Bloom revisits the ideas that made him a star -- and explains, in a straightforward way, why he's spent his career trying "to build a hedge around the secular Western canon." Bloom argues that it's simply impossible to understand how literature really gets made unless you recognize that some books are head-and-shoulders above the rest. It's the genius of those books, he contends, that powers the whole of literary creation.

Bloom first rose to prominence in 1973, with a book called The Anxiety of Influence. In technical prose, Bloom made a straightforward argument: great writers, he proposed, are influenced by the writers who came before them; their own writing, meanwhile, can be understood as a complicated, anxious response to those literary influences. The power of Bloom's argument depended, and still depends, on his capacious ideas about what 'influence' is. Influence, for Bloom, really means inspiration.

To get what Bloom's talking about, think back to your own early experiences with truly great writing. A few extraordinary lines in a single poem by Yeats, Whitman, or Shakespeare might strike you with extraordinary force, and make you feel as though you're seeing the world in a new way. If you're really under the spell, you might even try tapping into that current of inspiration yourself, by trying to write your own poems. Artists, Bloom contends, don't start making art out of the blue. They make art because they're awakened to it by other artists -- and not just by any other artists, but by the great geniuses. Under the influence of great art, they have the courage to think, "I can do this, too!"

Being inspired, Bloom argues, is a strange, anxious experience. You wonder whether your inspiration will last. (Bloom quotes Percy Shelley, who explained it this way: "The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.") And you question whether you're too inspired -- whether you're just trying to recreate something great that someone else has already made. Influence, Bloom concludes, is something an artist cultivates, but also tries to escape; it's a source of power, but sometimes it's too powerful. Bloom calls it "literary love." And it's under the influence of literary love that creativity is enflamed and great literature is written.

In a way, Bloom's ideas about literary creativity seem uncontroversial, even intuitive; he describes, for many people, exactly what it's like to encounter something great, and then to try and create something great yourself. The controversy comes in because the general trend in literary studies has, over the last forty years or so, been to broaden the literary canon to include more popular kinds of literature. Bloom, thinking against that current, believes that there are very few sources of real literary greatness. Plenty of people read romance novels and feel inspired by them -- but they're inspired only to create more romance novels. Truly great artists are inspired from above, not below.

Ultimately, Bloom believes, all of the greatest literary art is networked together: “If you carry the major British and American poets around with you by internalization,” he explains, “after some years their complex relations to one another begin to form enigmatic patterns." Those patterns of influence keep looping back to the greatest writers, like Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Tolstoy. Literary influence, Bloom says, is like a "labyrinth" built up from moments of genuine inspiration, when great literary minds encounter one another. To map it, you have to notice how writers draw inspiration from one another -- but also how they seek to wriggle out of inspiration's grip. Tennyson was inspired by Keats, but fled that inspiration; Walt Whitman was influenced by Shakespeare, and his originality results, in part, from an attempt to evade that influence. To understand this process, Bloom argues, you have to start by admitting that "there is such a thing as great literature, and it is possible and important to name it."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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