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The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life by Harold Bloom: review
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on the scattershot brilliance of Harold Bloom's new book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life

Of the several hundred books he has edited or written, including bestselling defences of the Western canon and Shakespeare, his most famous work remains The Anxiety of Influence (1973). It was the first of Bloom’s many attempts to turn readers’ assumptions upside-down and inside-out.

As he described it, the scene of writing was an environment every bit as dangerous as Darwin’s tangled bank. Far from being meek and bookish, poets spent their creative lives trying to elbow each other out of the way in a desperate attempt to catch the eye of posterity. “Strong” poets rewrote their predecessors in order to take their place in the pantheon; lines of poetry were at once a literary genealogy and an imaginary piano wire used to strangle one’s rivals.

This self-styled “swan song” is offered as Bloom’s final journey into the “labyrinth” of literary influence. Around 30 writers – all male – form a dense tangle of literary relationships that Bloom unpicks, although roughly two-thirds of the book is taken up by “our two towering precursors, Shakespeare and Whitman”.

Much of the argument will be familiar to anyone who has read one of Bloom’s previous books. So will the rhetoric, in which writing is a “competition” and a “crisis” and ordinary words are pumped up into mystical articles of faith: “the Age of Resentment”, “the shadows of our Evening Land”. What is new here is the tone, which is far more personal and elegiac than anything Bloom has attempted previously.

On page after page he repeats his age, as if not quite able to believe it, and introduces revealing stories about his childhood or serenely dishes the dirt on literary celebrities such as Auden, whose luggage, when he turned up at Bloom’s house, consisted of “a large bottle of gin, a small one of vermouth, a plastic drinking cup, and a sheaf of poems”.

One of the stories Bloom tells about himself involves his old teacher W K Wimsatt complaining that Bloom was “an 18-inch naval gun with tremendous firepower but always missing the cognitive target”. Wimsatt was a shrewd judge. Some of Bloom’s aphorisms on Shakespeare have a scattershot brilliance: “he lights up contexts far more than they illuminate him”, “The limitation of Prospero’s art is time.”

For the full article

The Telegraph