The greatest criticism is a kind of fiction: a commentary that takes the form of a drama unfolding on the outskirts of the work it pretends to invade and explain. The best critics are purveyors of paradox: literally, of a writing that happens outside or alongside (para) the law (doxa) of the work. Criticism, we might say, occurs despite its object. Even the sober empiricism of academic criticism can wander into this fictional territory, giving itself over to the fantasy of rigour, the glamour of technique and the obscure poetry of terminology. Judged by the standards of the hard sciences, the relationship of literary criticism to its object is one of perpetual failure to grasp the truth of its object. On the contrary, an authentic criticism would be a kind of radical hesitation before the text, a conspicuously modest refusal to directly possess the meaning of this or that poem, novel or play. As the critic Gilbert Adair has claimed, the most worthwhile critics are those who use the work at hand as the occasion for all manner of digressive extravagance, taking the present task as the excuse – literally, the pretext – for wholly Other meditations.
In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold tried to counter this wayward tendency with a neat (and neatly prescriptive) definition of the function of criticism: ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. But Arnold’s crabbed positivism ran counter to the critical spirit of the age. In ‘The Critic as Artist’, a devious homage to the tangential truth of criticism, Oscar Wilde refashioned poor Arnold’s school-inspector moralism with the observation that the true task of the critic is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is not‘. It’s possible to see the history of criticism in the twentieth century as an extended effort to live up to the simple audacity of that aphorism: from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (a heroic exercise in creative citation) to Roland Barthes’s exotic fragmentation of Balzac in S/Z, the greatest readers of the last century fashioned critical fictions that glanced off their ostensible targets at intriguing angles.
In his early criticism, Harold Bloom made a compelling critical drama out of what he called the ‘anxiety of influence’, the way in which poets are weighed down by the influence of their precursors and are forced (in an insight known also to Eliot and Borges) to effectively reinvent those earlier poets in an act of creative and liberating misreading. In Bloom’s hands, the one-way street of ‘influence’ becomes the scene of a riot between past and present, a struggle in which the contemporary poet can only survive by killing off his poetic father. That Bloom cast all of this in Oedipal terms meant not only a debt to Freud, but also (and more interestingly) a sense that criticism itself was for Bloom a kind of theatre in which fiercely implausible characters struggled toward the truth of poetry. It’s a 3-D view of literary tradition that has been hammered, however, in Bloom’s recent work, into a depressingly flat world of cartoon geniuses and nervous readers in need of Bloom’s own hermeneutic fitness programme.
A peculiar metaphorics of readerly musculature pervades Bloom’s latest book: the heavyweight critic’s task in How to Read and Why is to convince us that the job of literature is to create strong and independent selves. Much of the book is taken up with the formulation of a tradition (nicely side-stepping his earlier observation that all such traditions are, after all, inventions) of happy and healthy individualism that stretches back from Emerson’s writings on self-sufficiency through Johnson and Shakespeare to Montaigne’s essays on experience. Bloom makes a simplistic distinction between this oddly muscle-bound character, the glowingly self-fashioned reader, and a sickly collectivity of bad readers typified (unsurprisingly) by the inhabitants of the university. Alongside the stocky figure of the strong reader, Bloom’s quasi-fictional universe is peopled with a great many heroes (from Cervantes to Pynchon, Milton to Toni Morrison) and only one villain: the academic, poised in the wings of Bloom’s critical drama, whispering grim ideological promptings. Bloom’s response to this largely imaginary threat is to shout very loudly for an encore from his favourite players, a mode of ‘argument’ that leads to some jostling confusion on stage. He tells us, for example, that Tolstoy ‘persuades you as only Shakespeare and Cervantes can’: that characteristic ‘as only’ neatly disproving whatever comparison is being made. Between the how and the why of How to Read and Why, there’s not much in the way of persuasion, just a bullying insistence that we work up our ‘energies of response’ and applaud Bloom’s canonical melodrama.
Of course, there’s another character in Bloom’s performance: the sturdy critic himself, whose presence is everywhere in terms of assertion and opinion and oddly nowhere in terms of coherent argument. Bloom’s presence in the book is a determinedly strange one: somewhere between tweedy bluster, frontiersman swagger and the sensibilities of a spoilt Victorian child. When he’s not causing a rumpus in the senior common room or importuning us to identify with Melville’s Ahab in a welter of American manliness, he’s sequestered in the secret garden of his childhood reading, falling in love with women in Thomas Hardy novels. This last episode is in fact quite touching: it’s in the experience of solitary reading that Bloom finds the real value of literature, a value that one can only agree with him is worth hanging onto in the face of proliferating commentary, movie adaptations and the demands of the classroom. Bloom is at his best describing fictional worlds he’s either been entirely seduced by or which have initially repelled him: the excess of his response sparks some illuminating readings. This reader, for one, has been cured of a long-standing allergy to Cormac McCarthy and driven to burning shame by never having got round to The Charterhouse of Parma.
Too often, however, Bloom is seduced here into playing the role of cantankerous seer, handing down his crotchety and oracular pronouncements in apparently blithe forgetfulness of the mercurial uncertainties of his own early work. He makes copious reference to his critical hero, Samuel Johnson, paraphrasing Johnson’s definition of cant as the accumulation of ‘platitudes, pious expression, group think’. He then proceeds, however, to inform us in the most calcified and stolidly ordinary terms that in the novels of Jane Austen ‘the strong selves of her heroines are wrought with a fine individuality that attests to Austen’s own reserves of power.’ This is nothing but a sort of critical kitsch, a glutinous sentiment moulded by whimsical convention into squat, ugly ornament (the same is true of Bloom’s ludicrous and untestable assertion that if Hamlet hadn’t been a prince, he might have been a poet). If Wilde was right when he claimed that the critic was an artist, that the truth of criticism lies precisely in its artifice, its fiction and its glamorous untruth, he had something more daring than this in mind.
Reviewed by Brian Dillon