For reasons not obvious to me I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Harold Bloom’s work lately, and in The Anxiety of Influence I came across this passage:
But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: “This is dead, this is living, this is the poetry of X.” Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect.
There’s something pleasing and ridiculous about the “strongest” poets being described in the same language one would use for a discus hurler or hockey player. Instead of being writers trying to put words on the page, the poet is made into a Blakean figure who strides the landscape of the mind. If you misread this passage, you might skim and find that poets “tend not to think, as they read,” which would be a challenge, since reading seems to be by definition a form of reading.
But if poets aren’t reading other poets since they can only read themselves, what are they reading when they read, say, Shakespeare? Themselves into Shakespeare? If so, I would guess that either everyone or no one does this, and I can’t say which is more likely.
And what does that odd phrase, “to be not elect” mean? Apparently there are at least three classes: the elect, who the strong poets are, the plebeians somewhere down below, and maybe some people pressing their faces against the glass face of the elect. I would guess myself to be way down there, relative to poets, assuming one buys this model of the poetic universe, which I’m not sure I do.
Anyway, one sees the ranking technique, the knowing allusions (“neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian”) and the mystical throughout the Bloom I’ve read. In Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Bloom argues that Shakespeare invented the way we feel, think about feeling, and be. I can mostly respond: maybe. The book is overly pervasive, as I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t have developed modern consciousness without Shakespeare, which is reading against Bloom, but I like the ideas nonetheless. I feel like I’m playing again, instead of working, and that I should have a glass of wine or maybe sherry while I’m reading Bloom. It’s also fun to find a modern critic who isn’t afraid to say something, to make judgments, to acknowledge that some writers are better than others, and not to apologize for it, even when Bloom effectively parodies himself by saying things like “to be judicious is to be weak.” In that case, count me among the weak, or among those who would ask, “what do you mean by judicious?” and then launch into a Wittgensteinian argument.