Harold Bloom on Genius

Harold Bloom has a new book out, a massive tome called Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. I ran into the 800 page book as soon as I stepped into the Ann Arbor Borders 10 days ago. I was in Ann Arbor to visit the School of Information and stopped by Borders to get a sense of the school atmosphere.

Judith Shulevitz’s review from the New York Times captures some of the brilliance of Bloom’s analysis and method.

His style may be disheveled and his book shockingly attuned to the demands of the marketplace, but both have a virtue that trumps those flaws: authenticity. Bloom’s focus on genius is not just commercial opportunism, the usual blather about the moral import of cultural literacy or part of the national obsession with success, though critics will find elements of all three if they go looking for them. Bloom has been writing about genius since at least “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973), if not before. His famous theory of poetic production as a struggle between strong older poets and aspiring younger poets is in essence a theory of genius – of how geniuses defend themselves against the might of previous ones. Strength and genius overlap in the Bloomian cosmos, even if they’re not exactly the same thing. Both are terms for power.

Don’t confuse Bloom’s view of power with that of Michel Foucault, whose critique of power inspired the materialist and historicist approaches to literature that Bloom complains about so bitterly. For Foucault, power was everything and everywhere: all institutions, all discourses, all social relations could be – must be – reinterpreted as struggles for power. For Bloom, power is rare, mysterious, dangerous and inexplicable, although we never stop trying to explain it. Instances of this power, which has much to do with charisma and could also be called greatness, are to be cherished and studied, not deemed suspect and demystified. Efforts to explain literature as a function of the author’s social milieu or historical context, according to Bloom, amount to little more than pathetic attempts to ward off the terrifying force of genius, to reduce it to something harmless.

I remember sitting in his class on twentieth-century poets and being awed by Bloom’s erudition as though it were some kind of physical force in the room. At a reading I once saw him perform a poem by Robert Penn Warren and was so struck by the passion he showed that I read the same poem at my grandmother’s funeral. He’s as much of a presence in person as he is on the page.

Last night one of my classes began a cursory discussion of Foucault’s theory of power - that it is discursive, diffuse, all-encompassing. It’s nice to know that Bloom is fighting for the other side and forcing genius back into the world.