By Alistair Heys. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Alistair Heys’s The Anatomy of Bloom is in a number of ways a truly remarkable book. I shall focus, as is fitting for a review in The Wallace Stevens Journal, on what Heys says about what Harold Bloom says about Stevens. That means especially, of course, what Heys says about Bloom’s Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. I must begin, however, in order to establish a context for doing that, with a survey of Heys’s book as a whole. That is by no means an easy task. The Anatomy of Bloom is one of the most difficult and challenging books I have read in a long time.
Most of Heys’s book is not about Stevens, but is devoted to arguing in detail that Bloom is a Gnostic. Heys is enormously and expertly learned, not only in Bloom’s multitudinous and difficult books, but also in everything you need to know in order to read Bloom: the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, the ancient texts of Gnosticism and other heretical writings, Jewish and Christian exegesis of biblical texts, all those other books about religion that Bloom read (and in general he has read everything), those theorist colleagues (Hartman, Derrida, and de Man) from whom he differentiated himself, not to speak of his bête noire, T. S. Eliot, the whole canon of British and American imaginative literature, from Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton down through Dr. Johnson to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Blake (especially, of course, Blake), Ruskin, Emerson, Whitman, Yeats, and Stevens down to John Ashbery and others of our own day. Bloom has read everything and remembers everything. He is not only the fastest reader in the West, as Heys calls him, but also the most retentive reader. I remember once, years ago, when we were colleagues at Yale, asking Bloom if he knew the source of an unidentified citation Walter Pater makes in one of his essays. (Pater, like Bloom himself, is not given to footnotes.) Bloom thought for a moment and then said, “That is from one of Swinburne’s essays, I think the one on Shakespeare.” Sure enough . . . ! Someone with the temerity to write a comprehensive “anatomy of Bloom” has their work cut out for them. Heys passes this test admirably.
The Anatomy of Bloom is really, however, several books in one. These books are layered on one another like palimpsests, or interwoven in practically every sentence.
One of those books is explanatory readings by Heys, one by one, more or less chronologically, of Bloom’s many books and essays, including the books on individual poets like Yeats and Stevens.
A second book is the elaborated argument that Bloom is really a religious writer through and through. Bloom combines his Jewish heritage with American [End Page 258] Protestantism, but is really neither an Orthodox Jew like his parents nor an American Protestant like Emerson or Whitman, but rather a Gnostic.
A third book is the slight distance between Heys and Bloom. That distance is present in various ways, among them a vague irony in Heys’s tone. Heys’s distance from Bloom might be defined as a wistful evanescent whiff of a desire that Bloom might be some sort of Christian rather than a Gnostic.
Hans Jonas’ authoritative The Gnostic Religion was Bloom’s starting place for his knowledge of Gnosticism. Heys asserts that “arguably the three most central works of Bloom’s career [are] The Anxiety of Influence, The American Religion and The Book of J” (1–2). The latter term refers to the oldest stratum of the Hebrew Bible. Just what is Gnosticism? It would take many pages to give even a brief history and explanation. Heys, however, cites Bloom’s thumbnail sketch in Poetry and Repression (213–14) of Gnosticism as being an alternative to Judaism and Christianity, as well as being prior to both:
Gnosis, as the word itself indicates, means a kind of “knowledge.” . . . This “knowledge” is itself the form that salvation takes, because the “knower” is...