- Harold Bloom and The American Canon:RIP
I first met Harold Bloom to talk with once, in the fall of 1976. I had just started as an assistant professor at Princeton University in September, and this was a few weeks, at most a month, later. Bloom was visiting for two weeks, to deliver two big lectures, drawn from the opening and closing chapters of his forthcoming book in spring 1977, the long-awaited study Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. This book, the projected and actual bookend to Bloom's five-year period of theoretical elaboration, 1971-76, was intended to establish Stevens over Yeats. Yeats, his 1970 critique of "the greatest poet to write English in our century," as T. S. Eliot had famously anointed the Irish 1923 Nobel laureate right after his death in 1939, was followed by Bloom's theoretical tetralogy of The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbala and Criticism (1975), and Poetry and Repression (1976).
In 1971, Bloom also published The Ringers in the Tower, a collection of his theoretically inflected essays from the 1960 s, mostly concerned with his version of romanticism as an internal quest romance in which the modern, post-Enlightenment poet, sought for his own powerful voice against past glories and contemporaneous rivals and vicissitudes. With his tetralogy, Bloom branded his romanticism as the anxiety of influence. The contemporary poet of any post-Renaissance period had less to worry about from such rivals and vicissitudes than (s)he did from those previous poets whose poetry the poet fell in love with, and whose echoes and allusions, return unconsciously against one's creative will. Bloom, ever the anti-Eliot, set out to demonstrate via his elaborate anxiety of influence theory of poetry, that rather than Yeats, Stevens was the rightful heir to romantic genius in our time, because Yeats sacrificed too much of his humanity to achieve what he did achieve, while Stevens, even more personally solipsistic than Yeats ever was in his life, nevertheless produced a vision more stoically humane than anything in Yeats. Yeats surrendered his imaginative power to a generalized vision of tragic historical process without any viable exceptions. Stevens, Bloom contended, accepted that the imagination itself had to be imagined as lost, before the world could be reimagined in whatever forms emerged in the future.
Besides these lectures on "American Poetic Stances: From Emerson to Stevens" and "Poetic Crossing," Bloom also appeared in selective [End Page 485] preceptorials during his visit; these were breakout smaller sections of large lecture courses often taught by the lecturer and also, if large enough, assistant professors. My first semester's course load was indeed three such preceptorials, in modern drama, modern novel, and modern poetry. Bloom came into the modern poetry course right after we had completed our sessions on Whitman and were moving to Emily Dickinson. Briefly, we were introduced, and then once Bloom set up office hours for students and faculty to visit him, I dropped by and we chatted. But not about Yeats, Stevens, or Dickinson. Instead, with spoke about Valentinus. And the last substantive e-mail I received from him, before the one in which he announced he was being taken to the hospital where he was to die on October 14, 2019, referred to my being a Valentinian, as part of our by now long-running "joke" between us. Of course, he was right, as he always was. As a Gnostic, Bloom was his own school, whereas my views were more coincidental with what has been called by Hans Jonas, author of The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God to the Modern World (1958), the Valentinian Speculation.
As such, I identified with the theory of Valentinus, a heretical Christian of the second century CE, who believed that the material world was created in a moment of fall, when Sophia, a member of the Divine Pleroma or Presence of the Alien God, secluded herself from the other members in an attempt to emulate the creative genius of the Alien God, but produced an abortion instead, a Demi-Urge, as her son, who sought to patch up...