Harold’s Complaint, or Assimilation in Full Bloom

  • David Kaufmann


It has been more than a quarter century since the first publication of The Anxiety of Influence, and both the scandal it provoked and the influence it exerted have generally been forgotten. This was not, in itself, inevitable. It is easy to imagine that the late 1970s feminist appropriation of Bloom’s notions of agonistic identity construction could have been extended to illuminate the narratives of struggle for authority and symbolic capital that have been such an important part of literary criticism since the late 1980s. But Bloom’s own success and his self-presentations have militated against the re-tooling of his theory in this way. Part of the relative oblivion into which The Anxiety of Influence has fallen can be attributed to the victory of its insistent, if covert, polemic against the New Criticism. If the New Criticism is no longer a significant force, neither is the opposition that lined up against it. Furthermore, while Bloom’s theory went to great pains to differentiate itself from its immediate forebears, it also defined itself against the other modes of theory that it competed against at the time. Like “French theory” of the early 1970s, The Anxiety of Influence takes as its touchstones Nietzsche and Freud, but sets up in opposition to the French a Nietzsche untouched by the later Heidegger and a Freud unrevised by Lacan. Instead of basing his theoretical language in either the neologisms of philosophy or the technical terms of the human sciences, Bloom derives his own outlandish vocabulary from the arcana of Gnosticism and the ancient mysteries.


Full Bloom Symbolic Capital Jewish Culture Death Drive Jewish Scholar 
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  1. 1.
    Orrin N. C. Wang, Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 147. My understanding of Bloom’s Gnosticism owes an important debt to Wang’s account and my argument has been greatly improved by his suggestions for this paper. My thanks are also due to Sheila A. Spector for her comments and to Sharon Squassoni for her relentless precision. All mistakes and excesses are of course my own.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The British Romantics, having been denigrated by Eliot and demoted by the New Critics (although it should be remembered that both Brooks and Wimsatt wrote well and respectfully on the Romantics) presented an attractive subject for Jewish academics after the Second World War. The low-church prophetism of the Romantics brought them closer to Jewish interests and knowledge and at the same time allowed Jewish scholars to assert themselves, however surreptitiously, against the not-always-so-genteel anti-Semitism of Eliot and his followers. In this as in so much else, my argument owes much to the insights in Jonathan Freedman, The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). On Jews and Romanticism, see pp. 182–5. On Bloom’s assertive re-definition of the Romantics in the early 1960s, see p. 184.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    As will become clear, I am arguing that Bloom is a theorist of assimilation and in this way, he can be usefully compared to Hartman. Bloom and Hartman were extraordinary Romanticists early in their careers and they used the capital they gained as Romanticists to leverage what we could call the Judaizing of theory. Hartman, of course, assumed a more normative approach to Jewish hermeneutics, by taking Midrash as his model, and this proved to be in keeping with his construction of a mild Romanticism and a humanized sublime. Hartman, true to his German background, seems to maintain an allegiance to the German-Jewish assimilative ideal of cosmopolitan Bildung, of cultivated play and a well-earned distaste for the dangers of Schwaermerei. So when he sees in Wordsworth a “humanizing of imagination,” a “marriage of heaven and earth … despite apocalypse,” he is recasting Wordsworth in terms of his own cultural allegiances. Midrash and an “unremarkable Mr Wordsworth,” these are both powerful emblems for the émigré scholar in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. If his magisterial work on Wordsworth enables him to be a Jewish intellectual, his position as a Jewish intellectual informs his recuperation of Wordsworth. Bloom, home-grown in the Bronx, presents a different set of allegiances. His Wordsworth is as much a projection of his condition as Hartman’s is of his own. For Bildung as a model for assimilation for German Jews, see George L. Mosse, “Jewish Emancipation: Between Bildung and Respectability,” The Jewish Response to German Culture, ed. Jehuda Reinharz and Walter Schatzberg (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985), 1–16;Google Scholar
  4. David Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780–1840 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 15–33;Google Scholar
  5. Steven E. Ascheim, “German Jews Beyond Bildung and Liberalism,” in The German-Jewish Dialogue Reconsidered: A Symposium in Honor of George L. Mosse, ed. Klaus L. Berghahn (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 125–8.Google Scholar
  6. The Hartman quotations come from Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), xi, 69.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: New Left Books, 1974), 49.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 95. All further references to this book will be included parenthetically within the body of the text.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Sigmund Freud, “Family Romance,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–73), 9:237. My phrasing purposefully echoesGoogle Scholar
  10. J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Norton, 1973), 160.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., “The Concrete Universal,” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 82.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Freedman, 155–223. See also Suzanne Klingenstein, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930–1990 (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 407–18.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (New York: Random House, 1969), 79. Hereafter, all references to this work will be included parenthetically within the body of the text.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    And to a certain extent, she had already faded, generationally, by the late 1950s—hence perhaps her availability as material for humor in popular (and therefore not specifically Jewish) culture in the 1960s. See Martha Wolfenstein, “Two Types of Jewish Mothers,” in The Jews: Social Patterns of an American Group, ed. Marshall Sklare (New York: Free Press, 1958), 520–34;Google Scholar
  16. and also Riv-Ellen Prell, Fighting to Become Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 111–13.Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    Marjorie Levinson, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (New York: Blackwell, 1988).Google Scholar

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© Sheila A. Spector 2008

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  • David Kaufmann

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