Hearing yesterday of the death of Harold Bloom I remarked that, like Camille Paglia, he was “a quarter right”. In the early 90s the official story on Bloom was that the whole “anxiety of influence” thing was masculinist and over-reaching, but at least he’d noticed intertextuality. I now think this was entirely backwards: intertextuality, a sort of impersonal transcendental field for literature, was at best a weakly explanatory notion, about as illuminating as saying “we live in a society”; it found its apotheosis in the big data number-crunching of Moretti’s “distant reading”. Contrary to intertextuality’s epidemiological model, in which tropes blindly propagate from site to site like memes disseminating through a network, Bloom’s agon between authors, his “revisionary ratios”, situated the poem in a ceaseless drama of contestation and appropriation. Certainly this drama was one of patrilineal inheritance, an affair of literary fathers and sons locked in Oedipal struggle, and feminist critics were well within their rights to find this tiresome and overbearing (although the past few decades of intergenerational feminist bloodletting suggest that mothers and daughters have internecine-drama-on-the-terrain-of-the-symbolic enough of their own). Even so, Bloom’s interpretative framework directed attention towards something that intertextuality directed attention away from. He was closer to Derrida, for whom every deconstructive act was an intervention into a field of forces, than most Derrideans, who have largely been content to toss word-salad ad infinitum while making grandiose claims about the ethical impossible-necessity of their pursuits.
This is why for me Bloom has always been my “yes, I know, but still” theorist; why I will routinely describe Badiou’s book on Deleuze as a “strong misreading”, a philosophically creative détournement. Geoffrey Hill’s description of poetry as a negotium with the historical and ethical materiality of language, a struggle against “inertia”, strikes me as doubly Bloomian, both in its sense of being situated in the midst of a ceaselessly-renewed agon, and in its enabling misprision of the real stakes of that contest: by figuring the forces with which the poem contends as “inertial”, as “contexture”, Hill can position himself as writing “for the dead”, resurrecting what is inert, making his mark as a kind of literary last-man (his often rancorous remarks about his contemporaries suggest that on another level of awareness he perceived very well that he was a writer amongst others, and moreover one with a hefty Mercian axe to grind). In any case, my point is that the Bloomian lens pulls all of this into focus in a way that nothing else quite does. (As for what, precisely, Paglia was “right” about, that will have to wait until I find myself motivated to pick up Sexual Personae again, but as a first stab I would say that she fulfilled her ambition of being the only critic to really get Madonna).