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This article is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

System and Agon Nicolas Tredell
Harold Bloom, Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death (Yale University Press) £25


Like Los in William Blake’s Jerusalem, Harold Bloom, who died on 14 October 2019 at the age of eighty-nine, might have said, in terms of his critical career, ‘I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s’. In his prolific criticism, he did create a rich system elaborated around the idea of what the title of his 1973 book called ‘the anxiety of influence’, the supposed struggle of ‘strong’ poets with their precursors and the complex stratagems they employed to try to achieve their poetic and personal individuation. This system, while sometimes tending towards the scholastic, remains fascinating in its intricacy and its insights, even if the latter are sometimes blurred as Bloom often stayed at two removes from the textual minutiae on which the crucial techne of twentieth-century literary criticism, close reading, characteristically focuses.

Bloom’s system enabled him both to avoid the piecemeal empiricism of a fragmenting New Criticism and to remain independent of structuralism, deconstruction and post-structuralism, in contrast to his sometime Yale colleagues J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman – the latter a close friend whom, in a 1987 interview with Imre Salusinszky, Bloom called ‘the largest single American casualty of Jacques [Derrida] and Paul [de Man]’. While it may have been unfair to consign later Hartman to the casualty ward, Bloom never risked any such fate because he had his own system ...


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