Bloom’s Gnovel

Marilyn Butler

  • The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy by Harold Bloom
    Faber, 240 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 374 15644 1

Harold Bloom of Yale has become strangely hard to avoid. Eloquent, prolific, charismatic, he is unmistakably one of the leading living mandarins of literary criticism. His manner of writing has not endeared him to the professional Establishment – his hyperboles, as he once remarked, have been unacceptable to the scholars of poetic tradition. On the other hand, there has been something in his matter which has made it difficult for non-hyperbolic scholars either to catch him out or to shake him off.

One reason has been his splendid timing. Over the last twenty years a series of books which on the face of it dealt with esoteric topics proved, on inspection, to chime with the intellectual fashion. He rose to stardom by writing on Romanticism, and especially with The Visionary Company (1961), an introduction to the six great English Romantic poets which interpreted them all as introverted figures with transcendental aspirations. The Visionary Company was never merely fashionable; it had much more vigour and warmth than almost all rival surveys of its field. But it did manage to keep company with a whole American generation’s outpouring on English Romanticism, most of it profoundly respectable. Bloom, to be sure, in 1970 wrote a new introduction to The Visionary Company which implied that it broke with the past. Eliot, Bloom declared, divided English poets into two traditions, of which the better line of inheritance was the religious (although, Bloom commented, the favoured poets were in practice merely the Anglo-Catholics). Using this yardstick, Eliot came near to omitting Romantic poetry from his canon. Was Bloom’s a move, then, to re-admit a body of poetry that was politically radical, secular, or otherwisenon-conforming with High American altruism? Not so. ‘Though it is a displaced Protestantism,’ Bloom concedes, ‘or a Protestantism astonishingly transformed by different kinds of humanism or naturalism, the poetry of the English Romantics is a kind of religious poetry, and the religion is in the Protestant line.’ This is a bit like Milton’s handling of Satan’s rebellion: it begins with the challenge, and ends with the Almighty firmly in the judgment seat.

Bloom’s religiousness has probably been the element in his thinking which has done most to confuse his friends and foes alike. From the start he has peppered his books with esoteric references to the Jewish Kabbalah, the body of doctrine or theosophy which is latent both in Judaism and in Christianity; it emphasises not external authority, the law, the Prophets, the Church, but inward experience and meditation. The religiously orthodox, and with them Eliot’s New England literary Establishment, have no doubt tended to think that Kabbalism encourages superstition, emotionalism and self-indulgence. Much the same could be said of the flower people of the 1960s, who were also hankering after forms of religion with a dash of oriental extravagance about them. It was a suspect strain in Bloom, that his Kabbalism met the emotionalism of the day. And yet he avoided making exaggerated claims for the movement, of the sort other scholars might have enjoyed themselves refuting; his learning was, in fact, also compatible with the highly scholastic accounts of Renaissance neo-Platonism which were pouring out of the academies at the same time.

As the formalistic Seventies succeeded the subjective Sixties, Bloom’s talent for keeping abreast or actually ahead began to look like genius. For elaboration and sheer adaptive ingenuity there is not much in recent criticism in English to challenge his series beginning with The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973), and continuing with A Map of Misreading (1975), complete with tables and diagrams. Bloom had left behind the emotional atmosphere of the Sixties, and sidestepped the charge of subjectivism, in favour of the rigour and scientific systematising which were now more fashionable in the graduate schools. Or had he?

All along, there was something oddly volatile about the elements he combined. The lengthening list of specialised terms and the precise-looking tables were presented in a prose style that sounded more and more intense and vatic. Since the mid-Seventies, while the diverse elements in his work have fused with increasing success into a personal system, Bloom has looked less and less like a member of any club. His contribution to a recent volume on the fashionable topic of Deconstuction and Criticism spells out that he is not a deconstructionist. He feels more at home within the Anglo-American approach to literature, an empirical intellectual tradition, than with French systematising. He has applied himself, after all, to the great mainstream creative writing of the last two centuries; he has contributed essentially to the understanding of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Yeats, as well as Wallace Stevens and still-living American poets. That concern with establishing a canon of great literature, and with the interpretation of all poems within the canon, is traditional to literary scholarship, and generally treated with scorn by theorists.

Yet to welcome him back to the fold of orthodoxy would be letting a wolf in among the sheep. The fact is that Bloom was less likely to get under the skin of empiricist critics when he sounded theoretical in A Map of Misreading than he was in Poetry and Repression (1976), a brilliant group of studies of ‘Canonical’ great poems in which theory was smuggled in seriatim, in a number of well-calculated digressions. Arguments that had been resistible when rehearsed at length became fascinating as apercus; what was grandiose and vulnerable as a system now proved capable of supporting clever and imaginative writing about poems. On these terms, the reader could take, for example, the hypothesis that a revolution has occurred in Western experience: since about the end of the 18th century, the perception of the outer world has become clearer, because it is perceived as different from the Self; reality has been internalised, and the history of mankind transferred to the history of the individual. For Bloom, the great interpreters of this intellectual revolution are the 19th-century sages Emerson, Nietzsche and Freud. From Emerson he takes his acutely introverted reading of Romanticism, from Freud his understanding of the inner life as intense, ceaseless activity: the psyche is a battle-ground in which the self’s most identifiable antagonist is the figure of the father. But the Freudian account of generalised inner life becomes with Bloom an analogy for something more specific: the making of poetry. In particular, the Freudian phenomenon, repression, is adapted to become the Bloomian phenomenon, poetic influence. To find his voice, the poet has to rebel successfully against a poetic antagonist, a dominant precursor-poet. Tracing this process barely resembles the old scholastic quest for literary sources. (Bloom somewhere describes the source-hunter as the carrioneater of the profession.) The work of the previous poet has already been absorbed by the id of the new one, so that it is an internalised antagonist who rises up against the ego; the alien concept is felt as a burden and provokes a defence from the consciousness, Bloom’s characteristic dogma of the poet’s misreading of his precursor.

Though it rests on brutal simplifications, Bloom’s theory cuts through the intellectual knot of how to make psychology serve the needs of literary criticism: he proposes that we should understand the poet’s devices as psychic defences against previous writing. There is no denying that to the student generation this fundamentalist proposition can have an extraordinary appeal. In Bloom’s scheme, the poet’s task is a model of the struggle to realise the self, which many of them see as the central activity of life. Practising poets are more likely to feel put out, as are orthodox critics. Conscious aspects of poem-making, from craftsmanship to argument to ‘world view’, are discounted, and so, too, is the concept Coleridge believed in, of artistic creativity as beneficent and God-given. For Bloom is at one with the deconstructionists on a crucial issue: he suspects the poet’s tendency to idealise his own activity, and the critic’s tendency to support the poet, in that long literary tradition of mutual flattery or, as Bloom puts it with characteristic politeness, of ‘noble obfuscation’. The author of Poetry and Repression has travelled a long way since the relative safety of The Visionary Company. Indeed, the favourite ideas he adverts on – Romantic Protestantism, the Kabbalah, Freud – have this in common with one another, that they supply images for a self at war with precedent or with orthodoxy. Always as much creative writer as critic, Bloom now looks less like the collector of scattered doctrines, and more like the author of a single complex personal myth. It is an impression confirmed by his novel, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy.

At its most serious, fantasy becomes a vehicle for an alternative interpretation of reality, and so he uses it here. The interpretation is that of the Gnostics, a group of believers associated primarily with Alexandria in the first centuries AD. Gnosticism was a strong force within Christianity, but its roots were pre-Christian, Greek and Persian as well as Hebraic, and strongly coloured by the dislike of the material world characteristic of the Orient. According to the Gnostics, this world was created by a fallen Deity, the evil Demiurge, who imprisons us in matter and continues to block our ascent to the true, alien God. In Bloom’s allegory, an Aeon, or angel of the true God, descends to Earth and carries the book’s two heroes, Valentinus and Perscors, to another planet, Lucifer, in order to discover or recover the transcendental knowledge that releases the divine spark from its demiurgical prison.

It is a learned novel, in more than one sense. As the principal hero, Perscors goes through a series of standard epic trials, including a visit to the Underworld, and these are adjusted with Spenserian niceness to suit the allegory. His grand battle at the end begins with his stumbling alone in a labyrinth, and continues with a contest against wind and rain, since he represents mankind lost in perplexity and ignorance. ‘I have set myself against the invisible.’ Actually, Gnosticism’s preoccupation with the inward struggle presents rather a poser to Bloom as novelist, who has to let on that Perscors can never be in serious danger from any human opponent. Well over half his adventures are mere conversations with the inhabitants of Lucifer, who are re-living the schisms of Earth 1,800 years ago. In a ‘religion-mad’ world, the warring leaders are happy to instruct him on points of dogma before resuming their chief business, which is to slaughter one another. Manichees are thus usefully distinguished from Marcionites, while followers of cults further from the Alexandrian centre, the Mithraic and the Arimanic, walk on, carrying spears. Those of an antiquarian taste will like the discursive turn events take. While nothing outward appears to be going on, interest is sustained by curiosity about where on earth, theologically speaking, Bloom intends to lead us.

As fiction, The Flight to Lucifer has practically nothing to recommend it. The plot, so important an element in fantasy, lacks suspense, pace and variety. Bloom’s style is as powerful as ever, but narrative, or at any rate allegorical narrative, gives him no opening for the dazzling insights and asides of his best criticism. Lucifer is not a fictional world for the imagination to linger in: the landscape is repellent, the light poor, and the native inhabitants both nasty and feeble – while the visitor Perscors, angry, murderous, exceedingly male, is about as empathetic as King Kong. And yet, even if he surmises that the novel is unlikely to make the best-seller list, the fair-minded critic can hardly damn it on any of the grounds given, since the allegory has, with unassailable logic, determined them all. The question outstanding is whether this deliberate presentation of his myth adds to Bloom’s stature, or tells us anything which he has not told us better in his formal criticism.

As a personal myth, Bloom’s has extraordinary features. The hero’s strange name, which seems to echo that of a pagan hero like Perseus or even Prometheus, is also a near-anagram of Precursor. The Gnostic figure alluded to is the Primal Man, the first of the human race and the original antagonist of the fallen Demiurge. For some Gnostics, Primal Man made war on darkness in repeated incarnations; as he raises himself out of the material world, so may others who retain the spark of the divine being. But Bloom’s myth is not likely to apply primarily to being, to living, or to the religious state of knowing: his concern has always been with writing. Perscors’s discovery of his identity reminds us of an observation Bloom makes in Poetry and Repression, when he is discussing the confrontation between the poet-figure and the Muse Moneta in Keats’s poem ‘The Fall of Hyperion’: ‘Priority perhaps means not being first, but being alone, and is the demonic form of the apocalyptic impulse to be integrated again.’ Bloom has always maintained that the great poet is strong, but this is not a term which means anything precise; to say that Perscors gives it teeth is to put it mildly. Viewed as behaviour, Perscors’s tendency to beat up the female divinities he encounters leaves much to be desired. (Actually it is hard not to speculate, in ordinary Freudian terms, about this character’s obsession with punishing a succession of elderly and uninviting whores.) But for the intended significance of these scenes, it is more illuminating to bear Keats in mind again – Keats, who in his poetry depicts a series of encounters between a human male quester-poet and a divine female Muse-principle. Even in Keats’s decorous version, these meetings are liable to spell danger for the human male. Bloom, with his post-Freudian reading of the inner life, is a great deal less temperate. He renders the classic relationship as either the masochistic ritualised humiliation of the poet, or the brutal overthrow of the Divinity, and in either case, war to the death. The Anxiety of Influence presented itself as ‘a severe poem’ or ‘a grim romance of the critical quest’ on account of the harshness of its portrayal of the poetic process. The Flight to Lucifer has the same subject and matches the description.

As a religious allegory, Bloom’s novel, like C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, manages to make the reader feel admonished but unrepentant. Viewed as an allegory of the artistic life – that sphere conventionally bathed in Arnoldian sweetness and light – it is considerably more agitating. The Devil is come down unto us, having great wrath, and the lamb-like poet of the academies is in his path.