Bloom’s Giant Forms

Mark Edmundson

  • Ruin the sacred truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present by Harold Bloom
    Harvard, 204 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 674 78027 2
  • Harold Bloom: Towards Historical Rhetorics by Peter de Bolla
    Routledge, 155 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 415 00899 9

One way to think of Harold Bloom is as a professor and scholar of Romantic poetry who has Romantic aspirations of his own. He writes in the passionate style of Emerson and Shelley, and he has a penchant like Blake’s for system-building. Bloom would subscribe to that poet’s declaration in Jerusalem that his business isn’t to reason and compare, but to create. The characters in Blake’s cosmological fiction are named Urizen, Los, Enitharmon; in Bloom’s they include Wordsworth, Shelley, Emerson, Stevens and Blake.

Bloom’s giant forms contend with each other chiefly over the issue of priority. Each aspires to be self-begotten by his own quickening power, to adapt words of Milton’s Satan that Bloom finds congenial. But this inevitably cannot be. Even at the apex of their ‘originality’, poets are rewriting – and being rewritten by – their ‘strong precursors’. Of this process of generation, all poets are self-servingly ignorant. As Bloom puts it in The Anxiety of Influence (1973): ‘Oedipus, blind, was on the path to oracular godhood, and the strong poets have followed him by transforming their blindness towards their precursors into the revisionary insights of their own work.’ To Bloom, Wordsworth’s chief passion is not nature, or childhood, or the truths of the human heart, but the struggle to ‘revise’ Milton. His own drive to write a sprawling Romantic epic composed of ‘strong misreadings’ of the poets begins with the belief that ‘misreading’ and ‘revision’ are what the Romantics were doing all along themselves. Thus Bloom’s contention that there’s no firm difference between poetry and authentic criticism: ‘There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.’ Given Bloom’s own Romantic project, his bid to dissolve the boundaries between poetry and criticism may seem opportunistic. But it’s also true – or at least an article of Romantic faith – that ambitious writers must create the taste by which they’ll be appreciated.

Orwell acutely criticised H. G. Wells for being ‘too sane’ to understand the modern world. From Bloom’s point of view, most academic critics of poetry are of far too accommodated a disposition – too sane – to understand that a potent text is always an act, a will to power. Bloom’s criticism aims to resist the process by which poetry is absorbed into various forms of cultural consensus. The idea that anger and ambition of an emphatically personal sort motivate real artistic achievement is meant to contend against Arnold’s assimilation of sublime art to the categories of sweetness and light, as well as against the Marxist tendency to read poetry in terms that take only passing account of the individual will.

Bloom emphasises both the determining context and the power that some rare individuals have of breaking (at least part way) out of it. Anyone who wants to read great poetry as the grounds for a story about who and what we all are, or might become – that is, anyone who wants to use it for the purposes of general education – will be bound to resist Bloom’s account of how genius does its work. The objective of Bloom’s criticism, finally, is to make contact with the primitive energies in imaginative writing which are placed, by convention, beyond the walls of the academy.

Effective literary critics tend to be imaginative people who’ve taken seriously some variant of Plato’s notion that poetry is a harmful deception. Almost all of the major works of criticism in the West have been, in one way or another, defences of poetry. For his part, Bloom is out to defend poetry against its normative defenders, the humanists who believe that poetry is a ‘civilising’ influence, and the deconstructors and Marxists who feel that it provides access to ‘negative truths’. Bloom reads poems because he likes what they do for him, and what he can do with them. ‘When you read,’ Bloom says in The Breaking of the Vessels (1982),

you confront either yourself, or another, and in either confrontation you seek power. Power over yourself, or another, but power. And what is power? Potentia, the pathos of more life, or to speak reductively, the language of possession.

It’s plain from passages like this one that Bloom is much more interested in his own critical performances than he is in edifying anybody else. He is a critic who writes to unfold himself and to make his name, something that novelists and poets commonly admit they do. But odes to one’s own will to textual power don’t play well in the academy, where the professor is supposed to sustain a monkish devotion to the canon or, more recently, to one social programme or another.

Bloom, again in Romantic fashion, is more interested in telling the story of the growth of his own mind, and this story takes the form of a romance of reading. By his own account, Bloom is an obsessive reader, with a ‘preternatural memory’ for poems. The risk of such critical virtues, naturally, is that they can poison intuitive powers of response. The pleasures of early reading – Bloom says in Agon (1982) that Hart Crane ‘cathected’ him ‘onto poetry’ when he was ten years old – must grow more remote with every return to the text. Crane’s ‘Marlovian rhetoric swept us in,’ Bloom recalls, ‘but as with Marlowe himself the rhetoric was also a psychology and a knowing.’ The shift in interest from sweeping rhetoric to a more detached ‘psychology’ and ‘knowing’ is, for a vitalist like Bloom, a decline, if not a fall. The paradise of early reading is a lost one. Bloom’s criticism seeks sensations akin to former pleasures. He works to uncover patterns of influence that are surprising in something of the way that the first readings were. The perception of hidden continuities within poems turns out to be the source of a fresh, if compromised vitality, and of a new kind of criticism.

Part of what makes Bloom so remarkable a reader of such poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, Whitman, Yeats and Stevens is the fact that his perplexity in certain ways coincides with theirs. All those writers are prone to composing what might, using the term broadly, be called elegies – poems that reflect on some drastic loss that no substitute can ever cure, though a cure must be attempted nonetheless. The ‘philosophic mind’ is inevitably a poor replacement for the ‘glory and the dream’. Just so, an ‘antithetical criticism’, as Bloom calls his own, can’t stand in very well for the joys of first encounter. Bloom recaptures and expresses the pathos of Romantic longing in the rhythms of his work. He translates Romantic quests into the idioms of the present day, and so gives to his favourite poets a passionate immediacy that they might not otherwise possess for us. But perhaps Bloom’s virtues contribute to his drawbacks. He never gets, nor does he want, enough distance on Romanticism to question its values.

Besides an affection for system-building and an urge to recapture the past, Bloom inherits from his Romantic predecessors an appetite for self-scrutinising reductions. A great deal of Blake is condensed into ‘To Tirzah’; Emerson decodes himself repeatedly, most successfully perhaps in the essay ‘Circles’. But Bloom is often the victim of his own drive for self-clarification. His formal terms – ‘clinamen’, ‘tessera’, ‘apophrades’, and the rest – sometimes take priority over his perceptions, and end up doing his thinking for him.

But this problem doesn’t stem exclusively from Bloom’s Romanticism. In large part, it’s the pressures of American institutional criticism that trap even the most adventurous critics in their own reductions. To have an imposing presence in the profession – and Bloom obviously wants that – you need a vocabulary that will generate a lot of readings, both for yourself and for others. No one uses Bloom’s more esoteric terms but he has succeeded in making his theory of influence an element of the standing critical wisdom. Many of his former antagonists have now moved to what William James thought of as the third phase in the assimilation of a threatening new idea. First they said it was absurd, then that it was peripheral, now they want to claim it as their own creation. So Bloom has in a sense won his battle. In doing so, he may have succumbed to the institutional imperative to rest for too long with his reductions. And that, of course, makes it very hard to get up and move beyond them. Critics have a lot to say now about the ‘political unconscious’, but maybe we should spare some time for the ‘institutional unconscious’ that determines so much of what we do.

Bloom’s new book, Ruin the sacred truths, attempts to turn away from formalisms and to develop an ‘experiential’ or ‘pragmatic’ criticism. This latest move runs directly counter to the way that Peter de Bolla’s book Harold Bloom: Towards Historical Rhetorics wants to take Bloom’s work. De Bolla’s clear, thoughtful description of Bloom’s career thus far is followed by a rigorous development of Bloom’s diachronic theory of tropes into a historicising rhetoric which focuses on the way new figurative language emerges from old. But the danger in de Bolla’s very sophisticated procedure is of moving into too squinting and severe a criticism. Bloom’s own effort to cut loose most of his former terminological train seems to me to be far the better choice.

The scope of Bloom’s contentions and their aim have been expanded in the new book, which is an exercise in canon-formation on the large scale, surveying as it does the Yahwist, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Blake and Wordsworth, and moving into our own century, where the light falls on Freud, Kafka and Beckett. What holds these diverse writers together is their ‘strength’, which refers less frequently now to their revisionary powers than it does to their ability to create characters of such singular force that they define the bounds of human subjectivity. There is a polemic present here, and one of a more political nature than we’re used to hearing from Bloom. Left-leaning cultural criticism, ascendant now in the American academy, affirms that the limits of our perceptions are the result of ‘ideologies’, systems of representation that naturalise what are actually contingent historical conditions, and cover up class, race and gender conflicts. To Bloom, the creations of genius frequently mark the boundaries of what we can say and see, and this achievement is to be celebrated, not maligned.

But such celebration isn’t easy to manage. Bloom says at one point that ‘Shakespeare was a mortal god ... because his art was not a mimesis at all. A mode of representation that is always out ahead of any historically-unfolding reality necessarily contains us more than we can contain it.’ This is distinctly unfashionable rhetoric. A New Historicist like Stephen Greenblatt would teach us that Shakespeare’s plays are embedded in their moment, and that they ‘circulate’ energies and forms alive throughout Elizabethan culture. In Greenblatt’s view, the plays are emphatically products of their time: they in no case ‘transcend’ it. Bloom has got to prove that they do.

Scholars are trained to put phenomena in context. Nietzsche cruelly lampooned this activity in The Uses and Abuses of History, where he wrote that ‘the most astonishing works may be created; the swarm of historical neuters will always be in their place, ready to consider the author through their long telescopes.’ Yet for the scholar to work against the grain of his historicising instinct, and to find what is original, rather than what coheres with past creations, in any given work is a rare feat. To me, Bloom succeeds best of all in his reading of Hamlet, the play of which William Hazlitt said that ‘we have been so used to this tragedy that we hardly know how to criticise it any more than we should know how to describe our own faces.’

Bloom’s objective is to demonstrate how the character of Hamlet cannot be circumscribed even by the discourse of the contemporary figure who has done the most to establish our sense of human identity. What Bloom rather subtly shows is that Hamlet surpasses what one might ironically call his own Oedipal fixations. That is, he surpasses the construction of his character that Freud so influentially put forward in The Interpretation of Dreams. In Act Five, Bloom says, Hamlet embraces death, which delivers him from his fixation upon his father. ‘What Hamlet at first loves is what Biblical and Freudian man loves: the image of authority, the dead father, and the object of the dead father’s love, who is also the object of Claudius’s love. When Hamlet matures, or returns fully to himself, he transcends the love of authority and ceases to love at all, and perhaps he can be said to be dying throughout all of Act Five, and not just in the scene of the duel.’ As Shakespeare exceeds his most influential critic, Freud, so he inevitably exceeds our own expectations of him: Hamlet is too surprising to surprise us.

Throughout Ruin the sacred truths, Bloom strives to qualify as the sort of critic whom Nietzsche would have praised for recording the uncanniness of great authors. Bloom wants to restore to us an awareness of just how strange is the God of the Yahwist, who attacks Moses, who sits on the ground in front of Abraham and devours roast calf, sends down an angel to wrestle with Jacob, and creates the first man by, of all possible devices, breathing on a handful of wet clay. And normative religion has succeeded in transforming this very queer personality into a white-bearded Supreme Administrator. One implied argument of Ruin the sacred truths is that criticism of literary and religious texts has reached such a state of bland corporate cohesion that we need to begin reading the major works all over again. From Bloom’s point of view, the normative commentator is in something like the situation Thoreau evokes: ‘How can he remember well his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?’

So Ruin the sacred truths instructs us in the personal, rather than Roman Catholic, content of Dante’s myth-making; in Milton’s high regard for his prime creation, Satan (whom Bloom thinks of as the archetype for the modern poet); in Wordsworth’s ambition to do homage to no god but himself; and in Kafka’s drive to write texts that will baffle every resource of interpretation. Bloom, as I said, calls himself an experiential critic. He wants to do what Samuel Johnson did so well in the Lives of the Poets, which is to record his own experience of literature in immediate and fairly personal terms, unconstrained by a lot of fancy theorising. His readings succeed in casting brilliant light on classic works that are much praised but often left unopened. The further you read into Ruin the sacred truths, the clearer it becomes that Bloom is fighting battles on every cultural and academic front. He’s building a canon: promoting Judaic literature and values over the Greek and Christian traditions, warring with conventional Bible scholars, taking random shots at members of the cultural Left, designated elsewhere by Bloom as the Pale Priests of Resentment: in ‘the days of my youth ... professors of literature were a secular clergy. I used to scoff at such a clerisy, but now the mocker is mocked, the biter bitten, and I would as soon be surrounded by a secular clergy as by a pride of displaced social workers.’ Generally, this makes for an invigorating book, though there are times when Bloom gets so caught up in cultural controversies that his passionate engagement with the great texts is temporarily clouded over. But a great deal is at stake in the book’s polemics.

In his spirited discussion of the literary critical scene in America, After the New Criticism (1980), Frank Lentricchia, while acknowledging Bloom’s achievements, castigated him for his ‘retrograde and anti-intellectual’ wish ‘to be an original theorist’. Lentricchia himself favours a criticism with collective rather than individual concerns, one that endorses relational thinking, and questions the existence of the individual poetic will. And these views, which are beginning to prevail in many American departments of English, are put forward in the name of a more or less socialist version of human progress. For his part, Bloom is unwilling to let go of his allegiance to the great whose names, as Keats memorably put it, are in our lips.

It’s conceivable, though, at least to me, that the celebration of the sort of genius that overcomes established human norms may be genuinely useful in inspiring people to arrive at other, better ways to organise their lives, and to attempt to change what seem to be unalterable material conditions. Perhaps the example of genius can sometimes be more valuable in this regard than the promises put forward by even the most humane sort of programmatic politics. At its best, Bloom’s book of resourceful and original readings of classic texts calls to mind Emerson’s dictum on the one true use of books: ‘They are for nothing,’ he said, ‘but to inspire.’