Harold Bloom, Heart-Reader Extraordinaire
I had a short, interesting conversation on email a couple weeks ago, with a professor of English I really look up to. This professor has written, in my judgment, quite compellingly about things like the importance of evaluation, the desire on the part of literature to escape neurobiological time, even (one of my favorite aspects of his work) the fascinating role that music plays in Proust. I don’t remember exactly how the subject of Harold Bloom came up, but I think it was because I was asking this teacher to share an article he had written recently about the importance of judgment and evaluation, and of course Bloom evaluated everything, or, as he puts it succinctly in Ruin the Sacred Truths, a series of lectures he gave in the late 80s, “more? equal to? or less than?”
So the subject of Bloom came up. This professor pointed out that Bloom had never wed his argument for literary value with political or anti-market arguments; this, he said, was rhetorically counter-productive, as the academy itself, or at least most if not all English departments, had turned away from things like aesthetic value in the last forty years, and more towards social realities, political realties, economic realities, etc. And so Bloom, the argument went, had become tone-deaf, at least in terms of these engagements with economics and politics, even if he had also been a powerful and prophetic lightning-rod for problems in English departments that had fructified in exactly the way Bloom had predicted long ago.
When I read this argument by this professor I admire about Bloom’s rhetorical counter-productiveness, I initially thought, “you know, in a way, he (the professor) is right.” I wasn’t sure, for example, that I had ever come across even one passage in Bloom where he so much as uttered words like “capitalism” or “neoliberalism.” (Bloom had famously quipped that for him, Marx referred to Groucho, and not that other Marx.)
And yet the more I thought about this professor’s statement—which, in a way, was a critique, a way of clearing methodological and theoretical space for himself, for this professor had written about things like capitalism, neoliberalism and the other Marx in the context of poetry and poems—I started to think to myself, “but in the end, was Bloom’s stance actually counter-productive?” And I eventually concluded, “no, it was not. It was actually quite productive, rhetorically and otherwise, though we cannot at this point see exactly how, or what it will give birth to in the future.” In other words, yes, the winds in academia had shifted, as they did and always will. After they shifted, Bloom was left, even more than he had been, a department of one. By the standards of what had happened in the last forty years in academia, for sure, Bloom went in a totally different direction, and so he was sort of “left behind,” if we want to put it that way. But I guess, after I thought about it more, none of this even mattered, none of it seemed to have any bearing whatsoever on how I understood the mind-boggling wonder I felt, like many others, when I thought about the Bloomian phenomenon and Bloomian achievement. And I thought to myself, “I kind of feel like it’s the opposite, and Bloom was constantly leaving us behind.” So the question wasn’t really, “what was Bloom’s relationship to contemporary criticism,” but even more fundamentally, without the last four words in that question, (and I am stealing this from Roger Gilbert, who marvelously asks this as the first sentence in his essay, “Acts of Reading, Acts of Loving: Harold Bloom and the Art of Appreciation” in The Salt Companion to Harold Bloom), “What was Harold Bloom?”
What was Harold Bloom? Not who: what? To attempt to answer this question, let me provide a Stevensian framework:
It was the spirit we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
In this case, describing Bloom’s efforts as counter-productive did not allow us to capture the Bloomian spirit. Because what Bloom did, like Shelley in his “Defense of Poetry,” was shadow forth gigantic realities of the imagination that, I would argue, are more fundamental and significant than capitalism, neoliberalism, etc. What Bloom cared about and valued the most was imaginative literature, the best and most enduring—Shakespeare, the J writer, Blake, Milton, Whitman, etc. Furthermore, imaginative literature could not be reduced to systems of oppression of whatever kind—capitalistic, neoliberal, racist, whatever else. Bloom said this point blank in one of his most famous books, The Western Canon. In the first chapter, “An Elegy for the Canon,” he writes, “The freedom to apprehend aesthetic value may rise from class conflict, but the value is not identical with the freedom, even if it cannot be achieved without that apprehension.” “The value is not identical with the freedom”—when we “confront greatness” in works of imaginative literature, the value of this confrontation, this encounter, is not identical to the freedom to read, the opportunity to access. Because the value is not identical, it should not be reduced to that opportunity, that freedom, that access. We can and should acknowledge that freedom, often based on race, religion, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But we should not reduce that value to those categories.
What exactly is that value then, that irreducible thing? When Bloom writes more esoterically, he argues that aesthetic value is experienced and created by the daimon, the inner light, which came into being before the physical world was created. And because it came before the material world—what has been called “involution” by Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber—it not only preceded these systems but created them. And so to then say, as many critics today still do, that systems, or social energies, produced the greatest work of imaginative literature, and not the other way around—that we exist, instead, as Bloom might have put it, in the mind, the theater, the atmosphere, the language, of Shakespeare’s creative imagination—was to see things exactly backwards, to look through the wrong end of the telescope, and to then make a distorted explanation, a confused pronouncement, a narrowing down of the actual, robustly irreducible phenomenology of literature—how it happens, what it is and what it means. Bloom wanted us to turn the telescope around, and then take a look at things. If and when we did this, we’d see that the daimon creates the world one sees, despite what we are used to hearing and thinking in the humdrum world. In my own meditation practice, they call it “designing one’s destiny.”
So for Bloom, abstractions like “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” were limited when it came to helping us think about the greatest writers and their books. But I am not merely saying something like “Bloom valued the individual over society, community, culture,” though there is truth to this statement. Actually, Bloom had an intensely nuanced, perverse and original understanding of what individuality meant and means. Because for Bloom, an individual was nothing if not a poem. But a poem did not exist as a poem, by itself, alone, but was itself an earned achievement, a complicated, sublimated, anxious, syncretic composite, an intense, individuated battleground of all other, earlier and later poems, individuals, voices, strains, sounds, “cognitive musics,” to form a kind self-seeing-and-feeling-ferocity, whose truth was nothing if not Emersonian, involving the soul’s heart, the God within, before all else. Bloom would have agreed with, of all people, John Maynard Keynes, who wrote that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Or, as one of Bloom’s many heroes, William Blake put it, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Bloom knew that our subjectivities were formed utterly by other subjectivities, but he also knew that, to describe the process with granularity, he would have to be very sober regarding the excruciating truth about poetic individuation. In this way, he swerved away from a critic like Northrop Frye, as well as any attempts to come to understand literature through what Bloom considered to be idealizations. At the heart of the Bloomian query and the anxiety of influence is an almost terrifying, Nietzschean investigation, involving the constant question, Who or what are we?
We might answer this question by invoking something probably a bit more mundane than Nietzschean self-interrogation: that is, therapy, which Bloom liked to refer to. The argument being, if we are not in therapy of some sort, at least at some point in our lives—if we do not become aware, conscious, of our parents’ influence on us, say, then in the end we are doomed to become our parents and repeat their mistakes, even if, (especially if?), we vigorously rebel against them. We stay a copy, and do not individuate—a Keynseian, Blakean dupe. But if we do become conscious of the influence of our parents, through talking, writing, etc., then we actually have a chance to grow up and out of the earlier mold (form and fungus) laid down by them, and, at least to a certain extent, revise what they have passed on to us and so become our own quixotic selves, our own earned poems. Bloom constantly said that we are often forced to invent our own parents, and this is exactly what Bloom did with pretty much the entire Western canon. He became so conscious of these writers’ works, that he was able to revise the tradition. He liked to use the word “transumptive” in his more theoretical writings, which alludes to this phenomenon, whereby a sort of metaphorical substitution happens. In Rortian terms, Bloom “redescribed” the Western imaginative tradition. This not something that is easy to wrap one’s head around, nor should it be. To me it’s shocking, even scandalous.
So how did Bloom achieve this transumption? Through agon, the battleground referred to above, whereby a poet or critic completely absorbs his of her influences, and then, over time, or maybe just suddenly, with profound strength, out-consciouses them, like a cognitive Mike Tyson, and so sees their strengths and their weaknesses with power and subtlety, and then revises them. Bloom was constantly doing a ridiculously creative and original literary SWOT of the whole Western tradition. (The paradox of Bloomian misreading is that it involves seeing both clearly and idiosyncratically. Yet misreading did not mean a bad reading, a reading removed from the reality of the text. It just meant an original one.) We might think of agon, to make it more grounded and grounding, in terms of a college student encountering a difficult text for the first time. There is a bafflement, in a way, at the start. We read, and re-read, and over time we start to see and experience the text differently. The blur turns into a territory. We grow, and return to the territory, and now we can travel it more easily, with less obstacles in our way of comprehension and understanding. We grow with the territory; we begin to master its vocabulary, idioms, rhythms, ideas, worldviews, methods, moves, atmospheres, come to deeper understandings about its heart, its mind, its particular quixotic form of cunning, its modus vivendi.
The territory shapes us, molds our thinking, helps us grow. But in the process, as we become more conscious of the territory—as we become more conscious, period—we also start to see this former territory (one’s parents, biological, literary or otherwise) as something bright with its own logic and, equally importantly, its own illogic. (Rumblings of agon.) Its silences, seams, soundings. And therefore, at some point, its “flaws,” let’s say—William Jamesian blindspots, when the text becomes more of a caricature, say—predictable, repetitive, not revisionary. The difference between “Song of the Broad Axe” and “Song of Myself,” or Denise Levertov’s poem about the Vietnam war vs. Denise Levertov’s poem about her sister. This is how I think about Bloom’s relationship to a critic like Northrop Frye, as I mentioned, whom he completely absorbed and, eventually and/or suddenly… Bloomianized, transumpted, choose your term. It also explains why Bloom loved Shakespeare. Bloom, like everyone else, could not totally transcend or redescribe Shakespeare, no matter how fabulously, fascinatingly and nobly he tried. And because he could not win his agon with Shakespeare, he did the sensible thing: he worshipped the Bard and his works, knowing in his heart of hearts that what he thought about, meditated on, brooded upon incessantly—incomprehensible, inimitable magnificence—was what he became.