Sunday, May 14, 2006
Since the publication of The Western Canon, Harold Bloom has become something of a caricature, derided on the one hand for the vehemence of his displeasure with the direction literary study has taken over the past quarter century, his opposition to the politicized, anti-aesthetic criticism he identifies collectively as the “school of resentment,” while on the other he is frequently invoked as a kind of cultural mandarin dismissive of the pleasures ordinary people take in the products of popular culture and contemptuous of all books that can’t be assigned to the canon of high literature. (Although James Wood accuses him of abandoning the role of critic for that of “populist appreciator,” his populism surely extends no farther than to those who might conceivably be convinced of the greatness of what Bloom calls “strong poets,” whose work certainly cannot be dumbed down in order to reach the masses.)
This image of Bloom as traditionalist curmudgeon is considerably at odds with the impression one might have gotten from his critical writings of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Bloom advances his own intricate (if ultimately rather private, even hermetic) theory of literary production and reception that does indeed focus on poetic greatness but hardly defends tradition for tradition’s sake. Bloom makes elevated claims for the value of poetry, but these are not claims for the utility of poetry in the service of “culture” as moral critics would define it nor an Arnoldian attempt to construct a version of literary history that isolates works of literature as “the best” of their kind. Bloom’s theory of literary influence certainly does assume a continuity of vision over the course of this history (although it also frequently alludes to writers and writing not necessarily considered to be “literary” per se), but the core principle of his theory--that great poetry is always a “misreading,” sometimes radically so, of “precursor poets"--in essence holds that literary history is actually in a perpetual state of disruption and revision.
In my opinion, Bloom’s 1982 book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism provides the most complete and coherent account of his ideas about both literary history and the role of the literary critic, and thus will probably be the book of his that survives into the next generation of literary study (although Bloom’s approach is idiosyncratic enough--deliberately so-- that a future cadre of neo-Bloomians is certainly an implausible notion). Indeed, this passage from the book’s essay on John Ashbery is as succinct a statement of Bloom’s prevailing assumptions as readers of his work are likely to find:
A strong poem, which alone can become canonical for more than single generation, can be defined as a text that must engender strong misreadings, both as other poems and as literary criticism. Texts that have single, reductive, simplistic meanings are themselves already necessarily weak misreadings of anterior texts. When a strong misreading has demonstrated its fecundity by producing other strong misreadings across several generations, we can and must accept its canonical status.
Yet by “strong misreading” I mean “strong troping,” and the strength of trope can be recognized by skilled readers in a way that anticipates the temporal progression of generations. A strong trope renders all merely trivial readings of it irrelevant. . .
There is a true law of canonization, and it works contrary to Gresham’s law of currency. We may phrase it: in a strong reader’s struggle to master a poet’s trope, strong poetry will impose itself, because that imposition, that usurpation of mental space, is the proof of trope, the testing of power by power. . . .
“Misreading” (or “misprision,” as Bloom would have it) is the motivating force, the ultimate inspiration, behind all poetry (which in Bloom’s critical universe, is synonymous with “literature” and is not to be attributed solely to self-identified poets). In the effort to emulate and finally surpass “anterior” texts, poems that fire the poet’s passion for poetry in the first place, strong poets “misread” these texts in a psychoanalytically defensive gesture that allows the “something new” of literary creation to occur. Milton misreads Shakespeare, Blake misreads Milton, etc. Weak poets merely imitate their predecessors, fail to engage with the deeper and more unwieldy impulses that ultimately account for great poetry.
And it is these impulses that are ultimately responsible for all strong poetry. As Bloom writes elsewhere in Agon: “No one ‘fathers’ or ‘mothers’ his or her own poems, because poems are not ‘created,’ but are interpreted into existence, and by necessity they are interpreted from other poems. Whenever I suggest that there is a defensive element in all interpretation, as in all troping, the suggestions encounter a considerable quantity of very suggestive resistance. All that I would grant to this resistance is its indubitable idealism, its moving need of the mythology of the creative imagination, and of the related sub-mythology of an ‘objective’ scholarly criticism.” Again the perception of Bloom as hidebound conservative does not fit well with assumptions like these. How far are they from the notion that there is “nothing outside the text,” that language authors poems, not writers? (Although Bloom rejects this latter idea; to him this formulation reduces “language” to “the very odd trope of a demiurgical entity. . .acting like a Univac, and endlessly doing our writing for us.") “Creative imagination” and “objective scholarly criticism” are equally feeble concepts for describing what is really going on in the production and reception of poetry as Bloom understands it.
A “strong trope” is a use of language (whether in individual lines or phrases or the poem as a whole) so powerful in its implications that, as he puts it in another book, it creates meaning that “could not exist without” it and produces an “excess or overflow” that “brings about a condition of newness.” Indeed, its force is so irresistable that it “will impose itself,” although such a struggle with the text is carried out only by the “strong reader” who seeks to come to terms with it through an act of troping of his/her own. When he complains about the “school of resentment” or about the politicization of literary criticism more broadly, he is reacting against the establishment of a mode of academic criticism that validates weak reading, that diminishes the power of literature and the passion of reading. He is not lamenting the loss of “sweetness and light” as a goal of literary study, nor the rejection of New Critical formalism, which he considers a form of rhetorical criticism that equally fails to accentuate what is truly at stake in the “troping” of both poetry and criticism.
In what he apparently takes to be a telling criticism of Bloom’s practice as a critic, Benjamin Balint remarks that “We might say that Harold Bloom is the Rashi of misreadings, a kind of contemporary sage who, due perhaps to the excesses of reading itself, himself misreads—sometimes forcefully, sometimes weakly.” But of course Bloom already admits this, dismissing the notion that criticism involves something like accuracy of interpretation:
To read actively is to make a fiction as well as to receive one, and the kind of active reading we call “criticism” or the attempt to decide meaning, or perhaps to see whether meaning can be decided, always has a very large fictive meaning in it. I continue to be surprised that so many literary scholars refuse to see that every stance in regard to texts, however professedly humble or literaral or prosaic or ‘scientific’ or ‘historical” or ‘linguistic” is always a poetic stance, always part of the rhetoric of rhetoric. . . .
Balint further proposes that Bloom “turns out to be a reader par excellence, but also perhaps merely a reader,” suggesting that he is finally unable to distinguish between his beloved texts and non-literary spiritual or religious “encounters.” This surely fails to recognize that for Bloom “reading” is more than an “encounter” with words (although it begins there), just as “ poetry” is more than a composition in verse. I would not go so far as to say that for Bloom reading is religion, but one might conclude from most of his books that the kind of experience to which reading works of literature gives access is for him about as close to what could be called a religious experience as is possible in a universe in which God probably does not exist.
This is perhaps where most readers depart company with Bloom, concluding that his kind of reading is finally an idiosyncratic and insular one, Bloom himself seated aloft in his own peculiar aesthetic empyrean. This is a mistaken impression, not least because it takes Bloom’s very real passion for literature as a preoccupation with the aesthetic such as ordinary “rhetorical criticism” would describe it. James Wood asserts that whenever Bloom’s commentary verges on becoming “openly evaluative, it becomes Freudian and biographical” and that “if he were just choosing one poet over another for purely aesthetic reasons, then he would have no need of his Freudian system of anxiety and repression.” This assessment has validity, and aptly sums up the major weakness in Bloom’s critical system. One reads Bloom for inspiration, for further amplification of the way in which his account of literary influence applies to specific writers or texts, for the occasional insight that reinforces the general claim of Freud’s work on literary criticism, but not for sustained and careful explication of individual texts. That Bloom initially developed his theory of poetic influence to directly contest the New Critics’ dismissal of subject-centered criticism and of Romanticism in general of course explains this absence, but I often wonder whether in his dismay at the direction literary study has taken he doesn’t sometimes think he might have done more justice to New Criticism and its insistence that the aesthetic attributes of literature ought to be the proper focus of criticism.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature (to me) of Agon is Bloom’s attempt to align his own approach to criticism with that of American pragmatism. Partly this is due to his admiration of Emerson as an American “seer,” a fellow strong misreader whose habits of thought provided the true source of pragmatism. But pragmatic thinking also offers Bloom a touchstone that further vindicates his own self-reliant mode of reading:
. . .American pragmatism, as [Richard] Rorty advises, always asks of text: what is it good for, what can I do with it, what can it do for me, what can I make it mean? I confess that I like these questions, and they are what I think strong reading is all about, because strong misreading doesn’t ever ask: Am I getting this poem right? Strong reading knows that what it does to the poem is right, because it knows what Emerson, its American inventor, taught it, which is that the true ship is the shipbuilder. If you don’t believe in your reading, the don’t bother anyone else with it, but if you do, then don’t care also whether anyone else agrees with it or not. . . .
I must say this seems a fairly ordinary reading of Emerson (who surely does ask of poetry, “what can it do for me?") and a weak misreading of Rorty (as well as Dewey and James before him). Putting aside the fact that both Rorty and Dewey believe literature does serve some generalizable good (for Rorty, helping us to become “less cruel,” for Dewey, clarifying the nature of experience), it is very convenient for Bloom to exploit this overly literal interpretation of pragmatism’s goal-oriented analysis so that it winds up justifying critical eccentricity for its own sake. For me, a thoroughgoingly pragmatic literary criticism might indeed put aside the question “Am I getting this poem right?” but would still find the question “Am I getting literature right?” an appropriate one to ask. Does “literature” as a category exist primarily to allow Harold Bloom or other like-minded critics to misread, strongly or otherwise, in any way they want, or does it also carry out a useful purpose by identifying a kind of text upon which some agreed-upon constraints do apply? Couldn’t we say that both writing and reading works of literature pragmatically involves observing these contraints so that the activities themselves might be sustained?
I always find reading Harold Bloom’s books a bracing experience, but I don’t think I’m prepared to regard them as contributions to the elucidation of pragmatism.
I want to thank you for this excellent post on Harold Bloom. I agree with your assessment that Harold Bloom should not be considered a traditionalist or curmudgeon in any sense. He has a unique ways of looking at literature that unfortunately always goes a little too far as you suggest- from the requirement of evidence of literary strangeness for great literature, to the fact that Bloom believes Shakespeare not only had a unique understanding of human personality traits in his plays but that he went ahead and “invented the human.” Now in his Jesus and Yahweh book he plays out the anxiety of influence on a global (or cosmic scale)
(An aside: The best negative criticism I’ve read on Bloom was Joseph Epstein’s hatchet job in the Hudson Review. Epstein: “Apart from Shakespeare, Bloom’s great culture heroes are Emerson and Freud, who, in combination, yield a gasbag with a dirty mind.”
http://www.hudsonreview.com/epsteinSu02.html And for the uninitiated google “heavy, boneless hand” to see what Naomi Wolf has to say about Bloom.)
Bloom does seem to care about “getting literature right” but he always seems to envision his favorite authors as having the same temperament as himself -strong poets look into the abyss with art as the only known salvation. It is difficult to not view Shakespeare as anticipating views we now hold and I am guilty of this and Bloom has reinforced this habit in me.Bloom still is the critic on my shelf whom I look to first after reading a text because he likes to stack writers up in context. He has read more and I think understands more than most. His powerful memory, as one of my favorite professors once said is his greatest asset as a critic. And when I read Bloom, I can’t help but be affected by his genuine enthusiasm and religious fervor for literature.
Is “Bloom’s attempt to align his own approach to criticism with that of American pragmatism” a stronger misreading than you suggest, set up in opposition to a positivistic New Criticism?
But I would call it a weak misreading of New Criticism to see it as “positivistic.” New Critical reading was not an attempt to find evidence for an interpretation. It was a demonstration that reading literature is an essentially dramatic process in which all interpretations are hopelessly partial.
Thanks for this. As an aside, Bloom’s book The American Religion is a remarkable explication of American “gnosticism,” the Mormons in particular, though he discusses most of the other fringe groups as well, showing how they feed & feed from mainstream religious sentiments. I once had the temerity to send bloom a short note admiring this book. He wrote back saying he thought it was his “best book.”
I would think the positivism is in the finding of the laws of canon formation—and the latter being identified with literature. Of course, there is a heterodox tradition that searches for spiritual laws—Swedenborg is a good example—but that, actually, is latent in Comte’s positivism, too, with its strange religious aura.
However, Bloom’s law seems odd in two ways. One is that he accords no place to contingency (and a man who has written much about Blake, and knows the history of Blake’s reputation, would, one would think, wonder whether poets can drop out of and emerge into the canon due to contingent factors); the other, of course, is the identification of literature with a canon that goes across time. It seems to me this underconceptualizes the different levels of literature. We know that ding dong dell and London Bridge is falling down have gone across time, or proven the test of age, or whatever. However, are the mother goose tales really incitements to strong misreadings? To dismiss them as literature is, I think, to misunderstand literature—it is as if the competent consumer of literature can only be of a certain age, with a certain educational status, etc., etc. But I see no reason that, say, certain works of literature shouldn’t appeal to eighteen year olds and not to forty year olds—and I don’t think the non-appeal to forty year olds is annihilating criticism.
I think that the narrowness of Bloom’s notion - the idea that literature just comes out of literature as he defines it—has had a terrible effect on him as a critic. It leads to diminishing returns. London Bridge is falling down, and various street ballads, probably had as strong effect on Blake as the churchyard poets. Excluding that influence seriously undermines understanding of Blake. And I imagine you could find the same thing to be true of any number of canonical figures.
I’m not sure I would call Bloom’s vision “narrow.” To him, Freud is a poet, and his most recent book is a reading of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as literature--with the former being judged vastly superior. Some of the reviews of this book have taken him to task for extending the concept of “literature” too broadly
Many thanks, how nice to read something ambitious and well written every now and then. May I trouble you to solve the following mystery for me?
“A strong poem, which alone can become canonical for more than single generation, can be defined as a text that must engender strong misreadings, both as other poems and as literary criticism. Texts that have single, reductive, simplistic meanings are themselves already necessarily weak misreadings of anterior texts. When a strong misreading has demonstrated its fecundity by producing other strong misreadings across several generations, we can and must accept its canonical status.”
This seems to suggest that strong poems are things which can be subject to infinite (or anyway, great) number of alternative interpretations. It seems a sort of “information processing” theory of literature—the more confusing something is, the better. Which one could argue for or against till cows come home, I guess. (And makes the statement “strong”?). But then:
“Yet by “strong misreading” I mean “strong troping,” and the strength of trope can be recognized by skilled readers in a way that anticipates the temporal progression of generations. A strong trope renders all merely trivial readings of it irrelevant. . . “
Aha, so there needs to be another factor here—some kind of widget for separating the trivial form the non-trivial. What is it?
Or is a strong poem so tropic that it can only produce tropic interpretations? Is the model for strong poetry the following Zen parable:
“What is your original face?” asked the master.
In reply, Junin took of his sandals and put them on his head.
Or am I just too stupid to understand any of it? :)
Daniel, the narrowness, here, isn’t about what particular things belong in the canon, but the idea that literature and canon-formation are identical. It is like saying that an animal is defined by being in a particular taxonomic scheme, so that if one discovers an animal that isn’t in the scheme, it can’t be an animal.
Now, it might well be a secondary trait of literature that it allows itself to be canonized -but I don’t see how it could be primary at all, insofar as primacy should go to the generative principles of literature. And there, I think canon formation is a very bogus candidate for what poets, novelists, essayists and other writers do. This is the ghost of the New Criticism - the autonomy of the work of art being so protected that it must be inspired, if from anything, from another work of art.
Well, I simply don’t believe that.
And the question is: how would you tell if Bloom is right or my objection is right?
"Aha, so there needs to be another factor here—some kind of widget for separating the trivial form the non-trivial. What is it?”
A strong reader. There are as many worthy interpretations as there are strong readers. I think Bloom would say there will always be strong readers strongly misreading strong poets.
I’m not sure I’m understanding your point. I really don’t think that ulitmately Bloom is all that interested in canon-formation per se. It’s a byproduct of the “imposition” of strong poetry across generations of strong readers.
Dan, I disagree. There is a reason that Bloom has written a book named the Western canon, and that the quote you pull out of Agon is about the law of canon formation. And the strong readers that Bloom is talking about are not, presumably, the people who check out a lot of books at your local public library (although if Bloom was on that track, it would be lovely). The readers are critics, and the critics, here, are replicating the act of the poets, who are—if the anxiety of influence makes sense—writing to and away from other poets. And my point is: I don’t think this is true about how poets write poems, and even how great poets write poems. I don’t think that the literary critics—the strong readers—actually make literature, either—I think that is rather blind to the fact that departments of “literature” in universities are rather new things, and the critics function in the world of literature can be much more various. This is the positivistic side of Bloom—the unconscious assumption that literature is like science, that there is progress in literature, that departments of literature show that we know more about it now than we used to, just as we know more about, say, living organisms than we used to.
However, I don’t think that is true.
All of which is by way of saying: the “across generations” criterion is vacuous, a present claim that can’t be cashed out, but simply waved around to shore up one’s tastes by claiming that they are the tastes of some imaginary majority at some future time. A., I don’t think the imaginary majority, suitably seived through the fiction of future generations, gives us a better sense of what is strong than the present generation, with its non-imaginary majority, does. The way the generation of, say, 900 A.D. read Plato does not, I think, show progress in the reading of Plato—quite the reverse. The way the generation of 1680 read King Lear doesn’t show progress in the reading of King Lear from the way the play was read, or performed, in 1620. And B., Bloom seems to be turning panegyric into a truth claim. There’s nothing wrong with panegyric, and there’s nothing wrong with energetically defending one’s tastes, but this shouldn’t be confused with an objective account of how literature is made, or how it really does go across generations and operate within its own generation.
I take the list included in The Western Canon to be directed toward literature instructors and students, to be consulted specifically as texts to be used for the classroom study of literature. Not critics per se. Not much of Bloom’s pre-Western Canon critical work (excluding the Chelsea House volumes)seems to me to be concerned with literary study per se--"literature" as an extension of the university.
“the “across generations” criterion is vacuous, a present claim that can’t be cashed out, but simply waved around to shore up one’s tastes by claiming that they are the tastes of some imaginary majority at some future time”
In a sense I agree that it can’t be cashed out. Strong poetry is poetry that will ultimately impose itself. We can’t now be sure exactly what that will be, although Bloom does seem confident that what has now imposed itself as strong poetry will continue to do so.
Doesn’t literature embody cultural wisdom for Bloom? Isn’t that why, more than other critics I can think of, has been heavily interested in religious texts? If you look at what he has to say about the Gospels & about Whitman, you get some idea of what I’m suggesting. Strong poets & prophets are members of the same genus for Bloom. His early work was on Blake.
Bloom thinks of it as a secular scripture, though. He calls the Divine Comedy the “Third Testament” not because Dante’s work is divine but because he sees the old and new testament as powerful literature.
There is a religious impulse, or desire for belief, that is sublimated into faith in books. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Christopher, yes, I think that’s right. Faith in books. How is this different from Matthew Arnold & literature as secular replacement for lost religious faith?
Eliding the language of religion with that of literature seems to me like a dangerous route. It leads to more conceptual confusion than clarity. Interestingly, though, when Bloom applies the analytical tools of lit crit to religion, he comes up with the incisive readings contained in The American Religion, which I mentioned above.
You may be right and I respect your opinion, Joseph. It’s not all that different from Matthew Arnold or Northrop Frye for that matter. Tobias Wolff used the phrase “book mad” in his book Old School and I like that phrase. I think we’ve all been there. There is a bit of the fanboy in appreciating literature- the top ten lists, the starry eyed gushing, the pitting of poets against each other. Shakespeare can kick Dante’s ass is not a far cry from Spock can kick Kirk’s. Behind fanboy gushing is an unbridled enthusiasm not unlike Harold Bloom’s.
Bloom does cross the line of sober analysis as you point out. I do think he goes too far but sometimes it is interesting, at least to me, to read someone who does not care if he goes too far. A sober analysis does not give you the immediate and personal response to the literature itself. Both are important and have their place. I don’t think that it’s dangerous that Bloom finds faith in literature and blurs those lines. It may create the “confusion” that you describe but it can get you close to the text in some ways.
I hesitated over the word “dangerous” in that comment, Christopher. What I meant was something like “dangerous to clarity,” but, hey, clarity is only one value among many, enthusiasm being another.