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Critical Essay by Nannette Altevers
SOURCE: "The Revisionary Company: Harold Bloom's 'Last Romanticism'," in New Literary History, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 361-824.
In the following essay, Altevers argues that Bloom's "psychopoetic model" does not constitute "a fundamentally historical mode of interpretation."
My sense of Harold Bloom's critical importance would not alone seem enough to justify this essay since others have explicated the essentials of his revisionary poetics at substantial length—Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism (1980), Elizabeth Bruss's Beautiful Theories (1982), and Jean-Pierre Mileur's Literary Revisionism and the Burden of Modernity (1985) are three examples that come immediately to mind. Despite their strength in other ways, however, these efforts seem to me finally to lack any real understanding of Bloom's project, any sense of its underlying significance. The same, I believe, can be said of certain influential forms of feminist criticism (most famously that of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) which would posit against Bloom's so-called gender-restrictive Oedipal theory of literary relations a counter-patriarchal, noncombative, matriarchal tradition of women writers precursors. Focusing on the female literary tradition of the nineteenth century in their monumental The Mad Woman in the Attic (1979), Gilbert and Gubar aim to articulate a historical feminist poetics modeled on Bloom's patriarchal poetics of the male tradition. Instead of an "anxiety of influence," female writers experience an "anxiety of authorship"—an anxiety and rage resulting from the confining backdrop of male literary authority which keep them from attaining literary autonomy. But as I shall argue in the following pages, Bloom's psychopoetic model is not an Oedipal model. Nor does it constitute, as the critical consensus would have it, a fundamentally historical mode of interpretation.
In a recent interview Frank Lentricchia reasserts his (influential) claim in After the New Criticism that in his revisionary tetralogy Bloom "has put forth bold and important ideas which threaten to make the moribund subject of influence the pivot of the most satisfying historicism to appear in modern criticism." Citing the "historical, self-conscious sophistication" of Bloom's theory, Lentricchia again maintains that it "is the historicist character of his project" that makes Bloom's an "'exemplary career.'" And it is this view of Bloom, I believe, that has kept alive an interest in his project. No reasonably attentive reader of the major journals in literary criticism and theory, after all, will be unaware of the new enthusiasm for a rhetoric of referentiality, of the current fascination with something called "history," whether under the specific rubric of a "new historicism" or as part of a commitment to the development of polemical and political applications, in the present, of scholarly research done about the past. Books and articles that have "politics" or "history" in their titles are in fact proliferating. So much so that one is perhaps tempted to sympathize with Lentricchia's exasperation: "Bandwagons. Christ!… everyone wants to be political; every other word is 'politics this' and 'politics that,' 'history this' and 'history that.' It makes me want to say I'm not interested in that any more…. It's a fashion." Bloom's case, however, is somewhat different. Although he appears in his texts on revisionism to revitalize and historicize his view of the romantic tradition—romanticism begins to split into a new temporal polarity as Bloom "historicizes" the imagination into a tension between its early, original manifestations and its later derivative ones—his new historicism turns out, as I shall argue, to be barely skin deep and amounts finally to a distrust of the historical more thoroughgoing than any he had evidenced before. Though most of his critics have recognized (Lentricchia among them) that Bloom's is "romantic" criticism, none has recognized the extent to which this is so. Bloom's theory of influence ultimately rests on the hope (and the possibility) of a self that can rise above its historical situation to a state where the false imperatives of merely institutional forms will be exchanged for the true imperatives that can now be spied by a newly cleaned vision—that is, by a newly free self. In other words, his revisionary poetics is of a piece with his earliest theoretical pronouncements.
In fact, the first of Bloom's revisionary texts implicitly announces his own belated membership in the "visionary company" itself. The Anxiety of Influence "offers a theory of poetry that presents itself as a severe poem, reliant upon aphorism, apothegm, and a quite personal (though thoroughly traditional) mythic pattern." The "pattern" on which Bloom's "severe poem" is "reliant" is not, however, that of the Freudian family romance. In The Ringers in the Tower, a book published one year earlier but in which the phrase "anxiety of influence" already appears tangentially throughout, Bloom had respectfully dismissed Freud as the prisoner of a reality principle the romantics had left behind. And although in The Anxiety of Influence his reading of Freud has gained in complexity, he is still discarded as "not severe enough," his wisdom outranked by "the wisdom" of "the strong poets": "If Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Earliest Childhood possessed only the wisdom found also in Freud, then we could cease calling it 'the Great Ode.'" Freud's "poem, in the view of this book is not severe enough, unlike the severe poems written by the creative lives of the strong poets."
Again, in A Map of Misreading—Bloom's theory of influence is of course an evolving process, with each text repeating and amplifying the scheme of its predecessor—Bloom associates, though even more explicitly, his own "severe poem" (or theory of revisionism) with those written by the visionary company (and particularly by Wordsworth, whom Bloom refers to as "the exemplary Modern Poet, the Poet proper"): "I will follow the order of my own revisionary ratios from The Anxiety of Influence because their movement is founded both on the Lurianic model of the myth of creation (though I did not know this consciously when they came to me) and also on the model of the Wordsworthian crisis-poem." Of course the "Wordsworthian crisis-poem" which, according to Kabbalah and Criticism, set "a pattern" that all "subsequent strong poems [including Bloom's we can assume] seem doomed to repeat" is but another name for the poetic genre M.H. Abrams long ago christened "The Greater Romantic Lyric." Moreover, the structure of such lyrics as the "Intimations Ode" and "Tintern Abbey" is but an abbreviated version of the romantic "Circuitousjourney" documented by Abrams in his now-classic Natural Supernaturalism: "Wordsworth's Prelude [which for Abrams is paradigmatic of the journey] can be viewed as an epic expansion of the mode of 'Tintern Abbey,' both in overall design and local tactics." I thus propose that the "thoroughly traditional mythic pattern" upon which Bloom's "poem" is "reliant" is in fact that of the romantic circuitous journey. Though there are of course many versions of the journey, the most useful paradigm for Bloom's own "personal" version is, as I seek to demonstrate, Wordsworth's incredibly involuted masterpiece. Thus, although I maintain that Bloom's theory of revisionism is not a theory of literary history in the sense that critics continue to view it, it does in fact constitute a history of sorts. Like Wordsworth's Prelude, Bloom's "severe poem" is a psychological autobiography which narrates the history or growth of the poet's own mind.
The structure of Bloom's journey, like Wordsworth's, is circular and radically achronological; it starts not at the beginning but at the end, and it reaches at its end the very stage in time at which it in fact begins. In the Introduction to The Prelude, as in that to The Anxiety of Influence, the narrator is confirmed in his vocation as poet. Wordsworth then narrates his life, not as a simple narrative in past time but as the present remembrance of things past, in an effort to determine what forces molded him to poetic utterance. The title of Bloom's Prologue to his "severe poem"—"It was a Great Marvel That They Were in The Father Without Knowing Him"—metaphorically hints at the poet's unusual birth: he "begets" himself. The "Father" or precursor, I suggest (though admittedly such a suggestion appears rather fanciful at this point), is the practical critic of The Visionary Company who gives birth to a son, the poet/theorist of the "revisionary company," who, if Bloom's poetic is to be believed, will be forced to revise or "misread" his strong precursor. The poet then begins, like Wordsworth, to recollect his earlier years and the process of his development as a poet:
After he knew that he had fallen, outwards and downwards,
away from the
tried to remember what the Fullness had been.
He did remember
I. the Visionary Company: "paradise"
Dedicated to M.H. Abrams, The Visionary Company (1961) is informed throughout by Abrams's "romantic approach" to the subject of romanticism and its works. According to Bloom, the romantic poets are aggressive humanists who "have the same enemy … the universal and enduring vulgarization of the myth of the Fall." And like Abrams, he assumes that the high claims made for the romantic imagination as the guarantor of man's innocence over his corruption constitute what is truly revolutionary in the romantic movement. Although Bloom's visionary company inhabits a universe already recognized as discontinuous rather than organic (they are not "naive" but "sentimental" poets, to borrow Schiller's terms), they refuse to embrace the nihilistic implications of the "unromantic" doctrine of the Fall. Bloom claims in essence that the romantics repress a "causality" explanation of the universe by substituting a teleological explanation—the myth of the creative imagination. Based on the Kantian assumption that the mind in perception is always creative or constitutive, this myth undermines the prevailing Lockean epistemology, allowing man to become his own original as he breaks the chain of causality. Thus the romantic poet "escapes" from the fallen world into the myth-making world of his own imagination which wills the universe to be a good and happy place, a "postlapsarian" paradise of enthusiasm and organic creative process.
So the romantic imagination puts mind and world, subject and object, back together again—at least in mind. Which brings up the age-old question of aesthetic representation. If the poet's symbolic vision expresses itself in sublunary language, it becomes secondary, trapped in a prior network or medium, rather than a true moment of origin. Hence the romantics' inevitable deference to the phenomenology of consciousness over the status of discourse, which results, as Thomas McFarland points out in a recent book, in their curious tendency to distinguish between the terms "poetry" and "poem." Because the word "poetry" suggests, like consciousness, "something unbounded, a current only adventitiously caught in words," while "poem" suggests "something closed and delimited, a verbal artifact," in romantic "formulations the conception of 'poem' is devalued." The visionary critic's own commitment to the prelinguistic theme or "argument" of a poem (the "poetry") leads likewise to a profound disdain for the poem's figurative language. Towards the end of The Visionary Company, for example, Bloom explicitly states his purpose in writing the book: "I am studying Romantic argument in these pages, and the argument of To Autumn is largely implicit, that is, 'obscured' by its own verbal imagery."
Because the poet's idea is "obscured" by its "imagery," Bloom opts for a transparent language that will reflect clearly the poet's consciousness which, by definition for a phenomenologist, is visionary and not linguistic: "Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens," for instance, "are at one in forsaking the image when they wish to tell their truths, and it is precisely then that they write some of their highest poetry." Similarly, after citing a passage from the Prospectus to The Recluse, Bloom assures us that "Image and metaphor are not wanted here; this kind of poetry has a palpable design upon us, and does not disguise it." Interestingly, Bloom here anticipates, albeit inversely, the "anti-deviationist" claims for poetic language expounded by Derrida and the deconstructionists. Bloom implicitly blurs the distinction between philosophy and the "highest poetry" because the latter is also logocentric, a conveyer of "truths" written (so Bloom believes) in a perfectly clear or literal language bereft of metaphor, while Derrida blurs the distinction between literary and philosophical discourse precisely in the opposed direction by pointing out the original "metaphoricity" of all discourse. Although this is perhaps to get ahead of myself, the so-called deconstructive strategy underlying Bloom's texts on revisionism—he admits no distinction between philosophical and literary discourse ("all criticism is prose poetry" [AI 95])—is, as I shall later argue, of a piece with his strategy here and thus remains diametrically opposed to Derrida's notion of "écriture." However, The Visionary Company anticipates "the revisionary company" in a more fundamental and crucially important way. Bloom's visionary company is, in fact, already a revisionary company.
Though one could cull from Bloom's text numerous examples of one poet's "revision" of his precursor, I cite merely a representative few: "Byron claimed to have little use for Wordsworth's poetry, though he did not escape its influence. Shelley and Keats acknowledged Wordsworth's poetic ancestry, but both repudiated the later poetry of their great original"; "The key to The Prelude as an internalized epic written in creative competition [emphasis added] to Milton is to be found in those lines (754-860) of the Recluse fragment that Wordsworth prefaced to The Excursion (1814)"; "Behind Coleridge's" Kubla Khan is "Collins' masterpiece of a poet's incarnation, the Ode on the Poetical Character." We find in The Visionary Company, moreover, an ominous foreshadowing of Bloom's willful "misreading" of poets in the texts on revisionism. Aside from his "debts" to Coleridge, Bloom focuses on Keats's unpalatable notion of "disinterestedness," which is of course the reverse of his own extremely "interested" poetics. Citing a passage from Sleep and Poetry, he notes that Keats protests "Promethean expressionism…. The nature of poetry is to be disinterested…. A poem is neither thought nor personality; it does not affirm anything, not even the poet himself." Bloom promptly adds, however, that "Keats is more himself when, in the remainder of his poem, he considers his own destiny as poet." But if Bloom's commitment to the psychology of the poet's imagination or "self" (and concomitant valorizations of the phenomenology of consciousness over the status of discourse) is explicit throughout The Visionary Company, it becomes surprisingly even more pronounced, despite the emergence(close to home) of radically new and influential critical movements, with the passing years.
In 1970 J. Hillis Miller published "Geneva or Paris," an article perhaps indebted to one published the previous year by Paul de Man—"The Literary Self as Origin: The Work of Georges Poulet"—that sounded the death knell for phenomenological criticism. In any event both critics, now followers of Derrida, systematically "deconstruct" Poulet (whose work of course greatly influenced Bloom's at this time). What most troubles Miller is that Poulet takes "language for granted" as a "perfectly transparent medium…. All the apparent assumptions of Poulet's criticism are interrogated by Derrida and found wanting." As it turns out, however, Poulet is only "apparently" wanting; Miller tells us that "Poulet's exploration of the 'cogito' of each of his writers leads to the recognition that the 'cogito' is the experience of a lack of a beginning, of an irremediable instability of the mind." It is clear, ultimately, that Poulet is not "really" a privileger of the silent origin (as phenomenological voice which is identical with itself) but is rather a connoisseur of "écriture" and the absence of presence. This accords nicely with de Man's earlier discovery, through a "certain amount of interpretative labor," that Poulet's "criticism is actually a criticism of language rather than a criticism of the self." Astonished but undaunted by such critical feats, Bloom published one year later (in 1971) his "revision" of The Visionary Company which, it turns out, is actually not a revision at all.
Though Bloom claims in his Preface that "Where I am persuaded I was mistaken, I have made revisions, and I have tried to eliminate redundancies," the contents of the text proper remain virtually unchanged. The only revisions consist in the addition of a one-page preface, an introductory essay, and an epilogue—all of which, though they reveal an emergent "anxiety" resulting from Bloom's "demystified" awareness of his own previously "mystified" state, reveal simultaneously and paradoxically a deepening commitment to subjectivity. In his Epilogue ("The Persistence of Romanticism"), for example, Bloom claims that "Wordsworth was the inventor of modern poetry, and he found no subject but himself…. Our disease is not so much alienation as it is solipsism, and the subject of modern poetry is endlessly solipsism." Clearly repulsed by the structuralists reduction of the author to a mere function of language, Bloom maintains in the epilogue, moreover, that "Romantic poetry has survived several varieties of reduction, and so will survive the structuralists, against whom it offers a fierce countercritique. In the structuralist view, myths have no authors and come into existence only when incarnated in a tradition, but the myths of Romanticism have authors, and then are embodied by tradition." Claude Lévi-Strauss is "Our contemporary Peacock … whose respect for mythical thought extends to music, but not to poetry: 'Music and myth are languages which, each in its own way, transcend the level of articulate speech.' Poetry, he tells us, is a descent from words to phonemes, a fall into language, a failure to transcend daily limitation. The meaning of a myth, he finds is only to be conveyed by another myth, as the meaning of music is in other music, but Lévi-Strauss does not want to know what all the Romantics knew, that the meaning of any poem can only be another poem." Though Bloom's notion that the meaning of a poem is a relational event ("the meaning of any poem can only be another poem") appears to derive from the structuralists' concern with the interdependence of all structures, the relations among things rather than things in themselves (a concern rooted ultimately in Saussure's linguistic principle of the differential character of signs, in his theory that meaning is differentially or diacritically produced), his implication that, like myth and music, poetry too transcends, "in its own way," "the level of articulate speech" clearly suggests that he is interested in the relations among structures of consciousness rather than the relations among structures of discourse, in intersubjectivity rather than intertextuality.
In the final section of the epilogue Bloom claims that "From our current perspective" we cannot read "Romantic poetry" as that poetry "was meant to be read" because "a freedom to know appears to have been lost." "Wordsworth meant to renovate his readers," but "Our readings are swervings or falls into language, and not the completions these poets rightfully expected." Of course the phrase "rightfully expected" carries with it an implicit ought about the kind of reader required by Bloom (and Wordsworth before him), thus short-circuiting his grant to us, in the texts on revisionism, of subjective freedom. Clearly, what the "visionary company" (and its new member) "rightfully" expect is that their poetry be read by other visionaries (whose "readings" are not "swervings or falls into language"). Indeed, Bloom himself had claimed in his Introduction—ominously entitled "Prometheus Rising," thus reminding us of his advocacy in the original Visionary Company of "Promethean expressionism" while simultaneously alluding to the imminent birth of the "severe" poet ("The Promethean Quester every ephebe is about to become")—that, because of Milton's conservatism (he ultimately rejected "a Satanic idolatry of self"), the romantics were forced to misread their great predecessor: "one of the great characteristics of the Romantic period" was "that each major poet in turn sought to rival and surpass Milton" which "could only mean to correct his vision by humanizing it."
Thus, although we learned in the original version that the visionary company was already a revisionary company, we now learn that they are "re-visionaries" as well as revisionaries. What the romantics "correct" or "revise" is not Milton's poem but his "vision," which they must "re-see." Similarly, though the "aim" of Bloom's forthcoming "severe poem" is "to try to provide a poetics that will foster a more adequate practical criticism", it is the poet's consciousness that Bloom's "practical criticism" aims to help us read; his concern is with "the poet in a poet, or the aboriginal poetic self" rather than with the poet as poet, as maker-in-language. Bloom is concerned with how the reader can recuperate his [Bloom's] "vision": "This book's main purpose is necessarily to present one reader's critical vision in the context both of the criticism and poetry of his own generation, where their current crises most touch him, and in the context of his own anxieties of influence." Bloom's desire "to renovate his readers" thus parallels Wordsworth's and is just about as "practical." Moreover, the second stage of Bloom's "Prelude" parallels Wordsworth's: the paradise of Wordsworth's childhood is lost in his wrong turn to the persuasive lures of the French Revolution, while Bloom's is lost in his turn to those of the French "theoretical revolution."
Ii. the Revisionary Company: "paradise Lost"
We thus circle back from the past to the "point de départ" of Bloom's dialectical journey—his birth, in The Anxiety of Influence, as poet/theorist. We remember, however, that, according to the romantic version of the journey, one's birth is also a fall. As Abrams notes, the romantic circuitous journey "has a clearly defined plot: the painful education through ever expanding knowledge of the conscious subject as it strives—without distinctly knowing what it wants until it achieves it—to win its way back to a higher mode of the original unity with itself from which, by its primal act of consciousness, it has inescapably divided itself off." Bloom's "birth" is a "fall" from the mystified phenomenologist's unified consciousness into the demystified poet/theorist's divided self-consciousness, a fall into an intensified awareness of the world of temporal process and hence of the diachronic nature of language. He has fallen away from the "Fullness" ("he knew that he had fallen outwards and downwards, away from the Fullness") of the womb and of "the Word." This decentering of the poet's consciousness apparently causes him such anxiety that he becomes schizophrenic. The discourse throughout the revisionary tetralogy (the four intertextual volumes that record the second stage of Bloom's journey) is dialogical, narrating the "agon" between his two antithetical "consciousnesses"—the mystified phenomenologist's and the demystified poststructuralist's. Of course Bloom, like the other members of the visionary company, knows that there is progression only through contraries; hence his claim that this type of anxiety is, in poets at least, actually a sign of health: "Schizophrenia is disaster in life, and success in poetry."
Though Bloom is seemingly preoccupied now with poststructuralist theory—his new code word in A Map of Misreading is "text"—it is hardly surprising that his use of the word "text" is in fact antithetical to the poststructuralists. While the opening sentence of A Map of Misreading informs us that "This book offers instruction in the practical criticism of poetry, in how to read a poem, on the basis of the theory of poetry set forth in my earlier book, The Anxiety of Influence", the epigraph provides a metaphorical description of what Bloom means by "reading": "As wine in ajar, if it is to keep, so is the Torah, contained within the outer garment. Such a garment is constituted of many stories; but we, we are required to pierce the garment." The "real" text ("the Torah") is transcendent; the Word is contained in the words of the apparent text ("the garment") which constitute not a medium but a transparency that we can "pierce" in order to see the truth. And while Bloom also claims on the opening page that the "strong reader" is "placed in the dilemmas of the revisionist, who wishes to find his own original relation to truth, whether in texts or in reality (which he reads as texts anyway)," his "strong reader" is not to be mistaken for the poststructuralist who is confronted with a world of wall-to-wall discourse (who "reads" reality "as texts"); he is the phenomenologist whose vision "pierces" the language of texts or of reality in order to see "truth." Still, it is not that difficult to understand how a typical example of Bloom's deceptive rhetoric—"If not to have conceived oneself is a burden, so for the strong poet there is also the more hidden burden: not to have brought oneself forth, not to be a god breaking one's own vessels, but to be awash in the Word not quite one's own"—might result in the claim that, "Despite" his "ostensible disagreement with Derrida," Bloom "clearly recognizes" the "fundamental intertextuality of writing." Of course, as the capitalization of "Word" suggests, the "strong poet" is not "awash" in écriture.
Indeed, despite the "ventriloquist's" unrestrained tendency to decenter his own argument, to undermine the notion of "logos" through his "dummy's" deconstructive jargon, the wary reader ultimately discovers that even Bloom's most obviously post structuralist formulations actually underline the fact that his "disagreement with Derrida" is fundamental rather than "ostensible." He informs us, for example, that "A single text has only part of a meaning; it is itself a synecdoche for a larger whole including other texts. A text is a relational event and not a substance to be analyzed"; or again, "Influence, as I conceive it, means that there are no texts, but only relationships between texts." He does not mean, however, that a text is not a discrete verbal entity because every text is itself already an intertextual event, a part of the vast sea of écriture. For Bloom a text is "not a substance to be analyzed" because it is a prelinguistic rather than a verbal entity: "a poet's consciousness of a competing poet is itself a text." He is no advocate of the "intertextuality of writing" because the "texts" between which meaning wanders are not written: "A poetic 'text,' as I interpret it, is not a gathering of signs on a page, but is a psychic battlefield" on which the belated poet/critic/reader struggles with his precursor. The "meaning" of these prelinguistic texts wanders between subjects on a "psychic battlefield." And make no mistake; there is nothing in Bloom to suggest that he shares Lacan's notion that the psyche is itself a signifying machine.
Bloom does not believe that language determines consciousness but explicitly the reverse: what Emerson knows "is that his language, language itself, always fails his soul, or rather the Oversoul, which indeed transcends the dance or interplay of tropes." What Emerson "knows then is something about adequacy or inadequacy, something about agon, about the struggle between adverting subject or subjectivity and the mediation that consciousness hopelessly wills language to constitute." For Bloom, "influence remains subject-centered, a person-to-person relationship, not to be reduced to the problematic of language … poetry, despite all its protests, continues to be a discursive mode, whose structures evade the language that would confine them" (emphasis added). He clearly insists on a preverbal "psychic" warfare, which argues for a deep-structure beyond the manifest contents of text/writing/language: the "fundamental phenomena of poetic influence have little to do with the borrowings of images or ideas, with sound patterns, or with other verbal reminders of one poem by another"; the "most vital instances of influence are almost never phenomena of the poetic surface." Thus for Bloom, as for Poulet (whose influence clearly extends to Bloom's latest work), "A text is a relational event" between two consciousnesses. His so-called "intertextuality" is in fact the intersubjective dynamic hermeneutics of the belated and besieged phenomenologist, his "psychopoetics" but another version of the expressivism which informed The Visionary Company. But even a phenomenologist who offers a specific methodology, a "map" by which to read poems, must eventually confront actual poems ("a gathering of signs on a page"), and here is where Bloom's real problems begin.
Though he claims that his "theory of influence" has nothing to do with theories of influence "Old Style," that "poetic influence cannot be reduced to source study … to the patterning of images" or to verbal echoes, Bloom ends up relying precisely on source study and on the descriptive, mimetic criticism that characterizes his "readings" of poems (dismissing "irrelevant analytical techniques" [VC 153], he summarizes selected passages) in The Visionary Company. Thus when we examine his "practical analyses," we can extract no principles that do not inevitably contradict his theoretical claims. Blake's "London," for instance, is fathered by the book of Ezekiel. We recognize this because the "central image" is the same in both, even the key rhyme of "'cry'" and "'sigh'." Indeed, though one could cull from Bloom numerous examples that attest to the accuracy of de Man's claim that "For the most part," Bloom's "examples" are "a priori assertions of influence based on verbal and thematic echoes and stated as if they spoke for themselves," insufficient space here requires that I cite but a representative few. Bloom chooses Stevens's "The Snow Man" as a poem which, though "central and quite thoroughly original … reveals itself as another version of the apotropaic litany that poetry has become." In fact, "this apparently least restitutive of poems moves … to the hyperbole of pathos in the misery of the Shelleyan wind, on to the introjective metalepsis of the final 'beholds,' where the 'nothing' that is there and the 'nothing himself' of the beholder both are effectively equated with the greatest of American epiphanies: 'I am nothing; I see all'." Despite the clogged syntax and Bloomian jargon, the point is simple enough. Two of the obvious precursors whom Stevens echoes are Shelley and Emerson. Often finding the Shelley in Whitman, Bloom compares Whitman's "As I Ebb'd" to Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind": "For Shelley's leaves Whitman substitutes 'those slender windrows, chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds' and the rest of his remarkable metonymic catalog. For Shelley's 'trumpet of a prophecy,' Whitman gives us 'that blare of the cloudtrumpets'." And so it goes.
Behind the arbitrariness of the psychological plot, the wary reader ultimately senses that Bloom's texts on revisionism actually deal with something else, that he has some other not so hidden agenda. In fact, one becomes increasingly suspicious about the usefulness of his "methodology" as, with each successive text, he increases the intricacy of his "map," while simultaneously decreasing his actual usage of it. And despite the fact that the eighteen categories of the map which have accumulated by the publication of Poetry and Repression actually reduce to the original six "revisionary ratios" set forth in The Anxiety of Influence, we are ultimately confronted with statements such as the following: "This is the Lurianic pattern of Zimzum Shevirath ha-kelim Tikkun, and is enacted again (in a finer tone) in the next dialectical pair of ratios, kenosis (or undoing as discontinuity) and daemonization (the breakthrough to a personalized Counter-Sublime)." Yet while the unwary asks himself what such private language (Bloom has clearly said good-bye to most of the conventions of modern critical discourse) might possibly mean, the astute reader knows the answer: This is nonsense; it doesn't mean anything. Nor, for that matter, does Bloom's "map."
Though de Man rightly claimed in his review that The Anxiety of Influence "is by no means what it pretends to be," that "the main interest" of the book "is not the literal theory of influence it contains," he is quite wrong in claiming that its main interest is rather "the structural interplay between the six types of misreading, the six 'intricate evasions' that govern the relationships between texts." It is, of course, hardly surprising that he should focus, as does Hayden White, who claims in a recent article that "Tropology" is for "Harold Bloom" a "primary problem of discourse analysis," on what appears to be the historical and linguistic side of Bloom. But although the substantial emphasis in Bloom's description of the six ratios falls on temporal priority—a polarity of strength and weakness (Bloom consistently speaks of "strong" and "weak" poets) is correlated with a temporal polarity that pits early against late—the sixth ratio curiously undermines not only any notion of temporality but, in fact, Bloom's whole methodology. "Apophrades" (also referred to as "metalepsis" and "transumption"), which Bloom informs us is "the revisionist trope proper", is, ultimately, the only revisionist trope. It rightly figures in the climactic last place as the sixth ratio, because it destroys the principle on which the system is patterned: it substitutes early for late in a metaleptic reversal. That Bloom's "rhetoric of temporality" is empty, his "map of misreading" a throwaway, is in fact attested to in the chapter of A Map of Misreading entitled "Testing the Map: Browning's Childe Roland," where Bloom offers "a reductive and therefore simplified total interpretation of the poem, firmly based on the model of misprision I have been tracing." We have, of course, come to expect such reductiveness from a theorist who claims that "poets do not invent the dances they dance, and we can tell the dancer from the dance. The stronger poet not only performs the dance more skillfully than the weaker poet, but he modifies it as well, and yet it does remain the same dance. I am afraid that there does tend to be one fairly definite dance pattern in post-Enlightenment poetry, which can be altered by strong substitution, but still it does remain the same dance." Clearly, this one "dance pattern" is that of the "Wordsworthian crisis-poem": "Hegel says that History ended in October, 1806, with Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Jena. Let us say that Poetry ended just about then also, with the Wordsworthian crisis-poem setting a pattern that subsequent strong poems [including Bloom's own, we can assume] seem doomed to repeat, whatever the variations of rhetorical substitution." Like the "Wordsworthian crisis-poem." Browning's Childe Roland provides an example of the "Romantic quest or internalized romance" which takes the form of a dialectical or circuitous journey in "three parts."
The first stage of Roland's journey ("Stanzas I-VIII") constitutes "the induction, during which an initial contraction or withdrawal of meaning is gradually redressed by a substitution or representation of the quest." The poem's "second movement (IX-XXIX)," its "long middle," enacts Roland's fall into nature (his "ordeal-by-landscape") and temporality. In this crisis-stage Roland inhabits "a landscape of repetition, but in the deadliest sense, one in which all questions of genesis have yielded to mere process, to one-thing-after-another." Though he "describes his landscape like Zola describing an urban scene, yet Roland's world is wholly visionary, its 'realism' a pure self-imposition." Roland's "misprision or mistaking of his inherited quest-pattern culminates in stanza XXIX, which ends the second movement of the poem…. In the nick or crucial moment of giving up, which would be the prolongation of a wholly negative repetition, Roland is suddenly startled into a climactic recognition, which is that he is trapped, yet paradoxically this entrapment alone makes possible a fulfillment of his quest." According to Bloom, the poem's final three stanzas (XXII-IV) enact a metaleptic reversal, "a transumptive scheme or figure of a figure, which undoes the figurative assertions of Roland throughout the entire poem before them" (emphasis added). In the previous chapter Bloom had explained that metalepsis, which "overcomes temporality by a substitution of earliness for lateness", is a "trope-reversing trope" to which Quintilian applied "the Latin name transumption." In the poem's "final stanza" Roland "negates the larger part of his poem." Thus the temporal, fallen stage of Roland's journey—the landscape of "mere process" and "continuous metonymy"—is transcended; indeed, Bloom now informs us that "Roland's time-sense in the long middle part of the poem is a delusion." Roland "ends in strength": "What remains is vision proper, as the once ruined quester is transformed into a seer." Though Bloom assures us that "we have read Childe Roland as a revisionary text, on the model of our map of misprision", it is clear that we have left behind neither The Visionary Company nor its visionary critic.
Towards the end of his reading of Childe Roland Bloom asks, "If Roland is alone at the end, as he is throughout the poem, then who is the antagonist? Certainly not 'The Band' of brothers and precursors, for they stand ranged in vision, at the close." His answer is that the agon of the poem's "long middle" takes place in intrasubjective rather than in intersubjective terms (between Roland and "'The Band' of brothers and precursors"): "There is only Roland himself to serve both as hero and as villain…. Roland sees himself at last as what he is," the "dangerously internalized" solipsist, "the solitary poet-quester, the penseroso." Bloom reminds us a few chapters later that "Internalization of the precursor is the ratio I have called apophrades [transumption/metalepsis]," and "Romantic internalization, as I have shown in another study, 'The Internalization of Quest Romance,' takes place primarily in intra-subjective terms, the conflict being between opposing principles within the ego." He explains, moreover, that "Roland is giving us a parable of his relation to his brother-knights, which becomes a parable of Browning's relation to the poets who quested for the Dark Tower before him." And thus, by implication, a parable of Bloom's relation to his precursors. Indeed. Bloom's allusion to his earlier essay reminds us that the precursor who most concerns him is not Frye. Bate, or Abrams. or contemporary rivals ("'The Band' of brothers and precursors"), but Bloom himself (he had in fact suggested a few pages earlier that a writer's work exists in anxious relation to 'the youth he was', in other words to his own prior works); it reminds us that the subject of his revisionary tetralogy (his own "severe poem") is not the history of literary influence, but the history of his own mind.
Moreover, Bloom's claim in "The Internalization of Quest Romance" (the opening essay in Romanticism and Consciousness , a now-classic encomium to phenomenological criticism) that "what Blake and Wordsworth do for their readers, or can do … is to provide both a map of the mind and a profound faith that the map can be put to a saving use" obliquely foreshadows his forthcoming "practical" map of misreading. Indeed, such a Blakean/Wordsworthian "map of the mind" was mentioned by Bloom as early as 1961, in the original version of The Visionary Company. We can read "The Four Zoas as a Freudian allegory" in which "Urizen was a kind of superego, Thormas an id, with Luvah-Orc rising from him as libido; but Los, the fourth Zoa, is hardly a representation of the Freudian ego…. Los has no part in this scene, which is deterministic and clearly indisputable as an act of psychic cartography." This "act of psychic cartography" is described as "the intense warfare of consciousness against itself within a psyche." Of course Bloom describes metalepsis, the "revisionist trope proper" which "overcomes temporality by a substitution of earliness for lateness" and thus destroys the principle on which his "map" is patterned, in precisely the same way: metalepsis "takes place primarily in intrasubjective terms, the conflict being between opposing principles within the ego." I thus suggest that Bloom's "map of misreading" is itself "a map of the mind"—a psychic map of the agon (between the mystified phenomenologist and the demystified poststructuralist) within Bloom's ego as he revises his own mind. Furthermore, Bloom's own "severe poem," like Browning's and like all "Wordsworthian crisis-poems," is destined to end metaleptically ("from the Renaissance through Romanticism to the present day metalepsis has become the major mode of poetic allusion, and the figure without which poems would not know how to end"), with "a substitution of earliness for lateness." The final lines of his poem must enact a metaleptic reversal, "a transumptive scheme or figure of a figure" which "negates the larger part of his poem."
For all Bloom's talk throughout the revisionary texts about "wandering signification," this final stage of his dialectical journey was anticipated in one of them:
Though I am myself an uneasy quester after lost meanings I still conclude that I favor a kind of interpretation that seeks to restore and redress meaning, rather than primarily to deconstruct meaning. To de-idealize our vision of texts is a good, but a limited good, and I follow Emerson, as against Nietzsche, in declining to make of de-mystification the principle end of dialectical thought in criticism…. And I think Nietzsche particularly understood that Emerson had come to prophesy not a de-centering, as Nietzsche had, and as Derrida and de Man are brilliantly accomplishing, but a peculiarly American re-centering … that remains stubbornly logocentric.
The epigraphs to Poetry and Repression, the final volume of the revisionary tetralogy, foreshadow the "American re-centering" of "wandering signification" by depicting metaphorically Bloom's move from "The Revisionary Company" ("Paradise Lost") to Agon ("Paradise Regained"):
O earth, how like to heaven, if not preferred
More justly, seat worthier of gods, as built
With second thoughts, reforming what was old!
For what god after better worse would build?
The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Song of Myself
Iii. Agon: "paradise Regained"
The first two lines of Agon's Preface attest to Bloom's now recentered consciousness: "A book might seem an anomaly that offers itself as a unity in design and theme, but includes chapters on the ancient religion of Gnosticism, on Freud, on Emerson and Whitman and Hart Crane, on American Jewish cultural prospects, and on the author's own theories of fantasy, of the Sublime and of poetry and its interpretation. What, beyond the aggressive personalism of the author, can hold together so eclectic a range?" Surely nothing but Whitman's intentionality ("I am large, 1 contain multitudes"). More importantly, Bloom claims in his first chapter that "When Whitman revised the first line" of Song of Myself "he made explicit his antithetical relationship to epic tradition. But his more vital revision was of himself, since he had come to understand that his truest contest was with his own earlier text" (emphasis added). And despite his claim on the opening page of his Preface that "these chapters direct themselves towards the theory of revisionism its author hopes to live to write," Agon is, in fact, the final revision of Bloom's earlier texts on revisionism. This claim is but a variation on the romantic poet's traditional largeness of ambition and self-imposed inclusiveness of scope, his striving after the infinite ("something evermore about to be"). "Revisionism," Bloom tells us, "is this book's subject," and "Revisionism pragmatically has become only a trope for Romanticism." Revisionism is a form of "agon," and while the "first theologians of agon were the Gnostics of Alexandria," the "final pragmatists of agon have been and will be the Americans of Emerson's tradition … that is the center [the end as new beginning] of this book."
Agon, Bloom tells us, "searches for the revisionary gift that Emerson called 'self-reliance' and made into the American religion, a purified Gnosis. Against its only apparent eclectism, this book proclaims a religious intention"; it constitutes "a personal blend of my individual religious experience with my own literary theory and criticism." Thus we return to the impassioned defenses of the visionary, religious values of poetry that characterize Bloom's earliest work. In the original version of The Visionary Company Bloom had claimed that "What Wordsworth is giving us" in the final book of The Prelude "is his vision of God…. Here, as he gathers The Prelude's many currents together, he shows a confidence both in his art and in his personal myth of natural salvation. In this confidence he has created a major poem." This of course parallels exactly Bloom's description of Agon, the final book of his own "Prelude." And although the book's Introduction is entitled a "Prelude to Gnosis," it is no more a "Prelude to Gnosis" than Wordsworth's Prelude is a "prelude" to The Recluse. In Kabbalah and Criticism he had already urged "a Kabbalistic model, which means ultimately a Gnostic model" for the interpretation of poetry. Bloom explained that he turned back to the Kabbalah, seeking an interpretive "paradigm for reasons akin to those that led Emerson back to Orphism and Neoplatonism. Emerson accepted the necessity of misreading, or the active figuration of the strong reader, and he accepted it with joy and confidence, as befitted the prophet of Self-Reliance. He read for the 'lustres,' he insisted, and he saw those lustres as emanating from His own Reason…. The Kabbalists read and interpreted with excessive audacity and extravagance; they knew that the true poem is the critic's mind, or as Emerson says, the true ship is the shipbuilder." Clearly, "misreading" is but a variation on the phenomenology of reading as described by Poulet in his essay of that title. It is, of course, not Poulet but Emerson (Bloom's new visionary hero and the president of the visionary company's American subsidiary) on whom Bloom focuses in Agon.
Indeed, the nascent Emersonianism of Bloom's early work becomes strident in this text where he insists that the "strongest of all texts urging strong misreading is Emerson's Self-Reliance," which "I have evaded until now": "'Man is timid and apologetic … he dares not say "I think," "I am," but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones…. There is no time to them'." To this Bloom responds: "I call this theoretical literary criticism, or the theory of strong misreading." And to this we respond: So much for Bloom's rhetoric of referentiality, his theory of literary "history." Similarly, after comparing a couple of passages from Carlyle's two essays on history with one from Emerson's, of which I quote only the concluding line—"'The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text and books the commentary'"—Bloom responds: "So much then for Carlyle on history; so much indeed for history. The text is not interpretable? But there is no text! There is only your own life, and the Wordsworthian light of all our day turns out to be: self-reliance" (emphasis added). That Bloom was never interested in literary history or influence is in fact suggested again, in a more indirect, though perhaps even more telling manner, earlier in Agon.
Emersonian transumption (misreading/revisionism/gnosis) is more whimsical than Nietzschean transumption because "Nietzsche remains a rhetorician … and has more in common with Carlyle, whom he loathed, than with Emerson, whom he adored." Nietzsche, like Carlyle, "cannot do without the old descriptions of the world" (that is, of history and of language). Both Nietzsche and Carlyle "remain Protestants, however displaced, but Emerson has entered upon the American religion, Orphic and Gnostic, rather than Protestant." Emersonian transumption, moreover, derives from Milton. "Like Milton, Emerson establishes as the basis of his figuration three temporal Zones [which parallel the three stages of the romantic circuitous journey]: the true origins, everything false ever since, and the truth of the eternal now." Bloom explains that "The Miltonic or American text is true [here read Agon]; what happened at the start is true [here read The Visionary Company]; all of literature and history and religion, all text in between is false [here read the tetralogy on literary influence]." Clearly, Emerson's version of "Gnosis" or "strong misreading," with which Bloom has already identified his own, could just as easily serve as Bloom's:
Emerson's Gnosis rejects alt history, including literary history, and dismisses all historians, including literary historians … A discourse upon Emerson's Gnosis, to be Emersonian rather than literary historical, itself must be Gnosis … it will not speak of epistemology, not even deconstructively of the epistemology of tropes, because it will read Emerson's tropes as figures of will, and not figures of knowledge, as image of voice and not images of writing…. I am suggesting that what a Gnosis of rhetoric, like Emerson's, prophetically wars against is every philosophy of rhetoric, and so now against the irony of irony and the randomness of all textuality. The Emersonian Self, "that which relies because it works and is," is voice and not text, which is why it must splinter and destroy its own texts.
Thus Bloom implicitly encourages his reader not to deconstruct the words on the page but to destruct them, to invent his own text.
After Emerson "the literary, indeed the religious mind of America has had no choice, as he cannot be rejected or even deconstructed…. Since he will not conclude haunting us, I evade concluding here, except for a single hint. He was an interior orator, and not an instructor, a vitalizer and not an historian". The same could of course be said of Bloom, according to whom, "Criticism is the discourse of the deep tautology—of the solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and yet that what he says is wrong." The solipsist is a "voice," but not the words he speaks; his are the unspoken words behind the spoken words. There is origin, identity, truth, but it remains locked in the subjectivity of the "interior orator" (in "the orator's word, the transparency as proclaimed by Emerson" [A 272]). I thus "evade concluding" my citation of Bloom's Prologue to The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom's poetic birth was a tragedy: when the poet emerged
from the Fullness, he tried to remember
what the Fullness had been.
He did remember, but found he was silent, and
could not tell the others.
.... .... .... .... .... .... .... .......
Sometimes he thought he was about to speak, but
the silence continued.
There is, finally, no "severe poem" because there is "no text." Bloom's "theory" calls for the growing solipsism of the poet, and so, in the final analysis, for the "death" of his own poem in the "birth" of "poetic" criticism ("The poem we write as our reading" [AI 96]).
It should by now be obvious that Lentricchia is mistaken not only about Bloom's offering "the most satisfying historicism to appear in modern criticism," but also about his managing, "once having brought the issue of the active reader forward, to avoid the extremes represented by Fish and Gadamer." The idea of meaning being somehow immanent in the text's language, awaiting its release by the reader's interpretation, is, for both Fish and Bloom, an objectivist illusion. Bloom, like Fish, simply carries the implications of phenomenology to their logical extreme, relocating meaning in the "intending subject." But Bloom is, in fact, more extreme than Fish. Fish's key concept of "interpretive communities" guards against the hermeneutical anarchy to which his theory appears to lead.
Not any old reading response will do: the reader in question is an "informed" reader bred by the academic institutions, whose responses are thus unlikely to prove too wildly divergent from each other to forestall all reasoned debate. Bloom is, like Emerson, much more "democratic"; his theory allows no criterion by which to distinguish the validity of a reading: all readings are, apparently, equally valid. In light of the foregoing argument the title of Lentricchia's chapter on Bloom—"Harold Bloom: The Spirit of Revenge"—takes on a new meaning. Though Murray Krieger's Theory of Criticism may be his "Last Romanticism," surely Bloom's is the "Last Romanticism."
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