Harold Bloom | Critical Essay by Jonathan Arac

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Harold Bloom.
This section contains 3,881 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Jonathan Arac

SOURCE: "The Criticism of Harold Bloom: Judgement and History," in Centrum, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 32-42

In the following essay, Arac examines Bloom's earlier works and traces the development of his theoretical stance in order to locate Bloom's "concerns and gestures in the continuing contests of literary criticism."


Of our critics who have defined their identities in the postwar years, Harold Bloom is one of the most useful. I have learned much from Bloom about reading the poems of the last two hundred years, but such individual readings only extend New Criticism, which Bloom has helped in other ways to bring us beyond. Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism made the totality of literature, rather than the individual poem, the unit of effective wholeness, but Bloom challenges both Frye and New Criticism in opening for exploration a middle range, a human scale: individual poets rather than single poems or all poetry. For understanding the dynamics of literary careers, his work and Edward Said's have been the most useful to me, and for thinking about literary history as made by writers' responses to earlier writers, Bloom and Reuben Brower have offered me the most concrete instances. Bloom's work, however, still lacks any single achievement comparable to The Mirror and the Lamp, Anatomy of Criticism, John Keats by W.J. Bate, and Wordsworth's Poetry by Geoffrey Hartman. Bloom's work is hard to grasp because it is not systematized. After discovering through Blake how to read all literature, Northrop Frye produced a series of exploratory essays, publishing Anatomy of Criticism ten years after Fearful Symmetry. Bloom similarly found through Yeats his fundamental insight into the revisionary process, but the result has been a flurry of books, each both amplifying and revising what came before.

I hope to locate Bloom's concerns and gestures in the continuing contests of literary criticism, extending from the current scene and the recent past a long way back. By looking at Bloom's early work for his starting-points and by relating these points to the larger history of criticism, I hope to show of Bloom what he has shown of Shelley: the irrelevance of the esoteric. Like Blake, like Frye, Bloom scorns mystery. To place him in his own tradition, as he did Yeats and Frye did Blake, will help us both to use and to judge Bloom. I therefore avoid the intricate schemes and terms of the recent work, and I rejoice to note that the six revisionary ratios, after being Kabbalistically elaborated, appear in Wallace Stevens as transformations of the classical rhetorical "places." The way now lies open for Bloom to prove his "mappings" no more outlandish than the Renaissance studies of Rosemund Tuve or Louis Martz.

To point to a possible absurdity, or self-contradiction, and walk away smiling and wiping one's hands, is the privilege of the press consultant. Once works have appeared and had an impact, it seems necessary to suggest their appeal, their use, and their growing points. The typical attraction of Bloom's writing is assertiveness, the powerful phrase that makes him so fine a writer of introductions as well as of polemics. Let me offer not a slogan but the summary interpretation of Blake's London as "a Jonah's desperation at knowing he is not an Ezekiel." Following analysis of the poem's figures and movement in relation to a passage from Ezekiel, this phrase moves out from the poem to a sense of a man and of a history, the history not only of prophetic poetry but also of the English 1790s, when the French Revolution awakened both apocalyptic hopes and the repression that made it worth a person's life to voice those hopes. Blake abandoned voice for the silence and cunning of his art, but at a cost that he felt and that long kept his work from any place in the public life of English poetry. Here I run ahead both of Bloom and my exposition, because Bloom does make you run ahead. I will return to these issues at the end in looking towards a possible future course for Bloom.

Bloom is a fine reader of poems, but does not grind them into bits; rather he finds just the right passage to persuade you of the excellence of a writer or work. Bloom's power of quotation suggests that he is haunted by phrases from his reading and keeps trying to make a context that will give them the full weight he feels they contain. Thus in Fearful Symmetry, Frye mentions Lucretian clinamen to characterize the fall of Los, which swerves into creation. Years later this term appears as the cornerstone of revisionism. Sometimes, however, the assimilation is less complete and yields dismal pastiche: a full paragraph about Bloom's changed views on Keats wears the language of Wordsworth's Elegiac Stanzas. It's like Play it Again, Sam: the greatest success is suddenly to be in the position to repeat words you have long hallowed. For a critic, such abdication is costly, but I suspect that thinking about his own need to do this aided Bloom's perceptions about influence.

Such compositional problems, like the boulders from Freud or Nietzsche that often necessitate detours, all suggest a great virtue: Bloom's "brooding." He is a rethinker. He will not rest with achieved positions, but is always ready to return upon himself. I find admirable energy in Bloom's reformulations in response to others. He shows no sign of closing off before intelligent criticism.

One fascinating movement in Bloom is the drama of reduction, as a Shelleyan skepticism drives him to question, and abandon, his cherished earlier positions. How much can you give up and still have something? Bloom has given up the imagination; from the apocalyptic autonomy of Blake, it becomes an effect of repression or an illusion, Hobbesian "decaying sense." So Blake, prophet of the future, yields as the father of modern poetry to Wordsworth, with his Freudian sense of the past. Bloom once found in Keats and Stevens a naturalistic acceptance of death, but now has lost this consolation. Death is all we have, immortality all we want, and this split is our life. Finally Bloom has also given up the idea that a poem can fulfill an earlier poem or tradition; it can only revise it. Therefore, poetry always declines. Only this cost could buy assurance of poetry's continuation. Culminations exhaust poetic lines, but while falling, one can keep swerving.

What does Bloom keep? In exchange for his losses, Bloom grasps the self. Revisionism has brought "the man who suffers" back into relation with the poem, from which Eliot and Frye alike barred him. Despite many qualifications ("to be a poet is to be an inter-poet"), this notion remains fundamental. The self, the natural embodied person, once Blake's Spectre of Urthona, is now our only defense against two sets of enemies: spiritualists, whose totalized view of tradition would murder all desire by showing a culture complete without us into which we nonetheless mysteriously fit; mechanists, who would disintegrate us into shards of language. Bloom's second possession, held even longer, is Abrams's "heterocosm," the assurance that literature enjoys autonomy as a world elsewhere. These two premises keep Bloom in touch with humanistic traditions and account for much of his appeal. I wonder whether he can maintain them against the Nietzschean and Freudian challenges to the self and against the growing necessity to link literature to history.


From this overview, I turn to the historical situation. Bloom enjoys a privileged place in the major critical event of the postwar period: the revival of Romanticism and displacement of New Criticism, a process encapsulated in the books I've cited by Frye, Abrams, Bate, and Hartman. Bloom studied with Abrams at Cornell; has worked with Hartman at Yale; was among the first reviewers of Frye's Anatomy; and has carried on in print a continuing dialogue with Bate. Bloom had also to reach terms with New Haven formalism, most formidably embodied in W.K. Wimsatt, and this necessity may account for Bloom's attention to individual poems in his first three books. The effectiveness of these books as teacherly commentary established the goodwill and authority that made Bloom's voice heard when he launched the re-visionary series.

How did Bloom see the critical situation when he began? It was an "odd and unnatural … time": "A formidable array of minor poets-turned-criticsconvinced the academies that twentieth-century verse had somehow repudiated its immediate heritage, and mysteriously found its true parentage in the seventeenth century." Only Yvor Winter had the "descriptive accuracy" to recognize that "almost all poetry written in English since the age of sensibility … was inescapably Romantic," but Winters saw only to condemn.

Bloom's earliest significant collected essay engages at once with this condition. In "Lawrence, Eliot, Blackmur, and the Tortoise" (1958), Bloom sets Frye against the principles and judgments of New Criticism. Through the Anatomy's critique of literary evaluation, Bloom exposes the "social … dialectic" informing Blackmur's dismissal of Lawrence. That dialectic systematically excludes the "Protestant, romantic, radical" (Frye's inversion of Eliot). Frye offered a new tradition to oppose that established by the New Critics: prophecy and romance against wit. Bloom could thereby rescue Yeats and Stevens from New Critical standards and join them to the Romantic tradition.

Three further issues of continuing importance emerge, the first of which is evaluation. From Frye's position, Bloom could scorn Blackmur as "a judicial critic" who "approximates the Arnold of our day" and "ranks poets" into a "new scriptural canon." The need for a canon, for rank and exclusion, motivates Bloom's later break with Frye, after which Bloom calls Frye "the Arnold of our day." Our second issue, then, is "Why Arnold?" which also means "What about the touchstones?" The third issue comes in a question, asked rhetorically, which still awaits Bloom's real answer: "Why should the order of institutions be more valid for poetry than the order of a gifted individual?" At the time of asking, the answer was, it should not be and is not. By now for Bloom the "gifted individual" is involved with other individuals, but the question remains how institutions operate in the canon-formation at which his theory increasingly aims.

I begin, however, with Arnold. To define his significance as a bogey will clarify some of Bloom's premises about literary history. Arnold, I suspect, clearly manifests for Bloom a process that began with Coleridge and runs through Eliot and Blackmur: defeated poets propounding a view of literature that stifles the radical extremities of Romanticism, the individuality of Protestantism. Arnold's career moves in three phases that mark a retreat first from Romantic poetry, then from any poetry. His 1853 "Preface" tries to correct the practice of poetry. A poet speaking to poets and reviewers polemically sacrifices his major work and calls upon his fellows to join him in preferring their art to themselves. Such sacrifice brings only further retrenchment in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864). Arnold speaks as a critic who by sacrificing the practice of poetry altogether, hopes to establish the preconditions for a future poetry written not out of romantic, individual ignorance but from common knowledge. In "The Study of Poetry" (1880) the writing of poetry disappears. The "future" of poetry is immense, but only as read. The notorious touchstones will free the reader from personal or historical bias by showing the perfect adequacy of Shakespeare and Milton. Arnold shows that to give up Romanticism is to give up the self is to give up any future writing of poetry.

Arnold repeats Coleridge's idolatry of the great dead and his turn to public cultivation. The great lost word for Bloom is Shelley's; his Defence is "the most profound discourse on poetry in the language." Strikingly, Bloom's scattered references to the Defence bear on time, the future, the process of history, not "platonic" immutability. Shelley offers, indeed, a basis for the "catastrophe theory of creativity" that Bloom now seeks. Poetry in Shelley entails recreative discontinuity: we build our "paradise … out of the wrecks of Eden." There is no creation, only transformative reperception. The poet always comes after; we compose only when the breeze has already departed, the coal is fading. If Dante forms a "bridge" between ancient and modern poetry, the crossing is strangely discontinuous, for he is also a "Lucifer" whose every "burning atom" bears an even more disruptive "lightning." Shelley hopes for a progressive poetic history, in which all poets contribute to one "great poem," but he fears that the first poem already contains all that poetry offers. Only the endless unveilings of interpretation will make it differ from itself over time. From this aspect of Shelley's theory, which follows from the impossibility of creation, Earl Wasserman concluded, as has Bloom, that poetry is only possible if every poem is a criticism of a previous poem.

In contrast to Shelley, Frye lacks bite. There is no negative moment in his understanding of literature. Poetry, like dreams, works through the dialectic of desire and repugnance, but the repugnance is inessential. It only produces the displacements which criticism must undo to reveal the total form of literature as fulfilling desire. Frye is like the early Freud who found no "no" in the unconscious, only an erotic will to union. But Freud's later instinctual dualism makes aggression as fundamental as eros and thus explains competition and exclusion, the world of Bloom's later work.

Now why do touchstones continue to worry Bloom so? In one of the latest essays in his first collection he cites several passages beside some lines from Ammons but warns that this is "not to play at touchstones, in the manner of Arnold or of Blackmur." Finally, however, Bloom has self-consciously given in. To illustrate Stevens's greatness as a poet of sublimity, he offers some "Arnoldian or Blackmurian touchstones." Why the fuss? This issue marks Bloom's break with Frye and Frye's optimistic view of human nature. Arnold took his touchstones from the paragoni of Italian Renaissance criticism, set pieces of comparison that readily became rivaly (paragone, from Gr. parakone, touchstone, confused with agon, struggle, competition). Touchstones set poetry against poetry rather than like Frye integrating poetry with poetry. Furthermore, citation of short passages out of context fragments the unity of a work, violating principles on which Wimsatt and Frye could both agree with Aristotle.

The locus classicus of literature as fragmentary and competitive is Longinus's On the Sublime. Longinus helped extricate the Romantics from the dilemmas of eighteenth-century poetry and is crucial to Bloom's new Romantic criticism. Longinus is extravagant and difficult, and since Bloom rarely cites him, many readers do not appreciate his place in Bloom's work. The sublime is disjunctive, a power that "scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt," in a moment. This power derives from the grandeur of the human mind, "the echo of a great soul," and is freed from any natural mimesis. It offers a theory of inspiration that goes back to no divinity. Men become gods to one another, as the "effluences" of past greatness fill the young writer. To achieve full power, however, one must leave such passivity and emulatively combat one's predecessor, as Plato did Homer, "entering the lists like a young champion matched against the man whom all admire." Thus Bloom's agonistic metaphors join a tradition of discourse. Likewise another of Bloom's important, apparently idiosyncratic, notions: the Scene of Instruction. To achieve the sublime, one may conjure up the great past writers as judges and exemplars; the "ordeal" of this ghostly "tribunal" will yield us the power to immortalize ourselves, or will quell us if our spirits are inadequate.

For Longinus the eternity of literature is not dead monuments, empty pyramids that testify to the vain hunger of the imagination; it is human encounter, both pedagogic and competitive, that mysteriously bridges time. Bloom finds the sublime an archaic mode that is nonetheless "always available to us again, provided a survivor of the old line comes to us." Thus the sublime is associated not only with demonization, repression, and hyperbole, but also with the final position in Bloom's map: return of the dead and transumption. This context defines one of Bloom's most provocative undertakings. His analysis of "transumptive allusion" attempts a precise rhetorical explanation of the eternity effect of great literature, since classical times a puzzle more invoked than explored. The Romantic theory of the symbol, and its New Critical inheritors, could only explain this effect metaphysically, through the participation of a temporal part in an eternal whole. Transumption, however, "murders time" only "figuratively." It is only "troping on a trope" and enforces a "state of rhetoricity" at the expense of the "presentness of the present," in contrast to the presence necessary to the symbol. The rhetoric of sublimity allows Bloom to evade the critical line from Coleridge to Blackmur, from which his thought takes its op-positional beginning.


From this large view, I turn to Bloom's own career. Read now, Shelley's Mythmaking proves astonishingly at one with revisionism in its concerns, though not in its positions. The basis from which Bloom defines and analyzes Shelley's myths, the Buberian personalism of "I-Thou" confrontation, continues to inform the dialectical, "subject-centered … person to person" relations of influence, defending against both linguistic reduction (it-it) and the oppressions of tradition (I-it). The work already emphasizes the "corrective competition" between Shelley and Milton, and Bloom hears the uncanny echoing between The Witch of Atlas and Yeats's "Byzantium" years before the ratio of apophrades could account for it.

Even problems of method in reading emerge reflectively. Yeats's observations on Demogorgon suggest that the "misunderstandings of one great poet by another" are valuable; Wilson Knight exemplifies the danger that criticism may become "independent vision," an "individual and inferior poetry." The term "misreading" occurs often in Shelley's Mythmaking, always negatively. The Visionary Company, however, begins Bloom's self-revision toward "the necessity of misreading." Robert Graves is "the most persuasive of modern misreaders," "more imaginative" than other critics on Keats's "La Belle Dame." Bloom's first three books maintain his initial loyalty to Frye, but his break begins late in Blake's Apocalypse: "I don't believe that Blake's reading of the Bible was as imaginatively liberated as Frye takes it to have been." Since Frye had begun our whole current attention to "reading" by defining the key to Blake as his reading of the Bible, this disagreement is fundamental. Bloom cannot accept Blake's Christian understanding of the New Testament as purifying and completing the Old Testament. From this will follow the general impossibility of "fulfillment" in literary tradition, the recognition that fulfillment involves invidious judgments, that Frye's criticism depends upon decisively evaluating the relation of the two testaments. Thus Frye is a canonizer, another Matthew Arnold.

Yeats, which occupied Bloom for most of the sixties, marks his crisis. He had to recognize his own activity in making the canons of literature. He too was ranking, making judgments, invoking a tradition in order to diminish Yeats by it. His earlier work could be seen as wholly positive (though it has its polemic), offering only descriptive appreciation of misunderstood works. But now like any Leavis—or Arnold—he was engaged in "scrutinoid" revaluation, performing acts not only of love but of aggression toward poetry, undoing much of Yeats in order to clear our view of the Romantics. Revisionism is the means to comprehend and justify the double process by which Bloom discovered what Yeats has done to Blake and Shelley and what he himself was doing to Yeats. Reflection upon this experience would suggest literary history as an activity simultaneously individual and exclusive, competitive and delusive. Elaborating these qualities would produce the apparatus of precursor and canon, Freudian psychology and Nietzschean rhetoric.

Leaving Coleridgean formalism and the archetypes of Frye, Bloom turned source-study "inside out," humanizing it as Frye's Blake had nature. The "organic analogue" yields to the "human analogue": "To say that a poem is about itself is killing, but to say it is about another poem is to go out into the world where we live." My last pages pursue this "world" and question its relation to history, exclusion, power.

No sooner does Bloom offer engagement with the world than he retracts it: "Mature creation, for a poet, rises directly from an error about poetry rather than … about life." Some indirect process might be crucial and interesting, but not to Bloom. So far is poetry from the world that it "transcend[s] mimesis." Poets confront "not the universe, but the precursors." I await Bloom's promised "literary history as canon-formation," but his positions erode this goal: "There is no literary history … only biography," individual "defensive misreadings." No dialectic of "art and society" but only of "art and art" fuels the process of poetry.

Such unwillingness to come to disciplined terms with the world produces the extreme variation of Bloom's claims for the applicability of his theory. At first it was scrupulously limited to post-Enlightenment poetry. So Shakespeare was exempt by living in "the giant age before the flood." But such dualism is obviously mythical, not historical. Discovering the dialectics of influence in earlier contexts forces the alternative, equally unhistorical, assertion of universality. Only precise attention to the place of poetry in society—the opportunities offered for voice, script, and instruction, by whom, to whom and for what purposes—will allow the nuance, detail, and differentiation that make a history, and set proper limits to a theory.

Bloom, however, denies himself the means needed for his end. He has abandoned many idealizations but still maintains that "canon-formation is not an arbitrary process" and therefore "not, for more than a generation or two, socially or politically determined." This is still faith in the mystic agency of Shelley's "redeemer and mediator, Time." To assert that "poets survive because of inherent strength" is to neglect the subordination of the Old Testament to the New, the centuries long suppression of the Gnostics and Kabbalists, Blake's lament, "I am hid." Against such political, social, ideological repression, Bloom insists upon the psychological: "A strong reading is the only poetic fact, the only revenge against time that endures." But what of the material basis of such facts? How do I enforce my reading? Such questions fall outside Bloom's thought: "The idea of a 'finished' poem … depends upon the absurd, hidden notion that reifies poems from relationships into entities." But what if we replace "finished" with "published"? Isn't such reification exactly what publication performs and what we value it for? Replace "finished" with "censored"; the purity of relationship is compromised by the material vulnerability of the poem's existence. Replace "finished" with "vanished." If its reified traces disappear, we have no relationship at all, except in a Blakean imagination that lets no act of humanity perish.

Bloom knows the kind of thing I'm talking about, and in A Map of Misreading his remarks on the current role of American teachers began to work with them, but to no consequence as yet. Bloom's position lacks any imaginative form for organizing what he knows about poetry in the world. For psychology he has Freud as precursor, Lacan as transatlantic contemporary, and Geoffrey Hartman as colleague; for rhetoric, Nietzsche as precursor, Derrida as transatlantic contemporary, and Paul de Man as colleague; for history, Marx and Foucault would make a start. To take on one more reduction, to give up at last the heterocosmic autonomy of literature, will enrich and complicate the story Bloom has to tell and join it fully to the world where we live.

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