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Critical Review by Robert Alter
SOURCE: "More Wrestling With Forebears," in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1982, pp. 8, 14.
In the following review, Alter discusses Agon, "the latest installment in Harold Bloom's elaborate theory of poetic creation."
"As soon as a man begins to see everything," G.C. Lichtenberg observed in an aphorism Harold Bloom sets at the head of an essay on Emerson, "he generally expresses himself obscurely—begins to speak with the tongues of angels." The statement surely applies as aptly to Mr. Bloom as to Emerson, and, indeed, Mr. Bloom is so shrewdly self-conscious a writer that it seems altogether likely he intended to hint at the personal application.
Agon is the latest installment in Harold Bloom's elaborate theory of poetic creation as a desperate wrestling with forebears, inaugurated in 1973 by The Anxiety of Influence. The new volume, it would seem, is a collection of literary and cultural essays written for different occasions, but just as the half-dozen books Mr. Bloom has published over the past nine years are really chapters in one long book (the end of which is not yet in sight), these sundry pieces make one tightly clenched argument, for the author is committed to pursuing the manifestations of a single master idea in whatever he touches. Agon, as far as I can determine, does not depart significantly from the doctrine of the earlier books, but in several respects it makes clearer the character and purpose of Bloom's project and in particular what it might mean for him to be a man who "begins to see everything."
To begin with, it is apparent in the new book that Mr. Bloom, despite his notion that both poetry and interpretation emerge from the willful misprision of earlier texts, is not a Deconstructionist. He and his colleagues at Yale, it must be said, have a certain complicity in the general confusion about this, having published together—the other contributors were Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida—a volume called Deconstruction and Criticism that hovers ambiguously between being an expression of divergent opinions and, despite a disclaimer, a manifesto of the so-called "Yale School." Mr. Bloom is not a Deconstructionist, because in his vision of literature the personality of the author is primary, the text secondary; writing is always ancillary to voice, and consequently, poetic texts are not merely an endless dance of linguistic signifiers but have a referential aspect, rooted in the experience of the poet and reaching toward the experience of the reader. Language for him is a means of expression, not the basis of an ontology, and in the lead essay of the new volume he speaks with appropriate disdain of "a currently fashionable shibboleth, Franco-Heideggerian and monolithic, that is another usurpation, language-as-Demiurge replacing the self-as-Abyss or even the self-as-Jehovah."
It would seem a peculiarly American literary fate to seesaw between a sense of the self-as-Abyss and of the self-as-Jehovah, with the preponderant weight usually on the Jehovah side, and another aspect of his own enterprise that Mr. Bloom clarifies here is its profoundly American character. "The language of American criticism," he observes, "ought to be pragmatic and outrageous," two qualities his own writing seeks strenuouslyto achieve. By "pragmatic," I take it that he means opposed to metaphysical theorizing of the Franco-Heideggerian sort and, in particular, something that might be of urgent practical use to the struggling self of the critic and his readers. The outrageousness in Mr. Bloom's stance, perhaps his most winning quality, needs no comment, but I cannot resist offering two brief illustrations:
"Most of my own readers will have confronted revisionism primarily in their erotic lives, which are quite simply now our spiritual lives."
"I have come to the conviction that the love of poetry is another variant of the love of power."
The first statement looks like a provocative throwaway; the second is central to Mr. Bloom's whole doctrine, and I should like to reflect on it presently.
The essays of Agon shuttle among the major figures of what is obviously conceived of as an American canon. It begins with Emerson, runs through Whitman to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, and, latterly, to John Ashbery. If Mr. Bloom were also inclined to grapple with the novel, he would undoubtedly have included Melville and probably Hawthorne, perhaps Faulkner as well, but would have had trouble with Mark Twain and Henry James, just as he has no real place for poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, who do not aspire to what he calls the American Sublime. He makes the refreshing suggestion that his exemplary American texts will prove resistant to deconstruction, an analytic-associative technique honed on the glinting self-referentiality of the poetry of Mallarmé, because both criticism and poetry "in the American grain" affirm "the self over language."
Mr. Bloom's idea of revisionism is, as he is well aware, a radically idiosyncratic theory or, rather, a theory of radical idiosyncrasy as the key to identity and creativity, and this he presents here as an essentially American theme. For the American writer isolation and freedom are absolutely connected, and Mr. Bloom sees in America "the literary culture of the isolate individual, the solitary construer, a Dickinson or Thoreau or Whitman." America becomes the supreme instance of what Bloom calls belatedness. Coming after nearly three millennia of European literary tradition, Americans seek to evade the crushing burden of the past by repeatedly conjuring with the fiction of an absolute beginning, an American genesis, the American self-as-Jehovah, and Emerson is the first revealer of this New World truth. "Emerson's American Gnosis denies our belatedness by urging us not to listen to tradition …; he is the authentic prophet-god of discontinuity, of the breaking of tradition, and of reinscribing tradition as a perpetual breaking, mending, and then breaking again."
A good deal of space is devoted to an exposition of Gnosticism, an esoteric doctrine that flourished in the early Christian centuries in certain elite Christian circles and apparently among Jews as well; the most powerful Jewish version of Gnostism, however, surfaced only with the Kabbalistic thinkers of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. The chief emphasis of Gnosticism was on the mystic knowledge of a paradoxically unknowable God, Who was conceived to be removed from the world we inhabit; the world itself was not His creation but that of an ambiguous or rebellious Demiurge. For Mr. Bloom, the principal appeal of the sundry Gnostic systems is their daring "revisionism"—that is, their assertion of intellectual freedom through a radical reversal of the basic terms of authoritative religious or philosophic tradition, whether embodied in the cosmogony of the Book of Genesis or in Plato's ontology. Mr. Bloom sees Gnosticism as a paradigm of the process of breaking tradition, and has two bold disquisitions on Freud as an inadvertent Gnostic.
It is particularly in these disquisitions on Gnosis that Mr. Bloom speaks in the tongues of angels, in antithetical response to the received body of Revelation which, according to the rabbinic dictum, "spoke in the language of men." What is evident in the new volume is that these theological matters have become increasingly substantive rather than metaphorical for Mr. Bloom. He now speaks of himself as someone "working at the outer limits of literary criticism," and says even more explicitly, "I write this book as a Jewish Gnostic, trying to explore and develop a personal Gnosis and a possible Gnosticism, perhaps even one available to others." Mr. Bloom, trained as a literary scholar and passionately engaged in a certain line of post-Enlightenment literary texts, is less and less a critic or even a literary theorist, more and more a kind of aspiring heresiarch. (He is, however, less grim than this makes him sound; despite his sense of spiritual crisis, he has a good deal of wry self-irony.) As a man who has begun to see "everything"—self and cosmos and will and death in an eternal drama of origins in catastrophe and an effort to overpower one's antecedents—he can discover in any given literary work mainly an illustration of that compelling everything. Denis Donoghue has argued this last point acutely in his recent book, Ferocious Alphabets: "Bloom's practical criticism is indifferent to the structure, internal relations, of the poem, or to its diction, syntax, meters, rhythm, or tone: it is chiefly concerned to isolate the primal gesture which the critical paradigm has predicted."
Agon offers occasional exceptions to this stricture, the most extended being the fine essay on John Hollander's "Spectral Emanations," which, despite some rhetorical gestures toward revisionist theory, is precisely devoted to structure, internal relations, diction and so forth. But for the most part, Mr. Bloom, a first-rate critic, knowingly chooses not to practice criticism, and so the moments of real critical illumination are largely accidental, occurring when the submerged structure of the poem happens to correspond perfectly to the Gnostic paradigm, as in some passages from Hart Crane discussed here. Elsewhere, the Bloomian tongues of angels tend to overwhelm the poet's still small voice, which is, of course, what he says criticism should do. When, for example, I read Mr. Bloom on John Ashbery, I find a confirmation of the theory of revisionism that has little to do with my own experience of the poems—in contrast, say, to reading Helen Vendler on Ashbery, where I find my own perceptions given better focus, my imperceptions persuasively called to my attention.
The ultimate issue for me is that the kind of critical exposition I like to read and would like to practice presupposes the existence of a community of shared literary experience, which is to say, literary tradition, while for Mr. Bloom tradition is "the trope of usurpation and imposition," a course of internecine warfare carried out under a facade of continuity. Mr. Bloom's single truth about conflict has considerable explanatory power in regard to certain writers, and it surely has instructed us all that neither literary creation nor interpretation is so innocent as we once thought. But I wonder whether it is really true that all reading and all writing, as he so vehemently argues, are undertaken out of the individual's claustrophobic need to usurp the text and make a place for himself in its stead. Agreeing with Mr. Bloom that most criticism has an aspect of hidden autobiography, I will say that his description does not accord much with my own experience of reading, or with my perception of many eminent interpreters, from Abraham Ibn Ezra on the Hebrew Bible to A.C. Bradley on Shakespeare and Cleanth Brooks on Donne, in all of whom I think I can detect rather a reverence before the astonishing fullness of the text, a patient loving desire to unpack its riches.
As for the possibility of a literary tradition that might be a genuine passing on (Latin traditio, Hebrew masoret), no one has argued the case more persuasively than Mr. Bloom's friend John Hollander in his 1975 study, "Vision and Resonance." I refer in particular to Mr. Hollander's splendid essay on Ben Jonson, which shows through analysis how Jonson "believed in a vital tradition embracing the poetry of the ancient and the modern worlds" and, shaping a supple poetic corpus through that belief, sought to "create discourse in an ideal community, within which the literary dialect would be as speech." Mr. Hollander's modern instance of this conception of poetry as civilized continuity rather than permanent revolution is Auden, another uncanonical poet for Mr. Bloom. Since Blake and Coleridge, we have often been encouraged to think of the making of poems as the making of new worlds, and it is on this Romantic bias that Mr. Bloom builds his new theosophy. But poetry has not entirely lost hold of an older sense that to make a poem is to fashion something cunningly in words, according to established procedures, that may reflect and heighten nonverbal experience. At the end of his essay on Jonson, John Hollander nicely catches this sense, reminding us that Gnosticism is not the inevitable paradigm for literary creation, in the most un-Romantic reversal of a Yeatsian motto. Speaking of Auden, he writes: "In craft began, for him as well as for his predecessor Jonson, responsibilities."
This section contains 2,025 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)