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Critical Essay by Howard Eiland
SOURCE: "Harold Bloom and High Modernism," in Boundary 2, Vol. V, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 935-42.
In the following essay, Eiland discusses Bloom's theory of repression and revisionism as creative forces for poets.
In The Anxiety of Influence Harold Bloom claims for his theory a "deliberate literalism", yet in that book and its successors his interpretations of poems have been hardly "literal." In Poetry and Repression, in fact, the motivating critical question is: "What is being repressed here?"—and it stimulates a search for meanings that are latent, more or less concealed from the poet himself. "Literal" or manifest meaning is usually a self-deception, a defense against an anterior poetic stance or "fathering force." Poets don't necessarily "mean" what they think they do or what they overtly say; their writing deviously "voices" a dark psychic drama emanating from an ambiguous preconscious realm of contending forces, voices a text of images that resemble those of Freud's psychology, and that, like all archetypal tropes, keep merging into one another without ceasing, however, to embody distinct general principles of opposition or exchange. This submerged but indeterminately graspable drama is thus essentially dualistic or dialectical (the distinction is never completely clear in Bloom), expressing an eternal and eternally multiform "agon" between the body in nature and abstract consciousness. It is doubtful that psyches are texts, Bloom observes in swerving from Jacques Lacan, but texts are surely stratified psyches, are "psychic battlefields."
To any fairly faithful reader of Bloom's recent criticism, this encapsulated argument should sound familiar. He has often been accused of repetitiousness, but one could as well point out in the succession of his books a steady, increasingly bold and technical elaboration and differentiation of certain basic theoretical tenets which I shall try to identify before I conclude. Like other powerful theoretical minds, he seeks to assimilate various disciplines—perhaps most saliently psychology (Anxiety of Influence), rhetoric (Map of Misreading), and theosophy (Kabbalah and Criticism)—into his own systematic. Poetry and Repression obviously presupposes these three earlier works in its subtle, difficult associations of tropes, defenses, and divinations. To trope is to turn away from, to fend off, it is a sublimely or grotesquely hyperbolized divergence from "proper meaning," and as a psychic defense mechanism it is a repression or "forgetting" of the idea that one must die: it is thus a supremely fictive prophecy of one's own immortality. Figuration is divination against death, and "proper meaning" for Bloom is death; the imagination, as Vico said, is a faculty for self-preservation. "Meaning in poems," Bloom says, "is always a matter of survival." As the title suggests, Poetry and Repression elaborates the key idea of repression. Using Freud's notion that what is repressed is an image of a drive, Bloom suggests that the anxious poetic ego of the ephebe or latecomer "absorbs" the too well-loved precursor poem into the ephebe's id, from which the internalized precursor later rises, phantom-like, as a menacing primal image or impulse. The ego is thus trapped in a "strange area of identity and opposition," burdened by what seem to be its own images, and consequently provoked to escape this burden by "misreading" the image of the precursor poem and thereby defining itself:
For the post Enlightenment poet, identity and opposition are the poles set up by the ephebe's self-defining act in which he creates the hypostasis of the precursor as an Imaginary Other.
In a kind of conflation of this Lacanian terminology with that of Jacques Derrida Bloom goes on to view repression as "a difference in contending forces," and to this he adds Paul Ricoeur's summary of primal repression as meaning "that we are always in the mediate, in the already expressed, the already said." The principle of reciprocity or mediation or difference between conscious and preconscious forces, "fire" and "flood," is thus central to the concept of repression. The alert reader in this context will doubtless recall the extended dialectic of "limitations" and "representations" in Bloom's mapping of the process of poetic "creation-by-catastrophe":
Limitations turn away from a lost or mourned object towards either the substitute or the mourning subject, while representations turn back towards restoring the powers that desired and possessed the object. Representation points to a lack, just as limitation does, but in a way that re-finds what could fill the lack.
Limitations (which are really concentrations into the self) and re-presentations are connected by processes of substitution, or "crossing," to use Bloom's term from his recent striking essay "Poetic Crossing: Rhetoric and Psychology," Georgia Review (Fall 1976). Identity with and opposition to the image of the precursor, as we have just seen, are similarly dialectical functions; repression is a kind of substitution or crossing. And so finally is criticism itself.
The function of criticism at the present time, as I conceive it, is to find a middle way between the paths of demystification of meaning, and of recollection or restoration of meaning, or between limitation and representation.
Opposed equally to the reductiveness of synchronic structuralism (that is, of Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller) and the mystical autotelism of New Criticism (not autonomous texts but relations between texts is Bloom's subject), this criticism will "re-center" our notions of poetic meaning.
Lest this all sound too melioristic, Bloom is also concerned, as in the past, to defend a principle of "revisionism" or "antithesis," directed primarily against the more benign, pseudo-objectivist, high-church view of canon-formation propounded by T.S. Eliot and Northrop Frye. He claims to de-idealize relations between tradition and the individual talent, and at the least, we might say, his is the more dramatic and compelling vision. But I would add that in the context of his basic Romantic premises, we must look askance at this claim to de idealize. For despite the biological vocabulary of strength, survival, and territorial imperative, the general tenor of this critical system is clearly toward transcendence of the biological and temporal: toward, as we have seen, "the only victory worth winning, the divinating triumph over oblivion." From Ringers in the Tower on to Poetry and Repression, Bloom has been relatively frank in his rejection of Freudian "wisdom," or the "reality principle," and one wishes only that he would call his actual pervasive (one hesitates to say banal) idealism by its right name. His wavering between biological and transcendental ("supermimetic") frames of reference furthermore seems tied to a number of other inconsistencies in his system. He has grudgingly admitted the point of John Freccero and others that Petrarch and Virgil, along with other pre-Enlightenment poets, are legitimate instances of the anxiety of influence, that the fundamental nature and concerns of human discourse don't seem to change so much after all (see Map of Misreading, p. 77); and yet he continues to conceive post-Enlightenment poetry as distinctively anxious and radical, continues to imply an entropic theory of literary history, continues to emphasize the idea of discontinuity as integral to his concepts of troping and originality, and as antithetical to the idea of continuity, which leads back to the bitter eternal return of cyclic nature. He argues, as we know, a criterion of strength and a method of "creative misprision," and yet he implicitly asks—and actively works—to be understood fairly, even as he asserts that his "misreadings" are "more adequate to the text" than the weak misreadings now available, and that there are in any poem "definite patterns" of tropes or images. "Misreading" comes more and more to sound like "reading," and "strength" like "accuracy," and it is as if a critic can afford to be "creative" only after he has attained to something like Bloom's great scholarly learning.
These apparent inconsistencies boil down, it seems to me, to a basic hedging between dualistic and pluralistic modes of thought. He is attracted, on the one hand, to the pluralistic relativism of a Derrida, who following Nietzsche substitutes the concept of "freeplay" for that of "center," and who orphically suggests in his essay "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy," New Literary History (Autumn 1974), that all thought/language is metaphoric or figurative. "There is only interpretation," Bloom declares in Poetry and Repression, echoing not only Derrida but his own earlier virtual identification of "poetry" with thought. But if all is interpretation or poetry, it is difficult to know how "figurative" is supposed to differ from "proper" or "literal" (in his recent Georgia Review article, p. 513, he finally denies this distinction), or "imagination" from "nature." If all is poetry, then all is potentially sublime, unless "sublime" comes to mean only negation, as it does in some "advanced" forms of French Symbolism. It would seem that Bloom cannot logically maintain his pluralistic conception of reality (with its suppressed democratic implications, such as the idea of play) alongside his privileged and tragic conception of imagination. Terms like "universe of death" or "barrenness of experience" can have only a "figurative"—a nominal or formal—sense, expressing not contentual or descriptive "truth" but rather the polemical will and temperament of the critic of which Nietzsche was so complexly suspicious. "Strong" means "it pleases me," or "it impresses me, bends my ear." In other words, Bloom is not writing a Logic but a Rhetoric, and it perversely follows that he should exalt the oxymoron, the necessary circle ("Criticism is the discourse of the deep tautology," Anxiety), the "saving lie." He is more than half-conscious of his own ambivalence toward origins, centers, mothers, oceans, bodies, and he knows that "originality" (like "life" as Freud defines it in Civilization and Its Discontents) means fighting against conditions even while questing for them. All this makes one feel that Bloom's real, profoundest subject is evasion—the necessary complement of "influence"—a subject that could conceivably take him to the study of novels, except that he appears bored by human relations in anything but the abstract.
Such ambivalence or evasion, at any rate, is the focus of his interpretation of individual poems. As almost always, these interpretations are richly suggestive, and it should be clear by now that Bloom stands in a long line of Yale critics who excel at the close reading of poetry. The essays in Poetry and Repression are largely concerned with applying or testing the terms and schemes of his theoretical map, while those collected in Figures of Capable Imagination (written during the period 1970–74) are more conventional and perhaps, like the essays in Ringers in the Tower, more conventionally satisfying. My personal favorites are the brilliantly etymological analysis of Blake's "London" in Poetry and Repression and the fascinating, affectionate, wry consideration of Coleridge—that "high-jumper of the Sublime"—in Figures. In Poetry and Repression, as I indicated earlier, Bloom uses his quasi-Freudian method to suggest how a poet's manifest intentions tend to be undermined by repressive processes. Thus, he argues interestingly, the deep subject of "Tintern Abbey" is memory—"the one great myth of [Wordsworth's] antimythological poetry"—memory as a defensive "lie" against time, which is to say against the looming figure of Milton. He observes in the poem a struggle, similar to one in Blake's "London," between "prophetic voice" and "demonic writing," between hearing and seeing, a struggle "in which visible traces usurp the hopeful murmur of prophetic voice"—"murmur" here subtly alluding to the voice of waters, which, as Bloom has shown in earlier essays, one keeps hearing as "the oceanic sense" throughout Wordsworth's belated—that is, "inland"—poetry. Again Bloom argues for an essentially solipsistic, or "apotropaic," Wordsworth: "the love of that answering subject, nature, is a love that distances and estranges nature." His essay on Tennyson is one the whole more honorific than the earlier essay in Ringers in the Tower, though I believe he still slights—not unexpectedly—Idylls of the King. His earlier point about Mariana's suffering as "the disease of Romantic self-consciousness" he now elaborates: her sexual anguish is only secondary, a mask for—what else?—influence anguish. No bridegroom, real or imagined, could ever assuage this malaise, and the inevitable antithetical conclusion is that Mariana the poetess represses an actual controlling desire to remain solitary and narcissistic. His essay on Browning attempts rather briefly to explain his own preoccupation with "Childe Roland" as a fascination for that poem's representation of power, but in my opinion, neither here nor in Map of Misreading does he substantially add anything to his dazzling interpretation of Roland's "Gnostic" quest in the well-known essay in Ringers. There is a discussion of "Song of Myself" in his essay on Emerson and Whitman, where once again he tries to show the latter battling against the specter of the former. Whitman's swerve takes the form of denying Emerson's distinction between Soul and Nature, leading him to "overproclaim" the body:
The "real me" or "me myself" in Whitman could not bear to be touched, ever, except by the maternal trinity of night, death, and the sea, while Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, learned from Emerson to cry: "Contact!"
Blooms adds, extraordinarily: "Emerson had no sexual problems," while "Whitman, gloriously and plangently, always had much too much to say about sex and death." One cannot help wondering if the easy confidence of these assertions—"much too much"—conceals some deep uneasiness with "sex and death" in the critic himself.
What is one to make of interpretations that a priori refuse to take a writer "at his word?" Surely it is possible to object that Wordsworth and Whitman, to mention the most obvious examples, are being distorted here. Although in Figures Bloom refers in passing to "the primordial, Tolstoyan power" in Wordsworth, as manifest in poems like "Michael" and "The Old Cumberland Beggar," he prefers, as I have indicated, to portray the poet as an alienated visionary and a solipsist, dismissing as mere rhetoric, so to speak, the passage in "Tintern Abbey" about half-creating and perceiving, and never dealing with a strong anti-solipsistic poem like "Peele Castle." By the same token, could not one accurately as well as persuasively read in the tropes of "Song of Myself" an underlying rhetoric or "drift," such that "pointing" becomes a kind of "infolding" and "embracing" a kind of "launching," such that "singing" becomes a "gathering" and "listening" and "mimicking"? Doesn't it seem more interesting to talk about this poem as an invocation (with all the far-reaching implications of this term that Heidegger discusses in What is Called Thinking?), a musical meditation on the very idea and bodily process of voice, voicing, giving voice to? There may well be a visionary Whitman in later poems like "Passage to India," but certainly "Song of Myself" is still "in nature."
At the very least, Bloom's interpretations suggest how we keep having recourse to masks in our relations with others, including the Others that people our imagination. It is striking, in fact, how so many of his interpretations come to sound like exempla for the Nietzsche who writes, in his most movingly deconstructive work, Beyond Good and Evil, of "an irresistible distrust against the very possibility of self-recognition"—the Nietzsche who was an "aesthetic man" despite himself; striking, moreover, how so many of Bloom's texts come to echo, not only one another, but Nietzsche's stoical masked inquiries into himself:
Wanderer, who are you? I see you going your way, without scorn, without love, with unfathomable eyes, damp and sad like a plummet which has returned to the light from every depth without finding satisfaction. What was it seeking down below? I see your breast which does not heave, your lips that hide their nausea, your hands which are slow to touch anything—who are you? What were you doing?… What will serve to refresh you? Just name it…. What? What? Tell me! "Another mask! A second mask!"
If we look closely, we can see a general pattern running through most of Bloom's interpretations: initial anxiety and debilitating self-consciousness, after reaching an abysmal nadir, gradually give way to an upward surge of creative power, by which a new mask, a more confident self, is constituted in the very act of articulating this sense of power. No doubt I simplify—or misread—grossly. My purpose nevertheless is to indicate how closely Bloom's portrayal of poetic creation resembles Nietzsche's conception of self-overcoming, and how intimately both of these theories turn about the familiar dichotomy of self-consciousness and belief. Nietzsche's philosophy can be seen very broadly as an analysis of the nihilistic and entropic consequences of Western individualism, what Nietzsche calls "the Alexandrian spirit": the detachment of the individual from the organic or mythic or universal by means of an increasingly scientific and historical self-consciousness. As a solution to the impasse brought about by "the principium individuationis," which is precisely the impasse of "belatedness," Nietzsche paradoxically proposes, as we know, an even more radical individualism, a deeper questing into the abyss of self for the sources of all man's heretofore falsely conceived "objective" values. The quester "misreads" God as subjectivity; he "introjects" the idea and image of divinity. Self overcoming means "self-begetting." The superman is a "saving lie."
With its roots specifically in Schopenhauer's paradoxical notion of the Will's deliverance from itself into Knowledge, and in Kleist's equally paradoxical notion (in his essay on the Puppet Theatre) of a "later reason" both self-conscious and spontaneous. Nietzsche's conception of self-overcoming is, after all, only a climatic instance of a perennial "modern" preoccupation with descent and regeneration, inevitably combining a "nostalgia for origins" with a skepticism toward the possibility of ever transcending time or language. All such preoccupations revolve around the myth of a fall from original integrity of Being; they all simultaneously celebrate and lament what Erich Heller—another brilliant, aphoristic, perhaps more classically lucid, Nietzschean critic—has called "the tragedy of knowledge." Bloom is quite explicit in his use of the myths of fall and regeneration, and, like Heller before him (compare The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann), he argues for a continuity between "Romantic" and "Modern" as both essentially Gnostic. What we have here, I believe, is nothing other than the controlling myth of "High Modernism," a grand composite trope (indeed, by now a cliché) extending from the Gnostic Faust of the Renaissance to the failed Faust, Stephen Dedalus, with his phobic dreams of flight and his looming phantoms and his embarrassed theories of self-begetting, on to the Nietzschean Faustus of Thomas Mann's late novel, which, as Bloom has noted in Anxiety of Influence, has as its conscious, all-too-conscious subject the spiralling difficulty of belatedness, and the hoped for "breakthrough." That this mythic complex of ideas is not really or exclusively modern but rather is rooted in the dualistic strains of earlier systems of thought, is made clear by the researches of Bloom and others into Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, Neoplatonism, Orphism, Shamanism, and so on back into the obscurities of the past. These philosophically poetic systems can all be viewed as figural anticipations of Romanticism/Modernism, or rather as the moving image of itself which Romanticism eternally casts. They bespeak a permanently recurring "antithetical" strain in human thought, antithetical in the sense of being "eternally hungry," not at home in the body or nature, temperamentally bent on transcendence (whether religious or aesthetic—and the distinction ultimately is unreal), incurably—though uneasily—condescending to the Leopold Blooms of the world. (Which is perhaps to say that in truly representative literature this higher strain usually co-exists with a less apocalyptic one.) Writers such as Heller and Bloom, both of whom tend to interpret particular texts as revealing "moments" in a more general psychic drama—a journey into the interior, a narrowing struggle for priority—such writers may be seen as literary critical embodiments of this High Modern mythic tradition. And in the case of Bloom, one must ask whether the anxiety he describes so compulsively is not finally the "Alexandrian" anxiety of the ambitious critic who is not a poet.
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