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Critical Review by Dan O'Hara
SOURCE: A review of The Breaking of the Vessels, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 99-101.
In the following review, O'Hara contends that The Breaking of the Vessels is "both more extreme" and "more predictable" than Bloom's other works, and that the author seems to have moved from "precocious and prolific youth to decadent and despairing ancientness without ever having attained critical maturity."
Harold Bloom has been a controversial figure in American literary criticism for some time. His first book, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), set itself squarely against the ruling critical orthodoxy of the time which denigrated the great Romantic poet as (in Arnold's notorious phrase) "an ineffectual angel" beating his golden wings vainly in a void of idealistic abstraction. Bloom argued instead that Shelley was much more of a self-consciousvisionary craftsman in the style of Northrop Frye's Blake than he was ever given credit for by Arnold's New Critical heirs and fellow-travelers. Ever since, no matter what the dominant opinion in critical circles has been, Bloom has repeatedly adopted an antithetical stance. Consider the first and still most original of his theoretical utterances, The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Just when such colleagues of his at Yale as Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller were adapting Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis to the interpretation of literary texts within an American context; and such former mentors of Bloom's as M.H. Abrams and Walter Jackson Bate were either defending the conventional methods of doing literary history against the neophyte deconstructors or refining their own well-established views of the Romantic tradition and its Christian and humanistic origins: Bloom returned to Nietzsche, Freud, and occult forms of speculation (Kabbalah and Gnosticism) to propound a radically subversive position on why and how poetry gets written and literary traditions, especially the Romantic tradition, impose themselves so effectively on our minds. In essence, then, Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence attempted to trump the hands of all the leading figures, old and new, in the critical profession by redefining the context of the various debates in his own eccentric fashion.
The poet, for Bloom, must wrestle with all the specters of his elected and partially repressed precursors, in order to win the right to his own distinctive imaginative identity. Consequently, every poem is another strategic move in the great match with the mighty dead, an achieved anxiety concerning the difference in priority and spiritual authority between the belated poet and his precursor, a defensive invention of the former's necessary stance in relation to the latter's sublimity. That is, Bloom's theory is a kind of literary judo intended to turn the formidable strength of one giant of the imagination after another to one's own advantage. Since the discordant notes of The Anxiety of Influence Bloom has added to, revised, refined, elaborated, and relentlessly applied his theory in a series of volumes that have made him the first literary critic in the American tradition to rival the greatest of the nineteenth-century masters of English prose, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Emerson, Arnold, and Pater—truly cultural presences. The irony of Bloom's achievement, for all its curiously representative status, is, however, that given our highly compartmentalized disciplines, Bloom can never exercise the kind of influence in our time that these earlier figures once could and did. But, as we shall see, this irony is, perhaps, really a fortunate one after all.
For Harold Bloom's latest volume, The Breaking of the Vessels, represents as Agon does (his other production for this year) his drive for originality in its decline. The book strikes a series of antithetical poses both more extreme than struck in the past and more predictable given the general outlines of his theoretical project as found in The Anxiety of Influence and the speculative books that followed it in the mid-seventies. It is as if the perennial "bad boy" of American literary criticism has suddenly become old overnight, moving from precocious and prolific youth to decadent and despairing ancientness without ever attaining critical maturity along the way. Bloom's concern in Vessels is, as usual, "neither self nor language but the utterance, within a tradition of uttering, of the image or lie of voice, where 'voice' is neither self nor language, but rather spark or pneuma, as opposed to self." Consequently, for this self-confessed Jewish Gnostic, a poem can only be "spark and act" and criticism must ape its subject or "else we need not read it at all." Bloom's concern, that is, is all for image: "How can one measure the disruptions of a tradition as they occur within an individual poem?… What was the poet attempting to do for himself by writing this particular poem?" One can measure those disruptions with Bloom's six-fold revisionary ratios (clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, apophrades), his strange amalgam of traditional rhetorical figures of speech and Freudian mechanisms of defense, which A Map of Misreading most successfully articulates. And one can discover what the poet was trying to do for himself if one remembers that "the figure that a poet makes, not so much in or by his poem but as his poem relates to other poems," is the figure one must seek "to isolate define, and describe by adequate gradations." This spectral figure, part poet's phantasmagoria, part reader's projected phantasm, haunts those interstices in a text, those spots of rhetorical disjunction and semantic indeterminacy, which have always been and always will be Bloom's critical focal point, since his exclusive wish is to learn how to become exnihilo an influence himself, and so achieve the status of symbolic immortality as a cultural monument. Thus Bloom would become, if only he could through his theoretical exertions, one of those spectral figures he conjures up in his antithetical readings of canonical texts.
If this makes Bloom sound like the critical descendant of Yeats with all his occult aesthetic speculations, this is as it should be. Bloom openly confesses that his critical project is "an aestheticism," one that endorses "the language of Gnosis" and private visions over the language of reason and social effectiveness. But it is a curious aestheticism to which he confesses, because unlike Yeats and the other aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde and Lionel Johnson Bloom does not care overly much about the basic principles of poetic form. For example, Bloom quotes Emerson from "The Oversoul" with obvious enthusiasm: "The soul is superior to its knowledge, wiser than any of its works. The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions." In other words, Bloom's critical vision must be considered a belated form of Romantic irony, that self-conscious post-enlightenment form of the sublime, in which the literary work exists almost solely for the opportunity it gives its author to imagine himself superior to the various conflicts he has dramatized, parodied, and so apparently overcome in his text. The most famous modern instance of such a vision of Romantic irony is, ironically enough, put in the mouth of a failed poet. In Chapter Five of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus waxes visionary and compares the artist to "the god of creation" indifferently paring his fingernails, a vision of the Demiurge enshrined by the very New Critics who hated Shelley for being pinnacled in the intense inane and with whom Bloom still continues to war even as he also continues to echo them, when he argues repeatedly in Vessels and in Agon that the strong poet necessarily becomes the latest version of the Demiurge who first produced the creation-fall in the Gnostic cosmology.
The most significant new wrinkle that The Breaking of the Vessels puts into Bloom's theory emerges from his discussion of the three paradigms of poetic invention that he proposes the critic should use to measure the effectiveness of the poem he is reading. These paradigms are 1) a catastrophe theory of imaginative creation drawn from Gnostic speculation concerning the origins of the cosmos; 2) Freud's understanding of the workings of what he termed "the family romance"; and 3) Bloom's own rhetorical transcription of Freud's notion of the transference. In brief, Bloom believes that each strong or truly successful poem must be seen on the model of the original creation-fall proposed by the Gnostics; sparks of the unknown Alien God fell and were ensnared in the forms of this world when the anxiety-ridden and envious Demiurge made the cosmos to contain his fear of the primal abyss. Similarly, each strong poem. Bloom contends, must be seen as another re-invention of the literary father the poet would like to revise and appear imaginatively greater than, as if the later poet were, somehow, the earlier poet's spiritual progenitor. Finally, Bloom also argues that each strong poem enacts a transference of power from earlier to later poet, primarily by means of a "transumptive" interplay of images of earliness and belatedness, in which the later poet introjects the former quality and projects the latter fate back on his poetic father: "When a strong poet revises a precursor, he re-enacts a scene that is at once a catastrophe, a romance, and a transference…. The catastrophe is also a creation: the romance is incestuous; the transference violates taboo and it ambivalences."
In this fashion, Bloom revises himself and his own earlier understanding of the dialectic of revisionary interpretation found in A Map of Misreading and Poetry and Repression. For Bloom then the belated poet ironically limits himself, in order to substitute his own image of the precursor for the established one, an act of interpretive sleight-of-hand which actually results in the precursor's imaginative diminishment even as it beefs up the later poet's own self-representation. This revisionary dialectic of limitation, substitution, and representation has become in Vessels the three full-scale paradigms of poetic originality—catastrophe creation, family romance, and transference—previously discussed. The consequence of such self-revision is that Bloom's dialectic of revisionism appears now to be less indebted to contemporary continental versions of the Hegelian dialectic. In fact, as conceived here, Bloom's dialectic is less of a reductive system of interpretation and more of an imaginative revisionary paradox. One surmises that all this coincides with Bloom's intentions in The Breaking of the Vessels, a volume ultimately about the cost of such self-criticism.
This last notion—the cost of self-criticism—really stands at the heart of any evaluation of Bloom's work. For the cost seems to involve the necessity of ruthless self-parody, a baleful prospect that Bloom repeatedly invokes in Vessels. The reason that Bloom's kind of criticism must end in a demonic celebration of self-parody, of radical and interminable self-revision, lies in his operating assumption that poetry speaks the language of the will, with the will being an apocalyptic antithetical force at odds with all that is not itself, even with its own earlier representations, since this antithetical will desires the impossible: above all else to be itself alone, the great original to top all great originals, like that Alien God the Gnostics relentlessly attempted to envision. "By uttering truths of desire within traditions of uttering, the poetic will also gives itself a series of overdetermined names." Such a vision of the motive for metaphor overlooks entirely the interpersonal and social functions of poetry, pinnacling the would-be visionary critic not so much in the intense inane as on the barren heights of his own guilty solitude, a self-tormenting creature who is unable to tell his desire from his despair:
Any mode of criticism, be it domestic or imported, that would defraud us of this true context of [suffering] must at last be dismissed with a kind of genial contempt. Perhaps there are texts without authors, articulated by blanks upon blanks, but [the strong poet] has the radical originality that restores our perspective to the agonistic image of the human which suffers, the human which thinks, the human which writes, the human which means, albeit all too humanly, in that agon the strong poet must wage, against otherness, against the self, against the pres-entness of the present, against anteriority, in some sense against the future.
The human-all-too human who would be a god—can we really afford this silly vision of literary creation any longer?
This section contains 2,027 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)