Harold Bloom | Critical Essay by Ulrich Horstmann

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Harold Bloom.
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Critical Essay by Ulrich Horstmann

SOURCE: "The Over-Reader: Harold Bloom's Neo-Darwinian Revisionism," in Poetics, Vol. 12, No. 2/3, March, 1983.

In the following essay, Horstmann takes issue with various elements of Bloom's work.

Harold Bloom embarked on his scholarly career in 1959 when he published his dissertation on Shelley's Mythmaking and reached notoriety fourteen years later with The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. This book formulated the Magna Charta of Bloom's poststructuralist doctrine of 'antithetical revisionism', and its author has since expounded and consolidated his highly controversial poetics with unremitting zeal and missionary ardour in such studies as: A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (1976), Figures of Capable Imagination (1976), Wallace Stevens, The Poems of Our Climate (1977), Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982).

Bloom's more recent work does not only propagate the heuristic principle of antithesis; more importantly it embodies and exemplifies it by reacting antithetically to the norms and expectations of the academic community it addresses. In vain do we look for annotations, index, or bibliography in his books, as Bloom defiantly parades his disregard for the ideals of philological accuracy and verifiability by constantly referring to exotic and unorthodox systems of thought such as Kabbalah and Gnosis and by revelling in linguistic idiosyncrasies that substantiate McGann's criticism:

The book [Anxiety of Influence] has become notorious for its obscurity, yet I do not think that the ideas of the book are obscure but that it has been written in a private language. Its rhetorical conventions seem the common property of a small literary club whose only permanent and full-fledged member is Bloom himself. To read Bloom, we have to learn his language.

To these animadversions Bloom turns a deaf ear in his contribution to Deconstruction and Criticism, where he waves good-bye to the regulative idea of intersubjectivity:

I don't believe that I ever could be clear enough for others, since for them "clarity" is mainly a trope for philosophical reductiveness, or for a dreary literal-mindedness that belies any deep concern for poetry or criticism.

And in his latest publication Agon he takes up the issue again, this time to declare:

In expounding my own critical theory and practice, I neither want nor urge any "method" of criticism. It is no concern of mine whether anybody else ever comes to share, or doesn't, my own vocabularies of revisionary ratios, of crossings, of whatever. What Richard Rorty cheerfully dismisses as "the comfort of consensus" I too am very glad to live without, because I don't wish to privilege any vocabularies, my own included.

The two quotations in defence of an "aggressive personal-ism" seem to document a strategic shift from an early ex-cathedra stand to a more modest and 'withdrawn' position which even smacks of a rearguard action. But Bloom's invocation of an unlimited methodological pluralism and relativism must not be taken at face value. In spite of his rhetoric of mutual toleration Bloom has never been a pluralist, because this attitude would have prevented him from ever assuming his role as prophet of the interpreter's unscrupulous 'will-to-power' over literary texts. Bloom's revisionism is as monistic as is possible, and like all heresies it derives its intellectual momentum, penetrative power, and feeling of superiority from an unshaken belief in the truth of its own privileged insights.

Thus Bloom's initiation into the 'true nature' of poetry begins with an anti-pluralistic revolt against the father-figures of his academic noviciate: Abrams, Wimsatt, and Frye. In order to "know" he must first escape from "the impasse of Formalist criticism" as well as from "the barren moralizing that Archetypal criticism has come to be." Eliot and Frye have mythologized tradition into an all-inclusive simultaneity, into a pantheon freely accessible to practically every 'newcomer poet', whose freedom consists in the freedom of being integrated into a pre-existent tradition:

Freedom, for Frye as for Eliot, is the change, however slight, that any genuine single consciousness brings about in the order of literature simply by joining the simultaneity of such order. I confess that I no longer understand this simultaneity.

This lack of understanding is based on a total reversal of Bloom's view of history, which not only plays off the violence of diachronic processes against an idealized synchronism, but which also substitutes a competitive for a cooperative matrix and consequently looks upon literary history as a Darwinian cultural medium in which only the fittest have a chance to survive.

Bloom's revisionism aims at dispelling 'illusions': "One aim of this theory is corrective: to de-idealize our accepted accounts of how one poet helps to form another" and the most pernicious illusion of all is that of a continuous and harmonious tradition which enables every poet to contribute to what Shelley once called "the great poem of mankind." According to Bloom there is no "great poem" and no harmony, no joint enterprise of common heritage either; as the fog of wishful thinking clears, all that remains is a battlefield covered with the dead and the dying. That "the history of poetry [is] … an endless, defensive civil war" is the message of Kabbalah and Criticism, and in his introduction to Figures of Capable Imagination Bloom declares:

The dialectics of influence, if examined without over-idealizing, reveal that literature itself is founded upon rivalry, misinterpretation, repression, and even plain theft and savage misprision. […] To see literature for what it is, the dark mirror of our egoism and our fallen condition, is to see ourselves again as perhaps eternity sees us, more like one another than we can bear to believe.

What a critic needs under these circumstances is a kind of ideological survival kit and a "War Game Manual," both of which Bloom is willing to provide. The very first thing such a manual has to do is to give reasons for the unappeasable bellicosity of the literary combatants.

Bloom obliges with a double answer. Poets enter the arena of literary history because of the tempting prize at stake: "the greatest of all human illusions, the vision of immortality." And they fight to the finish, because their fear of defeat and cultural oblivion forces them either to overcome their opponents or to die in the last ditch.

For Bloom their literary 'fear of death' is equivalent to their apprehension of not being able to escape from the shadow of a classic precursor and thus of succumbing to the immense and absorbing pressures of the cultural stock, to a stifling over-abundance which seems to leave no breathing space whatsoever to the 'latecomer poet' and which threatens to make every poet's nightmare—"that no proper work remains for him to perform"—come true.

This so-called "anxiety of influence"—a concept which Bloom took over from W. Jackson Bate, who had outlined the modern cultural experience of the paralysing presence of the past as early as 1970 in his book The Burden of the Past and the English Poet—is a necessary concomitant of a highly developed historical consciousness that no longer harbours any doubt about its own posteriority and tries in vain to acquiesce in the fatal consequences resulting from this awareness:

The poet of any guilt culture whatsoever cannot initiate himself into a fresh chaos, he is compelled to accept a lack of priority in creation, which means he must accept also a failure in divination, as the first of many little deaths that prophesy a final and total extinction. His word is not his own word only, and his Muse has whored with many before him. He has come late in the story, but she has always been central in it, and he rightly fears that his impending catastrophe is only another in her litany of sorrows.

In the given cultural situation the 'latecomer poet' or 'ephebe' has no choice but to rise against the predominance of his precursor, and this is why, for instance, Wordsworth's harmonizing view of poetry has to be discarded: "A poet … is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself." What the above quotation labels as rebellion may be circumscribed on a psychological plane as a kind of mental processing following the lines of Freudian repression and aiming at the deconstruction of the latecomer's literary-historicalsuper-ego represented by the precursor. This deconstructive activity which will ultimately result in the latecomer's usurpation of his precursor's cultural aura unfolds within the medium of the ephebe's literary work and manifests itself in a series of highly complex tropological transformations that Bloom analyses and charts in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading.

These operations are essential for the young poet's survival because on the one hand the existence of an idealized precursor is the prerequisite of poetic initiation whereas on the other only a gradual diminution of the precursor's role will enable the ephebe to develop his own talents. Bloom compresses the dialectics of emancipation into a single statement, "if we have been ravished by a poem, it will cost us our own poem," and thus makes it clear that only an antithetical and revisionist attitude towards preexisting paradigms and models, only the 'will-to-power' over the precursor's work, and the demolition of its uniqueness and aesthetic transcendence, will guarantee the latecomer's survival.

As poems are acts of self-defence, they cannot possibly be isolated from their origins. The New Critics are oblivious of this fact and consequently their techniques of decontextualisation have always been doomed to failure. Bloom draws the conclusion: "Let us give up the failed enterprise of seeking to 'understand' any single poem as an entity in itself" and propounds a dynamic and 'open' counter-notion of what we mean when we talk of 'texts':

A poetic "text", as I interpret it, is not a gathering of signs on a page, but is a psychic battlefield upon which authentic forces struggle for the only victory worth winning, the divinating triumph over oblivion.

Thus every poem is necessarily an "inter-poem" coming to life within an intratextual and intertextual field of conflict and is characterized not by "benighted meanderings after truth," but by its author's 'survival instincts' and violent revisionism:

Poetic influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence … is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

'Tradition' and 'literary history' are merely euphemisms which gloss over a remorseless struggle for existence that smothers and buries the weak "as the hungry generations go on treading one another down." There is only one kind of person that can exist in a pandemonium like this without coming to grief: the 'strong poet', a poetic duplicate of Nietzsche's Over-man, who will stand the test of "wrestling with the greatest of the dead" and thus make the dream of the modern man of letters come true and realize his deep-felt desire "to beget one's own self, to become one's own Great Original."

Bloom distinguishes six phases of the poetic psychomachia: Clinamen, Tessera, Kenosis, Daemonization, Askesis, and Apophrades, and draws elaborate parallels between these 're-visionary ratios' on the one hand and psychic defence mechanisms, rhetorical tropes, and the images in the poem on the other. As we cannot here discuss his esoteric categorical apparatus in detail, suffice it to say that in spite of the schematic shape that may at first dazzle the reader, there is a syncretic haphazardness below the polished surface that rapidly undermines our confidence in the heuristic potential of the more intricate constructions of Bloomian "psycho-aesthetics." In addition, wherever Bloom applies his categories directly to poetic texts, as in the second part of the Map of Misreading, the irritating sterility of his model interpretations will de-idealize his own poetics rather than an orthodox view of poetry.

Bloom certainly is more a theoretician than a critic, and in contrast to 'strong poetry', 'strong interpretation' is not his forte. Therefore let us return to his broader notion of the literary over-man who is practicing a constant poetic revisionism that prevents him from further developing a precursor text and who does violence to it instead. For Bloom a poem is a pragmatic rather than an ephistemological event, a product of semantic activities that make no claims to truth whatsoever. All the strong poet strives after is an innovation which implies his triumph over his precursor's literary prototypes, the demolition of the integrity of his texts, and the annihilation of their literal presence:

If death ultimately presents the earlier state of things, then it also represents the earlier state of meaning, or pure anteriority; that is to say, repetition of the literal, or literal meaning. Death is therefore a kind of literal meaning, or from the standpoint of poetry, literal meaning is a kind of death. Defenses can be said to trope against death, rather in the same sense that tropes can be said to defend against literal meaning, which is the antithetical formula for which we have been questing.

Thus Bloom's critical 'survival kit' mainly contains a number of tropological devices that act as semantic defenses against literal meaning, thus allowing the poet to transform and dissolve a classic text into a work of art all his own. Writing poetry is described by Bloom as responsive and reactive behaviour, as "a relational event, and not a substance to be analyzed." Consequently, a poetic text 'has' no meaning that a good interpretation will distill from it, but 'is' its relation to another text: "The meaning of a poem [can] only be another poem. Not, I point out, the meaning of another poem, but the other poem itself, indeed the otherness of the other poem." Poetry represents a continual process of antithetical rewriting, of the fearful transmutations of an oppressive tradition that only he can get rid of who is strong enough to pervert it:

Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. […] Poetry is anxiety of influence, is misprision, is a disciplined perverseness. Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance.

And it is the same strategy of tropological annexation that for Bloom becomes the guiding principle of criticism and scholarly exegesis, too. As Bloom has abandoned the concept of meaning, the critic's traditional task of translating a literary 'message' into discursive prose turns into an absurdity, and the only option left to him is to adopt the interactional patterns which characterize his former object of investigation (poetry). With this 'poetization' of criticism the time-honoured barriers between primary and secondary literature collapse along with their hierarchical superstructure. According to Bloom there is no fundamental difference between the act of writing poetry and that of writing about poetry; the two activities are but the two sides of the same coin, two modes of reading so much akin that the same prestige value should be allotted to either of them: "A poet attempting to make his language new necessarily begins by an arbitrary act of reading that does not differ in kind from the act that his reader subsequently must perform upon him." 'Strong critics' or 'over-readers' read as antithetically, arbitrarily, and distortingly as 'strong poets', and they do it for the same reason, that is to avoid tautological repetition and to explode the petrifications of literary history:

The influence-relation governs reading as it governs writing, and reading is therefore a miswriting just as writing is a misreading. As literary history lengthens, all poetry necessarily becomes verse-criticism, just as all criticism becomes prose-poetry.

This convergence of poetry and criticism is based on the hypothesis that all comprehension is, at bottom, nothing but "creative misunderstanding," a concept which points back to Giambattista Vico's philosophy of language, which has become quite influential in recent American thought. In accordance with the Vichian definition of language as an endless process of tropological transformation and substitution Bloom finally arrives at the conclusion: "Tropism of meaning compels tropes themselves to be meaning." This statement, from Kabbalah and Criticism, denies that there can be any onto-logical 'feed-back' between language and reality as such, for 'reality' is merely a configuration of sedimentary tropes that seem to be meaningful not because 'meaning' presupposes an adaequatio intellectus ad rem, but because it is itself a tropological operation, the result of an interplay of certain rhetorical patterns, some of which have been grouped together under the heading of 'logic' and constitute our so-called 'scientific rationality'.

The critic who has traded in the search for truth for "salutary acts of textual violence," who holds that "common rules for interpreting words will never exist," and who reduces primary to secondary literature, because in both cases texts generate new and antithetical texts can hardly claim truth and validity for his own theory of poetry, one which is little more than a meta-interpretation and is therefore, in its turn, obliged to comply with the methodology it propounds.

Bloom is well aware of the anti-scientific and self-subverting tendency of his theorizing and consequently characterizes his poetics in The Anxiety of Influence as "a severe poem, reliant upon aphorism, apothegm, and a quite personal … mythic pattern." In his contribution to Deconstruction and Criticism he calls his work "an allegory of reading" and translates his approach in Kabbalah and Criticism into a methodological directive:

I knowingly urge critical theory to stop treating itself as a branch of philosophical discourse … A theory of poetry must belong to poetry, must be poetry, before it can be of any use in interpreting poems.

Of course, the clear-cut parameters of exactness, inter-subjectivity, and logical consistency have lost their validity under these circumstances and are replaced by their exact opposites. Bloom's project can do without the "careless habits of accuracy"; it appeals not to objective criteria of truth, but to "the preferences of an individual reader" instead, and establishes the aporia as the vanishing point of all knowledge:

The proposal then is to enrich criticism by finding a comprehensive and suggestive trope for the act of interpretation, a trope antithetical not only to all other tropes but to itself in particular.

This new para-science of criticism, which presupposes its own permanent self-erosion and self-deconstruction, can absorb more traditional and constructive systems of meaning only after they have been metamorphosed into argumentative 'playgrounds' first. Bloom's authorities Nietzsche and Freud are thus turned into "two of the strongest poets in the European Romantic tradition" and their work is deliberately 'misread', that is exploited for fitting fragments and concepts with a casual justification: "Freud's life-work is a severe poem, and its own latent principles are more useful to us, as critics, than its manifest principles." From this perspective anything read into a text (as its 'latent principle') is more relevant and interesting than what the text actually says, and those texts which show the least resistance to arbitrary semantic projections are the most fascinating. This is why Bloom looks back to the gnostic and kabbalistic traditions with unparalleled enthusiasm and regards them as forerunners of his own wilful revisionism: "Kabbalah offers both a model for the process of poetic influence, and maps for the problematic pathways of interpretation."

Just like Bloom Kabbalists fight the anteriority of a tradition based on the truth of the letter:

The Talmud warns against reading scripture by so inclined a light that the text reveals chiefly the shape of your own countenance. Kabbalah … reads scripture only in so inclined or figurative a defensive mode.

And in accordance with his revisionist poetics they are engaged in the production and dissemination of meaning and not in its reduction to a hard core of eternal truths.

For Bloom both his own revisionism and kabbalistic speculation are "machine(s) for criticism," systems of semantic transformation which promise not only liberation from the monolithic past but also an endless freeplay of meaning.

As this freeplay is instantaneously blocked by any truth principle, its dynamic center is dominated by the counter-principle of inescapable error which in its turn has become the 'ultimate truth'. Thus 'misinterpretations' provoke opposition, that is further 'misinterpretations', and the highest error even comprises this antithesis in itself and derives its immense productivity from the tensions inherent in self-contradiction. This is the reason why Bloom foregrounds not only the inconsistencies of the texts he interprets but also those of his own interpretations, thus fomenting polemical disagreement and controversy:

A critical theory and praxis that teaches the defensive necessity of "misprision" or strong "misreading" cheerfully accepts even the weakest misreadings of its doctrines and techniques. If they persist in their folly, all these outraged reviewers will become wise.

There is an air of methodological exhibitionism and a parading of "splits of gaps in my [Bloom's] own theorizing" in several of his books, as error, self-contradiction, and misinterpretation indicate an unbroken interpretive vitality rather than philological failure, they constitute liberating acts, are manifestations of an indomitable "will-to-power over a text" beyond good and evil, and mark yet another defeat of a paralyzed and paralyzing truth.

Although the official purpose of Bloom's theory of revision is the defossilization of criticism and the dissemination of meaning, its second and equally important function consists in immunizing Bloom's poetics against any attempt at falsification. Bloom's strategy in this respect deserves to be called ingenious because it erodes the epistemological basis of refutation itself by turning every well-grounded opposition to his theory into a welcome 'misreading' and thus automatically into a demonstration of its validity. But all his ingenuity does not save Bloom from paying a price for this impregnability of his doctrine, which consists in its cognitive sterility. As there is no longer any possibility to refute the theorems of antithetical criticism, there is no longer any possibility to learn—learning being a process of falsification and the spotting of errors—and the theorist will forever discover what he has always known:

Bloom's absorption in his imaginative critiques tends to leave him without the ability to be critical of his own judgments, which he is not disinclined to pronounce. The object, as a result, tends to disappear into the construction that is put upon it.

Thus the tautological character which is so conspicuous in Bloom's interpretations of 'strong' poetry reemerges on the methodological level and manifests itself in the contention of irrefutability. In spite of all the lip-service he pays to flexibility and perpetual revision, Bloom is a dogmatist at heart and is determined to uphold his axiom of the anxiety of influence in the teeth of highly compromising evidence:

The theory, deliberately an attempt at de-idealizing, has encountered considerable resistance during my presentation of it in a number of lectures at various universities … I take the resistance shown to the theory by many poets, in particular, to be likely evidence for its validity, for poets rightly idealize their activity; and all poets, weak and strong, agree in denying any share in the anxiety of influence.

Whatever the practitioners of poetry may say, Bloom knows better—and he knows more, for the critic and not the poet is in command of the machinery of revisionism. The concept of the precursor's influence on the latecomer poet provides a striking example for this imbalance.

According to Bloom 'influence' does not designate a process of the superficial adoption of the precursor's peculiarities of style or structure. On the contrary, such similarities indicate a weak and epigonous response:

The greatest apparent puzzle in poetic influence […] is that the deepest or most vital instances are almost never phenomena of the poetic surface. Only weak poems, or the weaker elements in strong poems, immediately echo precursor poems, or directly allude to them. 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.

Poets do not have to look like their fathers either, as "the anxiety of influence more frequently than not is quite distinct from the anxiety of style." But how, then, do the kinship and poetic dependance make themselves known? Bloom's answer is that they do not manifest openly, but in a common "fundamental stance," a "spiritual form" or—even more cryptically—in a delicate latency:

A poem is a deep misprision of a previous poem when we recognize the later poem as being absent rather than present on the surface of the earlier poem, and yet still being in the earlier poem, implicit or hidden in it, not yet manifest, and yet there.

To put it bluntly: Bloom's ultimate proof of the precursor's presence in a strong poem is his demonstrable absence from it. The logical absurdity of this argument is quite clear, because lack of evidence is regarded as the conditio sine qua non for its validity. But Bloom, whose antithetical revisionism has transformed poetic into theoretical licence, does not stop there: not only does he make the precursor vanish from the poem his influence has called into being, but he also eliminates the very text the ephebe is said to have reacted to from the latecomer poet's memory:

Antithetical criticism must begin … [with] another poem […] And not a poem chosen with total arbitrariness, but any central poem by an indubitable precursor, even if the ephebe never read that poem.

Thus the ephebe misreads a poem he has never known. This is the final paradox of Bloomian aesthetics and its saga about the initiation, struggle, triumph, and transfiguration of strong poets, a saga expanding the "magical theory of language" Bloom propounds in his paper "The Breaking of Form" into a magical theory of poetry. This theory may well result in what Frank Lentricchia once called "a 1001 nights of literary analysis," but it is a far cry from the historical reality literary scholarship still has to reconstruct, not deconstruct.

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