Harold Bloom | Critical Essay by David Wyatt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Harold Bloom.
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(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by David Wyatt

SOURCE: "Bloom, Freud, and 'America'," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VI, No. 3, Summer, 1984.

In the following essay, Wyatt uses Bloom's own theoretical approach to examine the significance of Freud and American literature in Bloom's work.

Harold Bloom's theory of poetic influence is the most controversial and influential of our time. It is an overtly psychological theory: in Agon, published in 1982, Bloom asserts that we live in the Age of Freud. Bloom argues that the relations between poets are the true subject of literary history, and that these relations are characterized by all the envy, guilt, ambivalence and love that create the Oedipal family. Strong poets suffer in particular an acute anxiety of belatedness. Their writing consists of a series of defenses against the sense that they have been born too late to do any truly original work. In twelve books published over nearly three decades, Bloom has almost single-handedly transposed Freud's theories of intrapsychic and generational conflict into the realm of poetic careers. By doing so he has also assured that any critic of poetry in English lives now in the Age of Bloom.

Bloom is a student of rhetorical figures—or tropes—and of the way that poets organize their poems and careers around them. To "trope" means to turn, as Bloom often reminds us, and when he does so he means to suggest that a poet takes up a trope as a defense, as a way of lessening or transforming some psychic burden. I would like to train Bloom's method on Bloom himself in order to examine the central turn in his career. It is my thesis that the key turn in his work is away from England and toward America, from his adopted and imaginative fatherland and back to his natural and mother country. The reason he needs to make this turn, I will argue, is to protect a crucial notion in his theory of influence: the notion of the self. For Bloom literature is not organic or semiotic or decentered but agonistic. It is a struggle for priority among egos joined in a great game. The literature that reduces most purely to such a struggle is American literature. Finally—and this is the third phase of my argument—in this turn from England to America Bloom must adopt in his exposition of the self one indispensable ally: Sigmund Freud.

Bloom's first four books were on Shelley, the English Romantics as a group, Blake, and Yeats. Each of these but the last argues for the unity of the human imagination and the continuity between English and American Romanticism. The tradition has one term which stands for a god—the Imagination. Here is a typical quote from The Visionary Company, published in 1961: "The inner problem of The Prelude is that of the autonomy of the poet's creative imagination … it is the single most crucial problem of all that is most vital in English Romantic poetry." This is the credo of what Jerome McGann has recently called The Romantic Ideology, which advocates an escape from the limits and history of the social world "through imagination and poetry." Bloom has certainly been the most successful critic at promulgating this ideology; it is fair to say, I would venture, that Bloom has succeeded in passing off this version of Romanticism as the truth in most quarters. It is an ideology which makes no distinction between national origins. Bloom's early project was to show, against Eliot and the New Critics, that modernism is a Romanticism, and that a line extends through Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Stevens in which the recurring subject of the poem is the poet's own relation to his poetic vision.

The appeal of such an ideology may be obvious: for all those dispossessed of authoritative social communities, it makes of literature a secular church at which we can worship, a place where imagination becomes the supreme transgressor of boundaries in a kind of United Nations of the mind. Unfortunately for all unified field theories of the imagination, this was an imaginary organization from which America, in Bloom's mind at least, was destined to withdraw.

Bloom was required to turn toward the American Imagination because of the swerve which the British tradition took away from him. Bloom sees twentieth-century British literature as a "modernism" devoted to a cult of the "Impersonal" best articulated by Eliot, the renegade American:

the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates…. The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together … the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways…. Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.

If modernism in Britain is represented by Joyce, Woolf, Pound, Lewis and Eliot, then it adds at least three crucial strategies and attitudes to the suppression of personality: discontinuity in syntax and narrative; the fiction of all times being simultaneous (the mythic method); a fascination with words rather than story. The literature which results affirms that language is a system inclusive of the producers of it. For a modern, the author is the scribe who is inscribed, an amanuensis dictated to by the conventions and permutations of the text-producing game that language always already is. The basic premise in all these assumptions is that writing is not an expression of a self.

Bloom has been noticeably uninterested in American writers who are radically modern. He has never produced a major essay on Williams or Pound, and his work is particularly dismissive of Eliot. Eliot not only forsook his native land (no matter that he would later tell Donald Hall, "I'd say that my poetry has obviously more in common with my distinguished contemporaries in America than with anything written in my generation in England"), but deliberately obscured his literary debts. In the notes to The Waste Land you will find mention of Nerval and the Upanishads, but none of Tennyson, from whom Eliot borrowed the grail quest and the desert imagery, of Browning, who taught him all about speaking, like Prufrock and Gerontion, in dramatic monologues. Eliot attempts to escape the pressure of what Northrop Frye calls "the English Romantic tradition" and persists instead in a kind of Tory resistance. Frye is eloquent on this point:

I have not thought of trying to prefer one kind of English culture to another, and I regard all value-judgments that inhibit one's sympathies with anything outside a given tradition as dismally uncritical. I say only that this combination of Protestant, radical, and Romantic qualities is frequent enough in English culture to account for the popularity, in every sense, of the products of it described above. There has been no lack of Catholic, Tory, and Classical elements too, but the tradition dealt with here has been popular enough to give these latter elements something of the quality of a consciously intellectual reaction. During the twenties of the present century, after the shock of the First World War, this intellectual reaction gathered strength. Its most articulate supporters were cultural evangelists who came from places like Missouri and Idaho, and who had a clear sense of the shape of the English tradition, from its beginnings in Provence and medieval Italy to its later developments in France.

Eliot and Pound are, in the words of Milton's God, "ingrates." "Ingrate, he had of mee / All he could have." If God is a disappointed parent, so is the Romantic tradition when defended by Frye or Bloom.

Eliot's behavior as a literary historian proves in fact a kind of perverse exaggeration of all that Bloom sees as true about how poets face the past. Eliot's career is a massive reaction-formation against his anxiety of influence. Instead of robustly confronting this anxiety, Eliot converts it into a fantasy of receptivity and potential "conformity":

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

This was written in 1919, and much of Bloom is latent here: the confidence that a tradition can be articulated; the belief that poems have their meaning as found among other poems; the sense that talent exists in tension with tradition, even if tradition is finally the inclusive term. What Bloom cannot abide—and this marks an important debt to Freud—is the idealizing passivity of the poet's stance. It is an active and aggressive struggle with the past that Bloom sees as the mark of any strong poet. Since all relations are Oedipal, we cripple ourselves to pretend otherwise, and weakness is the only crime. Bloom faults Eliot for inventing a bogus legacy and for refusing to wrestle openly with his true fathers. Through his continual allusion to and pillage of the past, Eliot actually promotes the central illusion of modernism: that it is possible to be new, in the "modo," now. Thus the poet who starts as the most acute clinician of the anxiety of influence proves its most self-deceived victim, and thereby becomes the key figure in Bloom's understanding of modernism in literary history.

In the year in which America decided to commit ground troops in Vietnam, Bloom divined but did not deduce the concept of a national imagination. This was the year he published his first major essay on Emerson: "The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, and Wallace Stevens." In this essay he writes about "the starting-point of Romantic poetry in America." In this quote and throughout the essay, the word "Romantic" is capitalized and retains a priority over and a power to encompass any transatlantic deviations. The American imagination is characterized as "extreme and ironic," but the extremity and irony are seen as differences in degree rather than kind. Important here, rather, is the surfacing of Emerson in Bloom's thought. In his most recent book, The Breaking of the Vessels (1982), Bloom has written that it was "Emerson … who changed my mind about nearly everything when I was in the middle of my journey, back around 1965…. "By the early 70s Emerson would come to rival Milton as the origin of an imaginative tradition.

Milton had been a convenient point d'appui for the Romantic tradition because of his passionate conviction that living and reading involve a continuous testing of the free self. His is a poetry of choice which shapes the reader into a figure of the educated will. In Paradise Lost we are free to choose our place of rest, but we are also aware that every such act, from the moment that pilot anchors his "night-founder'd Skiff" to Leviathan, is part of a process of soul-making with mortal consequences. Any poet in the tradition of Milton stands on a definite line which it is easy to swerve away from. Emerson, on the other hand, deploys a rhetoric of surprise which continually undercuts its previously held positions. The "noble doubt" which suggests itself in Nature is only the most famous instance of this. It is, however, the separateness of his sentences rather than the unpredictability of his argument which most effectively releases us from the authority of time. To read Emerson is to experience what he called a "plenteous stopping at little stations" in which rhythm and style argue for each moment as a new departure. The stance enjoyed is readiness, not righteousness, an elasticity rather than an integrity of soul. Any poet in the tradition of Emerson occupies a sphere from which it is impossible to wander. What Bloom couldn't have known in the middle 60s was that in turning toward Emerson he had struck a blow not only against Milton but also at the tar baby—in his blithe willingness to occupy contradictory imaginative stances. Emerson has grasped Bloom as the ubiquitous precursor who refuses to let go.

While I want to argue that the theoretical rationale for Bloom's turn toward America has to do with his interest in the concept of the self, it was probably dictated as well by the shape of recent literary history. To embrace Emerson is to embrace the inescapable fact that the best poetry written in English in this century has been written by Americans. The critic of influence, carried inevitably backward from present incarnations to past origins, is compelled to invent a precursor who can account for this belated renaissance. After all, Bloom has said that if he were allowed two books to take to a desert island, they would be the poems of Stevens and Frost. While Bloom has ignored the latter, he has championed Stevens as the poet of the century. He even had to write an ill-tempered book about Yeats in order to clear the ground of Stevens's most significant competitor. Bloom discovered Stevens in an Ithaca bookstore in 1947, at the age of seventeen. "I think that I am not unrepresentative of a generation of critics," he writes, "that learned to read and reread all other poetry by learning the various ways of reading Wallace Stevens." The oft-leveled charge that he reads all of American literature through Stevens is not only one to which Bloom admits here, but also one which he has codified as the sixth revisionary ratio by means of which later poets struggle against earlier ones. Bloom hears Stevens everywhere in the American strain, and in doing so he converts Stevens's work into a vast metalepsis in which the later poet is felt to have actually preceded all earlier poets and to have written their characteristic work.

While this argument supplies Bloom with a strategic motive for embracing Emerson, the discovery of Emerson also allows Bloom to defend an essential theoretical position. It is one that required Bloom to become a central apologist, during the 70s and early 80s, of a canon of values that lies hidden within the term "American." For it fell to Bloom to discover the uniqueness of American literature at the very time that the concept of the author, national identity, and even determinate meaning were under attack from the newest new critics—the deconstructionists. While Derrida and the continent of the Old World argued for the indeterminacy of the text and the self as a mobile desiring fantasy, Bloom argued that the literature of the New World calls us into a "recentering," a repeated affirmation of Emerson's eternal "ME." Emerson's marvelous and ungainly eyeball—"I am nothing; I see all"—becomes Stevens's self-assertion: "I have not but I am and as I am, I am." The later poet's affirmation may be minimal, but the repetition of the personal pronoun has become even more insistent. It is this stubborn and lonely insistence upon the uniqueness of the self—this "anxiety of originality"—that finally sets American poetry apart from a European tradition. In his best essay on Emerson (from A Map of Misreading), Bloom tries eloquently to distinguish Emerson's project from all Europeanisms:

Nietzsche … delighted in Emerson, and seems to have understood Emerson very well. And I think Nietzsche particularly understood that Emerson had come to prophesy not a de-centering, as Nietzsche had, and Derrida and de Man are brilliantly accomplishing, but a peculiarly American recentering, and with it an American mode of interpretation.

What is continually recentered in America—and this is what Bloom celebrates—is the agonized, desiring, named, Freudian self.

Why does Bloom need to believe in the self? Why do any of us? It is a construct whose time seems to have passed, and yet one to which many of us stubbornly cling, as if believing would make it so. Bloom certainly needs the concept to preserve his system, since only a poet with a fairly continuous and coherent identity could continue to wage with such pride the struggle against other poets which some have labelled Bloom's War in Heaven. Whatever his reasons, Bloom cleaves to a belief in "the agonistic image of the human which suffers, the human which thinks, the human which writes, the human which means" as the author and origin of the poem. The author is not, as Foucault says, "the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning"; the author is a more primary and assumed element of Bloom's system than the poem.

Bloom's invention of America is also a story about Family Romance. A critic who feels born into one tradition (albeit not a native one) invents for himself a more spacious tradition and discovers that he is its native after all. Bloom's invention of America is certainly subject to a Freudian interpretation, the possible lines of which I have tried to lay down. But I now want to turn to his overt use of Freud as the major theoretical support for his system. Bloom reads Freud as the last great exponent of the fiction of the self, and it is fair to say that in his recent work, his theory of America and his theory of Freud have become fused in his mind.

If Emerson supplies the content of Bloom's vision (there is a self and only a self), Freud supplies the form. He is the scientist of tropes who codifies the ways in which the self defends against the priority of other selves. It did not take Lacan to tell us that the Unconscious is structured as a language: we could have found the point most readily made in The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. It is no small irony that Bloom owes the symmetry of his system less to a book by the father than to one by the pious daughter. For when Bloom comes to enumerate his revisionary ratios—the stances through which a later poet joins the contest against an earlier one—he does so by lining up his terms against Anna Freud's. In The Anxiety of Influence and more systematically in A Map of Misreading, Bloom argues that poets confront other poets through six basic stances. Each stance corresponds to one of the six major mechanisms of defense: reaction-formation, reversal, isolation/undoing, repression, sublimation, introjection/projection. These defenses correspond to six major tropes of rhetoric: irony, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole, metaphor, and metalepsis. A poet's characteristic choice of defense/trope/revisionary ratio determines the kind of poet he will be. No wonder that Bloom has recently questioned whether defense may not be the most fundamental concept of psychoanalysis.

A curious aspect of this map—and Bloom calls it a "map"—is how unoriginal it is. The idea for lining up psychic defenses beside rhetorical tropes is one Bloom borrowed from another interpreter of Freud, Lionel Trilling. In a sentence of remarkably compressed lucidity, Trilling anticipates much of Bloom's project. The quotation is from Freud and Literature, published in 1940:

It was left to Freud to discover how, in a scientific age, we still feel and think in figurative formations, and to create, what psychoanalysis is, a science of tropes, of metaphor and its variants, synecdoche and metonymy.

So Trilling saw what Bloom was to capitalize on: that Freud was a student of the psyche's twistings, of the isomorphism between turns of mind and turns of phrase. That Freud saw the mind as troping against its inadmissible drives is a fact that cannot be stressed often enough, since it is a view that defends the mind's active power against all behaviorist reductions.

Where Bloom revises Freud is in the content rather than the form of his vision. For Freud the great secret is sex; for Bloom, it is time. Freud saw our task as one of attachment to objects, even if they prove only substitutes for earlier objects. It is a task that admits of no literal but considerable figurative satisfaction. Bloom sees our task as the transumption of earlier achievement. It is a task that admits of no literal and small figurative satisfaction. Our lives are spent not trying to re-find the mother but to precede the father. The problem is not desire but belatedness. I quote here from Agon, Bloom's most succinct attempt to shift the human project away from Freud's ground and onto his own. He has been talking about his obsessive subject, "the poetic will to an immortality." It is that will, he suggests, "that may seem some day the truest definition of the Freudian Eros: the will's revenge against time's 'it was' is to be carried out by the mind's drive to surpass all earlier achievements." In one fell swoop Bloom here redefines human love as the anxiety of influence. By so defining our project Bloom renders it entirely agonistic, since it is a game, unlike Freud's, which we cannot win.

What survives in Bloom's account of Freud is, of course, the hegemony of the self. Whether the self is engaged in the pursuit of happiness or the revenge against time, it is still a psyche-centered world that Bloom and Freud share. Bloom has on occasion gone so far as to imply that even this essential construct may be only a trope: "the psyche, the image or trope of the self, has an inevitable priority, for Freud, over reality or the object-world." This way of talking about the psyche as a trope strikes me as a ploy, Bloom's way of letting continental skeptics know that he, too, is playful enough to admit that everything is rhetoric. The fact is that Freud and Bloom are linked in their belief that the psyche is not a trope, that it is the organizing reality of our lives which it is possible to experience and gather evidence about. For Freud, defenses are the man, and the idiosyncrasy and complexity of our defenses provide the best evidence that there exists behind them a shaping self. For Bloom, stance is the key word. By focusing upon a poet's stance as his peculiarly distinguishing characteristic, Bloom lays emphasis upon an elective act performed by a human form. In reading Bloom, we are continually asked to picture poets as bodies assuming fundamental positions. The imagination and its stances compose the self, and the self is prior to whatever discourse it takes up. Rhetoric is a means of self-expression which we possess, not an independent system of discourse which we are possessed by. We live in a world constituted of will rather than language.

Bloom would argue that Freud, gazing upon the current critical scene, would complain that it divides the objects of its attention into units of significance which it is impossible to care about. How does one summon concern about the path between a stimulus and a response, or the relation between a signified and a signifier, or the mounting series of aporia that, for some readers, constitute a poem? The essential measure must be poetic, Bloom asserts, and by this he means one scaled to the dramatic encounters between and within people in everyday life. Poetry renders us understandable through concepts like fate, choice, character, epiphany, and plot; it gives us a world in which man is the modus, the measure of things. It was because Freud approached his data through the inherited stories of the race that he has become not the greatest scientist but, in Bloom's words, "the greatest mythologist of our age." His tropes have replaced all other tropes because he knew the tropes, and he so sublimated this learning that it emerged as a system which many of us are tempted to take as the truth. Bloom can pay no greater tribute to Freud than to nominate him as the Great Replacer, and it is with the quote in which he does so that I would like to end:

Freud has usurped the role of the mind in our age, so that more than forty years after his death we have no common vocabulary for discussing the works of the spirit except what he gave us.

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