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Critical Essay by Charles Molesworth
SOURCE: "Promethean Narcissism," in Partisan Review, Vol. LI, No. 1, 1984, pp. 155-58.
In the following essay, Molesworth discusses the roles of Freudianism and theology in Bloom's criticism.
In the last three decades, literary critics have struggled to retain their field as the center of cultural understanding. Criticism has been a hybrid, unstable amalgam since the rise of a mass readership. Not surprisingly, the recent struggle has seen criticism try to strengthen and clarify itself by mergers with other disciplines and subjects. From popular culture to structural linguistics, the nets of literary analysis have been flung far and variously. What has increased the extraordinary complexity of this phenomenon is that everywhere literary criticism searched, it found another discipline equally mired in self-doubt and in the "problematic of language." All the disciplines—philosophy, psychoanalysis, Marxism, social science—felt the crisis of interpretive confidence caused by several factors, chiefly the question of how to ground authority in interpreting texts. In this context, Harold Bloom's work takes on a poignant typicality. Two main but contradictory thrusts unite the books he has published in the last decade: first, he centers literary analysis on the literary canon, rejecting humanistic disciplines such as history as little more than the work of knaves and fools. Second, he borrows much of his authority from Freud, but a literary Freud, a writer and interpreter of texts, not a practitioner of healing. Bloom also has revivified a method (almost an anti-methodology) of analysis long discredited, namely, expressionistic criticism, the spectacle of the critic recording the struggle of a lonely soul among masterpieces. Bloom's polemics obscure his strategy, which borrows interpretive authority from Freudianism while making Freud into a sublime poet in the Romantic tradition. Thus Bloom ends with a self-enclosing sense of literature paradoxically close to the formalism he so actively despises.
In two new books this strategy is extended from psychology to religion. Bloom now offers criticism based on his own religious experience, defining this experience in terms of gnosticism (more of which in a moment). The paradox persists, however, since his centra! insight—that all poems exist in and cry against their own temporality—actually equates belatedness with fallenness. If the first prophets of the diaspora were belated, looking back to previous authority to define themselves, then there is really no "firstness," no ancient truth on which to ground authority. Everything rests on personal will and persuasiveness, and so Bloom is condemned to contentious struggle with enemies and supporters, despite his hunger to be unique. Bloom contradictorily celebrates his religious vision at the same time that he insists no social arena is necessary or sufficient. The critic agonistes, he looks in remote, unimpeachable places for the very authority he claims can come only from the genius of the self.
In Agon Bloom employs gnosticism as his framework, and admits gnosis is hard to define and radically unhistorical. Borrowing from Hans Jonas's The Gnostic Religion, Bloom wields gnosis as a master term that includes, but is not restricted to, poetic knowledge, Romantic imagination, mystical utterances, and early and late versions of the sublime. With a term so many-sided, one makes many claims. (Note that Bloom redefines gnosis as a form of literary experience.) But Bloom's obscurity comes not from ambiguity, since he seldom hesitates or qualifies. First he introduces gnosticism as a historical phenomenon, before he dehistoricizes it and finds a gnosis in Whitman, Stevens, and Ashbery. This gnosticism has a familiar core: "The primary teaching of any gnosis is to deny that human existence is a historical existence." If so, how do gnostics avoid the atemporality that leads to formalism? By struggling against predecessors, thus containing and eradicating them. History is no more than a search for self-knowledge. Bloom mediates between the hollow pieties of enervated liberalism (all poetry is not sweetness and light, but struggle and darkness), and the social values that are entangled in the struggles of history. As he says, somewhat smugly, he delights in deconstructionists calling him a sentimental humanist while academicians call him a deconstructionist. But both groups are partly correct. If the self envelopes all conflict and knowledge, then the critic who interprets the self must be all-knowing. But more important, he must not be bound by any historical or social framework or value, using such values only to dramatize and justify the long, all-encompassing agony of self-definition.
Insisting his view of poetry is pragmatic, Bloom says poetry is useful "for whatever poetic and critical use you can usurp" it to. Bloom's use is not any use whatever, but the bringing into action (though largely affective, never social action) of "concepts of being." Bloom here seems to tolerate pluralism, but not really. His concepts are limited and are all versions of belatedness. Whether poetry is a "catastrophe creation, agonistic strife, [or] transference of ambivalence," it always protests against the universal truth of temporality, time's insistence that "it was" What poems do in resisting and revising the "it was" resembles Eros and Thanatos, but is finally a distinct and equal drive. Bloom claims Freud's two drives are defense reactions and are "indistinguishable from the resistances they supposedly invoke." Poetic will, unlike Freud's negation, negates a negation, and insists on the godliness of the self. (What else would we expect from a being who has no history?) This will is also Emerson's gnosis, the cornerstone of the American religion. Bloom thus mediates between American pragmatism and American idealism.
All of this is the doctrine, or the enabling process, that all strong poems embody. Strong poems appear autochthonous and yet are misread by later poets needing proof of self-generation. (Everything strong is both temporally at strife and self-generated.) Critics know this more clearly than poets, since critics discover the paradox in their textual will-to-power: poetry was there before criticism. And before the poem was, there were prior poems, themselves acts of criticism. Bloom claims great power for critics, a power virtually greater than that of poets. "I mean that I can observe … patterns of forgetting in a poem." Bloom sees past the poet's influences (his allusions) to his real (real because hidden) struggle. As critic he rewrites the poem as every poet rewrites his precursor poet. Again, in circular logic, though Bloom ostensibly writes prose criticism and not verse poetry, since poetry is criticism and vice versa, Bloom emerges as that which not even he is bold enough to claim directly: our most sublime poet.
What if we take him as we take poets at their highest, as guides to spiritual truth? Bloom writes out of religious experience, though he says explicitly he is content not to convert anyone. Religious in an American way, he is a sect of one. Bloom writes in part about poetry as rhetoric, but his chief paradox is that for all his obsession with the persuasiveness of rhetoric (for where else does power come from?), he claims not to need to persuade others. This inverts the American sublime: I alone escaped to tell you, though I know you won't believe me. (Gnosticism is an inverted religion, an antithetical theodicy.) Bloom boasts, "If you don't believe in your reading then don't bother anyone else with it, but if you do, then don't care also whether anyone else agrees … or not." Bloom is a Nietzschean übermensch, a polemical, imperious reader, and comico-pathetic solipsist. The implicit call, as in Emerson's "Self-Reliance," is that we all become like this, a mass of imperial selves denying other selves: "When you have life in you … you shall not see the face of man."
Bloom bases his will-to-power on ever larger proofs until finally he invokes a theology. Yet, an American, he eschews all authority except the self. What follows is a theologizing of the self. This leads to several things, for example, the canonization of Freud, and the claim that Freudianism is now the language in which we conduct our spiritual lives. It also produces ridiculous claims, such as that Milton's Paradise Lost "is the most Freudian text ever written." Poetry is not meant to liberate, "but to define, limit, and so defend the self against everything that might destroy it." Poetry's action is greater than poetry's being; the poem is a process, not an object, just as a self is. (Again, gnosticism is a religion of process, not of being.) Bloom's radical Freudianism says the self is a process that constantly wards off its own redefinition, though it is without definite identity. Society and history never enter. Self, poet, and critic: all are self-generated and self-regarding.
With Promethean narcissicism, Bloom's project answers the social moment in America. All is struggle and self-searching, denial of authority and an obsession with it, longing for fulfillment and dread of communal responsibility. How this criticism is valued in the largest terms should be clear; you must take Bloom as you find him, he will be no other. As for how effective he is as a critic, my verdict is mixed. His reading of Miss Lonelyhearts is an (unwitting) self-parody, moldy fig academicism, and sterile methodology. The paragraph on page forty-six of The Breaking of the Vessels is as badly written as any major critic has published in some time. On Freud and Emerson, Bloom is good indeed: fresh, cogent, even persuasive. On the cultural prospects for Jews in America, Bloom writes intelligently about social issues (though with a tendency to genuine despair). As a practical critic he descends the admirable heights of The Visionary Company to the erratic brilliance of Yeats, to the murkiness of his book on Wallace Stevens. One last paradox: Bloom insists on the socially transcendent role of literature and criticism, but his own work is less and less about literature, and more and more a reflection of, and a failed corrective to, our social and cultural malaise.
This section contains 1,626 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)