Saturday, September 12, 2020

An Article about Misreading by Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Since the publication of The Western Canon, Harold Bloom has become something of a caricature, derided on the one hand for the vehemence of his displeasure with the direction literary study has taken over the past quarter century, his opposition to the politicized, anti-aesthetic criticism he identifies collectively as the "school of resentment," while on the other he is frequently invoked as a kind of cultural mandarin dismissive of the pleasures ordinary people take in the products of popular culture and contemptuous of all books that can't be assigned to the canon of high literature. (Although James Wood accuses him of abandoning the role of critic for that of "populist appreciator," his populism surely extends no farther than to those who might conceivably be convinced of the greatness of what Bloom calls "strong poets," whose work certainly cannot be dumbed down in order to reach the masses.)

This image of Bloom as traditionalist curmudgeon is considerably at odds with the impression one might have gotten from his critical writings of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Bloom advances his own intricate (if ultimately rather private, even hermetic) theory of literary production and reception that does indeed focus on poetic greatness but hardly defends tradition for tradition's sake. Bloom makes elevated claims for the value of poetry, but these are not claims for the utility of poetry in the service of "culture" as moral critics would define it nor an Arnoldian attempt to construct a version of literary history that isolates works of literature as "the best" of their kind. Bloom's theory of literary influence certainly does assume a continuity of vision over the course of this history (although it also frequently alludes to writers and writing not necessarily considered to be "literary" per se), but the core principle of his theory--that great poetry is always a "misreading," sometimes radically so, of "precursor poets"--in essence holds that literary history is actually in a perpetual state of disruption and revision.

In my opinion, Bloom's 1982 book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism provides the most complete and coherent account of his ideas about both literary history and the role of the literary critic, and thus will probably be the book of his that survives into the next generation of literary study (although Bloom's approach is idiosyncratic enough--deliberately so-- that a future cadre of neo-Bloomians is certainly an implausible notion). Indeed, this passage from the book's essay on John Ashbery is as succinct a statement of Bloom's prevailing assumptions as readers of his work are likely to find:

A strong poem, which alone can become canonical for more than a single generation, can be defined as a text that must engender strong misreadings, both as other poems and as literary criticism. Texts that have single, reductive, simplistic meanings are themselves already necessarily weak misreadings of anterior texts. When a strong misreading has demonstrated its fecundity by producing other strong misreadings across several generations, we can and must accept its canonical status.
Yet by "strong misreading" I mean "strong troping," and the strength of trope can be recognized by skilled readers in a way that anticipates the temporal progression of generations. A strong trope renders all merely trivial readings of it irrelevant. . .
There is a true law of canonization, and it works contrary to Gresham's law of currency. We may phrase it: in a strong reader's struggle to master a poet's trope, strong poetry will impose itself, because that imposition, that usurpation of mental space, is the proof of trope, the testing of power by power. . . .

"Misreading" (or "misprision," as Bloom would have it) is the motivating force, the ultimate inspiration, behind all poetry (which, in Bloom's critical universe, is synonymous with "literature" and is not to be attributed solely to self-identified poets). In the effort to emulate and finally surpass "anterior" texts, poems that fire the poet's passion for poetry in the first place, strong poets "misread" these texts in a psychoanalytically defensive gesture that allows the "something new" of literary creation to occur. Milton misreads Shakespeare, Blake misreads Milton, etc. Weak poets merely imitate their predecessors, fail to engage with the deeper and more unwieldy impulses that ultimately account for great poetry.

And it is these impulses that are ultimately responsible for all strong poetry. As Bloom writes elsewhere in Agon: "No one 'fathers' or 'mothers' his or her own poems, because poems are not 'created,' but are interpreted into existence, and by necessity they are interpreted from other poems. Whenever I suggest that there is a defensive element in all interpretation, as in all troping, the suggestions encounter a considerable quantity of very suggestive resistance. All that I would grant to this resistance is its indubitable idealism, its moving need of the mythology of the creative imagination, and of the related sub-mythology of an 'objective' scholarly criticism." Again the perception of Bloom as hidebound conservative does not fit well with assumptions like these. How far are they from the notion that there is "nothing outside the text," that language authors poems, not writers? (Although Bloom rejects this latter idea; to him this formulation reduces "language" to "the very odd trope of a demiurgical entity. . .acting like a Univac, and endlessly doing our writing for us.") "Creative imagination" and "objective scholarly criticism" are equally feeble concepts for describing what is really going on in the production and reception of poetry as Bloom understands it.

A "strong trope" is a use of language (whether in individual lines or phrases or the poem as a whole) so powerful in its implications that, as he puts it in another book, it creates meaning that "could not exist without" it and produces an "excess or overflow" that "brings about a condition of newness." Indeed, its force is so irresistable that it "will impose itself," although such a struggle with the text is carried out only by the "strong reader" who seeks to come to terms with it through an act of troping of his/her own. When he complains about the "school of resentment" or about the politicization of literary criticism more broadly, he is reacting against the establishment of a mode of academic criticism that validates weak reading, that diminishes the power of literature and the passion of reading. He is not lamenting the loss of "sweetness and light" as a goal of literary study, nor the rejection of New Critical formalism, which he considers a form of rhetorical criticism that equally fails to accentuate what is truly at stake in the "troping" of both poetry and criticism.

In what he apparently takes to be a telling criticism of Bloom's practice as a critic, Benjamin Balint remarks that "We might say that Harold Bloom is the Rashi of misreadings, a kind of contemporary sage who, due perhaps to the excesses of reading itself, himself misreads—sometimes forcefully, sometimes weakly." But of course Bloom already admits this, dismissing the notion that criticism involves something like accuracy of interpretation:

To read actively is to make a fiction as well as to receive one, and the kind of active reading we call "criticism" or the attempt to decide meaning, or perhaps to see whether meaning can be decided, always has a very large fictive meaning in it. I continue to be surprised that so many literary scholars refuse to see that every stance in regard to texts, however professedly humble or literaral or prosaic or 'scientific' or 'historical" or 'linguistic" is always a poetic stance, always part of the rhetoric of rhetoric. . . .

Balint further proposes that Bloom "turns out to be a reader par excellence, but also perhaps merely a reader," suggesting that he is finally unable to distinguish between his beloved texts and non-literary spiritual or religious "encounters." This surely fails to recognize that for Bloom "reading" is more than an "encounter" with words (although it begins there), just as " poetry" is more than a composition in verse. I would not go so far as to say that for Bloom reading is religion, but one might conclude from most of his books that the kind of experience to which reading works of literature gives access is for him about as close to what could be called a religious experience as is possible in a universe in which God probably does not exist.

This is perhaps where most readers depart company with Bloom, concluding that his kind of reading is finally an idiosyncratic and insular one, Bloom himself seated aloft in his own peculiar aesthetic empyrean. This is a mistaken impression, not least because it takes Bloom's very real passion for literature as a preoccupation with the aesthetic such as ordinary "rhetorical criticism" would describe it. James Wood asserts that whenever Bloom's commentary verges on becoming "openly evaluative, it becomes Freudian and biographical" and that "if he were just choosing one poet over another for purely aesthetic reasons, then he would have no need of his Freudian system of anxiety and repression." This assessment has validity, and aptly sums up the major weakness in Bloom's critical system. One reads Bloom for inspiration, for further amplification of the way in which his account of literary influence applies to specific writers or texts, for the occasional insight that reinforces the general claim of Freud's work on literary criticism, but not for sustained and careful explication of individual texts. That Bloom initially developed his theory of poetic influence to directly contest the New Critics' dismissal of subject-centered criticism and of Romanticism in general of course explains this absence, but I often wonder whether in his dismay at the direction literary study has taken he doesn't sometimes think he might have done more justice to New Criticism and its insistence that the aesthetic attributes of literature ought to be the proper focus of criticism.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature (to me) of Agon is Bloom's attempt to align his own approach to criticism with that of American pragmatism. Partly this is due to his admiration of Emerson as an American "seer," a fellow strong misreader whose habits of thought provided the true source of pragmatism. But pragmatic thinking also offers Bloom a touchstone that further vindicates his own self-reliant mode of reading:

. . .American pragmatism, as [Richard] Rorty advises, always asks of text: what is it good for, what can I do with it, what can it do for me, what can I make it mean? I confess that I like these questions, and they are what I think strong reading is all about, because strong misreading doesn't ever ask: Am I getting this poem right? Strong reading knows that what it does to the poem is right, because it knows what Emerson, its American inventor, taught it, which is that the true ship is the shipbuilder. If you don't believe in your reading, the don't bother anyone else with it, but if you do, then don't care also whether anyone else agrees with it or not. . . .

I must say this seems a fairly ordinary reading of Emerson (who surely does ask of poetry, "what can it do for me?") and a weak misreading of Rorty (as well as Dewey and James before him). Putting aside the fact that both Rorty and Dewey believe literature does serve some generalizable good (for Rorty, helping us to become "less cruel," for Dewey, clarifying the nature of experience), it is very convenient for Bloom to exploit this overly literal interpretation of pragmatism's goal-oriented analysis so that it winds up justifying critical eccentricity for its own sake. For me, a thoroughgoingly pragmatic literary criticism might indeed put aside the question "Am I getting this poem right?" but would still find the question "Am I getting literature right?" an appropriate one to ask. Does "literature" as a category exist primarily to allow Harold Bloom or other like-minded critics to misread, strongly or otherwise, in any way they want, or does it also carry out a useful purpose by identifying a kind of text upon which some agreed-upon constraints do apply? Couldn't we say that both writing and reading works of literature pragmatically involves observing these contraints so that the activities themselves might be sustained?

I always find reading Harold Bloom's books a bracing experience, but I don't think I'm prepared to regard them as contributions to the elucidation of pragmatism.

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