Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel
Among the uglier images making up what will emerge as the myth of the 20th Century is that of Dr. Josef Mengeleexterminating angel of Auschwitzwho separated the victims bound directly for the gas chambers from those healthy enough to be spared for terminal labor assignments. His characteristic gesture, at least in my own vision of it, was a flick of either wrist & the laconic words, "You to the right" or "You to the left." One variant of the myth would have us believe further that Mengele, being a man of some "culture" or pretensions thereto, found the task sad but otherwise inevitable.
As goodness, we have been told ad infinitum, may sometimes spring from evil, I would have hoped that the image of Mengele's judgment (or its innumerable counterparts) might have helped us pull away from the model of man casting himself in the role of a judgmental god. At least I would have hoped so in the domain of art: an experimental ground in which such human possibilities can be played out as images. "Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu"Artaud's great verbal act of exorcismfollowed the savageries of Auschwitz by a couple of years, & a characteristic if milder stance of some later avant-gardists aimed to create for art & poetry a function that allowed discovery while avoiding the pretense to judgment characteristic of most critical & literary traditions.
I'm reminded of all this in going over the critical writings of Harold Blooma task I set myself after reading a particularly indulgent piece of his exclusionary criticism that I'll discuss below. In Bloom, more blatantly than elsewhere, the idea of the critic as exterminating angel appears with characteristic regrets, etc., but in no uncertain terms. "However diffidently I give the answer," he writes in Kabbalah & criticism, "I am engaged in canon-formation, in trying to help decide a question that is ultimately of a sad importance: 'Which poet shall live?' "
I'm aware of the hyperbole, even the absurdity involved in setting Bloom beside Mengele, but I can't help feeling that he himself must have had some such comparison in mind when presenting his work in those terms. The play of much of his criticism (& by far its most in- teresting aspect) involves his incorporation of Jewish mysticism & myth into a description of "post-Enlightenment poetry;" & this includes, beyond a reenforcement of Bloom's six rhetorical tropes or of his "revisionist" poetics in general, the use of such a solidly traditional figure as the Malakh ha-Mavat = Angel of Death = Satan = (by a common gnostic & Blakean inversion) god as Jehovah. His criticism seems obsessed as well with the killing-off of poetslargely of course with poets killing other poets, both forerunners & contemporaries, in a veritable battle-to-the-death. Given all that, it seems unlikely to me that as "Jewish" a critic as Bloom would not, in making his assertion of a "you live / you die" function for criticism, have been struck by the image of Mengele, in much the same way that as "Jewish" a poet as myself immediately felt its presence.
I will get back to the "Jewish question" shortlyas well as the not unrelated questions of poetic struggle & canon-formation. For the moment I would like to play with (& even "mis-read") some of the key terms in Bloom's criticism, which together form a coherent if spiritually stingy view of reality & one that seems aimed (for whatever we might want to salvage from it) against much of what I take to be of most value in the poetry& art of this century.
Much of Bloom's energy as a critic has gone into the exposure of the blindness of poets about their origins in other poetsa blindness & an attempt at concealment that involves, most crucially, those poets whom Bloom professes most strongly to admire. This work of exposure is more than critic's busy-work, whether as simple source-study or as what Geoffrey Hartman calls, using some of Bloom's own terms, "a type of 'mis-reading' which helps poets to overcome the influence of previous poets"-or, as Bloom more accurately puts it, a "deadly encouragement that never ceases to remind them of how heavy their inheritance is." Bloom's involvement is intense, even personal, & what it finally reveals is his own blindness about the motives of his enterprise & its origins in what may be a deep struggle with, & antagonism towards, the very objects of his admiration. The work, in other words, is highly deceptive (to himself & others)at least if one misses certain key confessions sprinkled through it, or if one is diverted by the radical nature of Bloom's great predecessor poets (Milton, Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, & so on) into thinking that Bloom is dealing in the presentas they in the pastwith a true poetics of liberation. The approach -through -Bloom is in fact the reverse of any such position.
To begin with& this shouldn't surprise anyone out thereBloom's poetics, as he presents it, is militantly "literary." (This doesn't mean that it may not have other ends in viewpolitical, social, etc.but more of that later.) He is by self-proclamation an "academic critic," who presents the history of Western poetry as the work of a succession of academically based canon-makers, from the time when "Alexandria, which . . . founded our scholarship, permanently set the literary tradition of the school, and introduced the secularized notion of the canon" -a process which modernism (= "the Romantic psychology of belatedness") has challenged or confused but never, presumably, replaced. "Nothing in the literary world," writes Bloom in A Map Misreading, "sounds quite so silly to me as the passionate declarations that poetry must be liberated from the academy, declarations that would be absurd at any time, but peculiarly so some twenty-five hundred years after Homer and the academy first became indistinguishable." (How the assembled ghosts of Blake, Shelley & Whitman would have handled that one, boggles the mindthough no doubt it provides Harold with a chuckle as well.)
What holds for the critic-as-academic-reader must also hold for the poets. That most poets who read are readers isn't the point at issue, nor that poets are "desperately obsessed with poetic origins"& with other origins as well: personal, linguistic, cosmic, etc. For Bloom it must be tighter than that, & so he writes, in Poetry & Repression: "Even the strongest poet must take up his stance within literary language. If he stands outside it, he cannot begin to write poetry. For poetry lives always under the shadow of poetry." (Thus Bloom's favoring of rhetoric & so on over Wordsworth's "selection of the real language of men" or its more precise, therefore more threatening contemporary equivalents.) Or again, in A Map Misreading: "Poems, I am saying, are neither about 'subjects' nor about ' themselves.' They are necessarily about other poems; a poem is a response to a poem, as a poet is a response to a poet, or a person o his parent." And the response, in Bloom's terms, is always a mis- reading, a mis-interpretation, the outgrowth of a struggle oedipally conceived: "To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father." (Such misprision, in Bloom's account, may also involve the critic as reader, though the struggle there seems mutednot presented, for all of Bloom's exterminating passion, as a battle-to-the-death.)
In all of this, as I see it, the problem is not that Bloom takes a literary or textual approach but that he leaves us room for almost nothing else: an occasional nod towards the "reading" of nature or of experience, or a passing hint that precursors, even literary ones, may be other than poets or that the struggle may be with forces other than literary ones. Such one-sidedness is the price of obsessionhis own, self- acknowledged, with the idea of influence & its attendant anxieties& it leaves him often & inevitably at odds with his poets themselves, their poetics & self-interpretations, their views of their own & others' struggles where those contradict the needs of Bloom's particular "misprision." While Bloom is certainly aware of this, he "take(s) the resistance shown to the theory by many poets, in particular, to be likely evidence for its validity, for poets rightly idealize their activity; & all poets, weak and strong, agree in denying any share in the anxiety of influence."
The finesse of that last shot is absolutely breathtaking: an assertion of the critic's hegemony against all odds & certainly "all poets"like Bloom's comment elsewhere that "the true poem is the critic's mind." It is as if Claude LÚvi-Strauss had inadvertently confessed to Russell Means' worst suspicions about anthropologists; & seen in the larger frame of Bloom's intentions & assumptions, it drives home a separation between poet & (academic) critic, not as many of us have long felt it but towards ends that Bloom announces here & there with great forthrightness. So, he tells us in A Map of Misreading, "No strong poet can deign to be a good reader of his own works," nor should the critic speak for him exactly, because "this is not the critic's proper work, to take up the poet's stance." And having said that much, he goes on to questionfrom the critic's perspectivethe term most central to the poetics of nearly all his targeted "strong poets" & to that Romantic tradition one might have thought he was defending:
Perhaps there is a power or faculty of the Imagination, and certainly all poets must go on believing in its existence, but a critic makes a better start by agreeing with Hobbes that imagination is "decaying sense" and that poetry is written by the same natural man or woman who suffers daily all the inescapable anxieties of competition.
The key word heresince Bloom has pulled us back into the "light of common day"is "competition." Few poets would deny their identity as natural men or women (it is, if anything, part of the inheritance of the Romantic); but the discovery that competition-not imagination! -is the central definition of the natural & human (&, ultimately, the poetic) is a point that wouldn't escape the readers of Commentary, say, whatever effect, or non-effect, it may have on the readers of Sulfur.
We are approaching the crucial split between two human possibilities that marks Bloom's doleful "deconstruction," the moral choice behind his poet-critic cleavage, whose implications, since his position isn't timeless, become much clearer, more specific & more contemporary, elsewhere in his work. Thus, he writes in the introduction to Figures of Capable Imagination (1976):
Poets lie, both to themselves and to everyone else, about their indebtedness to one another, and most critics and literary scholars tend to follow poets by hopelessly idealizing all interpoetic relations. Now that the tides of aggressive ignorance, or the counter-culture, are ebbing, many of the absurd hopes that the young and their middle-aged followers placed in an apocalypse of society are coming to rest in the arts, particularly literature, in the belief that there at least the repressed can return, a belief much encouraged by such false prophets as Marcuse and Norman O. Brown.
If this isn't Bloom at his best& it isn'tit's Bloom giving an unequivocal context for his present disturbance. The identity of the "false prophets" isn't worth an argument, though the question of the other poet/prophets, who "lie ... to themselves & to everyone else' (but from whom Bloom derives his livelihood), should at least give one pausethe relation of Blake, say, to "counter-culture" &"apocalypse" & "art" & the "return of the repressed." A notable ("misreading,"' I'd have thought, to go from Blake's dream of liberation to this hostility towards those who would presume to carry it into the present. Knowingly or not (but no critic should "deign to be a good reader of his own works"), Bloom is here playing out the archetypal role of Blake's "Devourer": the antithesis of the "Prolific," who thinks he has the Prolific/ the "producer" in his chains ("but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence & fancies that the whole"). In this, Blake writes as a (true? false?) prophet, pointing to the continuing existence of "these two classes of men ... [who are &] should be enemies," for "whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence."
If Bloom is the Devourerthe diluter of energy, the reductive agent"revisionism" is no longer the poet's (prolific) re-visioning but an attempt to turn the unqualified "freedom" of the Romantics & their successors into a qualified & "repressed freedom": itself a product of anxiety. The Devourer, then, swallows the Prolific's "excess of delights" but seems to choke on them; or, as Devourer-turned-teacher, he laments: "How is he [am I] to teach a tradition now grown so wealthy and so heavy that to accommodate it demands more strength than any single consciousness can provide?" Unlike the Prolificthe producerwho revels in his own & others'excesses, the teacher /Devourer/ critic is driven to despair & to canon-formation to relieve the stress.
As mere "academic criticism," the Bloom dilemma seems a little sad & silly. But it's never more than a short step from literature to those other areas where ideas like "freedom" & "repression" effect the actual ways we think & act as human beings. Given Bloom's own time frame & his sense already quoted of the counter-revolutionary nature of the middle 1970s & beyond, I will allow myself a political reading of one of his statements vis Ó vis "strong" poets & "strong" poetry in Poetry & Repression, that "it is only by repressing creative 'freedom,' through the initial fixation of influence, that a person can be reborn as a poet." The terms are slippery & may at first be taken as purely self-repressive &/or psychological; but while Bloom relates his work to Freudian ideas of sublimation ("Geoffrey Hartman . . . calls the poetic will 'sublimated compulsion' . . . [while] I would call it ,repressed freedom'"), he himself tells us that his aim isn't "so to apply Freud (or even revise Freud) as to arrive at an Oedipal interpretation of poetic history." Nor is it simply a question of poetic restraints as a matter of technique or method. The issue for Bloom increasingly involves a response to a contemporary condition of yearning for which Bloom's own precursor poets had acted as prime movers. That responseat least the part of it that concerns me hereis threefold.
He is, to begin with, scornful of the ambitions of "post-Enlightment poets," although the scorn is sometimes hidden behind a mask of "melancholy." "Unfortunately," he tells us in Kabbalah and Criticism, "we have all of us arrived too late in the day to take on such a flamboyance" as that of Emerson & Whitman "chanting ... that a large consciousness contradicts itself because it contains multitudes." But this late-in-the-day, therefore absurd flamboyance extends, we find out in A Map of Misreading, from "all of us" to all American poets whatsoever, "the most consciously belated in the history of Western poetry," who, "rather more than other Western poets, at least since the Enlightenment, are astonishing in their ambitions. Each wants to be the whole of which all other poets are only parts." Applied to Emerson & Whitman themselves (but also Dickinson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, & Melville), the Bloomian misreading moves from Muted mockery to a diffident paternalism that only a true Devourer could master.
From such a defensive-aggressive posture, Bloom can put into question the stand of any of his great poet-precursors against repression itself. Such a strategy is at the heart of Bloom's mis-readings, in line with which he proposes, in Poetry & Repression, to revise "all reasonings, including my own," of such a poem as Blake "London," since said readings "are wholly mistaken in seeing ['London'] Primarily as a protest against repression, whether societal Or individual." Here a cautious adverb ("primarily") keeps him from the arch-revisionist statement he seems really to be aiming at, but late he crosses the line & tells us that "Blake's poem is not a protest, not prophetic outcry, not a vision of judgment. It is a revisionist's self-condemnation, a Jonah's outcry at knowing he is not an Ezekiel." All of which is a crazy "academic" view of a poet who shivers the boundaries of literature; who is Blake rather than Ezekiel (& no less important for that); & whose prophetic outcry co-exists with whatever "negative and self-destructive" elements Bloom may rightly or wrongly see in him.* We have here passed from mis-reading to deception: the attempt to reduce Blake's fine frenzy to that "failure of nerve" which, if I remember it correctly, underpinned the new conservatism of the critics of my childhood. (Bloom's teachers tooto whom he once again succumbs.) The process from here on in begins to read like critic's self-projection.
The third response I have in mind is something more than that, though clearly tied to Bloom's own situation. For what Bloom does at the extreme of his deconstruction is virtually to reject the idea of "freedom" in favor of that of "repression"terms he has already revealed to have a "social" as well as "individual" dimension (i.e., not merely "literary"). Emblematically Bloom phrases this rejection as his turning from Milton's Satan (as interpreted by Blake): a poetic creation whose influence had extended into the work of such American poetic "revisionists" as Ralph Waldo Emerson &, even, Emily Dickinson. in his characteristic manner he describes the turning not only as a matter of regret, but something deeper. "I am temperamentally a natural revisionist," he writes in A Map of Misreading, "and I respond to Satan's speeches more strongly than to any other poetry I know, so it causes some anguish in me to counsel that currently we need Milton's sense of tradition much more than Emerson's revisionary tradition. Indeed, the counsel of necessity must be taken further: most simply, we need Milton, and not the Romantic return of the repressed Milton but the Milton who made his great poem identical with the process of repression that is vital to literary tradition.")
In the light of current New Conservative & Moral Majority maneuvers, the invocation of the language of repression & of Milton the Puritan (or a parody thereof) as counselor-on-tradition, cannot be confined to the world of literary studies. The "we" who need the Milton of Repression is ultimately a "we" that can't be narrowed down, Bloom tells us, by "sex, race, social class," etc. "If we are human," he writes, "then we depend upon a Scene of Instruction, which is necessarily also a scene of authority and of priority." And no matter how he tries to modify this into a middle-ground accommodation with the authoritative fathers, the stance remains contemporary with Bob Dylan's recent need "to serve somebody"as Bloom's competition-as-creation might make a fit with the revivalist side of Milton (Friedman)'s economics.
I'm not refuting Bloom here, so much as indicating his obvious & admitted deviations from the line of poets (the 19th Century ones at least) foregrounded in his work. The spirit of that work, it seems to me, isn't revisionist but, as he himself renames it, "antithetical": almost a full turn from the revisioningthe actual return to visionthat has marked our poetry from Blake until the present. I've found Bloom useful in clarifying some of this, & I'm in sympathy with some larger part of what he attends to: Romanticism, kabbala, gnosticism, & so on. At the same time I'm distressed by the reductiveness of his work, by his unwillingness to revise or revision a narrowly conservative idea of tradition & "priority." There is, in other words, no questioning of "tradition" at its roots, but a reductive assertion "that everyone who now reads and writes in the West, of whatever racial background, sex or ideological camp, is still a son or daughter of Homer." No Coyotes or Taras appear in his mythologies, no Milarepas or Li Po's among his canonized poets. Kabbala & gnosticism gain entry as maps for criticism but otherwise his "canon" is still European & his specialization post-Enlightenment & English. So it remains only those poets devoted to the idea of the prolific, exuberant, & flamboyant who have made the move to let the greater world into our work.
Bloom's narrowness helps him turn any new or liberating sense of the past into a species of "belatedness," & it allows him to disregard the forwardness that has again & again defined an avant-garde over the last two centuries. It is against such forwardness in particular that his rage seems directed& even more particularly against the forwardness that surrounds him here & now. The poets wandering past the Bloomian woods should at least be warned of this. "A map of misreading" may sound like a step towards the openings of indeterminacy or chance or towards a free experiment with word & thought, but it isn't. Similarly, his selection of John Ashbery (Bloom's one candidate for canonization among the old "New American poets" & the New York School) may feel like a leftward tilt but is, if anything, the scorning of poetic "movements" (the attempt to draw multiple voices into the work of poesis) in favor of the single poet winnowed from his peers.
While obscuring his own critical precursors in the anti-Blakean, anti-Miltonic New Critics, Bloom's aimagainst the whole thrust of visionary & revolutionary poeticshas been to maintain the process of canon-formation & the mastery of critic over poet, Devourer over prolific, system-maker over "Inspired Man." To keep poetry within the domain of academic literatureto maintain, that is, the separation between art & lifehe has devised a system that has both limited his own ability to read & to create, & has allowed him to be arbitrary in his selection of "strong" poets & "strong" poems. More than his method, it is his intention that seems so wrong & devious: a deliberate obfuscation that would reject (at least in his own time) the strong & bold in favor of those he sees, rightly or wrongly, as candidates for the purveyors of a "repressed freedom."
The arrogance of criticism prospers, even fattens, on the silence of the poets over whom it means to tyrannize. It is an illusory fatness, anyway, & there does come a time when some of us who make poetry are moved, for one reason or another, to break the silence & to respond in kind. For if critics are instructors, as in Bloom's view of it they are, so are poets; & it isn't always possible or useful to save ourselves the effort of that clash of instructions by surrendering the field.
What finally pushed me to a reading & a response to Bloom was his second attempt at dealing with, & dismissing, a generalized entity called "the American-Jewish poet." Since I'm a particularized version of that entity, I can be seen to have a personal stake in the matter. As a poet, of course, I'm supposed to thrive on personal stakes, while Bloom as a critic may be thought to have a need for more objective standards. But what's attractive to me in Bloom's work is that such "objectivity" is almost never there& surely not when dealing with a, entity so close to home as this one.
Bloom himself is a marvelous example of
"belated" Jewish culture. It colors a large part of his criticism & it is,
as I said earlier, its most interesting aspect (at least for me). This isn't
a question of a down- home feeling shared by Jews, but that in dealing with
certain areas of Jewish tradition, Bloom allows himself access to the kind
of uncanonized traditional material for which, by a curious display of willful
ignorance, he seems otherwise to have so little use. The result, in a work
like Kabbalah and Criticism, is sometimes very useful; & similar insights
turn up in his other works & intersect with a referential network that touches
as well onjewish orthodoxy & gnostic heterodoxy -non -canonical also from
a Western /Christian point of view. It's my feeling that if Bloom had allowed
this network to expand, he could have made an extraordinary synthesizing contribution
to our concepts of poesis. But he would also have been poaching incredibly
on the poet's terrain, where "all ages are contemporaneous in the mind" &
everything is possible.*
Bloom on the Jewish poets is something very
different. The two pieces that raise that issue are "The Sorrows of American-Jewish
Poetry," which appeared in Commentary about ten years ago & was reprinted
in Figures of Capable Imagination, & "The Heavy Burden of the Past"
from the January 4, 1981 issue of The New York Times Book Review. The
first piece seems to have come out of nowhereor out of nothing more
than Bloom's suspicion of, discomfort with, or hostility to, the idea of (American)
Jewish poetswhile the second is a review of a specific book, Voices
Within the Ark, that presents 1200 pages, worldwide in scope, of what
the editors, Anthony Rudolph & Howard Schwartz, call "The Modern Jewish Poets."
The "simple" question, raised in the first essay but covering both, is "why
isn't modern Jewish poetry better?" since, Bloom assures us, of the ninety
American-Jewish poets in the Rudolph- Schwartz book, "only about a dozen have
written authentic poems, true artifacts, and none of these alas has yet earned
a place in the canon, though one or two yet may." And of those ninety American
Jews (the Europeans end up only a little better at Bloom's hands, but it's
clearly the Americans he's after), Bloom further assures us that "no single
figure [is included] who so far matters urgently or overwhelmingly in the
poetry of our country."*
Since this is Bloom writing, I take it, in the language of "natural man & woman"or what we used to call "the man in the street" or "average N.Y. Times reader"I assume we can go by the ordinary meanings of those sentences. Bloom in fact makes it a little difficult to test his proposition, since he names not one American-Jewish poet in the course of his reviewunlike the earlier Commentary piece, where he may have exposed himself by doing precisely that. Still, a casual glance at the Rudolph-Schwartz book shows that among the ninety canonless Jews are Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg & George Oppen; among those missing, Gertrude Stein. Of these, Zukofsky & Oppen (along with Charles Reznikoff) had been dismissed ten years before by Bloom for ties to Pound & Williams; Ginsberg had been tagged "Mock bardic" & had really blown it by being "beyond the reach of criticism" (italics mine); & Stein, as always among "academic" critics & anthologizers, had again been left unmentioned. While I'm not one to get that easily into reputations & achievements, it seems inconceivable that in the ordinary sense in which a "figure ... matters urgently or overwhelmingly in the poetry of our country," the aforementioned poets (or a dozen more if we really started naming names) could be said not to matter, or that some of those others Bloom does mentionElizabeth Bishop or James Merrill or A.R. Ammonscould be said to matter more.
But we know alreadydon't we?that
Bloom is into something else: a devourer's need for reduction; a myth of poetry
as a response to poetry & of person as a response to parent; & with that as
the pre-set pattern, a decision by fiat as to who best fits it. So,
the reduction & the claim for what matters proceedhere as elsewhere
in Bloomby a definition of "strong" poets as those who "tend to achieve
an individualized voice by first all-but-merging with a precursor and then
by pulling away from him, usually by way of a complex process of fault-finding
and actual misinterpretation of the precursor." (This is the famous path-of-poetry-through-ignoranceas
if to prove that Harold likes his poets blond & dumb.) And if we ask, before
we swallow that, is that the mark of every "strong" poet, the answer
from Bloom is every-strong-poet-since-the-Enlightenment. (He exempts Shakespeare
& Co. as "antedeluvians" & can't conceive of primal sources like Homer & Bible
as themselves "belated."*) It is Bloom's handle par excellence, & since it
is, he wields it as he chooses this one "strong" & that one "weak"-& if the
parent-precursor gambit doesn't work (or if it works too well where he doesn't
want it), he comes up with the "authentic poem" as the "true artifact." And
As for the Jews, they fall, well, like Jews before the critic-executioner, who informs us:
All post-Enlightenment poetry in English tends to be a displaced Protestantism anyway, so that the faith in a Person easily enough is displaced into an initial devotion to the god-like precursor poet. This, to undertake it, is hardly a very Jewish process, and yet something like it seems necessary if poets are to continue to be incarnated. However far from Jewish tradition they may be, something recalcitrant in the spirit of young Jewish poets prevents them from so initially wholehearted a surrender to a Gentile precursor, and indeed makes them nervous about the process itself.
The statement looks so crazy as I read it over, that I wonder if Bloom isn't out to prove that critics are the real madmen in the critic-poet cleavage. All of it could, of course, be arguedfrom any number of directionsbut to accept the premises to start with is, I fear, to walk into Bloom's language trap. Its mechanism is the standard double- bind: if Jews appear too Jewish they're in trouble, & if they don't appear so, they're in possibly worse trouble. "The dilemma," he writes, "seems to be either too much tradition or too little, and while such a dilemma typifies all 'modern' poetry, it assumes acute and crippling manifestations in most verse that intends somehow to be Jewish." Still, the Jews "work on under peculiarly internalized disadvantages"a statement, in spite of its racist implications, never spelled out more clearly than what I've already quoted. But then, he tells us, "Jewish history [was] almost always catastrophic" -or, as they said, in my family & probably in his, "OY OY OY it's hard to be a Jew."
I have been asked I by friendsboth Jew & Gentilewho have watched me tussling with the Bloomian angel, to conjecture on the root problem. Although speculation of that sortdealing, as it would have to, with questions of literary & psychological "priority" would turn the tables on a critic devoted to a probing of such origins, it feels uncomfortably far from my previous poetics. I can, however, speculate on some of the reasons, explicit & implicit, that appear in his own writings, & can see where my com- ments on those will lead us.
In Poetry & Repression, for example,
there's a discussion of Giambattista Vico's "new science," an l8th-century
enterprise that in volved a return to what Vico took as the oldest strata
of human thought & language: a hieroglyphics of "mute signs and physical objects"
followed by a figurative, "poetic" language or "poetic wisdommuch like
that "science of the concrete" (C. LÚvi-Strauss) later ascribed to "primitive"
peoples by the strangers who came to study them.* The true poets for Vico
were the first peoples ( = "gentes" or "gentiles"), "who spoke in poetic characters"
& whose language, theology & social institutions he contrasted not only with
those of Jew & Christian (as Bloom presents it) but of all peoples (Chaldeans,
Scythians, Egyptians, Germans, Greeks, & Latins) who had gone through a development
from family or tribe (= gens) to a "civilization" that brings a separation
from "poetic wisdom" & the creation of a "human language" of "common uses"
that he identified with "prose."
Since the Jews had also undergone such changes,
it is curious how often in Bloom's discussion the distinction becomes that
of Jew & Gentile, with the Christian given entry as a kind of adjunct to the
Jew. (That last point, however, I find truly ambiguous.) Thus he writes: "In
Vico's absolute distinction between gentile and jew, the gentile is linked
both to poetry and history, through the revisionary medium of language, while
the Jew (and subsequently the Christian) is linked to a sacred origin transcending
language, and so has no relation to human history or to the arts." And again:
"A strong poet, for 1 Vico or for us, is precisely like a gentile nation;
he must divine or in- vent himself, and so attempt the impossibility of originating
himself. . . . Since poetry, unlike the Jewish religion, does not go back
to a truly divine origin, poetry is always at work imagining its own origin,
or telling a persuasive lie about itself, to itself."* It is as if Bloom had
taken one of the terms in Rico's universalizing version of a primitive- civilized
dichotomy"with our civilized natures we cannot at all imagine and can
understand only by great toil the poetic nature of these first men" [ = gentiles]&
had fixated on the Jewish-Gentile distinction the term implies in common usage.
By so doing he can advance the standard view of the Jews as a people set against
divination & graven images, etc., & can contrast "the link between poetry
and pagan theology" with the "[perpetual] war between poetry and Hebrew-Christian
theology." In this the Christians are somehow let off the hook by Bloom; but
the Jews, himself among them, are made to live forever beyond the pale of
I can only sense that Bloom, as Jew, feels himself cut off from poetry, and that he projects this deprivation onto other jews As if to explain & even justify this loss of poetry, he invokes the horrors of the Holocaust & the "burdens" of Jewish history:
If one adds to the indescribable horrors of Jewish history the strength and power of Jewish religious traditions, from which most contemporary Jews are now so largely estranged, then the force of the past becomes so great as to inhibit imaginative con- consciousness and to stifle inventiveness. Who could be adequate to thematic concerns so annihilating, to losses so painful, so fresh, and so irreparable? (N. Y Times Book Review, January 4, 1981)
Bloom is here echoing Adorno's famous comment on the impossibility of writing poems after Auschwitz, pushing it further than Adorno, & placing the curse on those Jews whether they write as Jews of notwho can imagine the possibility of a survival into the present. This self-projection& I have no other way of describing itis then translated into a "double belatedness" for modern Jewish poets, "coming after the virtues and sufferings of their ancestors, and also after the main sequence of Western poetry has worked itself through and perhaps out." It would thus seem that if American poets are "the most consciously belated in the history of Western poetry" &Jewish poets are "doubly belated," the combination of the two is absolutely "catastrophic. "
"A strong poet," then, "originates himself"; & in this re-reading of old Whitman, the possibility of all our poetry opens itself again. Such self-origination ("soul-making" in Keats'phrase, world-making elsewhere) takes many formsincluding a "collaging" from the (literary & non-literary) past & present. Its constructions of identity are individual or broadly human or set in the framework of a special culture or tradition. In the Jewish instance, it has involved the work of rewriting ourselves within a real but collapsed tradition of language-centeredness & resistance to oppression. As such the collapse is more an opportunity than a threat, which Bloom, had he survived the struggles with a crippling orthodoxy ("the hand of jealousy among the flaming hair"), should have been the first to see.
But this 'Jewish instance" itself, for all its particularities, is part of a larger work of human striving. The Jews like others have a history that moves from tribe to state & in that movement sets up a struggle between new vision & the literalisms of the canon-making mind. In A Big Jewish Book I had to make this clear, because the Jewish distinction was a trap that robbed useven as Bloom wouldof much of our power as poets.
If Jewish history is a "burden," so is all human historyI take it this is the final message of what Bloom calls his "Gospel of Gloom"& no poet's voice should now be possible. But this is nonsense & a neurotic distortion of what the real work is all about. When Maria Tsvetayeva, herself not Jewish, tells us that "all poets are Jews," I would hope it's in this sense that she means it.
The manifestos have been writing themselves for eighty years, & Bloom has still not learned to read them.
In The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom conjures up the Covering Cherub, a figure from Jewish mythology incarnated anew through Blake's imagination. The Cherubwho in one tradition may be the Exterminating Angel himself, the Malakh ha-Mavatguards the Tree of Life & blocks the return of fallen man to Paradise. The same figure appears in the Jerusalem temple, where the two carved cherubs over the ark (the Edenic: cherub is also double) "cover" the mercy seat with their wings; & in Ezekiel the Covering Cherub represents the "Prince of Tyre," a type of the earthly city whom "I will destroy ... from the midst of the stones of fire."
Like any genuinely multiphasic image, the Cherub's surface Meanings continually shift, no less so in Blake than in his Biblical predecessors. (Singular meaningsor "allegoric delusions & woe" would in fact be an aspect of the Covering Cherub's threats to the "Inspired Man.") With Bloom, working after Blake, we get a number of set & sometimes contradictory readings, & at least one major omision, of what seems, curiously, a most obvious use of the image in Blake. The occasion for Bloom is his attempt to drive home the "anxiety of influence" as the central fact of poetic compositionof which the "struggle" between Blake & Milton provides the clearest instance. Arid since Miltonor "Miltons Shadow," to be more precise about it than Bloom isis at times identified, in Blake's Milton &Jerusalem, as the "Covering Cherub," it isn't surprising that Bloom calls up the identification & generalizes the process to poets after Blake:
For Collins, for Cowper, for many a Bard of Sensibility, Milton was the Tyger, the Covering Cherub blocking a new voice from entering the Poet's Paradise.... In Blake he is fallen Tharmas, and the Spectre of Milton; in Yeats he is the Spectre of Blake.
But elsewhere in The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom tells us that "the Covering Cherub stands between the achieved Man who is at once Milton, Blake, and Los, and the emanation or beloved"in which case the poets aren't pitted against each other, and the covering Cher- ub, who threatens Blake & Milton both, may in fact not be a poet. There are a number of such non-poetic readings in Blake, & one of the ideologically crucial ones-as interpreted by S. Foster Damon in A Blake Dictionary, & here omitted by Bloomis that "the Cover- ing Cherub sums up the twenty-seven Christian heavens which shut out man from eternity" & by which "the truth becomes petrified into dogma and relegated to ritual":
And these the names of the Twenty-seven Heavens & their
All these are seen in Miltons Shadow who is the Covering
The Heavens are the Cherub, the Twelve Gods are Satan...
(Milton 37: 35, 44, 60)
Here, of course, is the ideological kingpin of Blake's argument with Milton, the puritanical side of him (his "Shadow") that "wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God" & thereby "entered into the Covering Cherub." But Bloom prefers his own psychological & literary struggles to the struggles of his "post-Enlightenment" poets against repression, authority, & dogmathat is, against the total apparatus of canon-formation both as a religious & secular phenomenon.
In place of Blake's anti-Christian /anti-canonical view, Bloom chooses to put forward the idea of the Covering Cherub as a "demon of continuity"the enemy therefore of that "discontinuity" from the past which was "freedom" for the Romantics. By doing so, he can pre- sent the Romantics & Moderns as narrowly future-directed & hostile to ideas of poetic lineage that wouldat least in Bloom's termspsychologically diminish them & threaten their survival after death. The concept he needs to pull this off is that of an established & unchanging pastjust the kind of fixed tradition (= canon) challenged by those poets who have sought a true re-visioning of the larger human past & present. To mis-read in this way is to conceal the "strong" (experimental) poet's simultaneous regard for lineage & the "academic" critic's desire to obstruct it.
The Covering Cherubto pull Bloom's reading furthernot only keeps the poet from the paradise of poetry but from a natural relationship to all those poets who inhabit it. It's a pretty rotten business all around, & the Cherub in this sense begins to lose his resemblance to anything like a "strong" precursor poeteven for Bloom, who writes:
In this discussion he is a poor demon of many names (as many names as there are strong poets) but I summon him first namelessly, as a final name is not yet devised by men for the anxiety that blocks their creativeness. He is that something that makes men victims and not poets, a demon of discursiveness and shady continuities, a pseudo-exegete who makes writings into Scriptures.
But the weariness & weakness of Bloom's "poor demon" is such that Blake's words from another occasion leap to mind: "Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling."
Who, then, is the Covering Cherub?
If we accept Bloom's version of him & in fact we don'tare we to see him as Milton's specter or as Blake's, or as any poet's who still speaks to us from the past? How turn Shelley or Whitman into victimizers of future poets, except on the level of a trivial psychological competition? Is it a poet who tries to keep us from our poems, or someone else: "a demon of discursive and shady continuities, a pseudo-exegete who makes writings into Scripture"?
But we know, after all, who threatens us. We know who reminds us of how "heavy" our "inheritance" is; who tells us not to deign to be good readers of our own poems or to think that we can write at all "after the deluge"; who enters into Milton's Shadow& "not the Romantic return of the repressed Milton" but the Puritan Milton of repression. And we know who proposes the discontinuities between poets & rejects those who might know their lineage too well. We know who thinks that he "can block a new voice from entering the Poet's Paradise" or who would presume "to help decide a question that is ultimately of a sad importance: 'Who shall live?' "
The game, in short, is up. The Cherub's wing droops & reveals a face a little rounder & a little softer than we might have thought! melancholy sweet face of those "cherubs" of our childhood.
That much, it seems to me, is clear. And clear also is Bloom's summation, his confession of the Cherub's fate: "He cannot strangle the imagination, for nothing can do that, and he in any case is too weak to strangle anything."
10 August 1981