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Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

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Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »

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