The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
by Harold Bloom
Spiegel & Grau. 524 pp. $35.00.
My first encounters with Harold Bloom came toward the end of the 1970s and beginning of the ’80s when I began to pick up books that were around in those days. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1963), The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), and The Breaking of the Vessels (1982) still have a place in my bookcase, alongside more recent works, a full shelf of them. In hindsight I attribute my early feeling for Bloom to a kinship with the English Romantics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that I scarcely sensed at a time when I looked for inspiration to a European avant-garde tradition that picked up at Baudelaire and ran through Rimbaud, symbolists, dadaists, and up to André Breton and the French Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s, with the American Beats somehow thrown into the mix. It was considerably later, into my forties, that I clued in that I am more heir to Wordsworth and Keats than to Paul Éluard and Robert Desnos, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, an acknowledgement that in no way constitutes disavowal of what the Surrealists, Beats, and others meant, and continue to mean, to me.
Above all else Bloom’s love of literature shines through and is infectious, one mark of a great teacher. Even at this late date, age sixty-two, a lifetime of wide reading and study, thinking much, though never nearly well enough, I come to Bloom first as student to teacher, a role I am quick to distinguish from that of disciple or follower. He finds in literature something akin to what I once thought I found, still thirst for, and from time to time sense a glimmer or intimation: “Poems, novels, stories, plays matter only if we matter. They give us the blessing of more life, whether or not they initiate a time beyond boundaries.”
From the beginning I was astounded by and more than a bit envious of Bloom’s capacity to have read and remembered so much. Poetry sticks in his memory and has done so from childhood. He came to Blake and Crane, Shakespeare and Melville, at an age when I was reading voraciously myself but in altogether different veins, history and biography, books about physics and astronomy, and always science fiction. It is with fondness that I recall Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, A.E. Van Vogt, and many more I devoured up to about my eighteenth year. They nourished love of reading and fostered an intellectual curiosity that would take me to the likes Camus and Dostoevsky, Balzac and Beckett, the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa, and poets of many stripes. For that alone I owe Asimov, Clarke, and the rest a debt.
Bloom tells us he has been rereading Moby-Dick since he fell in love with the book in 1940,
… a boy of ten enthralled with Hart Crane, Whitman, William Blake, Shakespeare. Moby-Dick made a fifth with The Bridge, Song of Myself, Blake’s The Four Zoas, and King Lear, a visionary company that transformed a changeling child into an exegetical enthusiast adept at appreciation rather than into a poet. A superstitious soul, then and now, I feared being devoured by ravenous daemons if I crossed the line into creation.
Quite early on I was struck by the capacity of poems in a symbolist or surrealist mode to touch and move us with evocation of emotion or feeling, a sensibility quite independent of the literal meaning of the words. Bloom captures the experience:
I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about [italics mine]. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me…. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it? In some, a version of the poetical character is incarnated and in some like myself the answering voice is from the beginning that of the critic.
Here I think of Samuel Johnson’s characterization of the sublime as “…that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration.” Not always perhaps, but often, first we are moved by great poetry, and only later come to comprehend it.
Of The Daemon Knows, published this year, Bloom says in conversation with Amy Bloom (no relation):
“Shelley said that the function of the sublime is to persuade us to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones. One purpose of this book is to emulate Shelley in regards to my own readers.” He wants, he tells me, to “aid other readers in their own personal quests to find themselves more truly through the reading of superb imaginative literature.” He emphasizes personal.
The Daemon Knows is repetitious, both within its pages and in the context of a lifetime of thinking and writing, but the book is more than restatement and renewed emphasis on themes most dear to its author, though it is in part that. “I can only write the way I teach: personally and passionately. And with this book, you see that there is nothing polemical, only the style of old age: trying to see what one still has to say.” (A. Bloom)
A good portion of The Daemon Knows consists of passages quoted from the authors and writings under discussion. I suspect that they are included as much because Bloom relishes the opportunity to reread and share favorite passages as to illustrate his themes and arguments. For the reader this is a treasure, something of a critical anthology of luminous poetry and prose from six pairs of American writers—Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, Mark Twain and Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot—offered up for perusal according to one’s discretion and inclination.
One can scarcely consider Bloom without getting into the culture wars, disputes about “the canon,” and what Bloom called “the School of Resentment,” opining, “I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor.” Never one to shy away from getting down into the polemical trenches, before the culture wars he took on the grand old fuddy-duddy of modernist poetics, T.S. Eliot, and his disciples.
As a young scholar-critic in the period 1957–77, I was a Romantic Revivalist, furiously battling to restore many great writers to the canon: Spenser, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Emerson, Whitman, Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, Wilde, Swinburne, Lawrence, Stevens, Hart Crane, and others. Many if not most of these had been exiled by Eliot and his churchwardens. When I was a child, my ear had been ravished by Eliot’s poetry, but his criticism—literary and cultural—dismayed me. At eighty-four I have calmed down: My warfare is accomplished, my grudge ebbing with the ocean of life. The prose Eliot still displeases me; I have just read through three enormous volumes of his letters and my ancient fury almost revives. His scorn for Emerson is so ill-informed that some personal bias has to be noted in it.
Suffice for now to say that my sympathies are with Bloom. Beyond that I leave issues of the canon, academic freedom, the disposition of some who call themselves progressive to dictate what we may think and say, and suchlike for another time.
The Daemon Knows is infused with a spirit of generosity, the occasional polemical aside notwithstanding. Bloom cites Oscar Wilde on criticism as “the only civilized form of autobiography” and adds, “I have aged not, alas, into Wilde’s wit but into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” The Daemon Knows is in part memoir, spiced throughout with brief personal anecdotes and references, accompanied by generous tribute, to students and fellow scholars, teachers, critics, poets, friends (Kenneth Burke, John Hollander Mark Strand, Theodore Weiskel, Camille Paglia, and Angus Fletcher, among many others).
Harold Bloom has led a kind of life I have tried to live and would like to have lived better, life devoted to literature and ideas, to what I think of as the intellectual adventure. That life is never without its darkness, to which Bloom alludes from time to time. Anyone who has thought as much and deeply as Bloom knows darkness and knows that literature and art do not bring happiness. Nietzsche, he says, taught him “that memorability was heightened by suffering: a hard doctrine, but akin to Shelley’s notion that the sublime persuades us to abandon easier pleasures for more difficult engagements.”
Bloom writes that “several prolonged times when close to death, I have recited Whitman to myself as medicine. I hardly recommend my personal praxis to students or readers because what works for me may not do much for another.” I thought back a few months to the five weeks I wore a cast on my right arm that made reading while waiting at bus and rail stops on the daily commute, even once seated on bus or train, something of a challenge. For those weeks instead of reading I took to reciting to myself the handful of short poems and passages from longer poems that under Bloom’s influence I have committed to memory, some Keats and some Wordsworth, Dickinson and Brontë, Whitman, Blake, and a few others. As always, I was grateful to have them with me.
Harold Bloom too is memorable. His writing as critic always brings me back to the enchantment that the best poems and novels hold. They do not resolve our perplexities or tear away the veil of mystery. Nonetheless they offer something I would not want to be without. Again, I turn to Samuel Johnson, “Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding…” Or as Bloom puts it:
We are at last 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.
Amy Bloom, Tea With Harold Bloom, on the Occasion of His 45th Book
Antonio Weiss, Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1, The Paris Review
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