Bloom’s Elegy – Part Two
- November 15, 2018
- By Admin: mrbauld
ALL STRONG literary originality becomes canonical. Some years ago, on a stormy night in New Haven, I sat down to reread, yet once more, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I had to write a lecture on Milton as part of a series I was delivering at Harvard University, but I wanted to start all over again with the poem: to read it as though I had never read it before, indeed as though no one ever had read it before me. To do so meant dismissing a library of Milton criticism from my head, which was virtually impossible. Still, I tried because I wanted the experience of reading Paradise Lost as I had first read it forty or so years before. And while I read, until I fell asleep in the middle of the night, the poem’s initial familiarity began to dissolve. It went on dissolving in the several days following, as I read on to the end, and I was left curiously shocked, a little alienated, and yet fearfully absorbed. What was I reading?
Although the poem is a biblical epic, in classical form, the peculiar impression it gave me was what I generally ascribe to literary fantasy or science fiction, not to heroic epic. Weirdness was its overwhelming effect. I was stunned by two related but different sensations: the author’s competitive and triumphant power, marvelously displayed in a struggle, both implicit and explicit, against every other author and text, the Bible included, and also the sometimes terrifying strangeness of what was being presented. Only after I came to the end did I recall (consciously anyway) William Empson’s fierce book Milton’s God, with its critical observation that Paradise Lost seemed to Empson as barbarically splendid as certain African primitive sculptures. Empson blamed the Miltonic barbarism upon Christianity, a doctrine he found abhorrent. Although Empson was politically a Marxist, deeply sympathetic to the Chinese Communists, he was by no means a precursor of the School of Resentment. He historicized freestyle with striking aptitude, and he continually showed awareness of the conflict between social classes, but he was not tempted to reduce Paradise Lost to an interplay of economic forces. His prime concern remained aesthetic, the proper business of the literary critic, and he fought free of transferring his moral distaste for Christianity (and Milton’s God) to an aesthetic judgment against the poem. The barbaric element impressed me as it did Empson; the agonistic triumphalism interested me more.
There are, I suppose, only a few works that seem even more essential to the Western Canon than Paradise Lost-Shakespeare’s major tragedies, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Torah, the Gospels, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Homer’s epics. Except perhaps for Dante’s poem, none of these is as embattled as Milton’s dark work. Shakespeare undoubtedly received provocation from rival playwrights, while Chaucer charmingly cited fictive authorities and concealed his authentic obligations to Dante and Boccaccio. The Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament were revised into their present forms by redactionists who may have shared very little with the original authors whom they were editing. Cervantes, with unsurpassed mirth, parodied unto death his chivalric forerunners, while we do not have the texts of Homer’s precursors.
Milton and Dante are the most pugnacious of the greatest Western writers. Scholars somehow manage to evade the ferocity of both poets and even dub them pious. Thus C. S. Lewis was able to discover his own “mere Christianity” in Paradise Lost, and John Freccero finds Dante to be a faithful Augustinian, content to emulate the Confessions in his “novel of the self.” Dante, as I only begin to see, creatively corrected Virgil (among many others) as profoundly as Milton corrected absolutely everyone before him (Dante included) by his own creation. But whether the writer is playful in the struggle, like Chaucer and Cervantes and Shakespeare, or aggressive, like Dante and Milton, the contest is always there. This much of Marxist criticism seems to me valuable: in strong writing there is always conflict, ambivalence, contradiction between subject and structure. Where I part from the Marxists is on the origins of the conflict. From Pindar to the present, the writer battling for canonicity may fight on behalf of a social class, as Pindar did for the aristocrats, but primarily each ambitious writer is out for himself alone and will frequently betray or neglect his class in order to advance his own interests, which center entirely upon individuation. Dante and Milton both sacrificed much for what they believed to be a spiritually exuberant and justified political course, but neither of them would have been willing to sacrifice his major poem for any cause whatever. Their way of arranging this was to identify the cause with the poem, rather than the poem with the cause. In doing so, they provided a precedent that is not much followed these days by the academic rabble that seeks to connect the study of literature with the quest for social change. One finds modern American followers of this aspect of Dante and Milton where one would expect to find them, in our strongest poets since Whitman and Dickinson: the socially reactionary Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost.
Those who can do canonical work invariably see their writings as larger forms than any social program, however exemplary. The issue is containment, and great literature will insist upon its self-sufficiency in the face of the worthiest causes: feminism, African-American culturism, and all the other politically correct enterprises of our moment. The thing contained varies; the strong poem, by definition, refuses to be contained, even by Dante’s or Milton’s God. Dr. Samuel Johnson, shrewdest of all literary critics, concluded rightly that devotional poetry was impossible as compared to poetic devotion: “The good and evil of Eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit.” “Ponderous” is a metaphor for “uncontainable,” which is another metaphor. Our contemporary openers-up of the Canon decry overt religion, but they call for devotional verse (and devotional criticism!) even if the object of devotion has been altered to the advancement of women, or of blacks, or of that most unknown of all unknown gods, the class struggle in the United States. It all depends upon your values, but I find it forever odd that Marxists are perceptive in finding competition everywhere else, yet fail to see that it is intrinsic to the high arts. There is a peculiar mix here of simultaneous overidealization and undervaluation of imaginative literature, which has always pursued its own selfish aims.
Paradise Lost became canonical before the secular Canon was established, in the century after Milton’s own. The answer to “Who canonized Milton?” is in the first place John Milton himself, but in almost the first place other strong poets, from his friend Andrew Marvell through John Dryden and on to nearly every crucial poet of the eighteenth century and the Romantic period: Pope, Thomson, Cowper, Collins, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. Certainly the critics, Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt, contributed to the canonization; but Milton, like Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare before him, and like Wordsworth after him, simply overwhelmed the tradition and subsumed it. That is the strongest test for canonicity. Only a very few could overwhelm and subsume the tradition, and perhaps none now can. So the question today is: Can you compel the tradition to make space for you by nudging it from within, as it were, rather than from without, as the multiculturalists wish to do?
The movement from within the tradition cannot be ideological or place itself in the service of any social aims, however morally admirable. One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction. The final injustice of historical injustice is that it does not necessarily endow its victims with anything except a sense of their victimization. Whatever the Western Canon is, it is not a program for social salvation.
THE SILLIEST way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue. The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his very personal enemies. Tolstoy’s private version of Christianity throws aside nearly everything that anyone among us retains, and Dostoevsky preaches anti-Semitism, obscurantism, and the necessity of human bondage. Shakespeare’s politics, insofar as we can pin them down, do not appear to be very different from those of his Coriolanus, and Milton’s ideas of free speech and free press do not preclude the imposition of all manner of societal restraints. Spenser rejoices in the massacre of Irish rebels, while the egomania of Wordsworth exalts his own poetic mind over any other source of splendor.
The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own. Scholars who urge us to find the source of our morality and our politics in Plato, or in Isaiah, are out of touch with the social reality in which we live. If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all. The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one’s own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.
We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than there ever was before. From the Yahwist and Homer to Freud, Kafka, and Beckett is a journey of nearly three millennia. Since that voyage goes past harbors as infinite as Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, all of whom amply compensate a lifetime’s rereadings, we are in the pragmatic dilemma of excluding something else each time we read or reread extensively. One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify. The inevitable analogue is the erotic one. If you are Don Giovanni and Leporello keeps the list, one brief encounter will suffice.
Contra certain Parisians, the text is there to give not pleasure but the high unpleasure or more difficult pleasure that a lesser text will not provide. I am not prepared to dispute admirers of Alice Walker’s Meridian, a novel I have compelled myself to read twice, but the second reading was one of my most remarkable literary experiences. It produced an epiphany in which I saw clearly the new principle implicit in the slogans of those who proclaim the opening-up of the Canon. The correct test for the new canonicity is simple, clear, and wonderfully conducive to social change: it must not and cannot be reread, because its contribution to societal progress is its generosity in offering itself up for rapid ingestion and discarding. From Pindar through Holderlin to Yeats, the self-canonizing greater ode has proclaimed its agonistic immortality. The socially acceptable ode of the future will doubtless spare us such pretensions and instead address itself to the proper humility of shared sisterhood, the new sublimity of quilt making that is now the preferred trope of Feminist criticism. Yet we must choose: As there is only so much time, do we reread Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich? Do I again go in search of lost time with Marcel Proust, or am I to attempt yet another rereading of Alice Walker’s stirring denunciation of all males, black and white? My former students, many of them now stars of the School of Resentment, proclaim that they teach social selflessness, which begins in learning how to read selflessly. The author has no self, the literary character has no self, and the reader has no self. Shall we gather at the river with these generous ghosts, free of the guilt of past self-assertions, and be baptized in the waters of Lethe? What shall we do to be saved?
The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve any society. Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change. Hamlet is death’s ambassador to us, perhaps one of the few ambassadors ever sent out by death who does not lie to us about our inevitable relationship with that undiscovered country. The relationship is altogether solitary, despite all of tradition’s obscene attempts to socialize it.
My late friend Paul de Man liked to analogize the solitude of each literary text and each human death, an analogy I once protested. I had suggested to him that the more ironic trope would be to analogize each human birth to the coming into being of a poem, an analogy that would connect texts as infants are connected, voicelessness linked to past voices, inability to speak linked to what had been spoken to, as all of us have been spoken to, by the dead. I did not win that critical argument because I could not persuade him of the larger human analogue; he preferred the dialectical authority of the more Heideggerian irony. All that a text, let us say the tragedy of Hamlet, shares with death is its solitude. But when it shares with us, does it speak with the authority of death? Whatever the answer, I would like to point out that the authority of death, whether literary or existential, is not primarily a social authority. The Canon, far from being the servant of the dominant social class, is the minister of death. To open it, you must persuade the reader that a new space has been cleared in a larger space crowded by the dead. Let the dead poets consent to stand aside for us, Artaud cried out; but that is exactly what they will not consent to do.
If we were literally immortal, or even if our span were doubled to seven score of years, say, we could give up all argument about canons. But we have an interval only, and then our place knows us no more, and stuffing that interval with bad writing, in the name of whatever social justice, does not seem to me to be the responsibility of the literary critic. Professor Frank Lentricchia, apostle of social change through academic ideology, has managed to read Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the jar” as a political poem, one that voices the program of the dominant social class. The art of placing a jar was, for Stevens, allied to the art of flower arranging, and I don’t see why Lentricchia should not publish a modest volume on the politics of flower arranging, under the title Ariet and the Flowers of Our Climate. I still remember my shock, thirty-five years or so back, when I was first taken to a soccer match in Jerusalem where the Sephardi spectators were cheering for the visiting Haifa squad, it being of the political right, while the Jerusalem squad was affiliated with the labor party. Why stop with politicizing the study of literature? Let us replace sports writers with political pundits as a first step toward reorganizing baseball, with the Republican League meeting the Democratic League in the World Series. That would give us a form of baseball into which we could not escape for pastoral relief, as we do now. The political responsibilities of the baseball player would be just as appropriate, no more, no less, than the now-trumpeted political responsibilities of the literary critic.
Cultural belatedness, now an all-but-universal world condition, has a particular poignance in the United States of America. We are the final inheritors of Western tradition. Education founded upon the Iliad, the Bible, Plato, and Shakespeare remains, in some strained form, our ideal, though the relevance of these cultural monuments to life in our inner cities is inevitably rather remote. Those who resent all canons suffer from an elitist guilt founded upon the accurate enough realization that canons always do indirectly serve the social and political, and indeed the spiritual, concerns and aims of the wealthier classes of each generation of Western society. It seems clear that capital is necessary for the cultivation of aesthetic values. Pindar, the superb last champion of archaic lyric, invested his art in the celebratory exercise of exchanging odes for grand prices, thus praising the wealthy for their generous support of his generous exaltation of their divine lineage. This alliance of sublimity and financial and political power has never ceased, and presumably never can or will. There are, of course, prophets, from Amos to Blake and beyond to Whitman, who rise up to cry out against this alliance, and doubtless a great figure, equal to a Blake, will some day come again; but Pindar rather than Blake remains the canonical norm. Even such prophets as Dante and Milton compromised themselves as Blake would or could not, insofar as pragmatic cultural aspirations may be said to have tempted the poets of the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. It has taken me a lifetime of immersion in the study of poetry before I could understand why Blake and Whitman were compelled to become the hermetic, indeed esoteric poets that they truly were. If you break the alliance between wealth and culture-a break that marks the difference between Milton and Blake, between Dante and Whitman- then you pay the high, ironic price of those who seek to destroy canonical continuities. You become a belated Gnostic, warring against Homer, Plato, and the Bible by mythologizing your misreading of tradition. Such a war can yield limited victories; a Four Zoas or a Song of Myself are triumphs I call limited because they drive their inheritors to perfectly desperate distortions of creative desire. The poets who walk Whitman’s open road most successfully are those who resemble him profoundly but not at all superficially, poets as severely formal as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Hart Crane. Those who seek to emulate his apparently open forms all die in the wilderness, inchoate rhapsodists and academic impostors sprawl ing in the wake of their delicately hermetic father. Nothing is got for nothing, and Whitman will not do your work for you. A minor Blakean or an apprentice Whitmanian is always a false prophet, making no way straight for anyone.
I am not at all happy about these truths of poetry’s reliance upon worldly power; I am simply following William Hazlitt, the authentic left-winger among all great critics. Hazlitt, in his wonderful discussion of Coriolanus in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, begins with the unhappy admission that “the cause of the people is indeed but little calculated as a subject for poetry: it admits of rhetoric, which goes into argument and explanation, but it presents no immediate or distinct images to the mind.” Such images, Hazlitt finds, are everywhere present on the side of tyrants and their instruments.
Hazlitt’s clear sense of the troubled interplay between the power of rhetoric and the rhetoric of power has an enlightening potential in our fashionable darkness. Shakespeare’s own politics may or may not be those of Coriolanus, just as Shakespeare’s anxieties may or may not be those of Hamlet or of Lear. Nor is Shakespeare the tragic Christopher Marlowe, whose work and life alike seem to have taught Shakespeare the way not to go. Shakespeare knows implicitly what Hazlitt wryly makes explicit: the Muse, whether tragic or comic, takes the side of the elite. For every Shelley or Brecht there are a score of even more powerful poets who gravitate naturally to the party of the dominant classes in whatever society. The literary imagination is contaminated by the zeal and excesses of societal competition, for throughout Western history the creative imagination has conceived of itself as the most competitive of modes, akin to the solitary runner, who races for his own glory.
The strongest women among the great poets, Sappho and Emily Dickinson, are even fiercer agonists than the men- ‘ Miss Dickinson of Amherst does not set out to help Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning complete a quilt. Rather, Dickinson leaves Mrs. Browning far behind in the dust, though the triumph is more subtly conveyed than Whitman’s victory over Tennyson in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” where the Laureate’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” is overtly echoed so as to compel an alert reader’s recognition of how far the Lincoln elegy surpasses the lament for the Iron Duke. I do not know whether Feminist criticism will succeed in its quest to change human nature, but I rather doubt that any idealism, however belated, will change the entire basis of the Western psychology of creativity, male and female, from Hesiod’s contest with Homer down to the agon between Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop.
As I write these sentences, I glance at the newspaper and note a story on the anguish of feminists forced to choose between Elizabeth Holtzman and Geraldine Ferraro for a Senate nomination, a choice not different in kind from a critic pragmatically needing to choose between the late May Swenson, something close to a strong poet, and the vehement Adrienne Rich. A purported poem may have the most exemplary sentiments, the most exalted politics, and may also be not much of a poem. A critic may have political responsibilities, but the first obligation is to raise again the ancient and quite grim triple question of the agonist: more than, less than, equal to? We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice. Our institutions show bad faith in this: no quotas are imposed upon brain surgeons or mathematicians. What has been devaluated is learning as such, as though erudition were irrelevant in the realms of judgment and misjudgment.
The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits, to set a standard of measurement that is anything but political or moral. I am aware that there is now a kind of covert alliance between popular culture and what calls itself “culture criticism,” and in the name of that alliance cognition itself may doubtless yet acquire the stigma of the incorrect. Cognition cannot proceed without memory, and the Canon is the true art of memory, the authentic foundation for cultural thinking. Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare; it is the image of the individual thinking, whether it be Socrates thinking through his own dying, or Hamlet contemplating that undiscovered country. Mortality joins memory in the consciousness of reality-testing that the Canon induces. By its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders. Strength alone can open it up, the strength of a Freud or a Kafka, persistent in their cognitive negations.
Cheerleading is the power of positive thinking transported to the academic realm. The legitimate student of the Western Canon respects the power of the negations inherent in cognition, enjoys the difficult pleasures of aesthetic apprehension, learns the hidden roads that erudition teaches us to walk even as we reject easier pleasures, including the incessant calls of those who assert a political virtue that would transcend all our memories of individual aesthetic experience.
Easy immortalities haunt us now because the current staple of our popular culture has ceased to be the rock concert, which has been replaced by the rock video, the essence of which is an instantaneous immortality, or rather the possibility thereof. The relation between religious and literary concepts of immortality has always been vexed, even among the ancient Greeks and Romans, where poetic and Olympian eternities mixed rather promiscuously. This vexation was tolerable, even benign, in classical literature, but became more ominous in Christian Europe. Catholic distinctions between divine immortality and human fame, firmly founded upon a dogmatic theology, remained fairly precise until the advent of Dante, who regarded himself as a prophet and so implicitly gave his Divine Comedy the status of a new Scripture. Dante pragmatically voided the distinction between secular and sacred canon formation, a distinction that has never quite returned, which is yet another reason for our vexed sense of power and authority.
The terms “power” and “authority” have pragmatically opposed meanings in the realms of politics and what we still ought to call “imaginative literature.” If we have difficulty in seeing the opposition, it may be because of the intermediate realm that calls itself “spiritual.” Spiritual power and spiritual authority notoriously shade over into both politics and poetry. Thus we must distinguish the aesthetic power and authority of the Western Canon from whatever spiritual, political, or even moral consequences it may have fostered. Although reading, writing, and teaching are necessarily social acts, even teaching has its solitary aspect, a solitude only the two could share, in Wallace Stevens’s language. Gertrude Stein maintained that one wrote for oneself and for strangers, a superb recognition that I would extend into a parallel apothegm: one reads for oneself and for strangers. The Western Canon does not exist in order to augment preexisting societal elites. It is there to be read by you and by strangers, so that you and those you will never meet can encounter authentic aesthetic power and the authority of what Baudelaire (and Erich Auerbach after him) called “aesthetic dignity.” One of the ineluctable stigmata of the canonical is aesthetic dignity, which is not to be hired.
Aesthetic authority, like aesthetic power, is a trope or: figuration for energies that are essentially solitary rather than social. Hayden White long ago exposed Foucault’s great flaw as being a blindness toward his own metaphors, an ironic weakness in a professed disciple of Nietzsche. For the tropes of the Lovejoyan history of ideas Foucault substituted his own tropes and then did not always remember that his “archives” were ironies, deliberate and undeliberate. So is it with the “social energies” of the New Historicist, who is perpetually prone to forget that “social energy” is no more quantifiable than the Freudian libido. Aesthetic authority and creative power are tropes too, but what they substitute for -call it “the canonical”- has a roughly quantifiable aspect, which is to say that William Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays, twenty-four of them masterpieces, but social energy has never written a single scene. The death of the author is a trope, and a rather pernicious one; the life of the author is a quantifiable entity.