Sunday, January 01, 2006

Notes on Bloom, part 1

I'm less and less interested in Harold Bloom's mordant judgments on Jewish American literature--on anything, really, these days, except when he's writing about "The American Religion" or defending criticism as an extension of personal idiosyncracy--but whenever I turn back to my piece on "Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetry," he springs to mind, in manner of Covering Cherub, no doubt.

By way of exorcism, then, some notes and quotes:

Harold Bloom. Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Harvard UP, 1989.

"I myself do not believe that secularization is itself a literary process. The scandal is the stubborn resistance of imaginative literature to the categories of sacred and secular. If you wish, you can insist that all high literature is secular, or, if you should desire it so, then all strong poetry is sacred. What I find incoherent is the judgment that some authentic literary art is more sacred or more secular than some other" (4).

"Just as J's Jacob or J's Tamar is a superb personality, so is J's Yahweh, though 'personality' is a surprising word to employ in this context. Surprise, however, is one of the dominant elements of J's Yahweh. This first Yahweh, so different from his shrunken form in normative Judaism and Christianity, is the crown of J's work, and remains impossible for us to assimilate, at least without a spiritual and cognitive crisis throughout our culture, even among the most secular" (5).

Note, though, that this "personality" isn't exactly human: "Yahweh, who does not have human will and feeling, even in J, is also rather more intense in character than Zeus" (33).

"Longinus and Shelley also imply that the literary sublime is the reader's sublime, which means that the reader must be able to defer pleasure, yielding up easier satisfactions in favor of a more dealyed and difficult reward. That difficulty is an authentic mark of originality, an originality that must seem eccentric until it usurps psychic space and establishes itself as a fresh center" (5).

"J's God was not the God of the sufferers" (19).

"the Yahweh of J, thanks to the reductionists and normative revisionists, continues to be an unknown God, despite his impishness and his imaginative vigor" (33).

"Let us conceive of John Milton as theomorphic, a kind of mortal god, which is how our high Romantic precursors conceived him. The true God of Paradise Lost is the narrator, rather than the Urizenic schoolmaster of souls scolding away on his throne or the Holy Spirit invoked by the Arian Milton, not as part of a Trinity, and not as Milton's muse either, since the muse for Milton is simply his own indwelling power, his interior paramour" (92).

"If I had to construct a scale with literary self-esteem at one end and aeshtetic self-flagellation at the other, then Milton would be at the self-celebratory pole, and Kafka at the extreme of self-punishment" (100).

"Angus Fletcher...emphasized in his seminal book Allegory (1964) that 'the sublime appears to provide a cosmology for the poet.' Taking as his own the Longinian desire to free us from the slavery of pleasure, or of a mere dullness, Fletcher followed Shelley's Longinian Defense of Poetry in / emphasizing that the function of the sublime was to work, by 'difficult ornament' and by heightened ambivalences, so as to make us share in its ago, its ceaseless struggle against the superficial. Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime, like Fletcher's Allegory, shares the deep design upon us of Longinus and Shelley. We are to be persuaded to yield up easier pleasures for more difficult pleasures, or as Weiskel phrases this, we are to move from the egotistical sublime to the negative sublime" (118-119).

"What does growing up mean in and for a poem anyway, except the loss of power?" (119)

"We ought never to forget that psychology, rhetoric, and cosmology are three names for a single entity" (123).

"All strong poets...must ruin the sacred truths to fable and old song, precisely because the essential condition for poetic strength is that the new song, one's own, always must be a song of one's self, whether it be called the Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost, or Milton: A Poem in Two Books. Every sacred truth not one's own becomes a fable, an old song that requires corrective revision" (125).

"Criticism, Oscar Wilde observed, is the only civilized form of autobiography, and Oscar was always right" (130).

"Freud was enchanted by being disenchanted, by the pleasures of ceasing to be deceived" (131).

"Neither Wordsworth nor Freud was an unconscious theologian--yet both sought to replace a / dying god with a new one, the god of the perpetually growing inner self" (131/2).

"The two-part Prelude of 1799 completes the work of Paradise Lost in destroying the distinction between sacred and secular poetry" (139).

"Our own American sublime more frankly exalts poetry over belief, and receives its classical declaration in an audacious moment of Song of Myself, where our own father, Walt Whitman, deliberately turns his back upon Wordsworth and confronts the fearsome sunrise of our evening land" (140). [the passage is this: "Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sunrise woudl kill me, / If I could not now and always send forth sunlight from myself").

"The theory of repression is coherent only in a psychic cosmos where absolutely everything is meaningful, so that a dream or a joke or a symptom or a transference can sustain a level of interpretive intensity akin to the rabbinical procedures for unpacking Torah" (147).

"What is it to be Jewish? Does one intend the biblical, or the normatively rabbinical, or something more belated by the question? Three thousand and more years of apparent continuity mask astonishing discontinuities,a s many of them ancient as modern. The clearest answer ought to be religious, but the phrase 'the Jewish religion' is itself misleading. Generally, the phrase refers to what the Harvard historian of relgion, George Foot Moore, first named 'normative Judaism': the faith of Akiba and his colleagues in the second century C. E. But they lived perhaps twelve centuries after the Yahwist, greatest and most original of the biblical writers. Between his tales of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and the rabbis extraordinary modes of interpretation, there had been many interventions, of which the / most decisive was the influx of Greek culture after Alexander's world conquests. The oral Torah, created by the rabbis as a defensive hedge around Scripture, is ultimately Platonic in its function, though not in its ideology. Nothing in the Hebrew Bible proclaims the holiness of study, or sees the Jewish people saving themselves, as a people, by Torah learning. Yet this vision of sanctification through instruction has become so Judaic, even so Jewish, that its Platonic origin now constitues a shock for almost all Jews, however schoalrly. The historical difference beween the Yahwist and Akiba is Plato, and this influx of Athens into Jerusalem saved Judaism and the Jews, from being scattered into oblivion among the nations, by giving the Jews a central formulation of their own culture, but in Greek, the universal language" (147-8).

"The preferred biblical way of representing an object is to explain how it was made" (150).


myshkin2 said...

I wish to thank you for this incredibly anxiety-producing mini-anthology. He's certainly a bully who won't stop at "uncle"--thus there is that angelic pinning quality. In his new work too, Yaweh & Jesus whatever.

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks! It's going to get longer, later this week, so keep an eye out for more quotes & notes.

I'm not sure I feel bullied, so much as blustered-at, though. When Bloom is at his best, what comes through most keenly is his own delight in making declarative statements. I can get caught up in that, and really enjoy it; Camille Paglia may not have learned this mode from him, but she certainly carries it forward. Temperamentally, though, I'm so far from HB that I have to come up for air every few pages!