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Sunday, 6 February 2011





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The relevance and irrelevance of Harold Bloom - Part 1

Harold Bloom is one of the most important and influential literary critics and literary theorists in the world. He was for many years a professor of English at Yale University. Over the past four decades or so, he has published a number of seminal works of literary analysis and edited over hundreds of volumes of essays. As with most influential literary critics and theorists, he is highly controversial. There are some who value him as a profoundly important and consequential literary scholar; there are others, equally vehemently, who feel that he is too idiosyncratic and deploys a kind of arcane vocabulary that appears to exude a certain pretentiousness. Bloom was a close reader of texts; he believed that the best apology for literary criticism is to do it, that is, to read texts carefully and write about them with insight.

Harold Bloom is generally regarded as a Yale Critic who is committed to a deconstructive mode of analysis.

This, in my judgment, is a misnomer; although he shares certain features in common with Jacques Derrida, he also departs significantly from the deconstructive path. Literary theorists such as Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller are, in my judgment, much closer to the Derridean mode of deconstruction, and all of them are included in the category of Yale Critics.

As I stated earlier, Bloom is a critic who generates adulation as well as denunciation. Edward Said says that Harold Bloom’s is ‘antithetical criticism at its fiercest and most brilliant.’ J. Hillis Miller asserts that Bloom ,’is perhaps the most dazzlingly creative and provocative of critics writing in English today.’ Paul de Man asserts that, ‘in his understanding of romanticism and the nature of reading, he has been ahead of everybody else all along.’ On the other hand, Frank Kermode, an equally distinguished literary scholar and critic, while recognizing Blooms perspicacity says that, ‘his dense and cryptic style places, ‘horrible and ugly obstacles in the way of civilized non-coterie readers’.

There is a significant truth to this statement; often, one has to navigate cautiously Bloom’s crowded language in order to decode his preferred meaning. The distinguished poet Howard Nemerov remarked that, ‘the effort to render English unintelligible is proceeding vigorously at the highest levels of learning.’

In the next few columns, what I propos e to do is to examine Harold Bloom’s concepts of and, approaches to, literary analysis in terms of our own needs and investments in Sri Lanka. As in the past, whenever I discuss a writer whether it is Antonio Gramsci or Jacques Ranciere or Seamus Heaney, I try to fulfil two objectives. First, to offer my own readings of the original texts with, of course, their limitations. Second, my aim has always been to investigate their writings in terms of our own preoccupations in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, my reading of Bloom could appear to be very different, given my aims, from the generality of explications normally offered by literary commentators. H Harold bloom is the author of such important books as ‘The Visionary Company (1961), Blake’s Apocalypse’ (1963), The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Poetry and Repression (1976), Western Canon (1993).

Harold Bloom first made his mark as a literary critic by re-formulating romanticism. At a period of time when romanticism was devalued, and classicism of a sort enthroned largely due to the relentless efforts of modernist critics such as T’S Eliot and F.R.Leavis, Bloom had the courage of his convictions to swim against the current and re-establish the importance of romantic poetry. the eminent literary theorist Rene Wellek in commenting on Romanticism remarked that, ‘the following three criteria should be particularly convincing, since each is central for one aspect of the practice of literature; imagination for the view of poetry, nature for the view of the world, symbol and myth for poetic styles.’ Bloom paid attention to all three, but it seems to his central focus of interest was always on literary imagination as a defining feature of Romanticism.

Harold Blooms career as a literary critic and theorist can be divided into three main phases. In the first phase, he was primarily interested in re-visiting and re-imagining Romanticism. Books such as Shelley’s Mythmaking, The Visionary Company, Blake’s Apocalypse represent his thinking during this phase.

He was keen to challenge the de-valorization of romantic poetry by classists and New Critics. I will explain his rediscovery of the vitality of romantic poetry and how it relates to our own literary concerns of writers writing in Sinhala, Tamil and English in Sri Lanka.

Romantic poetry had been subject to severe criticism by Mathew Arnold and T..S. Eliot and the New Critics. Bloom made a valiant attempt to demonstrate its vitality and power. Indeed, the idea of Romanticism is at the epicenter of his critical work.

In the second phase, Harold Bloom began to display a greater interest in literary theory. The four books, The Anxiety of Influence, ‘A Map of Misreading’, ‘ Kabbalah and Criticism’, ‘Poetry and Repression’ represent his trend of thinking during this phase. Now he is far more interested in questions of literary experience, the anxiety of influence, the ideas of reading and misreading poetry.

This is, of course, not to suggest that there is a radical rupture between the first and the second stages. Nothing could be further from the truth. His formulations in the second stage grow out of, and are continuous with, his deep interest in romantic poetry that he so vigorously displayed in the first phase of his career.

In the third phase of his evolution as a literary theorist and critic, he began to focus on contemporary American poetry. His privileged focal point was what he referred to as the American sublime. The three poets that seem to have stirred his deepest interest are Wallace Stevens, John Ashberry and A.R. Ammons. Many critics and poets have been quick to criticize Bloom’s narrow selection of poets to illustrate his concept of the American sublime.

What is interesting to note is that there is a recognizable connection between his commentaries on modern American poetry and his earlier re-definitions of Romantic poetry. Therefore, one can say that there is a deep continuity in terms of thematic interests running through his entire corpus of writings.

In more recent years, Bloom has come forward to challenge the supremacy of Cultural Studies in the academy and what he sees is the unwanted invasion of Cultural Studies into departments of English literature. My own feeling is that this is the weakest point in Harold Blooms writings. His understanding of Cultural Studies is deeply flawed, and he caricaturizes it so as to demolish it with ease.

I will explain this point later .In his book The Western Canon, published in 1994 Bloom examines the western literary canon, and the works that, according to him, best represent the canon. He begins the Preface to this book by saying, ’this book studies twenty-six writers, necessarily with a certain nostalgia, since I seek to isolate the qualities that made these authors canonical, tat is, authoritative in our culture.’

In the ‘Western Canon’, Bloom makes the following outrageous remark. ‘I do not believe that literary studies as such have a future, but this does not mean that literary criticism will die.

As a branch of literature, criticism will survive, but probably not in our teaching institutions. The study of western literature will also continue, but on the much more modest scale of our current classics departments. What are now called department of English, will be renamed departments of cultural studies where batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies, and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and their peers, but these will be taught by departments of three or four scholars, equivalent to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin. ’Here, Bloom has allowed his blind hatred for Cultural Studies to twist his normally sound judgment in unfortunate ways. I will explain the irrelevance of Blooms strictures on this point to our own preoccupations in Sri Lanka.

As I stated earlier, what I propose to do in the next few columns is to examine the critical and exegetical writings of Harold Bloom in terms of our own special investments in Sri Lanka in literary studies and literary analysis. In this regard, I wish to focus on the following. One, Bloom’s re-conceptualization of Romantic poetry and its relevance for Sri Lankan writers and readers.

Two, his interpretation of literary tradition and its bearing on our interests. Three, the way he challenged the dominance of New Criticism and its applicability to our literary projects in Sri Lanka. Four, the ways in which he made use of classical rhetoric to fashion a vocabulary of literary analysis and how we could draw valuable lessons from his efforts.

Here, I wish to focus on Bhamaha’s classical Sanskrit text Kavyalankara, ( a text, incidentally, that deserves more sustained critical attention than it has received so far) and the need to re-visit it. Five, I plan to explore the ways in which Bloom challenged the dominance of deconstruction, and this attempt has great implications for us.

Six, I plan to inquire into Harold Bloom’s misplaced and gratuitous denunciations of Cultural Studies and how we, Sinhala and Tamil writers, could productively explore the field of Cultural Studies to fortify our own literary and critical agendas. Hence, my analysis of Harold Bloom will be different from the normal run of explications of Bloom in that I am investigating it through Sri Lankan eyes.

Let us first examine the way that Harold Bloom reinvigorated the academic study of romantic poetry and how that effort could illuminate some of our own exegetical aspirations. The idea of Romanticism threads through the Sinhala poetic tradition.

Beginning with the Sigiri poetry, the classical tradition as well as the folk tradition bears the distinct imprint of a romantic imagination. In the Matara period, with a greater focus on individual poetic utterance, we begin to observe the emergence of a newer kind of romantic poetry.

Although, in terms of conscious literary art, the work of Matara poets leaves much to be desired, the romantic strain is unmistakably present. The Colombo poets made a deliberate effort to model their writing after English romantic poetry. For some of them, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge were the guiding lights. As works of literature, the output of the Colombo poets was large disappointing, but once again Romanticism as an animating presence clear evident in the writings of Colombo poets. In more modern times, a poet like Gunadasa Amarasekera was able to create romantic poems displaying an exquisite lyricism.

Although the Sinhala poetic tradition was marked by a deep affinity towards a form of romantic imagination, the academic study of poetry, especially in the universities, was characterized by the opposite.

There was an attempt to de-value Romantic poetry, and privilege in its place a kind of impersonal and classical poetry that conformed to the tastes and the imperatives of the New Critics. In the 1960s,. when I was studying at Peradeniya, the study of poetry encouraged by the English department, largely due to the influence of Prof. Ludowyk, was one that was inspired by New Criticism. In the Sinhala department, too, Prof. Sarachchandra was seeking to come up with a model of analysis that was inspired by New Criticism, but which also sought to make connections with classical Sanskrit literary creeds such as rasavada and dhavani vada. Although Sarachchandra himself was not averse to Romanticism – in fact the displayed a predilection for it – some of the later critics began to undermine the importance of Romanticism dismissing it out of hand as a mode of thinking that encouraged sentimentality and superficiality. It is against this background that I wish to examine the efforts of Harold Bloom to resuscitate romantic poetry as a dynamically viable form of creative expression.

Mario Praz, in his widely- read book, The Romantic Agony, made the following observation. ’the word romantic thus comes to be associated with another group of ideas, such as magic, suggestive, nostalgic, and above all with words expressing states of mind which cannot be described…..the essence of romanticism consequently comes to consist in that which cannot be described…..the romantic exalts the artist who does not give a material form to his dreams – the poet ecstatic in front of a forever blank page, the musician who listens to the prodigious concerts of his soul without attempting to translate them into notes. It is romantic to consider concrete expression as a decadence, a contamination. How many times has the magic of the ineffable been celebrated, from Keats with his

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter.

What this observation of Praz point to is the interplay between expressibility and inexpressibility and the concomitant privileging of and celebration of inexpressibility that marks romantic poetry. Harold Bloom re-inflects this common notion of Romanticism to underline his own presuppositions.

The idea of the poetic imagination is central to Bloom’s interpretation of romanticism. There is nothing new in this in the sense that thinkers such as Hegel placed great store by this idea. For example, Hegel stated that, the work of art ’is something made, produced by a man who has taken it into his imagination……and issued it by his own activity out of his imagination.’

Traditionally, the idea of the transformative power of the poetic imagination was greatly stressed by commentators on romanticism. Harold Bloom takes this idea of poetic imagination and turns it into the pivotal concept of re-interpretation of romanticism; he develops this idea along thought-tracks that he has carefully laid down.

His early books that addressed the issue of romanticism dealt with the myth-making capacity of Shelley, romantic imagination of Blake and the distinctiveness of the poetry of. What is important to observe about Bloom’s approach in these texts is the way in which he invests the visionary imagination of poets with a great freight of meaning.

There are a number of features associated with the visionary imagination of poets that Bloom seeks to emphasize. First, this visionary imagination has to be seen as a victory over all those entities and processes that are normally taken for granted, for example the blandishments of the natural world. Second, the visionary impulse sets in motion certain processes that can best be captured within the dynamics of romantic lyrical poetry. Third, the romantic sublime that is unleashed by the visionary imagination of poets come to rest in language, and hence has to be comprehended in terms of the complex articulations of language.

Fourth, the romantic sublime almost always seeks to rise up to a context-free space, and achieve an uncontaminated purity of desire.; this desire is one that is constantly expanding its horizons. Therefore, the visionary imagination of poets that plays so significant a role in blooms thinking has to be understood in relation to these features.

Harold Bloom’s writings on romantic poets had a profound impact on later generations. He cleared a pathway to the study of Blake, and made him a central figure in his strategy of explaining the vitality of romanticism. Similarly, he demonstrated the importance of Shelly as a poet of the first order – a poet who had been consistently devalued by Eliot and Leavis and mew critics.. There were many other writers who commented on romantic poetry. But Bloom’s approach and priorities were different. He was, for example, not interested in the cultural-materialist critics who sought to connect poetry with existing social. economic, political conditions; instead. he steadfastly focused in the imagination of the poet and its power.

Commenting on Blooms interpretations of romantic poetry, a critic makes the following assertion. ‘in respect to this common project, his early work works stand as a counter-example to a body of work produced in the united states during the late fifties and sixties on the British romantic tradition.

Where someone like Geoffrey Hartman, for example, was producing a set of readings of, most notably, Wordsworth’s poetry which were to become a corner-stone of a renewed interest in and appreciation of romantic poetry, and which were to set the terms in which poetry would be read in the United States , Bloom’s own development for the next twenty years, Bloom’s own development in the new critical heritage was more obviously antagonistic towards both it and other contemporary outgrowths of it.’

The fact that Bloom’s interpretations of romantic poetry were innovative, at times even idiosyncratic, does not man that his thinking grew out of thin air. This is certainly not the case. In the initial phase, he was clearly influenced by the formulations of Northrop Frye contained in such works as ‘The Anatomy of Criticism’ and. ‘Fearful Symmetry’. Bloom has admitted to the fact that he has been influenced by Frye.

They share many features in common such as perceiving the world through a Blakean perspective, extolling the powers of poetic imagination and myth-making, challenging ruling critical orthodoxies, the importance of reading poetry in terms of itself rather then in relation to extraneous factors, focusing on the nature and significance of the poetic effort through the power of imagination.

However, there are significant differences between these two literary scholars as well. Northrop Frye saw as the function of the critic as minutely classifying the poetic traditions without paying too much attention to questions of value judgments; bloom, on the hand, was deeply interested in articulating values judgments While Frye was after the notion of order, Bloom evinced a deep interest in conflict s and interrogations that incessantly characterize traditions.

As I stated earlier, my intention is to examine the areas in which we as writers and readers of literature in Sri Lanka can usefully draw on his work. Bloom succeeded in changing the landscape of Romantic poetry in the sense that he was able to situate Blake and Wordsworth in newer locations and to demonstrate the towering genius that Shelley was, a move that went against the pronouncements of Eliot and Leavis. This rearrangement of poetic talent is one that we can learn from and apply to our own situation, say, within classical Sinhala poetry. In constructing his paradigm for romantic poetry, Bloom fought against the frequently adopted strategy of dualism, that is to say, seeking to enforce a rigid division between poet and his society, mind and nature. He was deeply committed to the autonomy of the visionary imagination of the poet. Here gain we can learn a valuable lesson. As I stated earlier, in his exegetical writings on romantic poetry, Harold Bloom gave pride of place to the poetic imagination and its supreme power. This is an aspect that we can pursue with profit. After all, classical Sanskrit theorists said almost the same thing and deployed very nearly the same tropes to establish the point.

Harold Bloom, in his analysis of romantic poetry, also pinpointed the importance as a relational event in which desire, vision, imagination, language, tradition interact in complex ways. Speaking of Shelley’s poetry Bloom said that. ‘In Shelley’s myth, a poem is a relational event which has run its course by being set down,’ This is indeed in sharp contrast to the normal practice of New Critics who encouraged us to perceive a poem as a verbal icon. This idea of a poem as a relational event is one which we can press into service productively in assessing Sinhala and Tamil poetry. For example, the writings of a poet like Sri Rahula would yield valuable results when seen within this framework.

While many of the observations that Bloom made on Romanticism and poetry reverberate positively through our consciousness, there are some which we are compelled to repudiate as being misplaced. For example, he has a tendency to extol the virtues of the poetic imagination to the exclusion of the important ways in which social, cultural, political forces shape poetry. Bloom categorically rejects such a contextual approach focusing instead on the integrity of the poetic imagination. This is certainly a counter-productive move as far as we are concerned; we need to bring into the critical equation the vital role played by social, cultural, economic forces.

A critic like Raymond Williams has displayed convincingly the validity and the productivity of such an approach. The Sandesha poetry or the poetry of Gunadasa Amarasekera gains in depth and definition when placed in its natural context of production and reception.

(to be continued)



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