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Sunday, 27 February 2011





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The relevance and irrelevance of Harold Bloom

The idea of reading well is central to literary education. Teachers of literature, both at the secondary and tertiary levels, encourage their students to read well. Therefore, the notion of misreading, reading badly, has traditionally being looked down upon. However, in recent times, with the writings of theorists like Harold Bloom, the concept of misreading has emerged as an ideal to be cherished. This, of course, goes against conventional wisdom and has generated troubled responses. In today's column I wish to deal with this topic of misreading and why Bloom finds it both inescapable and desirable.

In books such as ‘The Anxiety of Influence,’ ‘A Map of Misreading’ and ‘Kabbalah and Criticism’, Bloom develops his idea of misreading or what he some times calls misprision. This idea is vitally connected to his concept of the anxiety of influence that I discussed last week. I would like to pay particular attention to his book ‘A Map of Misreading’, which throws valuable light on the notion of misreading.

Harold Bloom begins ‘A Map of Misreading’ by making the following statement. ’This book offers instruction in the practical criticism of poetry, in how to read a poem, on the basis of the theory of poetry set forth in my earlier book, the anxiety of influence. Reading, as my title indicates, is a beaked and all-but-impossible act, and if strong is always a misreading…..criticism may not always be an act of judging, but it is always an act of deciding, and what it tries to decide its meaning. ‘This opening statement lays out forcefully Bloom’s center of interest.

He then goes on to make the following assertion. ‘Like my earlier book, a map of misreading studies poetic influence, by which I continue not to mean the passing-on of images and ideas from earlier to the later poets. Influence, as I conceive it, means that there are no texts, but only relationship between texts.

These relationships depend upon a critical act, a misreading or misprision, that one poet performs upon on another, and that does not differ in kind from the necessary critical acts performed by even strong readers upon ever text he encounters.’ Bloom proceeds to remark that, ‘the influence-relation governs reading as it governs writing, and reading is therefore miswriting just as writing is a misreading.’

There are a number of important points that Bloom is making here; in terms of our own immediate interests what is central and what deserves sustained attention is the way he valorizes the idea of misreading.

Bloom at times uses the phrase creative misreading to refer to this vital process of literary comprehension and assessment.

It is interesting to note that in developing his ideas of the anxiety of influence and misreading, Bloom has drawn significantly on the body of Jewish mystical writing; they deal with important questions of meaning and interpretation.

Hence apart from the psychoanalytical influences that pervade Bloom’s formulations, one can also discern the impact of medieval Jewish thinking. In order to understand the true significance of Bloom’s literary theorizing, one has to approach it as a form of psychopoetics that has drawn on Jewish thought as well.

Bloom’s ‘A Map of Misreading’, although a difficult book, enable us to enter into this concept of misreading in a productive way. The first part of the book deals with literary theory and techniques of strong misreading.

The second part of the book is devoted interpretations of the work of a number of distinguished pots both traditional and modern – Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, browning, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Warren, Ammons, Ashberry. In the first part of the book the author travels back to literary origins with the intention of looking for a map of misreading. ‘A Map of Misreading’, then, is a book that allows us to grasp the importance of the idea of misreading in literary understanding and literary evaluation.

In this book, Harold bloom makes the statement that, ‘the interpretation of a poem is necessarily is always interpretation of that poem’s interpretation of other poems.’

So he is clearly focusing here on the notion of a chain of interpretations. What he is suggesting is that in interpreting a given poem, we are reacting to its previous interpretations of earlier poems.

The poet may not have been aware of this fact during the composition of the poem. According to Bloom’s way of thinking, influence has to be understood as the relationship between poems and that misreading is the strategy by which the later poet produces a newer text, and also the way by which a strong critic of a poem produces an innovative interpretation. .

In ‘A Map of Misreading’, what Bloom is seeking to do is to uncover the psychological and aesthetic processes at work in the production and interpretation of literary texts.

For him, the act of interpretation of a literary text is closely related to rhetoric. He makes use classical rhetoric, certain concepts associated with it, to elucidate his ideas. But rhetoric also plays a significant role in the structuring of texts.

This is how Bloom explains his method of operation. ‘If no meaning of a reading intervenes between a text and yourself, then you start (even involuntarily) by making the text read itself. You are compelled to treat it as an interpretation of itself, but pragmatically this makes your expose the relation between its meaning and the meaning of other texts.’

Therefore, it is evident that for Bloom, all interpretation is inescapably a misreading; we disclose a poet’s relation to an earlier text and that is shaped by the poet’s own misreading of his connections to earlier poets.

Throughout his writings, Bloom is keen to demonstrate the power of the circuit of the influence and how writers and reader, poets and critics, are invariably caught in it.

Harold Bloom places so much emphasis on the idea of misreading because he is convinced that reading is nearly impossible.

This is indeed a line of thought that has been espoused by deconstructive critics like Jacques Derrida.

Bloom says that, ‘poetic meaning…is…radically indeterminate. Reading, despite all humanist traditions of education, is very nearly impossible, for every reader’s relation to every poem is governed by a figuration of belatedness. Tropes or defenses (for here rhetoric and psychology are virtual identity) are the natural language of the imagination.

. A poet attempting to make this language new necessarily begins by an arbitrary act if reading that does not differ in kind from the act that his readers subsequently must perform on him.’

Bloom is a close reader of English poetic texts and he has a commanding view of the English poetic tradition. He approaches this tradition in terms of his own psychopoetics that places so much emphasis on the anxieties of influence, the later poets seeking to outdo the earlier poets and the necessity of misreading. As a commentator on Bloom observed, ‘Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence and the model of misreading he builds upon it is, then, his own acts of misreading. Bloom cannot prove that all literature and all criticism is based on a desire to defend against the anxiety of influence; all he can do is to produce reading after reading which asserts this fact.’ Bloom’s readings of poetry are guided by the specific psychopoetics that he has been relentlessly enunciating in his theoretical works.

Harold Bloom, like most other literary critics and theorists, underlined the importance of close reading. However, his priorities and centers of interest were different from other critics. Let us, for example, consider the approach advocated by Raymond Williams. Early in his career he was deeply impressed by the approach carved out by F.R. Leavis; he focused intently on the words on the page. However, unlike in the case of Bloom, this interest in close analysis of the literary text led outwards to the historical and social formations that nurtured the given text.

Let us for example examine his book, ‘The Country and the City’ which eminent literary critics like Edward Said held in the highest esteem. While Bloom regards historical and social and political factors as extraneous to the text, Williams regards them as constitutive of the text .In ‘The Country and the City’, Raymond Williams explores various texts, both prose and verse, in terms of the larger social events and forces.

He sees them as vital components of the literary texts he is investigating. Williams examines how these texts represent the ways of life in the country and the city in relation to the transformations of rural and urban life ways as a consequence of the forces unleashed by capitalism. He explores the literary conventions, and their social roots, the power of imagery and how they are vitally related to the changing social landscape. He is keen to demonstrate the complex ways in which the country and city have been encoded and the webs of concealed connections. This is an approach that is radically different from that of bloom.

The following passage taken from ‘The Country and the City’ is typical of Raymond Williams’ approach to poetic texts. ‘Thus the poems we have been looking at there is no historical reference back. What we find, nevertheless, is an idealization of feudal and immediately post-feudal values; of an order based on settled and reciprocal social economic relations of an avowedly total kind. It is then important that the poems coincide, in time, with a period in which another order – that of capitalistic agriculture – was being successfully pioneered. For behind that coincidence is a conflict of values which is still crucial. These celebrations of a feudal or an aristocratic order – And, you must know, your lord’s words true

Fend him ye must, whose food fills you - have been widely used, in an idealist retrospect, as a critique of capitalism.’

Let us examine the ways in which Harold Bloom and Raymond Williams propose to analyze poetry by focusing on the respective responses to the same poem – William Blake’s London.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appalls;
And the hapless soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse

This is how Bloom approaches it.’ We mistake the poem if we read it as an attack upon oppression alone. Blake is a poet in whom the larger apocalyptic impulse always contains the political as a single element in a more complex vision. Of the four stanzas of London only the third is really about the oppression of man by society. The other three emphasizes man’s all-too-natural repression of his own freedom. ‘ He goes on to assert that, ‘the plagues are the enormous plagues that come from identifying reason, society, and nature, and the greatest of the plagues is the jealousy of experience, the dark secret love of the natural heart.’

Let us now examine how Raymond Williams approaches the same poem by William Blake. He begins by making observations on London as the capital. ‘London, quite apart from its historical variety, was plural and various; not only in the sense of its hundreds of trades but in the sense that it was managing and directing so much of other people’s business.

A dominant part of the life of the nation was reflected but also created within. As its population grew it went into deficit, not only in food but in the balance of material production; but this was much more than compensated by the fact that of its social production; it was producing and reproducing to a dominant degree, the social reality of the nation as a whole.’

It is against this backdrop of thinking that Williams examines Blake’s ‘London’. He sees the poem as bringing to the surface the ‘submerged connections of the capitalist system.’ commenting on the two stanzas quoted earlier, he makes the following observation. ‘This is very far from the traditional way of seeing innocence in the country, vice in the city. The innocence and the vice are in and of the city, in its factual and spiritual relations. The palace which impressively symbolizes power has to be seen as running with blood; the real but suppressed relationship is made visible, as also in the conventions of church and marriage against the reality of those who suffered and were despised and outcast.

It is not just an observation of, say, the chimney-sweepers; before Blake wrote there had been vigorous and partly successful campaigns against the appalling conditions of the chimney-sweeping children. It is a making of new connections, in the whole order of the city and of the human system it concentrates and embodies.’ Having made these larger observations, Williams proceeds to sate that, ‘the forcing into consciousness of the suppressed connections is then a new way of seeing the human and social order as a whole. It is, as it happens, a precise prevision of the essential literary methods and purposes of dickens.’

The respective approaches of Harold Bloom and Raymond Williams to the same poetic text are clearly different and divergent. Bloom’s ideas of the anxiety of influence and misreading focused more on the psychological aspects, where as Williams is far more interested in connecting the poetic text to the larger social and historical forces.

As I pointed out earlier, Bloom’s idea of misreading is a form of creative reading. It is an examination of the ways in which a later poet struggles to achieve his or her independence from an earlier poet. The idea of misreading, therefore, has to be understood in terms of the psychopoetis that he has laid out.

If Bloom is practising a form of misreading, Williams is interested in a kind of expansive reading; his ambition is to locate the given poetic text in its historical and cultural location and to explore the many connections, both obvious and indirect, between the text and the context. Making connections is indeed a phrase that he uses frequently in his interpretations.

This is why I refer to his mode of analysis as a form of expansive reading. The ideal sought by critics and readers of poetry is to interpret the text before one as innovatively and creatively as possible. Bloom calls this misreading or misprision. This creative interpretation can take many forms. I have referred to just two of them as illustrated in the writings of Bloom and Williams.

Let us now connect this discussion to some of our own literary experiences in Sri Lanka. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s plays such as ‘Maname’, ‘Sinhabahu’, ‘Vessantara, ‘Mahasara’, Pemato Jayati Soko’, Kadavalalu’ draw on Buddhist narratives and/or traditional tropologies and poetics. However, he uses the ideas, imaginings, tropes, locutions from these classical texts in newer contexts of imagination and in relation to newer frames of intelligibility. The anxiety of influence that Bloom talked about is clearly present.

However, the relation between the earlier writers and the new writers is not one of parricidal intent as Bloom would have us believe. Harold Bloom, drawing on Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, delineates it in these terms. That was Freud’s preferred pathways as well.

However, it is important to bear in mind that this relationship between earlier poets and the later poet does not have to be necessarily one of parricidal hostility. There are other tropes available. Sarachchandra’s writing within the matrix of a Buddhist culture sees that relationship as one of friendly persuasion.

His creative efforts to accommodate literary influences can more productively be understood in terms of handing down the torch from generation from to generation. The trope we find in classical literary texts such as the ‘Kavyashekraya’ is a lamp lighting another.

The discussion of the relationship between predecessors and later poets is not confined to Bloom or Western literary theory. We find similar interesting speculations on this topic in classical Sanskrit poetics. For example the celebrated Indian theorist Anandavardhana in his treatise ‘Dhavanyaloka’ talks about how a later poet may use what has been said by an earlier poet; he does so in relation to Bana’s ‘Harshacharita’,

Harold Bloom’s ideas of the anxiety of influence and misreading invite close attention. As we explore these concepts, it is good to keep in mind that the model of parricidal antithesis that Bloom presents is not the only one available to us.

In venting his displeasure at the dominant trends and paradigms of literary analysis, Bloom said that, ‘poems are not psyches, nor things, nor are they renewable archetypes in a verbal universe, nor are they architectonic units of balanced stress. They are defensive processes in constant change, which is to say that poems themselves are acts of reading.’

Whatever term he may have used – misreading, misprision, creative reading – Bloom undoubtedly succeeded in calling attention to the importance of reading as a vital creative, interpretive, self-transformative activity. The experience of reading has to be examined with utmost care.

It should constitute a pillar of any meaningful literary-theoretical edifice. At the same time, we should also keep in mind that the model of literary influence and purposive reading that Harold Bloom presents to us is one among other possibilities.

A close attention to the dynamics of reading of literary texts is all the more important in view of the fact that very often, we in Sri Lanka, tend to substitute sterile polemics for creative and sustained reading of texts.

( To be continued)



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