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Sunday, 6 March 2011





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The relevance and irrelevance of Harold Bloom

Part 5:

One aspect of Harold Bloom's writings that merits sustained attention is his imaginative and productive use of classical rhetoric and Jewish mystical thought in explaining his theory of poetry. Bloom studied classical English poetry with great concentration and resolve; his readings of Milton and Blake and Shelley, among others, are extremely illuminating. Bloom's engagement with the past is an act of critical rediscovery that we in Sri Lanka can ponder with increasing benefits. After all, our most distinguished literary critics such as Martin Wickremasinghe and Ediriweera Sarchchandra focused on the classical past with great acumen.

In today's column I wish to pay attention to the ways in which Harold Bloom drew upon Jewish thought to construct his distinct brand of psychopoetics. For this purpose I would like to concentrate on his book Kabbalah and Criticism. The book consists of a Prologue, Epilogue and three chapters titled Kabbalah,

Kabbalah and Criticism and The Necessity of Misreading. He opens his book by remarking that, 'Kabbalah has been, since about the year 1200, the popularly accepted word for the Jewish esoteric teachings concerning god and everything god created. The word Kabbalah means tradition in the particular sense of reception, and at first referred to the whole of oral law.'

He then goes on to state that there existed among the Jews, in their homeland and as well as in Egypt during the period in which there the birth of Christianity, was a considerable corpus of theosophical and mystical lore.

These speculations and beliefs seem to have been shaped up to a point by Gnosticism and neo-Platonism. Bloom argues that the history of the later Kabbalah as being a contest between Gnostic and neo-Platonic tendencies. He stresses the point that while Gnosticism and neo-Platonism are confined to a few specialists, Kabblah retains its wide popularity. Bloom also warns against uncritically lumping Kabbalah with all other forms of mysticism, thereby robbing it of its cultural specificity.

Kabbalah can be examined from diverse vantage points. Harold Bloom's interest is in its possibilities for illuminating the experience of reading and the act of literary interpretation. Hence questions of topes, rhetoric, language use are central to his preoccupation.

As he observes, 'Kabblah is an extraordinary body of rhetoric or figurative language, and indeed is a theory of rhetoric.' The idea of interpretation is pivotal to the ambitions of Kabbalah. As Harold Bloom states, 'Kabbalah differs finally from Christian and eastern mysticism in being more a mode of intellectual speculation than a way of union with God. Like the Gnostics, the Kabbalah sought knowledge, but unlike the Gnostics they sought knowledge in these books.

By concentrating upon the Bible, Kabbalah made of itself, at its best, a critical tradition distinguished by more invention than critical traditions generally display.'

Harold Bloom makes the observation that Kabbalah stands out among religious systems of interpretation in that it is simply already poetry- hardly requiring any translation into the sphere of the aesthetic. This is indeed a questionable statement.

There are Indian religious traditions and interpretive texts that display the same propensity towards poetry. Bloom is convinced that there is in Kabbalah a theory of writing and reading that is superior to those constructed by modern French theorists. Bloom asserts that, 'Kabbalah offers both a model for the processes of poetic influence, and maps for the problematic pathways of interpretation.

More audaciously than any developments in French criticism, Kabbalah is a theory of writing, but this is a theory that denies the absolute distinction between writing and inspired speech, even as it denies human distinction between presence and absence. '

Bloom proceeds to make an important juxtaposition. 'Kabbalah speaks of writing (Derrida's trace), but also of a speech before speech, a primal instruction preceding speech. Derrida, in the brilliance of his grammatology, argues that writing is at once external and internal to speech because writing is not an image of speech.......Derrida says that 'all occidental methods of analysis, explication, reading or interpreting were produced without ever posing the radical question of writing, but this is not true of Kabbalah, which is certainly an occidental method, though not an esoteric one.'

As I pointed out in my earlier columns Bloom's idea of the anxiety of influence is central to his psychopoetic theoretical edifice. He finds in Kabbalah useful constructs that illuminate this concept. As he observes, 'influence is an ambivalent word to use in any discourse about literature, for influence is as complex a trope as language affords.

Influence is the greatest in an of literary discourse, and increasingly I find its aptest analogue in what the Kabbalah called the 'sefirah', the first attribute or name or emanative principle of God.

Harold Bloom sees an interesting connection between tradition and influence. He remarks that, 'one way to understand what I mean by influence is to see it as a trope substituting for tradition, a substitution that makes for a sense of loss, since influence unlike tradition is not a demonic or a numinous term.

Tradition invokes the sublime and grotesque, an; influence invokes at best the picturesque, at worst the pathetic or even the pathetic. No one is ever happy about being influence; poets can't stand it, critics are nervous about it, and all of us as students necessarily feel that we are getting at have got rather too much of it.'

Comparing the two terms tradition and influence, Bloom makes the following interest ing comment. 'influence exposes and de-idealizes tradition, not by appearing as cunning distortion of tradition but by showing us that all tradition is indistinguishable from making mistakes about anteriority.

The more tradition is exalted, the more egregious the mistakes become.' This line of thinking has deep roots in the Kabbalah. Bloom maintains steadfastly that, 'influence, as I employ it, is not a doctrine of causation.

It does not mean that an earlier poem causes a later one, that Paradise Lost causes the prelude or the Four Zoas. Necessarily, therefore, influence as a composite trope for poetic tradition, indeed for poetry itself, does away not only with the idea that there are poems-in-themselves, but also with the more stubborn idea that there are poets-in-themselves.; he expands this comment by stating that, 'if there are no texts, then there are no authors - to be poets is to be an inter-poet, as it were.

But we most go farther yet - there are no poems, and no poets, but there is also no reader, except insofar as he or she is an interpreter. Reading is impossible because the received text is already a received interpretation, is already a value interpreted into a poem.

Bloom explicates his theories of influence and anterior texts in relation to the Kabbalah. One problem I have with Bloom's enunciation of the concept of misreading is that at times he seems to be talking in terms of a true meaning of a poem.

This runs into various contradictions. Who decides on the true meaning of a poetic text/ if all good readings are misreadings, then is the discovery of a true meaning a right reading possible? For example, he says at one point, 'the strongest of poets are so severely mis-read that the generally accepted, broad interpretations of their work actually tend to be the exact opposite of which the poem truly says.

'As a critic apply pointed out, 'here Bloom's insistence on the necessity of misreading strong poems appear to conflict with his suggestion that he in fact does possess the capacity to know, somehow, through his reliance on the process of misreading, what the poems truly are.'

What is interesting to note is that for Harold Bloom, as a literary theorist and literary critic, the Kabbalah becomes a foundational text.

It serves to shed valuable light on his ideas of literary influence, anterior texts, and misreading. What the Kabbalah helps him to understand and conceptualize is the complex relationship between literal and the figural, the interplay between the tropes.

As he says, 'the center of my theory is that there are crucial patterns of interplay between literal and figurative meanings, in post Miltonic poems, and these patterns, though very varied, are to a surprising degree quite definite and even over-determined......I do not say that these patterns produce meanings, because I do not believe that meaning is produced in and by poems, but only between poems.'

The way that Bloom approaches a reading of a poetic text is to focus on the intermediate space between the meaning attributed to the anterior text and the meaning assigned to the poetic text itself. Therefore, he places utmost importance on the questions of linguistic figuration and the interplay of sets of meaning in the interpretive act.

A careful reading of Kabbalah promotes this approach to textural interpretation. Bloom sees Kabbalah as the foundational text for the approach to reading and interpreting poetic texts that Bloom is concerned with. What he is urging us to do is to adopt the same method of procedure to reading literary texts that Kabbalah adopted towards scriptures.

There is an interesting set of relations and equivalencies established by Bloom. The critic is situated in the identical relationship to the text before him as the poetic text is to the anterior texts that it reads; and both sets are engaged in the same kind of enterprise as the Kabbalah are in re-writing the scriptures.

What I have done so far is to point out Bloom's fruitful and convoluted engagement with the past, with traditional texts. It is here that we can learn a valuable lesson. Bloom is obviously talking from within European tradition.

But in our case, we have our own larger cultural geographies and cultural traditions that allow us to engage in a similar project. Let us consider the Sanskrit tradition with its storehouse of philosophical, linguistic, aesthetic writings. They furnish us with invigorating pathways to newer understandings of textual production and textual creativity. Just like Bloom, we need to re-interpret these past traditions in a way that would yield new plenitudes of meaning.

In this regard, I wish to focus on a very important classical Sanskrit text that has deep implications, inter alia, for linguistic philosophy and verbal textual production.

The text I have in mind is Bhartrhar's important treatise the Vakyapadiya., composed in the 2nd century A.D. As a grammarian and philosopher, Bhartrhari's investment in language was indissolubly linked with his preoccupations with religion, interestingly enough, a trend that is increasingly visible in modern western thought represented in the writings of such thinkers as Paul Ricoeur, Georges Gusdorf, Gadamer, Bhartrhari's was an avowedly a mini philosopher.

He subscribed to the notion that everything in the world constituted a divine manifestation of the divine. Language was but one such manifestation. Bhartrhari asserted that it was by the power of the divine that all other manifestations could be explained.

Characteristically, he opened his treatise the Vakyapadiya with the following statement. 'The Brahman who is without beginning or end, whose very essence is the word, who is the cause of the manifested phonemes, who appears as the object from whom the creation of the world proceeds'.

Interestingly, Georges Gusdorf makes a similar assertion. 'The advent of the world manifests the sovereignty of man. Man interposes a network of words between the world and himself and thereby becomes the master of the world....the invention of language is this the first of the great inventions that which contains all others in germ.'

Bhartrhari, who in large measure, drew his ideas from the Vedic tradition, emphatically asserted that the divine, word-principle, is manifest in all phenomena and objects in the form of words, and that all thought and all knowledge is intertwined with the world. It was his desire to identify the essence of speech with ultimate reality. From the point of view of linguistic understanding, what is important is that Bhartrhari believed that everything in the world was a manifestation of the divine and that these things appear real to the extent that they are articulated in language.

His philosophy can be understood most productively as a metaphysical superstructure growing ut of a semantic base.

It is evident that Bhartrhari posited a close and complex relationship between language and conviction. He said that, 'there is no cognition in the world in which the word does not figure.

All knowledge is, as it were intertwined with language, the world. If this eternal identity of knowledge and the world were to disappear knowledge would cease to be knowledge; it is this identity which makes identification possible. It is this which is the basis of all the sciences, crafts and arts. Whatever is created due to this can be investigated and communicated.'

It is quite apparent that he is projecting language as a phenomenon that plays a vital role in human cognition and the structuring of empirical knowledge. This line of thinking, to be sure, has close affinities to those proposed by such thinkers as Sapir and Whorf, Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss and Piaget.

Another important proposition of Bhartrhari is one that has a crucial bearing in the way in which we investigate and categorise human communication. While most other contemporary thinkers were eager to stress the importance of the solitary word as the unit of meaning, he made the suggestion that in verbal communication the unit of meaning is the individual sentence. This indeed has a contemporary ring to it.

This is precisely what modern linguists like Noam Chomsky were keen to stress.

Bhartrhari saw the sentence as a 'single integrated symbol.' He devoted his second chapter of his treatise the Vakyapadiya to elucidating this point. He began by discussing the eight ways in which traditional scholars sought to comprehend language, and then went on to argue, against the common wisdom of the time, that words had no independent and separate existence apart from the sentence in which they find themselves.

The sentence is indeed the unit of mining. One can, of course, have a one word sentence, and in which case the word is acting not as a word but a sentence.

Another important idea promoted by Bhartrhari is that of 'sphota' - this can be translated as breaking forth, bursting, disclosing. This word can be taken to mean the verbal symbol that discloses thought content. Although this term is found in the earlier writings, it is indeed Bhartrhari who was able to present it in a systematic fashion. According to Bhartrhari the sound pattern leads to the emergence of verbal symbols, which in turn conveys the meaning. In the Vakyapadiya, on a number of occasions, he stresses his conviction that a word possesses a dual potency; to convey a notion of the form of the word and to convey a notion of the sense of the word.

He deploys a number of important tropes to enforce his point. For example, he says that, 'just as light has two powers, that of being revealed and that of being the revealer, similarly, all words have two distinct powers.'

Bhartrhari has come up with a number of similar innovative formulations that serve to illuminate our understanding of language and reality and the manifold relationships that exist between them. I have strayed far away from Kabblah, in space and time, to discuss traditional Indian philosophy of language.

The point of this excursion is this: just as much as Kabbalah lends itself to the kind of innovative reading proposed by Harold Bloom, the work of a philosopher of language like Bhartrhari also lends itself to contemporary analysis and re-interpretation. For modern literary theorists, there are many productive lines of inquiry inscribed in his text.

What we need to do is to study these texts carefully and try to explore the rich possibilities contained within them in the light of contemporary knowledge.

If Harold Bloom's deep engagement with traditional texts convince us of anything it is that we should pay close and sustained critical attention to classical works associated with our own cultural traditions in order to come up with newer concepts and approaches that would further literary understanding.

I chose to focus on a classical Sanskrit text.

There are other texts that are even closer to us that invite vigilant re-interpretation. For example, in classical Sinhala literary tradition there is a complex chain of commentarial literature - 'atuva', 'tika', 'parikatha' etc.

This body of writing needs to be explored, in the way that Bloom chose to examine Kabbalah, in terms of rhetoric and interpretive strategies that they contain.

So far, they have been studied mainly in terms of historical evolution. If one were to pay close attention to the rhetoric that animates these texts and investigate the power of tropes that they display, many valuable insights could undoubtedly be obtained.


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