May 27, 2015
NY TIMES Sunday Book Review
‘The Daemon Knows,’ by Harold Bloom
Read Bloom, and you may be led to suppose it so. “Walt Whitman,” he writes, “overwhelms me, possesses me, as only a few others — Dante, Shakespeare, Milton — consistently flood my entire being. . . . Without vision, criticism perishes.” And: “I rejoice at all strong transports of sublimity.” And again: “True criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” And finally, emphatically: “I believe there is no critical method except yourself.” It is through intoxicating meditations such as these that Bloom has come to his formulation of the American Sublime, and from this to his revelation of the daemon: the very Higgs boson of the sublime. Bloom’s beguiling daemon can be construed as the god within; he is sire to the exaltations of apotheosis, shamanism, Gnosticism, Orphism, Hermeticism and, closer to home, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” He is made manifest through the voice of poets and in the chants of those weavers of tales, like Melville and Faulkner, who are kin to poets.
Daemon Knows,” the enigmatic title of Bloom’s newest work of oracular criticism, is strangely intransitive. What is it that the daemon knows? We are meant to understand that the daemon is an incarnation of an intuition beyond ordinary apperception, and that this knowing lies in the halo of feeling that glows out of the language of poetry. “To ask the question concerning the daemon is to seek an origin of inspiration,” Bloom asserts, and his teacherly aim is to pose the question in close readings of 12 daemon-possessed writers whom he interrogates in pairs: Whitman with Melville, Emerson with Dickinson, Hawthorne with Henry James, Mark Twain with Frost, Stevens with T. S. Eliot, Faulkner with Hart Crane. He might well have chosen 12 others, he tells us, reciting still another blizzard of American luminaries, but dismisses the possibility “because these [chosen] writers represent our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” (A question Bloom does not put — we will approach it shortly — is whether shamanism, Orphism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism and all the other mystical isms, including the idea of the daemon, do in fact cling to humanism.)
For Bloom, the origin of inspiration is dual: the daemon who ignites it from within, and the genealogical force that pursues it from without. The bloodline infusion of literary precursors has long been a leitmotif for Bloom, from the academic implosion of “The Anxiety of Influence” more than 40 years ago to the more recent “The Anatomy of Influence.” Here he invokes the primacy of Emerson as germinating ancestor:
“For me, Emerson is the fountain of the American will to know the self and its drive for sublimity. The American poets who (to me) matter most are all Emersonians of one kind or another: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Henri Cole. Our greatest creators of prose fiction were not Emersonians, yet the protagonists of Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James frequently are beyond our understanding if we do not see Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab and Isabel Archer as self-reliant questers.”
Though Bloom’s persuasive family trees are many-branched, the power of influential predecessors nevertheless stands apart from daemonic possession. According to Bloom, the daemon — “pure energy, free of morality” — is far more intrinsic than thematic affinity. However aggressively their passions invade, it is not Whitman alone who gives birth to Melville, or Emerson to Dickinson, or Hawthorne to James, or Mark Twain to Frost; and certainly it is not the lurid Faulkner, all on his own, who rivals the clay that will become Hart Crane. Literary heritage is half; the rest is the daemon. “ ‘Moby-Dick,’ ” Bloom sums up, “is at the center of this American heretical scripture, our worship of the god within, which pragmatically means of the daemon who knows how it is done.” But there is yet another pragmatic demonstration to be urged and elaborated. “Hart Crane’s daemon,” he adds, “knows how it is done and creates an epic of Pindaric odes, lyrics, meditations and supernal longings without precedent.”Without precedent: Surely this is the earliest key, in Bloom’s scheme, to the daemon’s magickings.
Theme and tone and voice may have authorial ancestors; what we call inspiration has none. Turning to one of his two commanding touchstones (the other is Whitman), Bloom cites Emerson: “This is that which the strong genius works upon; the region of destiny, of aspiration, of the unknown. . . . Far the best part, I repeat, of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him.” So when Bloom tells us there can be no critical method other than the critic himself — meaning Bloom — we should not take it as blowhard hyperbole. With Emerson, he intends to pry open the unpossessed and to possess it, and to lead the reader to possess it too: a critical principle rooted in ampleness and generosity.
In this way, the illustrative excerpts Bloom selects from the work of his hallowed dozen are more than concentrated wine tastings; they are libraries in little. In considering Hawthorne, he discusses — in full — “Wakefield” and “Feathertop,” two lesser-known stories, as well as “The Blithedale Romance,” “The Marble Faun” and the canonical “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables.” In his descant on James, Bloom supplies entire scenes from “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Bostonians” and “The Wings of the Dove,” in addition to long passages of “The Jolly Corner.” And in crisscrossing from Hawthorne to James and back again, he leaves nothing and no one unconnected. “Where indeed in American fiction,” he asks, “could there be a woman loftier, purer, as beautiful and as wise as Hester Prynne? Isabel Archer is the only likely candidate,” though he goes on to lament her choice of the “odious Osmond.” For Bloom, Moby-Dick consorts with Huck Finn, and Emily Dickinson with Shakespeare, while Whitman underlies, or agitates, Stevens, Hart Crane and, surprisingly, T. S. Eliot.
Of all Bloom’s couplings, Stevens and Eliot are the oddest and the crankiest. Despite the unexpected common link with Whitman, the juxtaposition is puzzling. Bloom’s veneration of Stevens, sometimes “moved almost to tears,” is unstinting. “From start to end, his work is a solar litany,” he confesses. “Stevens has helped me to live my life.” Yet nearly in the same breath Bloom is overt, even irascible, in his distaste for Eliot, partly in repudiation of “his virulent anti-Semitism, in the age of Hitler’s death camps,” but also because of his clericalism: “Is it my personal prejudice only that finds no aesthetic value whatsoever in the devotional verse of T. S. Eliot? . . . His dogmatism, dislike of women, debasement of ordinary human existence make me furious.” In the same dismissive vein, he disposes of Ezra Pound: “I at last weary of his sprawl and squalor.” Nowhere else in this celebratory volume can such a tone — of anger and disgust — be found. Not even in Bloom’s dispute with what he zealously dubs “the School of Resentment” (the politicization of literary studies) is he so vehement as here.
Still, emotive disclosures are not foreign to this critic’s temperament. He has, after all, already told us that criticism can be a form of memoir. “I am an experiential and personalizing literary critic,” he explains, “which certainly rouses up enmity, but I go on believing that poems matter only if we matter.” Out of this credo grows a confiding intimacy: “The obscure being I could call Bloom’s daemon has known how it is done, and I have not. His true name (has he one?) I cannot discover, but I am grateful to him for teaching the classes, writing the books, enduring the mishaps and illnesses, and nurturing the fictions of continuity that sustain my 85th year.” A touching reminder of the nature of the human quotidian, its riches and its vicissitudes, its successes and its losses: tangled mortal life itself, pulsing onward in the daylight world of reality. But is this what Bloom’s exalted 12 have taught of how the daemon, that rhapsodic creature of “pure energy, free of morality,” is purposed? The daemon who is trance, who is the mystical whiteness of the white whale, who is harp and altar of Hart Crane’s bridge, and who enters solely into seers and poets? Can the daemon’s lover — who is Bloom — harbor the daemon in himself? Or, to put it otherwise: May the professor of poetry don the poet’s mantle?
Meanwhile, the daemon knows, and Bloom knows too, who are his most dedicated antagonists. They are those verifiable humanists, the rabbis who repudiate the kabbalists, who refute the seductions of Orphists and Gnostics, who deny the dervishing god within and linger still in that perilous garden where mortals dare to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and daemons of the sublime are passing incantatory delusions.
Well, never mind — at least while Bloom’s enrapturing book is radiant in your hand. The daemon knows, and Bloom knows too, that in Eden, birthplace of the moral edict and the sober deed, there never was a poet.
THE DAEMON KNOWS
Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
By Harold Bloom
524 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $35.
Cynthia Ozick’s most recent book is the novel “Foreign Bodies.” Her new collection, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays,” will be published next year.
A version of this review appears in print on May 24, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Shared Visions.