TAKE ARMS AGAINST A SEA OF TROUBLE: THE POWER OF THE READER'S MIND OVER A UNIVERSE OF DEATH by Harold Bloom, Reviewed by Leslie Brisman
 


TAKE ARMS AGAINST A SEA OF TROUBLE: THE POWER OF THE READER'S MIND OVER A UNIVERSE OF DEATH
By Harold Bloom
(Yale, 2020) 663 pp.
Reviewed by Leslie Brisman on 2021-05-27.

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Though it might be responsible to begin by saying, "This is one of two posthumously published books by Harold Bloom," it might be more Bloomian to say "This is one of the first two posthumously published books by Harold Bloom." I can just hear him saying, "Why should death stop me? I never let life stop me!" As he says about D.H. Lawrence, "he goes down as a voice and seems persuaded voice will not cease"(472). Like the head of Milton's Orpheus, which even after being severed from his body goes on singing past "the rout that made the hideous roar. . .Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore, " Bloom's head has gone on singing past the hideous roar of the "schools of resentment" he identified, though I think he would hasten to point out, as he does in this book, that Whitman, though a gay man, is both a Lesbian poet and always a poet of "the shore."

It may be literally true that death has finally stopped Bloom from writing, but it is no less literally true that near-death did not stop him from reinventing himself--and in the process reinventing the genre of the memoir. While perhaps clothed as literary criticism, his memoir is something like a stream of consciousness narrative of a Great Mind Thinking. This enormous tomb is a treasure for anyone who has come to love the great man and anyone who has turned to him for something like what he himself calls "more life!"--that feeling one has when one wakes up in the morning and sets about reading something that matters.

It must also be said, however, that this book would make a terrible introduction to the thinking of Harold Bloom. If an undergraduate asked me, "What should I read to get a sense of how Harold Bloom interprets literature?" this is the last book I'd recommend. It quotes more poems than most professors of poetry have read, but there is scarcely a single sustained reading of a poem in the attentive manner of his great books of decades past. Fifty years ago, after completing his invaluable Yeats, he asked me what I thought he should do next. When I suggested, "Now do the same for Whitman, " he shook his head vigorously and said, "No, my boy, I'm too old for that." His chapter on Whitman here does some remarkable things, but hardly the kind of thing he did with Yeats. His opinion of what he should and could do certainly expanded exponentially over time, but he became less and less patient with showing us just how he came to the extraordinary judgments he pronounced.

Harold Bloom repeatedly labeled his kind of literary criticism "antithetical." The term has two meanings that he did not take the trouble to distinguish, I think, because he thought them fundamentally the same. In this book, he writes, "Wisdom in Yeats is always antithetical, set against nature" (462). Besides explaining so much of what Bloom has always been doing, this simple appositive also explains why his thinking may be reasonably linked to that of his friend and competitor, Geoffrey Hartman, for whether the poet was Wordsworth or someone of a later age, Hartman always saw imagination at war with nature. Since nature for Bloom more insistently means "death," "antithetical criticism" is criticism that resists death, or its surrogates time, authority, and (especially in this book) the limitations of the body. While Bloom finds death in Milton's God, he finds life--imaginative life--in Milton's Satan. Any bow to political reality, to conventions of literature, morality, or even decency (like those of Tennyson's Telemachus) is a form of death; any resistance to limitations, however uncanny or unrealistic, is a form of imaginative life.

The second meaning of "antithetical" is genealogically rebellious: all literature worth reading, Bloom insists, springs from from an author's struggle with his or her precursors. The quality of a work of literature depends on the intensity of that struggle, and the quality of literary criticism depends on how deeply it probes the depth of that engagement. Several times in this book Bloom names Jay Wright the greatest living poet (not just the greatest living African-American poet). Why? Because Bloom finds Wright the most intensely steeped in his precursors. Wright's poetry, Bloom writes, is "dense with allusion, and quite deliberately brings together African mythology (mostly Dogon), the Spanish poetry of the Americas, Dante, U.S. poetic tradition from Emerson and Whitman to T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane"(33-34). Citing what Bloom calls one of Wright's "greater odes, 'Desire's Persistence,'" with its image of "heart deep in the soul's hawk, / a thymos shadow knapping the tombed body," Bloom does his Bloomian thing: "One hears Eliot and Crane fused in the remarkable trope of a 'shadow knapping' (archaic meaning: strike with a hard brief sound) 'the tombed body"(p.35). "One" indeed! Is there any one besides Harold Bloom who hears Eliot and Crane so fused? More important, what does this fusion mean? Is it great poetry simply because it uses the word thymos, "the ancient Greek word for the vitalistic drive that keeps us going"? Or simply because it sends Bloom zooming to the centrality of the life force antithetical to death?

In countless other instances like this, Bloom highlights the antithetical struggle that decides, for him, the greatness of a poem. But since this is, of all Bloom's books, the one least likely to explain what he sees, I believe it is not so much the culmination of antithetical criticism as the culmination of the deictic in Bloomian criticism. That is to say, his genius here lies not in explaining but in pointing to something worth our attention and telling us, in the words of his favorite Gospel, Mark, "He that has ears to hear, let him hear" (4:9). Though I myself cannot hear Eliot and Crane in Wright's line, I can readily imagine what Bloom would say about my quoting of Mark. While approving the quotation, he would insist that Jesus is antithetically reacting to a trope in Deuteronomy 29:4: "The Lord hath not given you. . .ears to hear, unto this day."

Without cataloguing any further passages that require a little "hearing aid," I would like to consider a few exemplary moments that point, ambiguously, to Bloom's genius and his confidence in proclaiming what he will no longer deign to explain. Sometimes he takes his antithetical stance against another great critic; sometimes he takes it against a literary text; and at one point, after several chapters in which the antithetical is wholly replaced with the deictic, the repressed antithetical energy returns with a startling new object. In tracking these moves, I try to determine if it is an achievement or a joke that he can say, "I have given up polemic" (578).

Like Blake's Milton, Bloom's Milton is of the devil's party without (fully) knowing it. While Bloom deictically salutes the greatness of the invocations and Satan's soliloquies in Paradise Lost, he finds Milton's Heaven as ghastly a mistake as the book of Leviticus in the Pentateuch. In Bloom's view, the Son's confidence is as insufferable as the nastiness of the Father, and he hears nothing but smug repetition of a predetermined plan when the Son explains,

Though now to Death I yield, and am his due,

All that of me can die, yet, that debt paid,

Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave

His prey, nor suffer my unspotted soul

For ever with corruption there to dwell. (3. 346-49)

The Son's reference to his "unspotted soul" strikes Bloom the way Joseph's proclamation of his "virtue" strikes Lady Booby in Fielding's Joseph Andrews. To state his verdict on Christ's speech antithetically, Bloom cites just the opposite verdict from David Quint's Inside Paradise Lost (2014): "There is no more moving passage in Paradise Lost than this one, whose tone Milton so superbly controls"(104). But instead of explaining why he disagrees with Quint's statement, Bloom the memoirist simply records his experience of being outraged by it: "In the margins of his book, at this point I scribbled "No! in thunder" (88). Bloom's book has been lovingly and superbly edited by one of the greatest scholars of our day, David Mickics, but I wonder if the punctuation is correct there. Perhaps Bloom meant to tell us that he scribbled "No!" in thundrous rage at Quint's finding something human, all too human, in the Son. For Bloom, Christ's speech cannot be a most moving passage because, he says, "The most moving passages in Paradise Lost are spoken by Satan, by Milton, by Adam, and all are animated because they are spoken by Shakespearean personalities" (88). In classroom discussions of argumentation, this pronouncement could readily serve to illustrate begging the question. "The Son's words cannot be moving," Bloom says in effect, "because I have long since proclaimed that the moving passages are all spoken by characters with human hearts and limited human vision."

Most readers will agree with Bloom that the Son sounds not poignantly uncertain, as Quint argues, but smug: "You wouldn't leave me in the loathsome grave, would you? Would you?" Yet for Quint, the Son is human, all too human at this point, and considers death "with the same act of faith in which every Christian partakes against doubt before the physical fact of death" (Quint 105). What is so wonderful about Quint's rhetorical question--"Would you?"-- is that the uncertainty he hears in the Son captures an essential feature of the grammar of prayer in biblical Hebrew: an indicative is used to express the uncertainty and hope of the petitionary. Thus, in Psalm 49, which Milton must have had in mind because it seems to contradict what Book III of PL proclaims (that no one can die for another), the psalmist prays, "God will [shall in Geneva] deliver my soul from the power of the grave" (49:15 KJV). Confident? Perhaps. But since this prayer is spoken by a human in distress who does not know God's plan, its tone approximates that of Quint's frightened, prayerful, rhetorical question: "You won't leave me in the loathsome grave, would you?" Bloom cannot imagine that this prig of a Son is capable of any doubt or humanity. But Quint, who catches the poignancy of the Son's uncertainty, is also one of Bloom's greatest heirs: he reads antithetically, in a way that depends on seeing and weeping over Milton's quarrels with his precursors--for Quint, most notably Virgil. At such a moment, I want to turn the deictic mode back on Bloom, and with all the passion of the dying Lear, cry out while pointing to Quint's work, "Look there! Look there!"

The Browning chapter here adds new material to Bloom's agon with the great monologuist, but its method is oddly not deictic, for the great passages that Bloom cites and quotes are not the subject of his remarks. See how he contrasts Shakespeare's Caliban with Browning's in "Caliban on Setepons":


Shakespeare is giving us a vision of a failed adoption with all the bitterness and torment of a family romance gone bad. When Prospero finally confronts his responsibility and says,"This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine," he takes on the task of bringing Caliban back to Milan with him, in order to try a second time. But that is not at all the Caliban of Robert Browning. (345-46)

No one will dispute the last sentence. But the penultimate? Where does Prospero say that he plans to bring Caliban back to Milan? Since the play is silent on this point, we may wish simply to acknowledge Shakespeare's wisdom in declining to choose between bad alternatives, perpetuating the slavery or leaving Caliban on the island (and thus restoring his sovereignty or simply abandoning him). It is curious, though, that in Prospero's "I acknowledge mine," our great Romanticist hears only with post-colonial ears the sin of slave ownership, not a recognition that the dark side of the self cannot be escaped, either on the island or in Milan.

Interrupting his comments on Browning's "Caliban," Bloom takes glancing aim at the greatest living reader of Browning, Herbert Tucker:


Generally, I read Herbert Tucker on Browning with unmixed admiration, but I touch a limit in a careless transcendence (Browning's, not Tucker's) that is ultimately incoherent. I do not want Browning to tell me that God is the perfect poet or to boom out: "God is it that transcends." (347)

While Bloom says nothing explicit about Caliban's challenge to Christianity ("He doth His worst in this our life"), he cannot stomach Browning's Christianity. Yet it is not Browning himself who tells us that "God is the perfect poet. " It is Aprile at the end of Paracelsus, Part II, and as Tucker knows but Bloom chooses not to know, she has a very imperfect understanding of love, knowledge, poetry, and the relation of life to perfection. In place of Bloom's animadversions against Browning's Christianity, I would have welcomed his explication of the whole of her statement: ""God is the perfect poet. / Who in his person acts his own creations."

A similar point could be made about Bloom's disdain for the (misquoted) last line of Browning's "Prologue to Asolando." In his own voice Matthew Arnold, whom Bloom loathes, might have written "God is it that transcends," since Arnold sought to save God by turning him into a set of benevolent attributes (something twentieth-century theologians call "predicate theology"). But in Browning's poem, "God is it who [not that] transcends," is spoken not by Browning himself but by God as a character in Browning's poem--or "the apotheosis of character," as Tucker puts it in his stunning essay, "Browning as Escape Artist" (Robert Browning in Contexts, ed. George Myerson et al. [1998] 17). Elsewhere, Bloom flamboyantly exhibits the character of God as variously portrayed in the Hebrew Bible and the antithetical New Testament. What are we to make, then, of Bloom's insistence on denying his poets the ability to invent God as a character? My guess is that he would call me naive for thinking that's only a character talking and insist that we see through its words the soul of the poet: a soul corrupted, in Browning's case, by Christianity.

Bloom insists on "seeing through." As if getting caught up in literary criticism would turn him into a Sebastian diverted by the finery that hangs between him and the object of his chase, he often turns to some anecdote or biographical fact to explain what is "really" going on. Here, for example, are the opening lines of a poem that our Deictic Critic Par Excellence considers a "crowning" Shelleyan achievement-- D.H. Lawrence's "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through":

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

Various critics have noted Lawrence's genius in composing a lyric that works so well on three levels--a poem about Lawrence as poet (and his relation to other poets, primarily Shelley and Whitman); a poem about Lawrence as husband (a love poem to Frieda); and a poem about World War One. The younger Bloom would have written, perhaps exclusively, about the first of these. But in this book, he offers just a personal anecdote: "I think I first read this poem as an undergraduate in the late 1940s and have a dim recollection of writing an essay comparing it to 'Ode to the West Wind'"(468). In place of that dim recollection, might we not have had some explanation of what Lawrence does when he picks up Shelley's magnificent trope of being driven like a leaf, of appealing to the wind to "drive [his] dead thoughts," and turns that driving force into sexual drive, "driven by invisible blows"? (This is a point beautifully made by a brilliant former colleague of Harold Bloom, Ross Murfin.). A younger Bloom might have written "he means 'thrusts.'" But now bent more on mischief than explication, Bloom reads Lawrence's "The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides" as "an exalted description of anal intercourse." What a strange notion of a love poem that is! Though Lawrence is capable of imaging buttocks as rocks, would he express a male fantasy of penetration with a harder drive as a shared ecstasy that a wife would be happy to find celebrated in so public a poem? Surely such solipsism is all the critic's, not the poet's.

And what is the hook in this poem on which to hang the fantasy of anal intercourse? Consider its final lines:

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.

Admit them, admit them.

Bloom assumes that the "three strange angels" are the angels who knock on the door of Lot in Sodom (Genesis 19), since that is the capital of the kingdom of anal intercourse. But this cannot be. Only two angels come to Lot in Genesis 19, and they come not to celebrate anal intercourse but to rescue Lot from its practitioners. The "three strange angels" of Lawrence's poem, therefore, must be the three angels of Genesis 18 (including Yahweh Himself)\, who come to bless the union of Abraham and Sarah and announce the forthcoming birth of Isaac. More properly, we might say that Lawrence's three angels conflate the biblical three of Genesis 18 with the three Hesperides: Hespera, Aegle, and Erytheis. By syncretizing classical and biblical mythology, he stunningly represents the love he wants to celebrate with Frieda, the woman with whom he is so much "in sync."

The exquisite beauty of the end of this love poem is totally lost, I think, if the "them" of "admit them" is taken to signify not biblical angels and classical guards of the Hesperides but rather the three parts of male genitalia. (I am paraphrasing the outrageously wrong--biologically wrong as well as biographically suspect-- last sentence of Bloom's paragraph, which I will not quote here.) Bloom also misses the topical plangency of that terrifying question, "What is the knocking at the door in the night?" As a conscientious objector, Lawrence was hounded by the police looking for draft dodgers, and the thought that "somebody wants to do us harm" stunningly pits "us," the love-world of the couple, against the senseless and brutal war that Lawrence hopes they, and the world at large, might "come through."

To conclude this love-quarrel with the posthumous book of a great critic, I must comment on its seemingly bizarre inclusion of the penultimate chapter about Freud, one of the "poets" with whom Bloom has always been wrestling. In a most astonishing claim about the relationship of poetry to life, Bloom describes sexual union as "nothing but figurative, since the joining involved is merely a yoking in act and not in essence"(572). He also tells the horrific story of his own analytical sessions with a British "therapist" who seemed bent on destroying his analysand. Bloom does not mention the shrewd question raised by his American therapist, who asked Bloom whether his assailant was a psychoanalyst or Bloom's own anger. But the whole chapter about the "'bodily ego" truly encapsulates his whole career as well as the book if one sees that the ultimate antithetical criticism is the agon of the mind not with other minds but with the critic's own body, with its insistence on limitations and death. All the quarrels with other critics, all the poets' quarrels with precursors, come round in the close of this book to quarrels with the great curser, Death. On October 14, 2019, Death won; but only literally; literarily, the victory is quite otherwise.

Leslie Brisman is Karl Young Professor of English at Yale University.


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