<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> Life in Agon: From Romanticism to Deconstruction and Beyond Take man and his struggle of contraries out of nature, and you are left with the barren, with the same dull round all over again, the merely cyclic movement, if such it can be termed, of negations. —Harold Bloom, "Dialectics of <i>The Marriage of Heaven and Hell</i>" (<i>RT</i>, 62) <p> <p> Although Bloom considers himself to be a heir of the romantic tradition, his own understanding of this "visionary company," which has haunted his imagination for years, is, in fact, highly revisionary. It runs completely against the popular cliché according to which romanticism was an attempt to recreate a mythical reconciliation with nature in the unwelcoming circumstances of modern disenchantment. Thus, if Bloom allies himself with the Romantic struggle against "the universe of death," it is not in favor of a naturalistic notion of life with its Schillerian pagan overtones, but in favor of his own idea of life as thriving on Blakean contraries; a life that transcends natural limitations and multiplies its vitality by engaging in an idiosyncratic "antithetical quest." <p> <p> From Concern to Antithesis <p> Then was the serpent templeform'd, image of infinite Shut up in finite revolutions, and man became an Angel, Heaven a mighty circle turning, God a tyrant crown'd. —William Blake, <i>Europe</i> <p> <p> The romantic phase in Bloom's progress starts in 1959 with the publication of his dissertation, <i>Shelley's Mythmaking</i>. It goes through collections of essays on early and late romantics written in the '60s, culminates in <i>The Anxiety of Influence</i> and <i>Yeats</i>, and then begins to wane, producing in 1976 yet another volume of separate texts, <i>Figures of Capable Imagination</i>. On the other hand, to call Bloom's interest in romanticism a "phase" is somewhat misleading, for, as I will argue in this book, Bloom never abandoned his romantic self: his agon with deconstruction, which, starting with <i>The Anxiety</i>, lasted more than a decade (<i>Agon</i> being the last book in this series), is densely suffused with romantic tropes and motives. The romantic "phase," therefore, can be seen as a preparatory stage in which Bloom first repeats the lessons he took from his early masters—M. H. Abrams and Northrop Frye—and then gradually sheds their influence by seeking more antithetical solutions. Thus, if the book on Shelley concerns itself mostly with <i>mythopoiesis</i> (mythmaking) as a poetic way of finding, however transient, the moment of reconciliation with the world of nature, his later work will show more and more signs of discontent with the very notion of myth. His anti-Fryean reading of Blake, whom he will portray as a poet of tireless strife, scoffing any reconciliation with the fallen world, as well as his severe criticism of Yeats's penchant for mythological thinking, shutting his <i>Vision</i> in "finite revolutions," betray a tendency that will eventually become dominant. Instead of looking for mythopoiesis in romantic poets, Bloom will detect in their writings a partly Gnostic, and partly messianic anxiety, which then will become a principal attribute of his favorite hero, <i>the antithetical man. <p> Shelley's Mythmaking</i>, although drawing its explicit inspiration from Martin Buber's <i>I and Thou</i>, is still a very Fryean book. Poetry is understood here as a myth made in a different way, but the introduction of Buber's mystical encounter between mind and a part of the world, momentarily elevated to dialogic heights, as the canvas of poetic mythopoesis, immediately creates a tension the book cannot yet resolve. Says Bloom, "I do claim that a certain group of Shelley's poems manifest precisely the mythopoeia that I have defined above," that is, in Buberian terms. "Their myth, quite simply, <i>is</i> myth: the process of its making, and the inevitability of its defeat" (<i>SM</i>, 8). <p> This "inevitability of defeat," very strongly emphasized by Bloom throughout the whole book, results from two clashing tendencies. One, faithful to Frye and his teaching of symbolic archetypes, looks for the universal, the confirmation of one and the same Idea that governs the <i>whole</i> of the world of nature—the other, borrowed from Buber, seeks instantaneous, singularized moments of recognition in which <i>fragments</i> of nature appear to the poetic eye as individual and subjectified. The one aspires to the "possibility of a Thou as a kind of universal mind in nature" (<i>SM</i>, 23–24), which would be able to ground <i>logos</i>, also poetic one—the other derives from nondiscursive, rapturous encounters with particulars which, when recollected poetically, sink into abstraction of language and thus unavoidably lose their original power. Later on, Bloom will drop Buber altogether, recognizing that his speechless mysticism of enchanted moments is a kiss of death for poetry, hopelessly codemned only to "recollect" and live up to the lost instant of existential intensity. At the same time, however, he will retain Buber's intuition of the mystical that underlies the mythopoetic effort as always connected with strictly singular epiphany, against Frye's archetypal understanding of the mythical as the ever-recurring figure of meaning which reconfirms and reinforces itself in various poetic disguises. Or rather, he will enhance the opposition between myth and epiphany, which, in Frye's account, resembles more mutual completion than a tension. <p> Thus, although it was Frye who, according to Bloom's own late testimony, introduced him into his favorite idiom of "religious criticism," Bloom's whole subsequent work on British Romanticism is a clear swerve away from Frye, gravitating toward his former teacher, M. H. Abrams, who, especially in <i>Natural Supernaturalism</i>, played down the archetypal, mythological aspect of the romantic religiosity and emphasized the opposite moment of the messianic: dispersed, subdued, and half-naturalized—but nonetheless still teeming with restless negativity, forever unable to find a reconciliation with the fallen world. <i>Shelley's Mythmaking</i> is still at the crossroads: it seems to be lured by Frye's ideal of <i>fulfillment</i>, as the poetic recognition of the world in its perfect harmony with itself, and simultaneously disturbed by the reality of <i>inevitable defeat</i> that meets all poetic efforts of such mythological reconciliation. He still seems to be caught between what Frye himself called the two types of symbolism: the cyclic and the dialectical, the pagan sacrum of repetition and recreation versus the religious holiness of the history of salvation. <p> It is only later that Bloom will truly learn to appreciate this "inevitable defeat" as a mark of the vitalizing irreconciliation between the singular and the whole of being to which it belongs. He will recognize that every fulfillment is linked to the "idiocy of generalization," while every effort to particularize (i.e., to give justice to singularity as sticking out from the "system of what is") must end in failure. Yet, he will also elevate this failure, as the only form of resistance to mythic closures, to the status of a proud "glorious defeat." But even in <i>Shelley's Mythmaking</i>, the poets—Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, whom Bloom juxtaposes in the crucial chapter on Mont Blanc as the obligatory theme of their major poetic epiphanies—are anything but naive. To their modern eyes nature appears almost hopelessly disenchanted; they realize that the glory does not reside <i>in</i> the flower anymore, and the rocky Alpian summit remains essentially indifferent to their raptures. Colerdige's "Hymn Before Sunrise" fails miserably, falling straight into the abyss of what Ruskin would later call "pathetic fallacy": the poem cannot even disguise the bare mechanism of emotional pojections, unable to touch and transform its object, which in the end seems even more cold, distant, and inscrutable. Wordsworth's Mont Blanc fragment from <i>The Prelude</i> too easily allows itself a comfort of natural religion, automatically assuming "the mind's reciprocal dealings with nature" (<i>SM</i>, 20), even when the true inspiration is lacking. Only Shelley's "Mont Blanc" seems to come close to an unforced, instantaneous encounter with the Thou of the mountain, whose intensity comes and goes, leaving the poet's mind alternately in the state of wonder and doubt. All three, however, cannot help but constantly ask questions: "What is the relation between the I, the individual mind of a man, and the phenomena that surround him in the physical universe? To what extent is the mind independent on phenomena of this kind—does it actively construct them, or does it simply passively record them? Put another way, does it confront them in relationship as Thou's, or does it merely experience them as It's?" (<i>SM</i>, 23–24). To rescue natural things from their "it-ness" becomes the primary directive of romantic poetry, which already very consciously reacts to modern <i>Entzauberung der Welt</i> (disenchantment of the world)—but this is also a cause of its "inevitable defeat." The disoriented, halfnaturalized messianic spark tries to fight and save nature on nature's own grounds—and loses, unavoidably. Being a part of nature, but also against nature; forcing nature toward Vision, yet from within herself, pressing her to become something else, better than she <i>is</i> now—this tangled, paradoxical predicament soon becomes for Bloom the secret token of recognition of all romantic poets, and a position with which Bloom—as we shall yet see—will also strongly identify, fully partaking of its heavy burdens. <p> A <i>naturalized negativity</i>, springing forth without the help of God, or any other transcendent Spirit—this paradoxical idea, which emerges in Bloom's thought as a revision of Abram's naturalized supranaturalism, develops gradually into a major theme of his later queries into the nature of romantic condition, passing via <i>Blake's Apocalypse</i> and culminating in <i>Yeats</i>, from whom Bloom takes one of his most beloved figures: "the antithetical man." Already the first pages of the book, written as early as 1962, mark the decisive departure from Northrop Frye: "Critics of a Platonizing kind ... refuse to see poetic influence as anxiety because they believe in different versions of what Frye calls the Myth of Concern: 'we belong to something before we are anything, nor does growing in being diminish the link of belonging'" (<i>Y</i>, 5). <p> "Critics of a Platonizing kind," following Greek philosophical tradition of belonging—to Being, world, nature, cultural heritage—tend to neglect poetic anxiety as an unjustified, merely psychological factor obscuring the benevolence of influence which, in the end, only shows us our right place in the great chain of being. "Myth," says Frye in <i>Fearful Symmetry</i>, "is the language of concern: it is cosmology in movement" (1969, ii). Yet, the spirit of negativity Bloom had discovered very early as the demon of the "inevitable defeat" in the process of poetic mythmaking scorns any "right place" within a harmony where it is supposed to fit in. Thus, while influence is for Bloom the signal of <i>belonging</i>, forcing the ephebe to take the "right place," anxiety becomes a mark of <i>displacement</i>, a negative defense of one's own singularity which refuses to participate in cosmological orderings. <p> In his latest book, <i>Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine</i>, Bloom once again makes reference to Frye, where a new tone sets in, suggesting that the difference between him and his teacher is also the one between a Jew and a Christian: "In old age I appreciate the irony that my criticism is to his as the New Testament is to the Tanakh, which is spiritually the paradoxical reverse of our spiritual preferences" (47). The thought that a radically different "spiritual preference" lies at the core of their difference is definitely worth considering. There is an obvious disparity between Frye's and Bloom's treatments of poets' mythopoetic efforts. For Frye, the poet's greatness lies in his supraindividual part that connects him with the Myth of Concern; the clearer the archetypes, which speak the universal language of human longing and desire, the greater the poetic genius who thus manages to strike the eschatological chord, dormant in all of us. "One essential principle of archetypal criticism," says Frye, "is that the individual and the universal forms of an image are identical" (1972, 432). For Bloom, on the other hand, the greatness of a poet lies in his attempt to privatize the language of desire, to break the "great code" of archetypes and open them to individual revisions. <p> This divergence is, indeed, as deep and final as the rift between the two theologies that lie behind Frye's and Bloom's writings: Christian and Judaic. In a nutshell, it all boils down to the difference between revelation complete and incomplete. From the Christian point of view, represented by Frye, the list of all archetypes that refer to "sacred history" is concluded: the coming of Jesus as the God incarnate supplies the image of redemption which only needs to be reenacted and recreated in the process of universal salvation. From the Jewish point of view, however, this list can never be finished and, so to say, "rounded," for it misses the crucial element: the image of Messiah. From the Christian perspective, the saving pattern had already been set, thus closing—at least, if not in reality, then in the imaginative world of vision—the cyclic myth of creation, fall, and redemption. A Christian <i>knows what to do</i>: he has to imitate Christ, and it is of secondary significance whether he perceives his task in dull, catechism-like terms or in the highly idiosyncratic way of a William Blake for whom Jesus forms the insurpassable model of the highest Vision. Yet from the Jewish perspective, the saving pattern remains beclouded by "mystery"—precisely this mystery Blake saw as an obstacle in seeing and then following the perfect example of Jesus—which leaves the sacred history permanently open and does not allow it to close into a cycle. A Jew (and a Jew of a Gnostic strain in particular) does not know exactly what to do to bring about the process of redemption; the pharisaic minimalism of sticking to the prescriptions of halachic morality shows more disorientation in this respect than true knowledge. Messiah is a mystery, an empty signifier which ruins the cyclic order of the myth of salvation. The list of archetypes is not finished, which also means that to Jewish imagination, there can be no archetypes in the strict sense of the word. There is nothing to imitate or repeat; everything is in the state of revision and commentary. Moved back on the plane of literary history, this difference means that while the "Christian" critic will tend to perceive the succession of writers in terms of their more or less successful adherence to the already set archetypal patterns, the "Jewish" critic will see it truly as a <i>history</i>, that is, as a time-immersed process of an ongoing revisionistic commentary. The "Christian" critic will follow the blueprint of timeless <i>imitatio</i>, while the "Jewish" critic will see the diachronic development of midrash. <p> Frye is obviously <i>not</i> a mythic thinker in the strict sense of the word, for myth knows nothing of redemption, it is wholly based on circular rhythms of nature which know—and need—only regeneration. Frye is not an Eliade of literary criticism; if anything, he is, as Bloom himself suggests, a literary incarnation of Saint Paul. The difference between him and Bloom is thus subtler, but it still looms large. For what is impossible from the Jewish point of view—what is, so to say, an "abomination for the Jews" in Frye's reading of the "sacred history"—is the very phrase: "myth of redemption." This is the contamination no Jewish thinking can allow, that is, the suggestion of an intelligible cycle of archetypes which governs the whole <i>Heilsgeschichte</i> (history of redemption): from creation, through fall, to the final apocalypse. Such <i>mythicization</i> of the motif of redemption does not yet spell a full return to the mythic world of natural rhythms, but—even if anti-naturalistic in its explicit message—it comes dangerously close to imitate nature's Great Wheel, precisely in its closed, circular form. This is how Frye reads Blake's interpretation of Ezechiel's Vision: "wheels within wheels" siginify the cyclic myth of redemption which has the power to reverse the grinding wheels of fallen nature; and if the Great Wheel of Fire, which turns in the direction opposite to natural cycle, cannot achieve it, it can be done by "the mechanism of poetry" (1969, 359). But can one wheel reverse the degrading work of another? The "Jewish" critic would beg to differ—and this is why in Bloom we do not meet a one praise of any kind of cyclicity; his "mental fight" strives toward infinite diachronics and open dialectics that break all archetypal closures. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>The Saving Lie</b> by <b>Agata Bielik-Robson</b> Copyright © 2011 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.