Knowing Me, Knowing You

Review: Harold Bloom’s ‘The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime’

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom is God—at least according to Tablet Magazine and perhaps a few other contemporary publications. The New York Times has called him "a colossus." According to a contributor at the Huffington Post, he is one of the "giants," not of criticism, but of the Western canon itself.

As a disciple of Emerson, who believed that all men were divine, Bloom probably wouldn’t quibble with Tablet’s bit of hyperbole. But we’re on surer ground if we simply note that he is our most prolific and popular critic. He has written 45 books in his long career (not counting the 96-volume set of modern criticism he edited for Chelsea House) and has landed on The New York Times bestseller list three times—no mean feat for an elderly academic in our age of Kardashian.

The book that got it all started was The Anxiety of Influence, which was written over three days in the midst of a personal crisis in 1967 and published in 1973 (though William Deresiewicz has noted that Bloom has given other accounts of the book’s genesis). Bloom’s famous, if not particularly novel, argument is that the work of all great writers except Shakespeare is in response to other writers, whether it is by "completing," rejecting, or "correcting" a previous work—consciously or unconsciously. (In a later edition of the book, he decided that the Bard, too, had been influenced slightly by Christopher Marlowe.) Almost everything since has been a variation on this theme, and the variation continues in his latest volume, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.

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In it, Bloom unapologetically focuses on twelve American writers he considers "great" and their attempt to know the "unknowable" or "the sublime" or their "soul," all of which Bloom uses interchangeably. Walt Whitman and Herman Melville are the trailblazers in this ultimately impossible endeavor. Whitman’s Song of Myself is "a mystery play, with Walt palpably playing the Christ." In Moby Dick, Ahab tries to possess the "original fullness of being," which ruins him. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Wallace Stevens follow Whitman, according to Bloom, but both are also "Emersonians." (Stevens’s Ideas of Order is "a Whitmanian meditation upon transcending the daemon of the sea").  Mark Twain is an Emersonian and so is Emily Dickinson. William Faulkner is indebted to T.S. Eliot, who in turn was indebted to Whitman, and so on.

All the writers in the volume are white men except Dickinson—gender and identity theory be damned. Bloom briefly defends his selection on intellectual and aesthetic grounds, ignoring completely, as he has throughout his career, the faddish turn to politics in criticism in the last half-century. In a Paris Review interview over 20 years ago, Bloom remarked that literature is not "an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform" and that the problem with postmodern literary theory (which Bloom has dubbed "The School of Resentment") is that it has "no relationship whatever to literary values. It’s really a very paltry kind of a phenomenon." Reading is first a personal, not political, act, and criticism "has to start," he argues, "with a real passion for reading."

In The Daemon Knows, Bloom’s well-known passion is occasionally on display. At his best, he reads these writers as if for the first time and helps us to read them that way, too. In a gloss on Moby Dick he writes: "Casual, unhurried, paradoxically driven yet easygoing, Ishmael starts off upon a questless quest not at all his own."  Shakespeare taught Emily Dickinson "to slow her reader down," he writes, and Frost "is a trickster and mischief-maker, to the aesthetic benefit of poetry."

If often abstract, he can also be practical and wise. The "highest value of literature," he writes, is to "help protect the individual mind and society from themselves." "All bad religion is sincere," he remarks (mostly) rightly, even if he forgets to add that not all sincere religion is bad.

But Bloom’s faults are also on show—so much so that the volume is, at times, almost unreadable.

Bloom doesn’t make arguments. He makes assertions and riffs on long passages. But a number of his remarks in The Daemon Knows are either wrong or implausible. Hawthorne does not believe in "original sin," Bloom tells us, against all evidence, and Hart Crane was more "deeply religious" than Eliot, whom he insists on calling a "neo-Christian." All "great poets" are "omnisexual" and all references to the sea in Eliot are indebted to Whitman, not Eliot’s actual fascination with the sea (and love of sailing), which he developed over many summers at the family’s coastal vacation home in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Elsewhere, Bloom’s private vocabulary overwhelms all meaning. "The Gnostic anarch-archon cleaving asunder of the cosmic androgyne," he writes in a gloss on Melville’s poem "After the Pleasure Party," "shies Aristophanic fragments (women and men) through the gate of human birth." In one of many passages where he refers to "the daemon" as a real, independent agent (which he defined as an "intermediary being, neither divine nor human" in The Anxiety of Influence), he writes: "The daemon knows how a poem is written and knows also its own ambivalence, since it runs a scale from divinity to guilt. Being acosmic renders it antithetical to our psyche, self against soul, or nature against poetry." Bloom can be eloquent, but when he isn’t, his sentences are like an elephant’s head—big and ugly.

In his slim How to Read and Why, published in 2000, Bloom defined criticism as the practice of making "what is implicit in a book finely explicit." In What the Daemon Knows he offers a more honest definition of criticism as he actually practices it: "How this critic thinks, what I look for when I read, and ultimately what I project on a text is a critical method only because I believe there is no critical method except yourself" (my emphasis). Bloom defends this subjective view of criticism by turning to Whitman: "Whitman had no poetic method except his self."

The problem is that criticism is not poetry. In poetry, words are reality. In criticism, they describe the reality (or realities) of a text (as Bloom rightly noted in How to Read)—not refashion them to suit a critic’s esoteric ideas.

Bloom has always been one of the more personal critics, and there is no doubt that how critics view the world colors their criticism. But Bloom’s vocabulary has become so inward looking as to be almost cult-like—every text, every writer, becomes a mere character in his long, dramatic poem of the Orphic genius. The irony of Bloom’s work is that rather than helping readers to understand the originality of great writers, he transforms them into mere vates of his "daemonic" genius, which is to say, of Bloom himself.

What the daemon knows, in other words, is what Harold Bloom knows, which often seems less than what these twelve writers knew and expressed in their work.