Monday, May 01, 2006

Bloom and Criticism

Pirsig's use of "philosophology" is a pet peeve of mine, probably the major place at which I have to break ranks with Pirsig and leave him to his own devices. I mentioned the other day that Bloom has been deepening my notion of the "critic" and her travails, which is only natural considering how Rorty was influenced by Bloom. I'm currently reading Bloom's The Breaking of the Vessels and I'd like to bring out some passages that I think reflect and deepen the stance I've taken earlier when claiming that all explicit criticism of philosophy is philosophy and that all philosophy is implicitly criticism of other philosophy.


Criticism is not a science, not even a "human science," and it is not a branch of philosophy. The theory of poetry need not meet the tests by which science and philosophy rate theory, or by which they decide what is or is not theory. The theory of poetry, like all criticism, is an art, a teachable and useful art, and its true criteria are poetic: it must be memorable, pragmatic where it is most visionary, and it must give pleasure, even if only to an elite. I would sum up its necessary attributes in one formula: it must be strong, with the strength of usurpation, of persistence, of eloquence. By these criteria, most current theory can be given back to the empirical scientists, to the social scientists, and to the dialectical philosophers. Facts and arguments alike have little to do with poetry, or with poetic criticism. In homage to Emerson, who changed my mind about nearly everything when I was in the middle of the journey, back around 1965, I call upon him here as my incessant authority:
A man of genius or a work of love and beauty will not come to order, cant be compounded by the best rules, but is always new and incalculable result, like health. Dont rattle your rules in our ears; we must behave as we can. Criticism is an art when it does not stop at the words of the poet, but looks at the order of his thoughts and the essential quality of his mind. Then the critic is poet. 'Tis a question not of talents but of tone; and not particular merits, but the mood of mind into which one and another bring us.

Rhetoric, in Emerson's definition, is the "sovereignty of thought to make facts and men obey our present humor or belief." What Emerson calls metonymy is technically the metonymy of a metonymy, or metalepsis, and was Emerson's favorite trope, as it was Nietzsche's. No critical speculator, not even Nietzsche, was more aware than Emerson of the rhetorical drive that the poetic will directs against anteriority, against prior tropes. And no critic, not even Oscar Wilde, matches Emerson in his valorization of criticism over literature. This maxim, which gives such offense today, is stated by Emerson in one fierce transumptive formula:
Criticism must be transcendental, that is, must consider literature ephemeral, and easily entertain the supposition of its entire disapperance. In our ordinary states of mind, we deem not only letters in general, but most famous books parts of a pre-established harmony, fatal, unalterable, and do not go behind Dante and Shakespeare, much less behind Moses, Ezekiel, and St. John. But man is critic of all these also, and should treat the entire extant product of the human intellect as only one age, revisable, corrigible, reversible by him.
Emerson is calling upon the reader to revise, correct and reverse all of literature, until the reader has become more transcendental and extraordinary than all the wealth of texts. I do not think that Emerson idealizes or is ironic here. Our own rejected thoughts, returning to us with an alienated luster, are what account for the uncanniness of the strong reading experience. Emerson praised Milton for the adage that the poet "ought himself to be a true poem," and then transcended Milton by urging the reader to become an even truer poem than the poet. But how can such a program be pragmatic, and thus proper to criticism? How can the critic as strong reader so revise, correct, and reverse Paradise Lost, as to become a poem truer than that magnificence? I have discovered that what many moldy fig academics and most literary journalists authentically share is a capacity for boundless indignation when I advocate a contemporary version of the Emersonian program. With what zeal they come forward, proclaiming the sanctity of the text of Milton and of Shelley, of Whitman and of Stevens, which the responsible reader is not to revise, correct and reverse, but rather to repeat, congeal, and revere. Their name is legion, and they are what our father Emerson meant when he spoke of "the sterile & stingy Nature." (25-8)


Where do we find Pirsig in these lines? When Bloom says that criticism is not philosophy, he means not anglophone, let's-analyze-the-nature-of-logic philosophy. In its widest sense, I do not see a difference between criticism and philosophy, criticism and the love and search for wisdom. Without criticism, what could value possibly mean? Which is why I've always found Pirsig's knee-jerk response to the academy in Lila's 26th chapter to more indicative of Pirsig's mood then very good criticism. Of course, as Emerson reminds us, the mood is very important. I think Pirsig's place is as standing beside Bloom and Emerson. Bloom says that Emerson knew that "reading strong poems costs us a great deal, or, as he said, nothing is got for nothing." (28) I find Pirsig more Bloomian in criticism and Bloom more Pirsigian in philosophy when Bloom says, "All criticism that matters is experiential criticism, and experience here means literature in life and life in literature. When has loving another person, or even loving oneself, cost nothing?" (29) I see Pirsig above all when Bloom says, "Poetry, like criticism, is conflict and crisis, is projected jealousy and the death drive, is the horror and the allure of incest," that "the true paradigms both for poetry and for interpretation include the family romance." (ibid.)

I see Pirsig in Bloom's lines, but I often see Pirsig acting out his childish demand to be unique. And in those places I see his children regressing even further back, until we get his moldy fig successors demanding that we repeat, congeal, and revere. It's not Pirsig's demand that is childish, for that demand is repeated by all strong poets. It is what tells us more than anything that Pirsig demands to be seen in his family romance with Plato, Carnap, and the Buddha. What's childish is the petulance with which he delivers his demands, like a child demanding a cookie before dinner, rather than an authority demanding obeisance. Pirsig has some authority, which is what makes the petulance all the stranger.

I cheer most readily, and I can hear Pirsig behind me, when I read these lines:

When Paul de Man tells me that an epistemological stance in regard to a literary text is necessarily more privileged than any aesthetic or moral stance, all I can do is grin cheerfully and rejoin that such a stance is no more or less literary, no more or less a trope, than the most self-abasing belly-prone reverence of professor Moldy Fig or the self-aggrandizing Bloomian wildness. What can a trope provoke except a trope, would be the Yeatsian question, to which I would reply: only the troping of a prior trope, or of the concept of trope itself.


[From Emerson] The Supreme Critic on all the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other...

I want to convert this to a Low Transcendentalism, which is to say, to a Pragmatism. It is like Emerson that he carries his dark doctrine of reading to the point of scandal, by rejecting even Shakespeare, when the rejection is done from the Gnostic perspective of absolute freedom, from the stance of the Oversoul, which the ancient Gnostics called the pneuma or spark. My own quarrel is not with deconstructions of the psyche; as a belated or Emersonian Gnostic I am more than prepared to see that reduced to the trace of a trace. But what I have called the poet in a poet, or the poet qua poet, I would call now by the ancient name of the Orphic or Gnostic or Kabbalistic spark, the pneuma of the poet and of the knowing reader. "The soul knows only the soul," Emerson said, which I translate as: the strong reader and the strong poet know only the strong reading, a reading which is a relational event, a concept of happening and not a concept of being. (30-2)


I read a lot out of this for my pursuits with Pirsig, and someday I will try and make its relation to static and Dynamic more apparent. But part of my project is to relocate the Dynamic as not outside the static, but as something in between the static. And in criticism, this is my forerunner:


I have quoted extensively [from Emerson], yet the best commentary I can provide is one antithetical apothegm: even the strongest poem, particularly the strongest poem, costs us too much, but without that cost the poem is only so many words, and not human action. Emerson, precursor of Pragmatism as he was, knows that only a difference that makes a difference matters. Poems matter only if we matter, and so there is no true criticism that is not experiential criticism, and poems must rely upon such criticism. But experiential criticism itself relies upon consciousness, and consciousness is of the Oversoul. Call the Oversoul the Orphic or Dionysiac commonal, democratic and yet elitist, and center it where it must be centered, in the antithetical reader. There are no texts, so that it makes little difference to affirm that there is nothing outside the text. Rather, there are configurations, richly perverse interlockings of a multiplicity of strong texts and a few scattered handfuls of strong readers. Poetry happens within those configurations, within those ratios of revision that adjust the intricate balances of psychic warfare between and within texts and readers. (34)

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