The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime by Harold Bloom - review by John Sutherland

John Sutherland

The Hidden Tradition

The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime


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Harold Bloom’s latest book is a rhapsody to twelve giants of classic American literature who have touched the sublime. He has, Bloom says, been a ‘Longinian critic since earliest youth’. Aged eighty-four, that youth is well behind him. The sublime he defines as an ‘incessant demand to transcend the human without forsaking humanism’.

Bloom’s dozen are credited with creating ‘American Newness’. The most successful engagers with the sublime are Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Hart Crane. Their great American work occupies half of the book. Sublimity is a man’s game here: Emily Dickinson chirps mournfully in her corner cage as the sole representative of her sex. But what she and the other lusty ‘giants’ have in common is ‘daemonic’ connection. That word in the title may, of course, result in Bloom being misplaced on the bookstore shelf alongside Stephen King, a ‘penny a liner’ he peculiarly despises.

Originating with Plato and refined by that Neo-Platonist Shelley (Bloom’s ever-admired English poet), daemons are a category of semi-divine spirit which, in the fashion of old-style telephone operators, connect humanity with deity. ‘Daemonic agency’, says Bloom, is ‘the hidden tradition of American literature’. Expatriate authors such as Henry James and T S Eliot (whose places in the apostolic twelve are very insecure) ran away in cowardly flight from ‘the daemonic Americanism residing in them’. Bloom has massive contempt for Eliot and his ‘churchwardens’, and no great respect, beyond the character of Isabel Archer (whom he adored, erotically, as an adolescent), for the ‘Englishman’ James. Turncoats both.

Daemonic agency would seem to bubble rather feebly nowadays. The most recently living of Bloom’s dozen is William Faulkner (1897–1962). ‘Noble’ John Ashbery might, Bloom concedes, be the great poet of our ‘climate’ – but, we apprehend, it is a wintry climate.

The climate of the time has certainly not been kind to Bloom. He has most recently been in the headlines for ‘encroaching’ on Naomi Wolf’s ‘space’ when she was his student in 1983 (an uninvited touch of the ‘inner thigh’, allegedly). He has made no public defence. But there is what one could see as an interesting subliminal explanation in this book. Whitman’s ‘eros’, Bloom asserts, ‘like his verbs, remained intransitive’. Whitman, a homosexual, volunteered as a medical orderly in the Civil War (an experience recalled in his collection Drum-Taps) and would platonically but innocently gaze at and touch the naked bodies he tended to. Bloom’s injudicious 1983 ‘tap’, we are led to believe, was similarly intransitive, without further erotic object.

This is a staggeringly egotistical book. One of the longer entries in the index is to ‘Bloom, Harold’, and there are several page references to the Bloomian ‘daemon’, for he too has one – uniquely among the literary critical profession. And who, other than he, would venture the declaration, ‘I believe there is no critical method except yourself.’ It’s Whitmanesque, but nonsense. Is he not a self-declared ‘Longinian’?

With wholly unconvincing modesty Bloom (Sterling Professor at Yale) protests, ‘I am neither a philosopher nor sage but a school-teacher.’ Why, his wife of nearly seven decades asks him, does he still, at the age of eighty-four and infirm, take on a full teaching load? You might as well ask the aged Dracula why he still gets up at night. Bloom needs an audience, disciples, applause or, in the critical term he has made his own, ‘influence’.

The Daemon Knows is a confused book, but one of the more interesting lines in its tangle is memoir. Once again, we are treated to the account of young Harold’s emergence into literary-critical selfhood. He was born and brought up in a first-generation Jewish immigrant house in the Bronx during the Depression, a tough place and time. Yiddish and classical Hebrew were the household languages. At the age of six he taught himself English. A year later he came across Crane and Blake in the Bronx public library. He did not understand them, but he was transported. Brooklyn Bridge – that symbolic ‘longest journey in the world’ – was his way up and out. To this day, apparently, he can recite Crane’s vastly long anthem to the bridge backwards. Something of a party stopper, one would guess.

‘Before I turned ten’, he says (‘before’ is a nice discrimination), Bloom had read Moby-Dick. He has been rereading it ever since. He embraced literature because it offered him the larger love his family couldn’t. They, he bitterly records, would have been happy to see young Harold become a dentist. A brilliantly clever ‘Yiddish-speaking Bronx proletarian’, he describes the cold snootiness of his WASP colleagues when he arrived in the 1950s as a 21-year-old at Yale, the university that had devised the numerus clausus to keep Yiddish-speaking Bronx proletarians in their place – outside Yale. Bloom’s ability and intellectual aggression, and the growing democracy of the academy, opened the way to his spectacular career rise.

Twelve makes up the content of a curricular course and, more significantly, it is the apostolic number. Since Bloom’s Pentecostal encounter in the Bronx public library and his first book (on Shelley), theogony – god-hunting – has been at the heart of his enterprise. At its extreme, it accounts for his arguably preposterous assertion that Shakespeare, literature’s Jehovah, ‘invented the human’. Shakespeare, he says here, less preposterously, is the ‘burning fountain’ feeding great American literature, via its sage, Emerson.

Time and again, Bloom recalls the only occasions in the Bible when a human being (other than Adam and Eve) encounters Jehovah ‘face to face’ – the shoeless Moses (a fellow teacher) on Mount Horeb and Moses again when he receives the Ten Commandments.

For Bloom the true relationship between the author and reader must be gnostic – as immediately face to face as it was for that seven-year-old in the public library. Nothing must intervene. As a critic, Bloom sets his face resolutely against ‘historicism’. Contextual information does not enlighten, it ‘blurs’. It obstructs the face-to-face intimacy that is the essence of our relationship with a great work of literature. Neither is explication necessary. Bloom deals with some very difficult poets, notably Wallace Stevens and Crane, and quotes them at length. He avoids the anthology pieces of Dickinson and Robert Frost, going for more challenging works. But he never unpacks meaning. He leaves it to the work to communicate itself. The approach is more successful with lyric poems, which he can quote entire, than fiction. The sections on Hawthorne and Faulkner in particular are less impressive.

One forgives Bloom his afflatus and elephantine self-importance because he believes literature matters more than anything else in life. It is not too much to say he worships it; and so, he avers, should we. Academic literary criticism nowadays is a field in which no one grows high. Bloom, closing in on ninety, belongs to that generation of academics who were giants before the flood. What giants do we have today in the UK, now that Leavis, Kermode and Empson are gone? Ricks? Eagleton? James Wood? Bloom is, as his eventual obituaries will confirm, the last of the Titans. He would, I suspect, not be unflattered by the Keatsian allusion.

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