September 2015

Patrick James Dunagan


The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime by Harold Bloom

Few books are capable of generating as decidedly an ambivalent love/hate relationship in a reader, especially if that reader is a writer, as Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence (1973). This insidious text asserts that for every writer there is a rival writer of a previous era with whom they compete, learning and stealing as they go. Bloom argues this rivalrous relationship is at the heart of any great writer's work: a universal, unavoidable fact of development in striving after literary greatness. The concept is a much favored topic of the critic, quite central to any Bloomian reading of a text. Bloom's latest and likely -- as he on more than one occasion remarks within its pages -- final book (he frequently mentions that he is in his eighties during its writing), The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime is a continuation of sorts on this theme.

For Bloom the great works of the Western literary tradition (he rarely spends time discussing literary work outside of it) are all a steady reworking of previous work. Every author owes a debt to a predecessor(s). Any individual's own greatness is measured by how they manage to assuage this debt and approach the triumph of producing work of originality in spite of it. No author ever fully triumphs, however; the stain of works which have come before their own is inescapable. An originality not derived from someone else's work is hopeless. As Bloom states in The Daemon Knows:

In Emerson, and in Nietzsche following him, authority is merely a matter of authorship, which always is a question. The answer to that question is that the originals are not original: Everything may be quotation. Yet we choose what we quote and how to rephrase it.

Bloom continues on, giving example of a quick Bloomian rundown of the sources of literary greatness in the West:

Homer and Plato, Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Cervantes are primary creators. Odysseus and Socrates, Dante the Pilgrim and Chaucer the Pilgrim, Hamlet and Don Quixote start meanings. Their work inspires the primary interpreters: Montaigne, Emerson, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, who define limits and possibilities for transmitting meanings and then transmitting them into wisdoms.

(It has not gone unnoticed by readers and scholars in the community-at-large that Bloomian criticism fails to notice many women and authors of color: it is devastatingly white and male.)

With The Daemon Knows, Bloom focuses upon American Literature and those authors he favors as most promising and chiefly delightful to read: "The two American writers I love best are Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, and the bridge of The Daemon Knows leaps from 'Song of Myself' to Crane's 'The Broken Tower.'" Spanning "the bridge" from Whitman to Crane, Bloom strings his personal favorites in six pairings, "juxtapositions of no single pattern" of poets and novelists: Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, Mark Twain and Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Hart Crane.

Bloom sees that: "The common element in these twelve writers -- albeit covertly in Eliot -- is their receptivity to daemonic influx." What exactly Bloom believes "daemonic influx" to entail is always left a little vague, though the general gist imparted places it somewhere between Lorca's theory of duende and Greek myths of Orpheus, particularly those concerning the trees and rocks dancing to his poems and that of his singing head afloat in the river after his death at the hands of the Bacchae.

Bloom's resulting text is a relentless mish-mashing of the various strains of each author's works, crisscrossing explorations of the relationships between them to each other along with the larger Western tradition, keeping his idea of the literary daemon at the center of the discussion. Every chapter contains myriad instances of such interrelating one author to another, or indeed an entire set of other authors. Bloom is unable to help himself from frequently detailing lineages, cross-referencing and connecting up influence upon influence:

This book is a study of the literary daemon, whose place in Wallace Stevens is everywhere, as it is in Dickinson, Emerson, Nietzsche, Shelley, Tennyson, Whitman, Wordsworth -- all of them Stevesian precursors. One could add to this list Eliot and Yeats, Stevens's self-chosen adversaries and rivals. Frost and Williams, with whom he had amiable personal relations, might complete the inventory.

There's the feeling that Bloom might just go on further, if he so chose -- and sometimes he does choose to! The above is one of the shorter passages of a literary lineage listing. They are ever abundant throughout: often extending beyond the point of repetitiveness, they reach a redundancy rendering them nearly meaningless.

The chief pleasures of the book are Bloom's witty asides and throwaways, such as "Wallace Stevens, involuntary Emersonian" and "Moby-Dick is an ecological nightmare; so are we." Of course, these pithy statements do carry some real weight. They are often in fact worth serious consideration, yet Bloom's discussion scarcely ever delves beyond the surface textures of his argument. The vast majority of the book is bulked up by extensive quotation of the authors under consideration. At times, especially with the novelists, the text seems nothing but quotation. The passages Bloom alights upon are assuredly examples of exquisite writing but his always brief commentary following them is ever sparse, and the transition into the next passage to be quoted is much too urgently introduced.

What is wanted would be a serious editorial eye to cut out some two-thirds' worth of these extensively lengthy cited passages, all the original texts are easily locatable elsewhere if needed, and a firm trimming-back of Bloom's self-indulging lists of literary lineage. There is a fine, memoir-driven, much shorter book lurking under so much dross baggage. When Bloom recalls personally meeting one or two authors, such as Stevens after a Harvard poetry reading, or his private conversations over the years with the likes of scholar and poet Allen Tate or, Bloom's good friend, the scholar Angus Fletcher, the results are immediately refreshing. In these instances, and others, Bloom notes disagreement along with agreement, and mentioning, when it's the case, how his thinking has since changed.

There are also Bloom's endearing, as well as enlightening, recollections of teaching these writers. He explains how he breaks up Moby-Dick for assigned reading and his own reordering of sections of The Bridge to further explicate themes relevant to his reading of the text. His life has long been one of service to literature, distilling the heady draughts of poetic wizardry into the ears of hundreds of students over decades. Bloom rather indirectly hints that he'd have fancied himself a poet although this was never to be a mantle he'd assume. At times, however, his writing does approach the rhapsodic heights of the poets he most adores. While his arguments are often combative, cranky, annoying, and on occasion arguably shortsighted, his brazened commitment to the act of reading, and the accompanying promise of connection to the grand conversation it brings into being as text calls out to text, is gloriously generous.

The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime by Harold Bloom
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN: 978-0812997828
544 pages