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Stevens at the Crossing

Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate

by Harold Bloom
Cornell University Press, 413 pp., $17.50

Harold Bloom’s new book is not only an interpretation of Wallace Stevens’s major poems but a sustained application of the theory of literary history which he first outlined in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). It may be useful to recite the theory before considering its bearing upon Stevens.

Bloom’s first books were powerful but relatively straightforward interpretations of the major Romantic poets. Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959), The Visionary Company (1961), and Blake’s Apocalypse (1963) were written on the understanding that the central act of Romanticism is the transformation of natural life into human life. The necessary mode of this transformation is “myth-making, the confrontation of life by life, a meeting between subjects, not subjects and objects.” The last phrases indicate that Martin Buber’s vocabulary of I-Thou and I-It relations helped Bloom to describe the mythopoeic mode not only in Shelley but in the Romantic poets generally.

I am not sure that he continues to find Buber’s terms inspiring. In the preface to the 1969 edition of Shelley’s Mythmaking he described his theme as “Shelley’s internalized quest to reach the limits of desire.” I take this gloss as a revisionist gesture on Bloom’s part, pushing the book away from Buber toward an idiom of desire and will. Bloom’s Yeats (1970) now seems a transitional book, mainly because its chapters on Gnosticism have more to do with Bloom than with Yeats. Gnosticism is marginal to Yeats, but central to Bloom in the development of a theory of literary history which owes more to certain Gnostic texts and the Kabbalah than to its official sources in Vico, Nietzsche, Emerson, and Freud. The gist of the theory is given in Bloom’s tetralogy: The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), and Poetry and Repression (1976).

Since the Enlightenment, according to Bloom, writers have suffered in one degree or another from a feeling of belatedness: born too late, they find everything already said and done; they cannot be first, priority has by definition, and the indifference of fate, escaped from them. Before the Enlightenment, there was no such anxiety; to Ben Jonson, art was merely hard work, a craft without shadow. Bloom concedes that there are some post-Enlightenment writers whose genius is compatible with nonchalance. Goethe, like Milton, “absorbed precursors with a gusto evidently precluding anxiety.” Nietzsche shows no sign of the Angst of influence in his relation to Goethe and Schopenhauer. But the shadow is nearly universal. Poets under that shadow are either strong or weak; weak if they merely idealize, strong if they wrestle with their precursor angels and define their genius by that struggle. Strong poets, challenging their precursors, misread them willfully so as to clear a space for themselves. Blake wrestles with Milton, Mailer with Hemingway.

The rules of wrestling are called tropes, they are the official gestures, turnings, strategies, defense mechanisms. Bloom calls them revisionary ratios and describes six of them under the names clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades. Presumably there are far more than six; the available turns and swerves are as numerous, I suppose, as the tropes of Elizabethan rhetoric. But Bloom’s six make a working typology of evasions, a set of exercises by which the new poet, the “ephebe,” enters into a tense relation, at once cooperative and aggressive, with his precursor or precursors. Clinamen is the poet’s swerve away from his precursor, a corrective gesture to make change possible and desire continuous; without clinamen, the new poet is doomed to imitation and weakness.

Tessera names the gesture by which the new poet, retaining his precursor’s terms, uses them in an independent or heretical sense and thinks of himself as completing the work his precursor left unfinished. Kenosis is a break away from the precursor in a spirit of self-abasement, an emptying of the poetic self. In daemonization the new poet finds something in the precursor’s poem which he thinks the precursor did not know. Askesis is self-purgation performed in a special mood; the new poet separates himself from others, including his precursor, and thus attains to solitude. In apophrades the poet holds his poem open at last to his precursor, and we are compelled to feel that he has written the precursor’s poem, we find it suffused with his spirit. In Kabbalah and Criticism Bloom attempts to relate these revisionary mechanisms to the six active phases or behinot of the Kabbalah’s Sefirot.

It follows that the exemplary poem in post-Enlightenment literature is “the Wordsworthian crisis-poem,” which is obsessively turned upon the fear that the poet has lost his imaginative power. In recent books culminating in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate Bloom has been charting the scenes of crisis in particular poems, marking certain “Crossings” or representative crisis-moments, crucial places where the poet’s language leaps the gap “between one kind of figurative thinking and another.” He has distinguished three major Crossings—the Crossing of Election, which faces the death of the creative gift; the Crossing of Solipsism, which struggles with the death of love; and the Crossing of Identification, which faces death itself, total death. These crossings are sought in particular poems because Bloom’s theory requires them to be there. A major crisis is bound to be mediated through local crises, turns of fear.

The first Crossing is situated between irony and synecdoche, “or psychologically between reaction formation, where one defends against one’s own instincts by manifesting the opposite of what one both wants and fears, and turning against the self, which is usually an exercise in sado-masochism.” The second Crossing is between metonymy and hyperbole, “or defensively between regressive and isolating movements of one’s own psyche, and the massive repression of instinct that sublimely augments one’s unconscious or inwardness at the expense of all the gregarious affects.” And the third Crossing takes place between metaphor and metalepsis, or “psychoanalytically between sublimation and introjection, that is between substituting some labor for one’s own prohibited instincts and the psychic act of so identifying oneself with something or someone outside the self that time seems to stand still or to roll back or forward.”

Bloom finds these Crossings most clearly but not solely in Stevens’s long poems, especially The Auroras of Autumn and An Ordinary Evening in New Haven; and also in the poet’s career as a whole. He points to the Crossing of Election in the Stevens of 1915, “when his first strong poems were written.” The Crossing of Solipsism “lasted a long time in Stevens, but its crux was in 1921-22, and it was not resolved until 1934-36.” The Crossing of Identification “took place in 1942, and gave him Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” The later poems, especially The Auroras of Autumn in 1947 and The Rock in 1950, were resolved on the basis of formulations already reached in Notes. Sometimes, as in “Domination of Black,” the three Crossings occur in one poem: but not always. Two poems may place themselves at different points or stages along the path of crisis, with correspondingly different recourse to tropes and figures. If the chosen stage is late, presumably the earlier phases are taken for granted: the exact “moment” of the poem depends upon the conjunction of the poet’s will and the factors which have provoked it on this occasion. Generally, the Crossings seem to occur in the order in which I have given them.

I have referred to Bloom’s sources, but it is more accurate to speak of his models. In Poetry and Repression he asserts that “negative theology,” even where it verges upon theosophy, provides the likeliest discipline for revisionist or antithetical critics:

But so extreme is the situation of strong poetry in the post-Enlightenment, so nearly identical is it with the anxiety of influence, that it requires as interpretative model the most dialectical and negative of theologies that can be found.

Kabbalah, especially as mediated through the doctrines of Isaac Luria, provides “not only a dialectic of creation astonishingly close to revisionist poetics, but also a conceptual rhetoric ingeniously oriented toward defense.” And in Kabbalah and Criticism Bloom refers to “the Gnostic formulation that all reading, and all writing, constitute a kind of defensive warfare, that reading is mis-writing and writing is misreading.” Of course there are helpful texts nearer home. In several books Bloom quotes the passage in the Letter about Mallarmé in which Valéry, writing of influence, says that what a man does either repeats or refutes what someone else has done, “repeats it in other tones, refines or amplifies or simplifies it, loads or overloads it with meaning; or else rebuts, overturns, destroys and denies it, but thereby assumes it and has invisibly used it.” As for Vico, Nietzsche, Emerson, Pater, and Freud: Bloom’s recourse to these masters is frequent but opportunistic. My own guess is that his true precursor is Blake, and I find the first trace of Bloom’s revisionary ratios in his account of Blake’s distinction between States and the Individuals in those states. The chapter on Blake’s Milton in Blake’s Apocalypse could easily be translated into the idiom of The Anxiety of Influence.

Bloom’s aim is “not another new poetics, but a wholly different practical criticism.” He urges us to learn to read any poem, or at least any strong poem, “as its poet’s deliberate misrepresentation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general.” Criticism is either primary or antithetical. Primary criticism vacillates “between tautology—in which the poem is and means itself—and reduction—in which the poem means something that is not itself a poem.” Antithetical criticism denies both tautology and reduction, “a denial best delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem—a poem not itself.” The precursor, according to antithetical criticism, admonishes his ephebe: “Be me but not me.” Bloom speaks of “my own addiction to a Romantic and prophetic humanism,” but generally he allows his commitments to issue between his lines.

I hope this synopsis of Bloom’s theory of poetry will be regarded as fair and decently accurate. Now I want to indicate some of the reservations I would find myself urging in a discussion with Bloom: some of these are so obvious that I would express them only if our discussion neglected to take them for granted.

One: Bloom presents literary history since the Enlightenment as one story and one story only, a struggle of gods and demiurges; the character of the struggle issues from obsession, trespass, defense, and revenge. The only narrative is a “family romance.” The story has nothing to say of time, history, the world, society, manners, morals, chance.

Two: Bloom’s interest in the poem expires with the disclosure of its plot; it concentrates upon certain disjunctive moments in the poem and insists upon finding there the local phases of anxiety and crisis. His practical criticism is not much concerned with the structure of an individual poem except as an embodiment of crisis; it has little to say of diction, the metres, rhythm, syntax, or tone, it is mainly concerned to isolate the defensive gesture which it anticipates. Like Desdemona, Bloom understands a fury in the words, but not the words; a fury of revisions and evasions directed against the precursor poem.

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