Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present
One of the many histrionic vivacities in Harold Bloom’s book is its title. Ruin the sacred truths: apparently an admonition, the verb an imperative. But why would Harold Bloom, hitherto not known as a vandal, urge his readers to do such a dreadful thing? The point of the title, but not the justification of the ruin it proposes, emerges on page 125, where Bloom alludes to Andrew Marvell’s poem on Paradise Lost, in which Marvell, referring to Milton, feared
That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and Old Song.
I assume, then, that Ruin the Sacred Truths, the text of Bloom’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard for 1987–1988, is his riposte to T.S. Eliot’s The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, the Norton Lectures for 1932–1933, in which Eliot, in turn, proposed to discredit an account of poetry and belief which he found in Matthew Arnold and I.A. Richards.
Bloom’s project is, in fact, the same as Arnold’s, though I would be afraid to mention the latter’s name in the former’s presence. “For Arnold,” as Eliot said, “the best poetry supersedes both religion and philosophy.” So also for Bloom, the gist of whose lectures is to say: reduce the once sacred truths to mere fables and old songs, and then let us, like Wallace Stevens, construct in poetry our own romantic tenements. If Arnold’s criticism had succeeded in its object, it would be unnecessary for Bloom to trouble himself further. But here he is, trying yet again to show not only that great literature is independent of belief but that it is supremely great when it has triumphed over belief. In that sense, his new book is a reply not only to Eliot but to M.H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism (1971), which undertakes to show the continuing power of religious and especially of Christian forms of experience in Romantic literature.
If Bloom is the saddest captain of criticism, the reason may be that, thinking he had disposed of Arnold, he now finds himself belatedly practicing much the same subversion as Arnold’s, and with instruments not significantly different. These lectures on the Hebrew Bible, the Iliad, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Freud, Kafka, and Beckett have the same moral as Arnold’s meditations on translating Homer; that in the absence of religious belief, poetry can save us. Not that Bloom is without beliefs. I might say of him, as Eliot said of Bertrand Russell, that he believes more than Augustine did. Bloom believes in American individualism, in Emerson as founder of the American religion called self-reliance, in Freud as strong theorist of the psyche, and in virtually every further consequence of these beliefs. The essential loneliness of one’s being in the world is the culmination of these assumptions. But Bloom’s beliefs are not, as I recognize them, religious: their emotions do not include awe. For that reason I cannot say, if poems are to save me, what form of salvation Bloom has in mind for me to hope for.
Bloom is a man of many attributes: he is by birth and I presume on principle an American, by heritage a Jew, by more deliberate affiliation a Gnostic, and in his critical procedures a Pragmatist. On his being an American, he has little to say, apart from his celebration of the Emerson of “Self-Reliance” and the “Divinity School Address,” and his repudiation of the smiling Ronald Reagan as false domestication of that Emerson. Bloom’s Judaism, I gather, is not normative; he reads the Law but does not otherwise observe it; the Torah is literature to him, but a powerful provocation even in that diminished or absented state. All strong writing is sacred, according to Bloom; an assertion I find shocking since it makes Milton’s Satan the paradigm of sacredness, whereas I regard him as a spoiled brat. The significance of the Bible, to Bloom, is that it “invented our literary sense of human personality” and thus prefigured Shakespeare and Freud. Perhaps I do Bloom an injustice; there may be more to his Judaism than I can see. Whatever I know of Gnosticism—to me, a strikingly alien heresy, as deplorable in its repudiation of nature and history as the Manichaeism which it anticipated—I have learned from Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion and Plotinus’s Against the Gnostics, or against those who say that the Creator of the World is evil and that the World is bad. According to Bloom, Milton’s Satan is a Gnostic because he sees God and Christ as mere versions of the Demiurge, ruler of the cosmological emptiness in which we live:
In Gnosticism, there is an alien, wholly transcendent God, and the adept, after considerable difficulties, can find the way back to presence and fullness. Gnosticism therefore is a religion of salvation, though the most negative of all such saving visions.
As for Pragmatism: since Bloom values words as deeds and for that reason alone, and since the Pragmatist lodges the process of knowing within the process of conduct, Bloom resorts to Pragmatism to get things done, not to pose ultimate questions. In a sentence that Bloom loves to quote, William James says that “theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.”
Reading Bloom’s books as they appeared, I interpreted them as mainly engaged in the recovery of the poetry of Romanticism, against the opposition then represented by Eliot and his pupils, the English and American New Critics. The recovery of Romanticism emerged as a major project in Northrop Frye’s study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), Geoffrey Hartman’s The Unmediated Vision (1954), Georges Poulet’s The Metamorphoses of the Circle (1961), Bloom’s The Visionary Company (1961), and Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism. More recent work by Paul de Man and several other critics has made Eliot’s dismissal of Romantic poetry—as distinct from his specific recognition of certain poets, notably Poe, Whitman, Tennyson, and Swinburne—seem opportunistic.
Bloom’s influence in the restoration of Romantic poetry to an unashamed readership has been, and continues to be, immense. But I have only recently come to understand the scope of the claim he is making for Romanticism: not merely that it is one creative procedure among many or that it marks the site of some great poems, but that the particular kind of poetry it has produced is poetry-as-such, the sole type and model of true poetry. In the vertigo of his most exalted paragraphs, we are to find ourselves persuaded that every poem, however decisive in its apparent character, from the Bible and Homer to Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton has been a precursor of the definitive type or mode of poetry as we find it in Wordsworth’s “Immortality” Ode and the two-part Prelude of 1799.
The model for this mode of reading is Borges’s “Kafka and His Precursors,” according to which your reading of Kafka makes you feel that certain earlier works—Borges mentions Han Yu, Kierkegaard, and Browning—are best understood as prefigurings of Kafka. It is no wonder that Bloom reads the early masterpieces much as the Romantic poets read them, and later works chiefly in their diverse relations to Romanticism. No wonder, too, that in Bloom’s hands all great poems tend to become one and the same, the exemplary act of Narcissus: only minor poems keep their differences. Stevens’s Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction comes out sounding like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: both are alike and equally Emersonian acts of power, the proclamation of divinity within oneself; to me an empty or Pyrrhic victory.
Bloom’s central concern, from his earliest writings, has been with “the poetical character,” otherwise known as poetic genius. To retain the mystery but not the mystification of that power, he resorts to an Emersonian distinction between psyche, the subjectively perceived mind, and pneuma—the divine spirit or spark that transforms the mind. Prematurely, as it seems to me, Bloom is prepared to take Freud’s word for our psychic lives. “Our father Freud,” as he charmingly calls him, stands unquestioned in his prescription of ego, id, and superego. In Agon (1982) Bloom refers to “the strong self, by which Emerson means the Gnostic pneuma or spark and not the mere psyche.” The pneuma is “spark-of-the-primal-Abyss,” the true soul in its fullness of presence.
In The Breaking of the Vessels (1982) Bloom speaks of “the Orphic or Gnostic or Kabbalistic spark, the pneuma of the poet and of the knowing reader.” In Ruin the Sacred Truths he says that Kafka refused “the Gnostic quest for the alien God, for one’s own spark or pneuma rejoining the original abyss somewhere out of this world.” If the pneuma, spark, or “inmost self” is, as Bloom insists in Agon, “absolutely alien to the cosmos, to everything natural,” it follows that it must seek salvation, whatever that entails, within itself. Poetry becomes—in Arnold’s phrase—“the dialogue of the mind with itself.” Or rather, the dialogue of the pneuma with itself. It follows, too, that when a poet deals with anything “natural”—a landscape, for instance, which the poet cannot claim to have made—he must deal with it as if it were himself or at last became himself.
I recall Bloom, a few years ago, making a comparison between Elizabeth Bishop’s “The End of March” and Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” The comparison was much in Bishop’s favor because her poem offered “the overwhelming self-revelation of a profoundly subjective consciousness,” while Lowell’s poem remained “an opacity,” presumably because the “natural” in it remains grimly resistant. I recall, too, his positing that John 1:14 says (or should say): “And the Word became Pneuma [spirit] and dwelt among us”; rather than “became Flesh”; a conceit entirely consistent with Bloom’s reluctance to see the Old Testament book yielding in the New Testament to an incarnate person, Jesus Christ.
Bloom concedes that poetry cannot continuously be the dialogue of the pneuma with itself. There are obstacles: contingency, the given, necessity (Ananke). But he insists on gathering every obstacle together and giving the sum of them a personal form, the form of a contest with the past. A great poet meets his necessities in the form of his forerunners, and especially of one of them, his fated and chosen precursor, who must be taken on, removed, completed, evaded, or otherwise transcended. The predicament is like the one described in Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), but I take Nietzsche to be Bloom’s immediate source.
In Zarathustra and more fragmentary writings Nietzsche recurs to the agon between a writer and his precursor. In “Homer’s Contest” Nietzsche speaks—the passage is quoted in Ruin the Sacred Truths—of the relationship of Xenophanes of Colophon to Homer, and of the “overwhelming craving to assume the place of the overthrown poet and to inherit his fame.” Even a dead man, Nietzsche says, can “still spur a live one to consuming jealousy.” In Bloom’s terms, the anxiety caused in the strong poet by the overbearing force of his precursor is the epitome of the poetic character. If he is strong enough, the later poet will triumph: he will master anteriority by remembering rather than by repeating the past, and he will make the past seem the creation and consequence of his will. I would add that the strong poet also protects his consciousness against the ennui of having nothing to encounter but its own devices. Narcissus can imagine that his predicament and Satan’s agon are one and the same.
Is this agon characteristic of great artists by virtue of their daimon? Or is it a relatively recent, perhaps post-Renaissance symptom of certain historical conditions? Bloom has not been consistent on this question. Dante and Shakespeare seem to embarrass any theory of anxiety, since they show no sign of having felt anxious about authority or about recapitulating the work of the artists of genius who came before them—what Bloom calls their own “belatedness.” In Ruin the Sacred Truths Bloom refers to the agon between Aeschylus and Euripides, and claims that Euripides is “a severe case of the anxiety of influence.” Virgil apparently suffered the double anxiety of having Lucretius as his precursor and Homer as his “daunting father.” Dante is “Virgil’s daemonic son”; though the assimilation of Dante to Bloom’s theory of influence still seems to me implausible because there is simply no evidence of it. He also refers, more convincingly, to Milton’s “loving but fierce competition with the Bible and Homer, Virgil and Dante, Spenser and Shakespeare.” So I suppose he has come to the conclusion that the agon is categorical to strong writers: weak writers evince their weakness by not recognizing their situation as agonistic.
The aim of Ruin the Sacred Truths is to disengage the poet from any belief that would create an obstacle to his poetry. Bloom does this by assigning such beliefs to the mere psyche, where presumably they work mischief or good. Belief to Milton, for instance, meant “the liberty exercised by his own pure and upright heart,” so it didn’t get in the way. If a belief threatens to get in the poet’s way, it can be nullified by showing that while the poet-as-psyche may have held the belief, the poet-as-pneuma entertained it only nominally or speciously. Milton’s pneuma therefore merely entertained the God of Paradise Lost, his true self being of Satan’s party throughout. In any case a belief can’t intimidate the pneuma. If belief continues to assert itself, it can be disabled by calling it “a weak misreading of literature.” Ambition for immortality, a clear sign of the pneuma, “takes priority over belief of any kind.”
A genius, according to Harold Bloom, lives and works to overcome his precursor; to transform every obstacle into himself, his own inwardness. The supreme emotion of this transformation is “the sublime,” irrefutable mark of victory. In a strong poet, every merely contingent, historical, political, or economic condition, including one’s religious belief, is consumed and nothing much is left of it.
The origin of Ruin the Sacred Truths is clearly the distinction, proposed in various forms by Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Keats, between two types of imagination. One type, found in Shakespeare, sequesters itself in favor of its creations. Hazlitt said of Shakespeare:
He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become.
The other type was ascribed now to Milton, now to Wordsworth; as in Keats’s famous account, in a letter of October 27, 1818, to Richard Woodhouse, of the impartiality of the poetical character, as distinct “from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” Under the sway of this Wordsworthian type of imagination, nothing perceived by the poet’s mind is allowed to retain its apparent independence, it must yield itself to the subjective power of the poet which in the end overwhelms it.
To clear a vast space for the egotistical sublime, Bloom not only dumps every apparent nuisance on the poor psyche, but follows Hazlitt in establishing Milton’s Satan as the archetype of “heroic vitalism.” Those passages in which Satan appears to some readers a mere casuist, Bloom interprets as expressions of nothing less than the majesty of self-assertion. In Paradise Lost (Book V, lines 856–864) Satan, who has evidently been reading Wallace Stevens, rounds upon Abdiel, who has been insisting that Christ was God’s agent in the Creation:
When this creation was? rememberest thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native Heaven, Ethereal Sons.
Our puissance is our own….
This passage sends Bloom into an altitudo of eloquence, on the assumption that here Satan is the poet Milton, magnificently claiming to be, as pneuma, self-begotten. But the gorgeousness of the lines in a Stevensian way can’t conceal the fact that Satan’s argument is nonsense. Adam meets it when he says (Book VIII, lines 250–251):
For Man to tell how human life began
Is hard: for who himself beginning knew?
In the end, Paradise Lost isn’t about the poet Milton and his pneuma, though in responding to Bloom’s satanic eloquence I find myself wishing for a while that it were. Bloom rarely convinces me of anything, except that in a differently constituted world the beauty of his sentences or of the lives he quotes would make them true.
I have the same feeling again, reading Bloom’s account of Paradiso, Canto XV, where Cacciaguida addresses Dante. Bloom says that Dante, through Cacciaguida, “salutes himself as that unique one, all but messianic, who beheld the truth in his own image before ever he began to think.” Cacciaguida, according to Bloom, “gives Dante the principle of the poet’s prophetic vocation, which establishes the authority of the Comedy: ‘You behold the truth, for the small and great of this life gaze into that mirror, in which, before you think, you behold your thought.’ ” In fact, this is the opposite of what Cacciaguida says. It is not for Dante a matter of beholding the truth in his own image, but of believing the truth that comes from God: it is “Tu credi” in line 61, repeating the “Tu credi” of line 55. What Cacciaguida says to Dante is:
You believe that your thought flows to me from Him who is first…. [Tu credi che a me tuo pensier mei / da quel ch’è primo….] You believe the truth, because the lesser and the great of this life gaze into that mirror in which, before you think, you display your thought…. [Tu credi ‘l vero; ché i minori e’ grandi / di questa vita miran ne lo speglio / in che, prima che pensi, il pensier pandi…]
Cacciaguida’s address to Dante supports a theory of poetic inspiration, and therefore of prophecy, but not one of prophetic self-begetting. Bloom is so entranced by the figure of a self-begotten pneuma that he sees what is not in the poem, and refuses to see what is. He reads Paradiso Canto XXXI as if it ended with Beatrice, not Mary; and as if Beatrice, when Dante looks up to see her, is found to have “made for herself a crown, reflecting from her the eternal beams.” Not so: Beatrice reflected the eternal rays as they came to her from God.
A motto for Ruin the Sacred Truths might well be Stevens’s: “God and the imagination are one.” They are one in a sense which Stevens often but not always settled for, the egotistical sublime which converts every ostensible object into subjectivity. Bloom is devoted not to Pure Poetry but to the poem as Pure Act and its ideal model, the act of self-begetting. Freud seems to be Bloom’s authority for this notion. In Bloom’s Yeats (1970) we read:
Freud thought all men unconsciously wished to beget themselves, to be their own fathers in place of their phallic fathers, and so “rescue” their mothers from erotic degradation. It may not be true of all men, but it seems to be definitive of poets as poets. The poet, if he could, would be his own precursor, and so rescue the Muse from her degradation.
Wordsworth, surprisingly, becomes the truest poet, a conclusion Bloom has reached by ignoring Blake’s complaint against him, that his commitment to memory held him back from true vision. Bloom’s Wordsworth is Keats’s and Hazlitt’s, not Blake’s. “Wordsworth celebrates his own godhood,” Bloom says, reading him as if he were reading Milton’s Satan and ignoring, too, the fact that in the sublime passage from the twopart Prelude that he quotes as evidence, Wordsworth says that the power he felt within was
for the most
Subservient strictly to the external things
With which it communed.
Subservient? That doesn’t sound like Bloom’s Wordsworth.
How then does Bloom deal with Shakespeare? Surely Shakespeare, of all writers, can’t be appropriated to a theory of the egotistical sublime? No, but he allows his greatest characters to change by becoming egotistical sublimists. The hint for this notion comes from Hegel’s remark, in The Philosophy of Fine Art, that Shakespeare confers intelligence and imagination on his choice characters and, “by means of the image in which they, by virtue of that intelligence, contemplate themselves objectively as a work of art, he makes them free artists of themselves.” Bloom argues that Shakespeare, acting upon the example of Chaucer in developing the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, set his characters to contemplate themselves and by doing so to change and to manifest the process of change. Hamlet, Edmund, Iago, Falstaff: these are Bloom’s examples, and he writes of them with exhilarating zest, especially of Falstaff. It is old-fashioned criticism, indeed, somewhat Wagnerian, contiguous with A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy and other works similarly unabashed about subjectivity. Indeed, only a critic with Bloom’s authority and verve could use without fuss or apology or definition the words he uses: mimesis, will, ego, being, voice, author, self, personality. Faced with “current flight from individuality in literary critical circles”—in which authors and selves supposedly have no place—he is content to see these neo-Gallic tourists buy a one-way ticket to Paris. How can I fail to enjoy the spectacle of Bloom sending these youngsters on their bon voyage? He is the Satan of criticism, in the sense that he is heroic even in those passages in which we are permitted to suspect that he may be a charlatan. He is not a charlatan, and in that—in my view—he differs notably from Satan.
But there is a cost to every merit. I have implied that Bloom is impassioned in his sense of words, but only because the thinks of words as deeds and wishes to see them fulfill their destiny as deeds without equivocation. “The Yahweh-Word is an inward fire, however raging,” he says, “as are the Yahweh-Act and the Yahweh-Thing, since word, act, and thing are blent in the Hebrew for ‘word.’ ” They are blended, too, in every word of Bloom’s criticism. As a result, he has little to say about words in any of their other capacities: perhaps he denies that they have any. My own prejudice is that in poetry, words are so chosen and ordered as to delay their resolution as deeds, and to prolong the contemplation of them in every other respect. But I suspect that Bloom, in a hurry to see the poets triumphant in the sublimity of their self-assertions, would regard my prejudice as pusillanimous, a mere urbanity. He speaks, in a tone I associate with the great actor-managers, of “the best of all critics, Dr. Johnson.” I am more regularly persuaded by Johnson than by Bloom, but I think a comparison between the two not at all absurd. Bloom’s puissance is not entirely his own; for some of it, he is indebted to Nietzsche, Freud, Schopenhauer, Gershom Scholem, and other masters. But enough of it is his own to constitute a distinctive form of splendor.