The Sad Captain of Criticism

Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present

by Harold Bloom
Harvard University Press, 204 pp., $20.00

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom; drawing by David Levine

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…

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