The Daemon Knows
By Harold Bloom
Spiegel & Grau, 2015
After a long career spent in the throes of literary battle, Harold Bloom wants to tell us that he is done fighting.
He began his combat in the mid-fifties by defending the English Romantics against the New Critics who, inspired by T.S. Eliot, maligned Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and others to such an extent that study of them was virtually banned in American universities until Bloom took up the call. For this and what he continues, even his most recent of nearly 40 books, The Daemon Knows, to call a “virulent anti-Semitism,” Eliot earned the professor’s longest-standing vitriol.
Next up were the Deconstructionists, against whom Bloom was a less ferocious antagonist. The trouble was simply that they were too totalizing in their theory, too willing to make comprehensive claims, and so needed to be rejected in favor of remaining open to “aesthetic splendor.” And the rejection need not be similarly comprehensive. The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom’s landmark 1973 essay, bears a distinctly deconstructionist tone, possibly inspired by his friend and colleague, Paul de Man. [A side note: has Bloom ever addressed the fact that de Man wrote for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper, penning several articles of violently anti-Semitic import? Eliot may have said some rather disgusting things on a few occasions, but they are nothing when compared to what de Man wrote in a time and place when it mattered most. It is possible that Bloom’s frequent citing of Eliot’s anti-Semitism is to bolster his true qualm with the Nobel laureate, which is aesthetic (though he now admits that Eliot is a great poet.) This would account for such a strange case of selective outrage.]
Bloom’s most famous battle has been against those he refers to as the School of Resentment, a collective title for the various post-colonialists, critical race theorists, and others he sees as having a corrosive, politicizing effect of the study of literature. It was against these figures and in defense of the Great Books that he wrote The Western Canon. That 1994 best-seller includes some of his best writing in both polemic and celebratory modes (as well as a included a list of the nearly thousand works comprising the Canon, which was the cause of a great deal of scorn, even from its author, who insisted it was the publisher’s bid for sensation.) In that book, he highlights the internal struggles of the Canon, comparing, for example, Joyce’s “heroic” grappling with Shakespeare with the later, religious Tolstoy’s petulant and uncomprehending rejection of the Bard. He also spends long passages elaborating why a political view of literature (which is not, mind you, an understanding of the connection between politics and literature) is incapable of illuminating the possibilities of solitary aesthetic experience, which is, for Bloom, the only purpose of reading. As with most of his work, The Western Canon infuriated those who would take a different approach, and dismayed some who would agree with Bloom but turn red at his willingness to forgo prudence for the sake of passion. But it was (and is) his passion, not to mention his astonishing erudition, that attracted so many to a work of literary criticism (“appreciation” might be more fitting here). In a time of immense disdain for serious reading, a little bombast in the right direction might be forgivable.
Since that book, Bloom’s project has been basically the same. With some forays into religious criticism and a massive book on Shakespeare (1998’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human), he has sought to bring to a greater audience the challenges and pleasures an engagement with the Great Books can provide. He aims to show how the tradition of those books is not an exclusionary monolith of marble figureheads, but rather a 3000 year-old conversation, held by real people and often in quite heated tones, on the nature of human life.
The Daemon Knows is a continuation of this task. In it, Bloom explores the 12 authors he credits with generating, under the influence of their personal daemons, the American sublime, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” They are familiar characters in the Bloomian cosmos, who make frequent appearances in his renderings of the Canon. He treats them in often idiosyncratic pairs, but refers to all of them at one point or another in nearly every chapter: Whitman and Melville, Emerson and Dickinson, Thoreau and Henry James, Twain and Frost, Eliot and Wallace Stevens, Faulkner and Hart Crane. Their imaginative expansiveness, cognitive power, aesthetic splendor, are all praised with characteristic vigor and intensity, and always with comparisons to those qualities as Shakespeare held them (any reader of Bloom knows that for him, the author of Hamlet is the greatest figure in Western history, with few rivals and no equal). Bloom even exceeds his previous work with some of his most elusive and provocative insights to date, forming strange connections that nevertheless cause us to reflect on both his intention and those of the authors he cites:
Dickinson’s work, like Shakespeare’s, has no designs upon us, no dark allegory we are summoned to search for pure power. Though prompted by Emerson, she subtly qualifies his emphases and plays similarly against Wordsworth (called “the Stranger” by her) and even Keats, whose oxymoronic rhetoric persuades her. Shakespeare and the Bible, her main resources, nevertheless provoke her to selective merriment when her stance demands it.
But there is a new tone to these essays that augments this eminent critic’s passion for literature, turning it into what can only be described as a swan song. Bloom has been saying for years that each new book would be his last, but this is the first time it has ever read as though it might be. He reminds us constantly that he is eighty-four years old, and that he is not willing to continue his old battles. His introduction is given the totally un-Bloomian title of “Why These Twelve?” He has never before shied away from pronouncing on this or that writer’s superiority or inferiority, and yet he begins this book with by admitting:
Whether these are our most enduring authors may be disputable, but then this book does not attempt to present an American canon.
Shortly thereafter he admits his weariness completely. The laying-down of arms is so startling for a long-time reader of Bloom that it’s worth quoting in full:
As a young scholar-critic in the period 1957-77, I was a Romantic Revivalist, furiously battling to restore many great writers to the canon: Spenser, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Emerson, Whitman, Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, Wilde, Swinburne, Lawrence, Stevens, Hart Crane, and others. Many if not most of these had been exiled by Eliot and his churchwardens. When I was a child, my ear had been ravished by Eliot’s poetry, but his criticism—literary and cultural—dismayed me. At eighty-four I have calmed down: my warfare is accomplished, my grudge ebbing with the ocean of life. The prose Eliot still displeases me; I have just read through three enormous volumes of his letters and my ancient fury almost revives. His scorn for Emerson is so ill-informed that some personal bias has to be noted in it.
True, the aged Bloom retains some of his pugnacity: I doubt anyone expects that to recede entirely. But the overall tone of The Daemon Knows is categorically not one of stentorian preaching, which he has often (with some justice) been accused of. It is not even really one of critical proposition. Where before Bloom gave the impression of a wizard conjuring mighty forms of thought with flourishes of his cloak, he now reads as a very old man, feebly pointing with his finger, indicating possible avenues of discovery. You can almost hear him whispering, “I’ll be gone soon. When I am, look there, and there, and there.”
The grand old teacher of the Canon emerges as a more distinct human figure than ever before, especially when he cites his many famous friends and acquaintances, such as Kenneth Burke, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate to name only a few, which he does frequently. Some of these are his least professorial in mood as we’ve ever seen, such as his memory of Anthony Burgess:
My late friend and drinking companion […] who consumed Fundador with vivacity akin to his ingesting Joyce and Shakespeare, always insisted the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was Lucy Negro, Elizabethan England’s dominant East Indian sex worker.
But it always comes back to literature and its human possibilities:
Urging him to consider Dickinson as Shakespeare’s poetic inheritor, I persuaded him of the lineage but had difficulties with his lapsed Catholicism, which, like Joyce’s, colored sex and death with delicious remorses and Augustinian nostalgias. A lapsed Amherst Congregationalist confused Anthony, who had little patience for Dickinson’s “agile disbelievings.” Lust in the Dark Lady sonnets is the furnace come up at last. In Dickinson, heated desire prevails, masked in decorum, though the mode of desire is so severely self-questioned as to become something else. That is too Shakespearean.
These exploratory, self-reflective, some may say ponderous excursions into personal memory—always a literary exercise in Bloom’s case—fill The Daemon Knows to the brim and, in an impatient reading, disfigure its otherwise elegant shape by sheer overabundance. Many, no doubt, will still find Bloom offensive, and not just those he would brand resentful. Here he is again on Eliot, whom he never quite manages to assess without disdain:
His neo-Christianity had no trace of compassion for the needy and oppressed, only for himself. Still, that was and is between him and his God, and, as a free-thinking Jew I disqualify myself from judgment. Bigots are to be deprecated, yet in darker moments I reflect that anti-Semitism is fundamental to many varieties of Christianity and seems to have been a badge of authentic piety to Eliot. All bad religion is sincere.
And yet for those readers willing to indulge Bloom’s taste (even his vendettas), this most recent book is a treasure. It embodies his conviction that literary study is not just a discipline, and not at all a political tool, but a way of life, and one well worth living. Though he has given up his old adage that we read books because we cannot meet enough people (since no novel, play, or poem could make up for the loss of a loved one), he continues to write as if his attachments to Shakespeare, Whitman, Hart Crane, and countless others are as binding and deep as any he formed to another person.
The great authors, he seems to tell us, are there to provoke and challenge us, but also to accompany us as we make our way through life, now and then illuminating what would otherwise be an utterly obscure path. It does take a certain kind of person to be receptive to this almost mystical lineage, but I suspect there are enough of us.
Jack Hanson is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Yale University and the author of the poetry chapbook Monica Moody and Other Poems (Pen & Anvil, 2017). His poetry, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in Berfrois, Full Stop, Kenyon Review Online, The New Criterion, PN Review, Salamander, The Scofield, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.