by Paul A. Bové
In 1997, Harold Bloom looked back on The Anxiety of Influence, much as I will do here. In his then new “Preface,” Bloom gave us the ultimate authority for his own work, his own way of doing criticism. If I count correctly, Shakespeare’s name appears on as few as two pages of The Anxiety of Influence, most importantly page 11 of the Introduction where Bloom defines Shakespeare as the limit case to his work and so off limits. In 1997, however, Shakespeare appears on nearly every page of the new Preface, there ostensibly because Bloom has matured, learned, grown to meditate on the limit that is Shakespeare as originality. More important, in this Preface, Bloom gives us Shakespeare as both his original and his own mask. In 1973, Shakespeare excluded himself from anxiety because he was greater than his predecessor, whom Bloom called Marlowe, whereas by contrast, Milton confronted a great poetic predecessor, Spenser, who like all strong poets, left Milton or any successor merely traces and ruins of inspiration. Surprisingly, Bloom had recourse to an historical explanation, making Shakespeare a Vichian primitive man who existed prior to the flood of anxiety that surfeits modernizing imaginations. (Edward Said aspired to discredit The Anxiety of Influence by naming Goethe as another giant who suffered no secondariness, no anxiety.) We could read the 1997 Preface then as completing the 1973 project. What had once been unthought as the condition of reading and theorizing, after long study emerged through the optics of a Shakespeare successor and Bloom predecessor, Emerson. What had been lost was found. What came before returned. Belatedness found the impossible original. Proficient productivity had found its source and, to echo the Unnamable, could keep on going on.
I want to exposit two passages from Bloom’s writings. Each is very simple. In the first, I draw attention to critical will that is all too human and craves satisfaction. In the second, I suggest that this will’s satisfaction costs too much for poetry and the human. The lesson I propose is that production, understood in the gesture as mapping or proliferating in the demonstration of echo—that production has no inherent value. Compulsion requires measure and outcome requires judgment.
The Preface to the 1997 edition of Anxiety of Influence is generically legitimating autobiography. Cast as retrospective explanation, the preface recasts basic principles of reading now familiar to all. Here is the first brief passage that deserves attention: “Palpably and profoundly an erotic poem, Sonnet 87 (not by design) also can be read as an allegory of any writer’s (or person’s) relation to tradition, particularly as embodied in a figure taken as one’s own forerunner” (xiii). As a diktat of critical appropriation, nothing is sharper, more economical, or formulaic. Any text, no matter its design, “also can be read as an allegory.” The passive voice intrigues me. The Preface might have said, “I can read this allegorically.” I can enact the figure of allegoresis. The passive’s depersonalization hides not only the nominative, but replaces agency with capacity. All texts, no matter their design, have no defense against allegoresis, against allegorists who show no restraint and call their violence strength. This extremely radical claim stands only if we ignore the ‘can’ in its active form. The critic displaces the desire to act into the weakness of a text, its inability to protect its design from the devouring reduction of its reader, who claims strength in the extension of allegoresis. Sonnet 87, allegorically, tells the story of unhappy freedom, which really cannot describe or designate the critical joy found in such doubly legitimating discoveries of self-justification. The result is self-justificatory because if even Shakespeare’s design cannot resist the willful allegoresis of the ‘can be read,’ then nothing exists outside the range of such mismanaged, or if you prefer, misprized literacy. The text cannot stand, despite the normal allegorist claim that allegoresis is the sole and necessary mode of reading in ruined history.
Opening Chapter 1 of Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate,[i] allegoresis in its pure form reveals its own baroque intentions. The reduction that calls for the self-employing process of decreation and recreation, a perpetual act carried out under the sign of anxiety and response. “I begin,” the critic writes, “by proposing an antithetical formula as the motto for post-Emersonian American poetry” (1). This 1976 designation is not as modest as it seems given that in the 1997 Preface, Emerson provides the allegorical key to reading Shakespeare. He also appears as the imaginative ground legitimating allegoresis via idealism and transcendentalism. The 1997 text declares, “Shakespeare largely invented us” (xiii), a claim I deny by referring to Poetry Against Torture, reserving that honor for Dante.[ii] (This is not a sign of my siding with Eliot.) Nonetheless, the preface elaborates this invention as a form of influence and as an influx, a word that, predictably, brings us to Emerson. “The invention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influence far surpassing anything literary. I cannot improve upon Emerson’s account of this influx” (xiii-xiv). Emerson becomes a close cousin to the author of John’s Gospel, and the place we must go for the word on the Word. Influx and influence are more or less the same word, but we can say that influx reminds us of plurality as tributaries have influx whereas influence aspires to be an inflow, a single stream. Influx let us read these lines, then, as saying that Emerson is only one tributary of the great stream of humanity called Shakespeare. This is good to know because it reminds us that choosing to make Emerson the main tributary to Shakespeare leaves out others and suggests the Preface should have offered some justification of this tribute to Emerson. Of course, the tribute is an act of mirroring for if the critic cannot improve upon the Emerson it does a small and fine task of linking the ‘can’ of reading Sonnet 87 as an allegory and the ‘cannot’ that identifies the critic with the supreme articulation of the voice that can. All of this, you see, is the play of critical production.
It returns us to the opening of Wallace Stevens. “I begin by proposing an antithetical formula as the motto of post-Emersonian poetry: Everything that can be broken should be broken” (1). This statement aspires to be a temporal precursor that in fact follows from the violence that holds all texts can be allegorized, no matter their design. We should not err, however, into taking this as a statement about literature, poetry, imagination, or the human. Rather it is a programmatic extension of allegoresis to subsume the literary text to esoteric modes of meaning production, to the baroque elaboration of basic tropes that belong to a view of the world, of human history, that has dire consequences for the human, which is not itself quite the result of any influence or influx. Modern criticism had an intensive preoccupation with the Baroque, most famously in Walter Benjamin. In his work, we find an easy way to characterize Baroque style, the finish of the rough pearl: “peculiarly baroque features . . . . include an exaggerated and violent bombast in their language (including a figurative tendency towards linguistic contraction), an absence of psychological depth in its characters, a preponderance of and dependency upon theatrical props and machinery, and a crude emphasis on violence, suffering and death.”[iii] There have been few critics capable of Baroque style, despite the commonality of allegoresis. (Speaking of Emerson, the book on Stevens says, “This multiplication of terms is more than a little maddening” ). Simple allegory—national allegory, post-colonial allegory—these are simple figures of easy reproduction: hence, the success of the then New Historicism. Baroque allegory requires verbal and inventive skill, extraordinary spatial sense, and fabulous memory that survives by mapping itself upon the spatial structure it creates for itself.
Calling itself visionary, it has a commonplace undergirding familiar from classical and religious traditions: abnegation and abjection. Its rhetorical form is the return, hence the first principle of post-Emersonian poetry, that is, of the influx to which the critic assigns the name, human. The radical gesture has the boldness of a desperate weak stroke: a formula as a motto for poetry. Rivers need a channel and estuaries need gateways, but a formula that is a muttered word for all that is poetry and human? In addition, when we remember that formula is a diminutive, we see the desperate weakness of an action trying to be bold from the already defined position of the abject. Muttered words in a small form standing in for poetry and humanity—this sounds like the moderns and their concern for the loss of and attempt to find again myth and ritual.
The 1997 Preface makes the claim, as we have seen, that Shakespeare’s influence results in the existence of the human. From that starting point, esoteric visionary criticism embraces anagoges, the rhetorical mode that would make the universe as such available for literature and the recall of its readers. The Aeneid is the best first instance of this double effect: all the world as culture available to literature and literature as institution allied to certainty. The esoteric mode of anagoges is also certain within a narrative that kills the human as the goal of its creation. Its stories of decreation and recreation negate the human whose existence, coming into being, is a fall. Shakespeare’s great original power, the power of anxiety free creativity, is not, despite appearances, an assurance of human life and value but rather the starting point only of a story of endless ruination redeemable only in the inhuman. We know this story from Walter Benjamin.
Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, having begun with the ritual act of murderous reduction to a small form—remember how allegoresis ignores poetry’s design, which not accidentally in Sonnet 87 is erotic—would seduce its readers by assigning the qualities of strong imagination to the completion of this formula’s reduction of human capacity. How does the little form become murmured sound when proposed for a poet of Stevens’ erotic sensibility? Here is the explanation: “in the dialectic of all Stevens’ poetry, this reads: One must have a mind of winter, or reduce to the First Idea; one must discover that to live with the First Idea alone is not to be human; one must reimagine the First Idea” (1). Logically, since Stevens is the paradigm of post-Emersonian poetry, the book starts by mapping the so-called ‘scene’ that summons and allows Stevens to be poet. In short, “Emerson” stands for “poverty” represented as “imaginative need, the result of Emerson’s version of a reduction to a First Idea” (9).[iv]
In 1977, the essay, “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea,” held that C. S Peirce or Simone Weil might have influenced the emergence of the trope, first idea, in Stevens. That essay chose, because it could, to recast that trope of emergence as reduction. Critical kenosis enacted the little formula’s motto: decreate. On its first page, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate repeats a single line, admitting that the aesthetic formula is the critical first principle of visionary pronouncement. This Gnostic apothegm anagogically links thesis and antithesis in the agonistics of the motto: “Everything that can be broken should be broken.” (There is a deep link here to Walter Benjamin of course.) These pages circumscribe the poetry of Wallace Stevens as part of an agon between Wordsworth and American or Emersonian self-reliance, an aspiration for Freedom, itself another name for poverty. This is a struggle to the death; it requires and justifies breaking all that came before so ruin might serve the ambitions of a latecomer who, supposedly, cannot stand the anxiety induced by belatedness. (Here, one wants to think of Adorno writing on the late Beethoven.[v]) In its Gnostic aspirations it concludes that “any death is also without consequence, in the context of natural sublimity; for us, below the heavens, there is stasis, but the movement of a larger intentionality always goes on, above the heavens” (1976: 49).
I prefer a different critical mode, one that chooses not to sacrifice the human because supposedly it cannot survive when it revisits the first look that is the condition of its culture, love, and creativity. In 1960, another critic discussed Stevens’ ‘poverty’ with measured intelligence, and drew on Emerson as well as Bergson to explain the trope. In 1989, however, the same critic dismissed each of those influences, especially Emerson, as unnecessary to Stevens. Stevens’ poetry is creatively worldly, freely recollective, and creatively traditional—a poiesis that passes on without the anxious need to decreate in florid prose. Stevens’ poverty has no tinge of messianism or its melancholy. It is purely secular. The critic writes in 1989, that Stevens’s “fundamental richness lay in his sense of poverty and of poetry as its quite normal mitigation, merely his vision of what everybody needs to live in the world” (xviii).[vi] If such affection needs a name we might call it ‘gift’ and if it needs a motto, it would be this, and in the poet’s own words: “’The words of the world are the life of the world’”[vii] (xviii). Stevens had no anxiety, presenting poetry as always ready for the dump as time demanded its replacement. Yet, in Stevens’ tradition, thirteen years after The Poems of Our Climate, Kermode showed that worldly, humanistic, and historical critical reading, comment, and enthusiasm could sustain understanding, communication, and love across spaces and generations. “’The words of the world are the life of the world’” is the motto for criticism that sustains the human and its creativity by passing on the enthusiasm of words for the needs of our world. Mottos assigned to poets are merely slogans. The critical motto must always turn back to words in and for the world, which is where poets and their works reside doing the work they design.
[i] Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, especially pp. 2-26.
[ii] Bové, pp. 47-49, which discusses Auerbach and Dante together to propose the creation of the literary human in The Inferno.
[iii] Osborne, Peter and Matthew Charles. 2012. “Walter Benjamin.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta.
[iv] “Poverty” is a fundamental term in Stevens’s poetry, appearing at least 24 times in his Collected Poems. “In a Bad Time,” from The Auroras of Autumn (1950), offers a good example of Bloom’s Emersonian tinge in Stevens’s language: “He has his poverty and nothing more. / His poverty becomes his heart’s strong core” (367). Of course, one must take lines such as these as meta-verse keys to allegorize the works and career.
[v] Adorno, Theodor. 1998. “Text 3: Beethoven’s Late Style,” in “The Late Style (I),” in Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, Fragments and Texts, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and translated by Edmund Jephcott. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.
[vi] Kermode, Frank. 1989. Wallace Stevens [1st ed., 1960; 2nd. ed., 1989]. My citation comes from the Preface to the second edition. Kermode studied Stevens’s interest in ‘poverty’ over nearly thirty years and after Bloom’s monumental book on Stevens, proposed a very different understanding of poverty and so of Stevens’s poetry. It should be noted that Kermode had praised Bloom’s book on Stevens in a long review: “Notes Toward a Supreme Poetry,” New York Times, June 12, 1977, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/01/specials/bloom-stevens.html.
[vii] Kermode quotes Stevens’ late poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” which is also one of Bloom’s touchstones for thinking about Stevens and all poetry.
The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,
Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks
By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.
The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees
And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,
In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.