Literary Criticism and Close Reading

Although Harold Bloom (1930-), from the perspective of the 21st century seems like a historical figure, he was a liminal figure caught between Modernism and Postmodernism. It is one of the ironies of Bloom’s career that he fought titanic battles with waning New Criticism, won that battle by tossing together a salad of new theories landing on the shores of the Ivy Leagues, only to be confronted with even newer theories that would rise up  and scorn him. Through it all Bloom persevered, writing forty books, all of which center upon the importance of the author as creator. To understand the implications of Bloom’s position in the world of criticism, it is an awkward one–in between New Criticism which swept the poet away in favor of the poem and Postmodern theory which posited the author as “dead” or a mere fulcrum of references.

New Criticism was a new and methodical way of reading in a more precise manner, called “close.” A “close reading” of the text is based on the understanding that a text is unified and that it means exactly what it says. The author and the historical context of the author, his or her biography or intentions were irrelevant. New Criticism was the founding method of literary in the sense that it focused on making distinctions between modes of criticism at a time when new ways of writing, from James Joyce to Virginia Woolfe to Ernest Hemingway, demanded new ways of analysis. The fact that writing was more self involved, backgrounding narrative in favor of exploring the textures of the language itself. It seemed sensible to René Wellek (1903-1995) to focus on literature as literature and his seminal Theory of Literature, published in 1946 establish a foundation for formalist criticism. It is important to remember that the formalist art critic, Clement Greenberg, was part of the literary community and like Wellek published in the Partisan Review. 

In summing up René Wellek’s approach to New Criticism, Sarah Lawall’s 1988 essay, “René Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism,” sound eerily like something one would write of Greenberg:

His insistence on the study of “literature itself,” as the culmination of a broad critical historical, theoretical and multilingual inquiry, reversed the status of prevailing extra-literary schemes of interpretation: no longer did they exhaust a work’s significance, or function as its only source of value. Wellek’s own set of values–his claim that each discipline must establish its proper object of study, and that literary study must focus on the autonomous category of art: his affirmation that no critical perspective is neutral; and his rejection of critical relativism even though he sees literature as an integral part of cultural history–has been part of our literary debates for four decades.

Wellek was one of the mid-century critics who articulated this new position, coming in the wake of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks. New Criticism eliminated the author’s intention as being irrelevant to the outcome or effect of the book, but the efficacy of literature does not rest upon the way the text made the writer feel. By marking off these two “fallacies”–the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy–are irrelevant. The focus should be the text itself which is then subjected to a close reading by the literary critic. Texts possess intrinsic meanings that owe nothing to the writer and must be read as a structure composed of words which are knitted together into a unified whole. The result of close reading is a seamless and consistent organic work of art that can be analyzed in a near-scientific manner. New Criticism would be conflated with the prevailing 20th century idea of “art for art’s sake,” but it proponents denied that history was totally precluded from consideration but, in fact, formalist criticism considered form to be content.

 Bloom’s A Map of Misreading (1975)

Against this background, Harold Bloom, an outsider, reanimated the author as a Romantic hero. Like Walter Benjamin reviving the reviled Baroque, Bloom reasserted the importance of Romanticism and Romantic poetry an art form long on the critical wane. In imagining a curious mixture of the writer as a Byronic rebel and as a Biblical prophet who fought to bring a poem into being, Bloom recast literature as a record of a struggle between the “son” and his literary “father.”  Although Bloom is often seen as the anti-thesis to Postmodern theories of all stripes–and indeed he also saw himself as the opposite of Jacques Derrida. In his 1986 article on Bloom, the writer for The New York Times Magazine, Colin Campbell, quoted Bloom heaping scorn on his colleagues at Yale:

”You cannot go anywhere,” he cries, ”without running into various covens and sects and various new orthodoxies of a self-righteous kind. There are the purple-haired semioticians; there are the deconstructionists; there are those who have abolished anything like a coherent discourse, for whom every text is an aberration..To try to find out what’s going on at Yale now is beyond my power.” But Campbell continued, Bloom is not finished. He speaks of ”punk ideologies,” of ”vicious feminism,” of new modes of ”stifling doctrine” and of “new Stalinisms.” He describes one young member of the English department as ”an out-and-out Marxist agitator” and ”a horse’s ass,’‘ and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. ”It’s almost the poet-as-slumlord theory. They have their colleagues terrified. ”There is no method except yourself,” says Bloom, ”and this is what they refuse to learn.” Ideologists of every description hate the self, he says. ”They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual.”

It is over thirty years since this article and in the 21st century, it is difficult to read Bloom without a frisson of irritation when confronted with his male-based patriarchal theoretical position–he refers to the young male poet as an “ephebe.” However, it is important to remember that this was a man who missed all the Civil Rights movements and it is possible to re-read his theories from the perspective of production. If art makers are cultural producers then what are the materials they utilize to make art? Despite his protestations to the contrary, Bloom’s work is every bit as Postmodern as that of his colleagues: it is performative and self-conscious, riddled with constructs derived from Greek and Latin, but if the reader manages to clear away the name droppings there are some interesting insights about the psychology of creation. In reviewing the book in “The Poet as Oedipus” of 1975, the late Edward Said stated,

Bloom is the most rare of critics. He has what seems to be a totally detailed command of English poetry and its scholarship, as well as an intimate acquaintance with the major avant-garde critical theories of the last quarter century. (He is De Vane Professor of the Humanities at Yale.) Yet for Bloom this gigantic apparatus, to which he has assimilated Freudian theory and the Kabbalistic doctrines of Isaac Luria, a 16th-century Jewish mystic, is no mere scholarly baggage. Since it is the essence of Bloom’s vision that every poem is the result of a critical act, by which another, earlier poem is deliberately misread, and hence re-written, it follows also that Bloom’s sense of the poems he has read is intensely combative, constantly experienced, actively felt.

In A Map of Misreading, Bloom continued his habit of creating his own linguistic terms to explain his concept of passing on the poetic tradition. His tropes became “anxiety” and “misreading” and, in his second book of the series, many of his terms came from the Kabbala.  He explained “misprision”–a deliberate misunderstanding–as a “swerve” away from the predecessor by the new poet who completes the parent poem by retaining its terms and its fragments but means these terms in another sense. The Kabbala speaks of the “breaking of the vessels” as part of the primal process of Creation and Bloom uses the concept of vessel and breaking and emptying to describe the labor of literature. The new poet empties out him/(herself) humbly and “empties out” the precursor as well, an act that opens up the essential power of the earlier poem and functions as a return of the dead. Said explained how the views of Bloom challenged the status quo position on the role of the artist:

The ground of literature is the text, just as its father–the mixed metaphor is inescapable, and encouraged by every writer who ever wrote–is the author. This is the very citadel of literary orthodoxy. Only a great writer will challenge that fortress of certainty. He will see that a father is himself a son; he will also see that his own work must be protected not only from writers who will come after it, but also from the powerful authors that precede him, who remind him by their strength of their prior authority and his filial secondariness.

Such a vision immediately plays havoc with the stability of texts and authors, indeed with the whole order of culture. The past becomes an active intervention in the present; the future is preposterously made just a figure of the past in the present. No text can be complete because on the one hand it is an attempt to struggle free of earlier texts impinging on it and, on the other, it is preparing itself to savage texts not yet written by authors not yet born. Every writer and every text is not–cannot be–itself, does not have a rock-bottom Aristotelian identity. Instead of texts and authors, there are wills struggling to overcome other wills, there are patricides and infanticides whose paradox is that poetry is, if not the manifest result of such violence, then the constantly impressive evidence.

The ancestral poet is dead but still embarrassingly potent and present, but, as Kierkegaard said, “He who is willing to work must give birth to his own father.” Strong poets do not read poetry; strong poets can read only themselves. In comparison to weak poets who remain enslaved to the traditional system, who are creatively inhibited by obsessive reasoning and comparing their works to those of their precursors, strong poets are involved in acts of creative “correction” and deliberate misinterpretation. In his typically Baroque and deliberately dramatic writing style, Bloom declaimed,

<Only a poet challenges a poet as a poet, and so only a poet makes a poet. To the poet-in-a-poet, a poem is always the other man, the precursor, and so a poem is always a person, always the father of one’s Second Birth. To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father. But who, what is the poetic father? The voice of the other, of the daimon, is always speaking in one; the voice that cannot die because already it has survived death–the dead poet lives in one. 

Bloom wrote of “agon” in his books. On one level agon, which is a Greek concept, seems to refer simply to a contest but the origin of this “contest” is a dialogue in Greek theater between the protagonist and the antagonist. Agon originated specifically in literature as a verbal contest, a struggle of wit and language. Later, especially during Roman times, agon becomes firmly attached to competitive games, such as chariot races, and becomes linked to the idea of victory and winning. In using this term of antagonism, Bloom precluded more benign concepts to describe creativity, such as “homage” or “collaboration.” The artist strives, in a very Modernist fashion, to overthrow the past and to assert his genius. Genius is strong, but the age of the genius is weak and the strong poet runs the risk of drowning in the act of becoming a good reader of earlier poets. As Bloom explained in Kabbalah and Criticism (1975),

Strong poets must be mis-read; there are no generous errors to be made in apprehending them, any more than their own errors of reading are ever generous. Every poet caricatures tradition and every strong poet is then necessarily mis-read by the tradition that he fosters. The strongest of poets are so severely mis-read that the generally accepted, broad interpretations o their work actually tend to be the exact opposites of what the poems truly are.

This danger of encountering the genius of the stronger poet arouses anxiety for the challenger, as the whole being of the poet must be unique in order for the poet to survive. Bloom writing as if he is aware of Postmodern idea of the bricoleur stated that the strong poet usurps and appropriates that which is strong and available within the language. And Bloom writes as if he has begun to incorporate the idea of intertextuality when he notes that the great poem can refer only to other great poems and emanates from the intricate balance of psychic warfare.  The good poet steals, leaps and located his/herself in the freedom that is discontinuity.


Harold Bloom (1930-)

But Bloom also remained true to the structured meaning of literature when he asserted that literature is a text, stating that poems are not things: poems are words that refer only to other words and any poem is an inter-poem and reading is only inter-reading. Although Bloom sounds rather like a holdover from New Criticism, he is also a critic who is aware of his own theoretical time when he asserted that a poem is never written but rewritten because every poem is belated–a very Postmodern stance. Art is necessarily an after-ing, every artist a latecomer who lives under the shadow of art.  The artist must usurp and seize textual authority in an act of imposition and a declaration of property.  Poetry is thus an aspiring to strength that is necessarily competitive and obsessive. However, Bloom was no Postmodernist, despite his traces and flirtations with the tropes of Postmodernist theories, for he was always concerned with self-actualizaiton through an act of will, through an assertion of self-consciousness. In other words, self-representation is achieved only through “trespass” or an act of invasion into the territory of another artist, who then becomes the “father.”

In a purely Freudian fashion, as if the sons are collectively assaulting the father, Bloom asserts that the strong poet must invent him/herself through a strong new poem that is a sin of transgression against origins. The poet obtains freedom, that is, obtains a meaning of his/her own, achieved against an a priori fullness of meaning–tradition which leads the new strong poet to a territory of his own. This freedom of meaning can be arrived at only through combat–a reading encounter by a strong poet who loves his/her own poetry, and must live it, in order to get it written and to open up a poetic space or a terrain captured from another poet. In asserting that poetry can come only out of a lineage of poetry, Bloom seemed to be rejecting the possibility of a poetic revolution, such as that of Stéphane Mallarmé. Indeed, his list of “strong poets” is somewhat limited to the Romantic poets of the 18th century and those of the early 20th century. By asserting the primacy of existing tradition and, incidentally, upholding a canon of “strong poets,” Bloom was able to save history and tradition, genius and originality from the historicism and eclecticism, and the appropriation and borrowing of Postmodernism.

As a Jewish writer, Bloom appears to think in an almost Biblical construct of “begets”, establishing a patriarchal lineage of sons wrestling with their dead fathers for poetic or artistic territory.  The question remains whether or not Bloom’s concept of Agon can be un-colored and un-gendered and re-made into a general account of how artists come to terms with the past and find their own creative ground through psychological suffering and self-protection that forces them onto new territories.  He continues the formalism of Structuralism by reading poetry out of historical context and continues the Structuralism of Structuralism by creating another figurative metaphor: a field of conflict, and continues the teleological imperatives of Modernism as art begets art within a closed world, combining works of art, psychologies and histories.

But Bloom, as is recalled, worked with the radical Yale deconstructionists, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida.  There are aspects of his work that seem to reconcile the Postmodern denial of originality and its assertion of belatedness with the Modernist need to explain and to celebrate “genius.”  But in the final analysis, Postmodernism is about the gaps, while Modernism is about continuity and the continuous rupture with the past. Bloom sees the tradition of “art” as being a conflicted hand-off, Agon, between fathers and sons. Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault would have very different views about how art is made.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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