from harold bloom’s anxiety of influence: clinamen, or poetic misprision & milton’s paradise lost

Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a "swerve" of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves. . . .

 

. . . Shelley speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress. Borges remarks that poets create their precursors. If the dead poets, as Eliot insisted, constituted their successors’ particular advance in knowledge, that knowledge is still their successors’ creation, made by the living for the needs of the living.

 

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor ]ohnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: "This is dead, this is living, in the poetry of X." Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect. Milton’s Satan, archetype of the modern poet at his strongest, becomes weak when he reasons and compares, on Mount Niphates, and so commences that process of decline culminating in Paradise Regained, ending as the archetype of the modern critic at his weakest.

 

Let us attempt the experiment (apparently frivolous) of reading Paradise Lost as an allegory of the dilemma of the modern poet, at his strongest. Satan is that modern poet, while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet. Adam is the potentially strong modern poet, but at his weakest moment, when he has yet to find his own voice. God has no Muse, and needs none, since he is dead, his creativity being manifested only in the past time of the poem. Of the living poets in the poem, Satan has Sin, Adam has Eve, and Milton has only his Interior Paramour, an Emanation far within that weeps incessantly for his sin, and that is invoked magnificently four times in the poem. Milton has no name for her, though he invokes her under several; but, as he says, "the meaning, not the Name I call." Satan, a stronger poet even than Milton, has progressed beyond invoking his Muse.

 

Why call Satan a modern poet? Because he shadows forth gigantically a trouble at the core of Milton and of Pope, a sorrow that purifies by isolation in Collins and Gray, in Smart and in Cowper, emerging fully to stand clear in Wordsworth, who is the exemplary Modern Poet, the Poet proper. The incarnation of the Poetic Character in Satan begins when Milton’s story truly begins, with the Incarnation of God’s Son and Satan’s rejection of that incarnation. Modern poetry begins in two declarations of Satan: "We know no time when we were not as now" and "To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering."

 

Let us adopt Milton’s own sequence in the poem. Poetry begins with our awareness, not of a Fall, but that we are falling. The poet is our chosen man, and his consciousness of election comes as a curse; again, not "I am a fallen man," but "I am Man, and I am falling" — or rather, "I was God, I was Man (for to a poet they were the same), and I am falling, from myself." When this consciousness of self is raised to an absolute pitch, then the poet hits the floor of Hell, or rather, comes to the bottom of the abyss, and by his impact there creates Hell. He says, "I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell."

 

There and then, in this bad, he finds his good; he chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the limits of the possible within it. The alternative is to repent, to accept a God altogether other than the self, wholly external to the possible. This God is cultural history, the dead poets, the embarrassments of a tradition grown too wealthy to need anything more. But we, to understand the strong poet. must go further still than he can go, back into the poise before the consciousness of falling came.

 

When Satan or the poet looks around him on the floor of fire his falling self had kindled, he sees first a face he only just recognizes, his best friend, Beelzebub, or the talented poet who never quite made it, and now never shall. And, like the truly strong poet he is, Satan is interested in the face of his best friend only to the extent that it reveals to him the condition of his owncountenance. Such limited interest mocks neither the poets we know, nor the truly heroic Satan. If Beelzebub is that scarred, if he looks that unlike the true form he left behind on the happy fields of light, then Satan himself is hideously bereft of beauty, doomed, like Walter Pater, to be a Caliban of Letters, trapped in essential poverty. in imaginative need, where once he was all but the wealthiest, and needed next to nothing. But Satan, in the accursed strength of the poet, refuses to brood upon this, and turns instead to his task, which is to rally everything that remains.

 

This task, comprehensive and profoundly imaginative, includes everything that we could ascribe as motivation for the writing of any poetry that is not strictly devotional in its purposes. For why do men write poems? To rally everything that remains, and not to sanctify nor propound. The heroism of endurance — of Milton’s post-lapsarian Adam, and of the Son in Paradise Regained — is a theme for Christian poetry, but only barely a heroism for poets. We hear Milton again, celebrating the strong poet’s natural virtue, when Samson taunts Harapha: "bring up thy van,/ My heels are fetter’d, but my fist is free." The poet’s final heroism, in Milton, is a spasm of self-destruction, glorious because it pulls down the temple of his enemies. Satan, organizing his chaos, imposing a discipline despite the visible darkness, calling his minions to emulate his refusal to mourn, becomes the hero as poet, finding what must suffice, while knowing that nothing can suffice.

 

This is a heroism that is exactly on the border of solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it. Satan’s later decline in the poem, as arranged by the Idiot Questioner in Milton, is that the hero retreats from this border into solipsism, and so is degraded; ceases, during his soliloquy on Mount Niphates, to be a poet and, by intoning the formula: "Evil be thou my good," becomes a mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories, another wearisome ancestor of student non-students, the perpetual New Left. For the modern poet, in the gladness of his sorrowing strength, stands always on the farther verge of solipsism, having just emerged from it. His difficult balance, from Wordsworth to Stevens, is to maintain a stance just there, where by his very presence he says: "What I see and hear come not but from myself" and yet also: "I have not but I am and as I am I am." The first, by itself, is perhaps the fine defiance of an overt solipsism, leading back to an equivalent of "I know no time when I was not as now." Yet the second is the modification that makes for poetry instead of idiocy: "There are no objects outside of me because I see into their life, which is one with my own, and so ‘I am that I am,’ which is to say, ‘I too will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present.’ I am so much in process, that all possible movement is indeed possible, and if at present I explore only my own dens, at least I explore." Or, as Satan might have said: "In doing and in suffering, I shall be happy, for even in suffering I shall be strong."

 

It is sad to observe most modern critics observing Satan, because they never do observe him. The catalog of unseeing could hardly be more distinguished, from Eliot who speaks of "Milton’s curly haired Byronic hero" (one wants to reply, looking from side to side: "Who?") to the astonishing backsliding of Northrop Frye, who invokes, in urbane ridicule, a Wagnerian context (one wants to lament: "A true critic, and of God’s party without knowing it"). Fortunately we have had Empson, with his apt rallying cry: "Back to Shelley!" Whereto I go.

 

Contemplating Milton’s meanness towards Satan, towards his rival poet and dark brother, Shelley spoke of the "pernicious casuistry" set up in the mind of Milton’s reader, who would be tempted to weigh Satan’s flaws against God’s malice towards him, and to excuse Satan because God had been malicious beyond all measure. Shelley’s point has been twisted by the C. S. Lewis or Angelic School of Milton Criticism, who proceed to weigh up the flaws and God’s wrongs, and find Satan wanting in the balance. This pernicious casuistry, Shelley would have agreed, would not be less pernicious if we were to find (as I do) Milton’s God wanting. It would still be casuistry, and as discourse upon poetry it would still be moralizing, which is to say, pernicious.

 

Even the strongest poets were at first weak, for they started as prospective Adams, not as retrospective Satans. Blake names one state of being Adam, and calls it the Limit of Contraction, and another state Satan, and calls it the Limit of Opacity. Adam is given or natural man, beyond which our imaginations will not contract. Satan is the thwarted or restrained desire of natural man, or rather theshadow or Spectre of that desire. Beyond this spectral state, we will not harden against vision, but the Spectre squats in our repressiveness, and we are hardened enough, as we are contracted enough. Enough, our spirits lament, not to live our lives, enough to be frightened out of our creative potential by the Covering Cherub, Blake’s emblem (out of Milton, and Ezekiel, and Genesis) for that portion of creativity in us that has gone over to constriction and hardness. Blake precisely named this renegade part of Man. Before the Fall (which for Blake meant before the Creation, the two events for him being one and the same) the Covering Cherub was the pastoral genius Tharmas, a unifying process making for undivided consciousness; the innocence, pre-reflective, of a state without subjects and objects, yet in no danger of solipsism, for it lacked also a consciousness of self. Tharmas is a poet’s (or any man’s) power of realization, even as the Covering Cherub is the power that blocks realization. . . .

. . . I arrive at my argument’s central principle, which is not more true for its outrageousness, but merely true enough: Poetic Influence  — when it involves two strong, authentic poets,— always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. . . .

. . . My own Idiot Questioner, happily curled up in the labyrinth of my own being, protests: "What is the use of such a principle, whether the argument it informs be true or not?" Is it useful to be told that poets are not common readers, and particularly are not critics, in the true sense of critics, common readers raised to the highest power? And what is Poetic Influence anyway? Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers? Is there not the shibboleth bequeathed us by Eliot, that the good poet steals, while the poor poet betrays an influence, borrows a voice? And are there not all the great Idealists of literary criticism, the deniers of poetic influence, ranging from Emerson with his maxims: "Insist on yourself: never imitate" and" Not possibly will the soul deign to repeat itself" to the recent transformation of Northrop Frye into the Arnold of our day, with his insistence that the Myth of Concern prevents poets from suffering the anxieties of obligation?

 

Against such idealism one cheerfully cites Lichtenberg’s grand remark: "Yes, I too like to admire great men, but only those whose works I do not understand." Or again from Lichtenberg, who is one of the sages of Poetic Influence: "To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation, and the definition of imitation ought by rights to include both." What Lichtenberg implies is that Poetic Influence is itself an oxymoron, and he is right. But then, so is Romantic Love an oxymoron, and Romantic Love is the closest analogue of Poetic Influence, another splendid perversity of the spirit, though it moves precisely in the opposite direction. The poet confronting his Great Original must find the fault that is not there, and at the heart of all but the highest imaginative virtue. The lover is beguiled to the heart of loss, but is found, as he finds, within mutual illusion, the poem that is not there. "When two people fall in love," says Kierkegaard, "and begin to feel that they are made for one another, then it is time for them to break off, for by going on they have everything to lose and nothing to gain." When the ephebe, or figure of the youth as virile poet, is found by his Great Original, then it is time to go on, for he has everything to gain, and his precursor nothing to lose; if the fully written poets are indeed beyond loss.

 

But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admitted its intimate alliance with opacity. The state of Satan is therefore a constant consciousness of dualism, of being trapped in the finite, not just in space (in the body) but in clock-time as well. To be pure spirit, yet to know in oneself the limit of opacity; to assert that one goes back before the Creation-Fall, yet be forced to yield to number, weight, and measure; this is the situation of the strong poet, the capable imagination, when he confronts the universe of poetry, the words that were and will be, the terrible splendor of cultural heritage. In our time, the situation becomes more desperate even than it was in the Milton-haunted eighteenth century, or the Wordsworth-haunted nineteenth, and our current and future poets have only the consolation that no certain Titanic figure has risen since Milton and Wordsworth, not even Yeats or Stevens.

 

If one examines the dozen or so major poetic influencers before this century, one discovers quickly who among them ranks as the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradles: Milton. The motto to English poetry since Milton was stated by Keats: "Life to him would be Death to me." This deathly vitality in Milton is the state of Satan in him, and is shown us not so much by the character of Satan in Paradise Lost as by Milton’s editorializing relationship to his own Satan, and by his relationship to all the stronger poets of the eighteenth century and to most of those in the nineteenth. Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English . . .

 

. . . we can see the final irony of Poetic Influence, and come full circle to end where we began. This clinamen between the strong poet and the Poetic Father is made by the whole being of the later poet, and the true history of modern poetry would be the accurate recording of these revisionary swerves. To the pure ‘Pataphysician, the swerve is marvellously gratuitous; Jarry, after all, was capable of considering the Passion as an uphill bicycle race. The student of Poetic Influence is compelled to be an impure ‘Pataphysician; he must understand that the clinamen always must be considered as though it were simultaneously intentional and involuntary, the Spiritual Form of each poet and the gratuitous gesture each poet makes as his falling body hits the floor of the abyss. Poetic Influence is the passing of Individuals through States, in Blake’s language, but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The strong poet indeed says: ..I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell," but he is thinking, as he says this, "As I fell, I swerved, consequently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own making."

—from Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973)

 

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“i write entirely to find out what i’m thinking, what i’m looking at, what i see and what it means”

joan didion on novel writing (by way of considering
george orwell, john milton’s paradise lost, and airports)


Joan Didion, Why I Write

 

Of course I stole the title of this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

 

I

I

I

 

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way,  change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with the veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

 

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

 

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

 

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in “The Portrait of a Lady” as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down to Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of “Paradise Lost,” to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in “Paradise Lost,” the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

 

Which was a writer.

 

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want to what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

 

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

 

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object being photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in you mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hardor a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture Nota bene:

 

It tells you.

 

You don’t tell it.

 

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began “Play It As It Lays” just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture dictated the narrative intention of the book—a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams—and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through a casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but never have met. I know nothing about her.  Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely the moment in Las Vegas that made “Play It As It Lays” begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which beings:

 

 “Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.”

 

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space.”

 

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, “A Book of Common Prayer.” As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of American at a film festival (I recall invoking the name “Jack Valenti a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed.  The lights went out.  The elevator stopped.  My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark.  I remember standing  at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in “A Book of Common Prayer,” as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

 

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 A.M.  I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished “A Book of Common Prayer.”  I lived in that airport for several years.  I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 A.M.  I can feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs.  I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals.  I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac.  I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room.  I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

 

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country.  This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one.  She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop.  In fact she is not simply “ordering: tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes.  Why is this woman in this airport?  Why is she going nowhere, where had she been?  Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

 

“She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport.  All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike.  Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue,’ some places were wet and hot and other dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.

 

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

 

“I knew about airports.”

 

These lines appear about halfway through “A Book of Common Prayer,” but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports.  Until I wrote these lines I had no character called Victor in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name “Victor,” occurred to me as I wrote the sentence.  I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete.  I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive.  Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story.  I had intended until that moment that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a 19th-century omniscient narrator.  But there it was:

 

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

 

“I knew about airports.”

 

This “I” was the voice of no author in my house.  This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called “Victor.”  Who was Victor?  Who was this narrator?  Why was this narrator telling me this story?  Let me tell you one thing about why writers write:  had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

 

—from The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976

 

“even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self”: harold bloom

harold bloom on gnosticism, poetry, knowing the self and our contemporary religion:


SELF−RELIANCE OR

MERE GNOSTICISM

 

I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.

 

—RALPH WALDO EMERSON

 

If you seek yourself outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster, whether erotic or ideological. That must be why Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his central essay, “Self-Reliance” (1840), remarked that “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” I am sixty-five, and it is past time to write my own version of “Self-Reliance.” Spiritual autobiography in our era, I thought until now, is best when it is implicit. But the moment comes when you know pretty much what you are going to know, and when you realize that more living and reading and brooding will not greatly alter the self. I am in my fortieth consecutive year of teaching at Yale, and my seventh at NYU, and for the last decade I have taught Shakespeare almost exclusively. Shakespeare, aside from all his other preternatural strengths, gives me the constant impression that he knows more than anyone else ever has known. Most scholars would call that impression an illusion, but to me it seems the pragmatic truth. Knowing myself, knowing Shakespeare, and knowing God are three separate but closely related quests.

 

Why bring God into it?

 

Seeking God outside the self courts the disasters of dogma, institutional corruption, historical malfeasance, and cruelty. For at least two centuries now most Americans have sought the God within rather than the God of European Christianity. But why bring Shakespeare into all this, since to me he seems the archetype of the secular writer?

 

You know the self primarily by knowing yourself; knowing another human being is immensely difficult, perhaps impossible, though in our youth or even our middle years we deceive ourselves about this. Yet this is why we read and listen to Shakespeare: in order to encounter other selves; no other writer can do that for us. We never encounter Shakespeare himself, as we can encounter Dante or Tolstoy in their work. Whether you can encounter God himself or herself depends upon yourself; we differ greatly from one another in that vital regard. But to return to the self: we can know it primarily through our own solitude, or we can know representatives of it, most vividly in Shakespeare, or we can know God in it, but only when indeed it is our own self. Perhaps the greatest mystics, poets, and lovers have been able to know God in another self, but I am skeptical as to whether that possibility still holds at this late time, with the Millennium rushing upon us.

 

Even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self. At sixty-five, I find myself uncertain just when my self was born. I cannot locate it in my earliest memories of childhood, and yet I recall its presence in certain memories of reading, particularly of the poets William Blake and Hart Crane, when I was about nine or ten. In my instance at least, the self came to its belated birth (or second birth) by reading visionary poetry, a reading that implicitly was an act of knowing something previously unknown within me. Only later could that self-revelation become explicit; Blake and Hart Crane, like some other great poets, have the power to awaken their readers to an implicit answering power, to a previously unfelt sense of possibilities for the self. You can call it a sense of “possible sublimity,” of “something evermore about to be,” as the poet William Wordsworth named it. Emerson, advocating self-trust, asked: “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” His answer was a primal power, or “deep force,” that we discover within ourselves. In the eloquence of certain sermons, Emerson found his deep force; for me it came out of exalted passages in Blake and Crane that haunt me still:

 

God appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.

 

– WILLIAM BLAKE,

“Auguries of Innocence”

 

And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love,

its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither

hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

 

– HART CRANE,

“The Broken Tower”

 

These days, in our America, so many go about proclaiming “empowerment,” by which actually they mean “resentment,” or “catering to resentment.” To be empowered by eloquence and vision is what Emerson meant by self-reliance, and is the start of what I mean by “mere Gnosticism,” where “mere” takes its original meaning of “pure” or “unmixed.” To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self ’s potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self ’s potential as power involves the self ’s immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born. It is a curious sensation when a young person realizes that she or he is not altogether the child of that person’s natural parents. Freud reduced such a sensation to “the changeling fantasy,” in which you imagine you are a faery child, plucked away by adoptive parents who then masquerade as a natural mother and father. But is it only a fantasy to locate, in the self, a magical or occult element, older than any other component of the self? Deep reading in childhood was once the norm for many among us; visual and auditory overstimulation now makes such reading very rare, and I suspect that changeling fantasies are vanishing together with the experience of early, authentic reading. At more than half a century away from the deep force of first reading and loving poetry, I no longer remember precisely what I then felt, and yet can recall how it felt. It was an elevation, a mounting high on no intoxicants except incantatory language, but of a rather different sort than contemporary hip-hop. The language of Blake and Hart Crane, of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, transcended its rush of glory, its high, excited verbal music, and gave the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one’s outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown…

 

We live now, more than ever, in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it, which is a peculiar irony…  

 

I recall that the ancient Gnostics denied both matter and energy, and opted instead for information above all else. Gnostic information has two primary awarenesses: first, the estrangement, even the alienation of God, who has abandoned this cosmos, and second, the location of a residuum of divinity in the Gnostic’s own inmost self. That deepest self is no part of nature, or of history: it is devoid of matter or energy, and so is not part of the Creation-Fall, which for a Gnostic constitutes one and the same event. . .

 

Our current angel worship in America is another debased parody of Gnosticism…

 

Gnosticism… in my judgment rises as a protest against apocalyptic faith, even when it rises within such a faith, as it did successively within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Prophetic religion becomes apocalyptic when prophecy fails, and apocalyptic religion becomes Gnosticism when apocalypse fails, as fortunately it always has and, as we must hope, will fail again. Gnosticism does not fail; it cannot fail, because its God is at once deep within the self and also estranged, infinitely far off, beyond our cosmos. Historically, Gnosticism has always been obliterated by persecution, ranging from the relatively benign rejections of normative Judaism through the horrible violence of Roman Catholicism against the Christian Gnostics throughout the ages, wherever and whenever the Church has been near allied to repressive secular authorities. The final organized Western Gnosticism was destroyed in the so-called Albigensian Crusades, which devastated southern France in the thirteenth century, exterminating not only the Cathar Gnostic heretics but also the Provençal language and its troubador culture, which has survived only in the prevalent Western myth and ideal of romantic love. It is yet another irony that our erotic lives, with their self-destructive reliance upon the psychic disease called “falling–or being–in love,” should be a final, unknowing heritage of the last organized Gnosticism to date…

 

Our rampantly flourishing industries of angel worship, “near-death experiences,” and astrology–dream divination networks–are the mass versions of an adulterated or travestied Gnosticism. I sometimes allow myself the fantasy of Saint Paul redescending upon a contemporary America where he still commands extraordinary honor, among religions as diverse as Roman Catholicism and Southern Baptism. He would be bewildered, not by change, but by sameness, and would believe he was back at Corinth and Colossae, confronted again by Gnostic myths of the angels who made this world. If you read Saint Paul, you discover that he was no friend of the angels.

 

There is his cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels,” which I suspect goes back to the Book of Enoch’s accounts of angelic lust for earthly women. In the Letter to the Colossians, the distinction between angels and demons seems to be voided, and Christians are warned against “worship of angels,” an admonition that the churches, at the moment, seem afraid to restate. The “near-death experience” is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being “embraced by the light,” by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as “the astral body,” “the Resurrection Body,” or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a “near-death experience,” it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and of out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream divination.

 

As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.

 

The anarchistic Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century, like the Provençal Cathars in the twelfth, join the Manichaeans as the three large instances of Gnostic movements that transcended an esoteric religion of the intellectuals. Ancient Gnosticism, like Romantic and modern varieties, was a religion of the elite only, almost a literary religion. A purified Gnosticism, then and now, is truly for a relative handful only, and perhaps is as much an aesthetic as it is a spiritual discipline.

 

—from Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection (1996), pp 13 – 33

happiness studies: highlights in the history of human misery

Paradise was unendurable, otherwise the first man would have adapted to it; this world is no less so, since here we regret paradise or anticipate another one. What to do? where to go? Do nothing and go nowhere, easy enough. 
 
— E.M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born
 
 
Man, who is an organic continuation of the Logos, thinks he can sever that continuity and exist apart from it.
 
Heraclitus
 
 
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a
Heav’n
.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame…
 
Satan, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost
 
 
Conformity is one of the nihilistic temptations of rebellion which dominate a large part of our intellectual history. It demonstrates how the rebel who takes to action is tempted to succumb, if he forgets his origins, to the most absolute conformity. And so it explains the twentieth century. Lautréamont, who is usually hailed as the bard of pure rebellion, on the contrary proclaims the advent of the taste for intellectual servitude which flourishes in the contemporary world.

Albert Camus, Man in Revolt
 
 
Cut off from every root, unfit, moreover to mix with dust or mud, we have achieved the feat of breaking not only with the depth of things, but their very surface. 
 
— E.M. Cioran, Civilized Man 
 
 
Man is the great deserter of being.
E.M. Cioran, The Fall into Time
 
  

dollarstore metaphysics in cormac mccarthy’s million dollar penny dreadful

The  phrase “million dollar penny dreadful” — John Updike’s memorable description of Foucault’s Pendulum Umberto Eco’s encyclopedic pastiche of conspiracy theories suggests something of the charm and simplicity of pulp fiction, without belying the fact that sometimes genre writing can express views on the larger issues of life and death with a drama and clarity often lacking in contemporary “middlebrow” literature.
“What makes Iago Evil? some people ask. I never ask.” So goes the great opening line from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Iago is, along with Milton’s Satan, one of the great literary characterizations of evil. Iago’s genius lies in being able to cannily manipulate events and people in his environment to his advantage, while Satan’s metaphysical rebellion reaches down to a deeper plane, right to the core of the Western world’s foundational myths.

 

For the most part Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is a superficial and slick thriller, but it on occasion it rises to the heights of — or, more properly, descends to the depths of — a kind of American negative sublime. Here is the first glimpse we have in the novel that Anton Chigurh (perhaps pronounced “Chigger,” like the biting mite common in the U.S. South) is more than just a criminal and in fact is an embodiment of a deeper evil, a dark force for which he provides human agency. Although Chigurh seems at times an avatar of pure evil, at others he appears as a representative of a kind of primordial chaos that goes beyond good and evil. The scene below shows Chigurh as expressive of a kind of Iago-like “malign motiveless malignancy.”

 

He crossed the Pecos River just north of Sheffield Texas and took route 349 south. When he pulled into the filling station at Sheffield it was almost dark. A long red twilight with doves crossing the highway heading south toward some ranch tanks. He got change from the proprietor and made a phone call and filled the tank and went back in and paid.

You all gettin any rain up your way? the proprietor said.

Which way would that be?

I seen you was from Dallas.

Chigurh picked his change up off the counter. And what business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?

I didnt mean nothin by it.

You didnt mean nothing by it.

I was just passin the time of day.

I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of things.

Well sir, I apologized. If you dont want to accept my apology I dont know what else I can do for you.

How much are these?

Sir?

I said how much are these.

Sixty-nine cents.

Chigurh unfolded a dollar onto the counter. The man rang it up and stacked the change before him the way a dealer places chips. Chigurh hadnt taken his eyes from him. The man looked away. He coughed. Chigurh opened the plastic package of cashews with his teeth and doled a third part of them into his palm and stood eating.

Will there be somethin else? the man said.

I dont know. Will there?

Is there somethin wrong?

With what?

With anything.

Is that what you’re asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?

The man turned away and put his fist to his mouth and coughed again. He looked at Chigurh and he looked away. He looked out the window at the front of the store. The gas pumps and the car sitting there. Chigurh ate another small handful of the cashews.

Will there be anything else?

You’ve already asked me that.

Well I need to see about closin.

See about closing.

Yessir.

What time do you close?

Now. We close now.

Now is not a time. What time do you close.

Generally around dark. At dark.

Chigurh stood slowly chewing. You dont know what you’re talking about, do you?

Sir?

I said you dont know what you’re talking about do you.

I’m talkin about closin. That’s what I’m talkin about.

What time do you go to bed.

Sir?

You’re a bit deaf, arent you? I said what time do you go to bed.

Well. I’d say around nine-thirty. Somewhere around nine-thirty.

Chigurh poured more cashews into his palm. I could come back then, he said.

We’ll be closed then.

That’s all right.

Well why would you be comin back? We’ll be closed.

You said that.

Well we will.

You live in that house behind the store?

Yes I do.

You’ve lived here all your life?

The proprietor took a while to answer. This was my wife’s father’s place, he said. Originally.

You married into it.

We lived in Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.

You married into it.

If that’s the way you want to put it.

I dont have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.

Well I need to close now.

Chigurh poured the last of the cashews into his palm and wadded the little bag and placed it on the counter. He stood oddly erect, chewing.

You seem to have a lot of questions, the proprietor said. For somebody that dont want to say where it is they’re from.

What’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?

Sir?

I said what’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss.

Coin toss?

Coin toss.

I dont know. Folks dont generally bet on a coin toss. It’s usually more like just to settle somethin.

What’s the biggest thing you ever saw settled?

I dont know.

Chigurh took a twenty-five cent piece from his pocket and flipped it spinning into the bluish glare of the fluorescent lights overhead. He caught it and slapped it onto the back of his forearm just above the bloody wrappings. Call it, he said.

Call it?

Yes.

For what?

Just call it.

Well I need to know what it is we’re callin here.

How would that change anything?

The man looked at Chigurh’s eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones. You need to call it, Chigurh said. I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right. Just call it.

I didnt put nothin up.

Yes you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what the date is on this coin?

No.

It’s nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here. And I’ve got my hand over it. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

I dont know what it is I stand to win.

In the blue light the man’s face was beaded thinly with sweat. He licked his upper lip.

You stand to win everything, Chigurh said. Everything.

You aint makin any sense, mister.

Call it.

Heads then.

Chigurh uncovered the coin. He turned his arm slightly for the man to see. Well done, he said.

He picked the coin from his wrist and handed it across.

What do I want with that?

Take it. It’s your lucky coin.

I dont need it.

Yes you do. Take it.

The man took the coin. I got to close now, he said.

Dont put it in your pocket.

Sir?

Dont put it in your pocket.

Where do you want me to put it?

Dont put it in your pocket. You wont know which one it is.

All right.

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

Chigurh cupped his hand and scooped his change from the counter into his palm and put the change in his pocket and turned and walked out the door. The proprietor watched him go. Watched him get into the car. The car started and pulled off from the gravel apron onto the highway south. The lights never did come on. He laid the coin on the counter and looked at it. He put both hands on the counter and just stood leaning there with his head bowed.