(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Stately and prolific, Harold Bloom, one of America’s foremost literary critics and theorists has, in this collection of essays, lectures, and addresses, made considerable progress in demystifying himself. Bloom writes with relish of his own inner agon in a difficult and sometimes perplexing but brilliant and rewarding study that has for its object an examination of the possibilities of applying Gnostic and Cabalistic thought to the interpretation of literature. Preparatory to anything else about Bloom’s work, it is important to realize that for him, the art of criticism has no language but that of the individual critic.

Bloom initiates his readers into an agonistic, Gnostic world of revisionism through his own particularly “ferocious alphabet,” as Denis Donoghue has recently termed it when he classified Bloom among the “epireaders” of modern criticism. In this book, however, Bloom departs from the school of Jacques Derrida, from his Yale colleagues such as Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, and from such advocates of the “reader response” party as Stanley Fish and Susan Horton to form a majority of one clearly outside what he calls the “Deconstruction Road Company.” His avowed purpose in this work is to write a provisional prolegomenon and a partial exploration of the theory of revisionism he hopes to write. So, in his introduction, “A Prelude to Gnosis,” he calls this study in revisionism the work of a Jewish Gnostic (fully aware of the oxymoronic nature of that designation), a sectarian whose thought is strained through Friedrich Nietzsche, Giambathsta Vico, and Gershom Scholem, as Cynthia Ozick has suggested in Art and Ardor (1983). To this list one must add Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of Bloom’s intellectual progenitors. Central to this work and to Bloom’s still unfolding thought is his conviction that the Emersonian American religion of competitiveness is at the base of American literature and the uniquely American criticism he seeks to establish.

In seeking to establish his own brand of criticism and to find a voice, Bloom has, over several years, been providing a new critical vocabulary to buttress his highly personal responses to literary works, responses that have caused much consternation and no little antipathy in the critical world. His vatic vocabulary, while still expanding with each new lecture and essay, does have some major fixed elements. One of his givens is that the reading of a text and any consequently produced critical response is a misreading or misprision and cannot be otherwise, as each reader implicitly or overtly asks the question Walter Pater asked in his preface to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) about what a work means “to me.” A deep reading or “strong misreading” is a lively and welcome agon between the reader and the author’s text as the critic attempts to usurp what the author has written, to usurp, “A place, a stance, a fullness, an illusion of identification or possession.” The act of writing in the post-Miltonic era is also, according to Bloom, an anxiously influenced misprision of earlier literary works, since later writers, conscious of their literary predecessors and impressed with a lively sense of their own posteriority (Bloom’s “belatedness”), attempt, by allusion and trope, to usurp strong anterior texts. In this respect, Bloom is not far from the poetic intention of the pre-Miltonic Edmund Spenser and other writers of Renaissance dynastic epic who sought to “overgo” Vergil.

The whole notion of usurpation is an intriguing one that is not without unexpected precedent. Michael Levey in a recent book on Walter Pater (The Case of Walter Pater, 1978) follows the lead of Thomas Wright’s Life of Walter Pater (1907), where Wright spoke of the young Pater as assuming, by turns, the identities of the writers and artists of whom he wrote. This is very close to T. S. Eliot’s sentiment that one cannot criticize a writer to whom one has never fully surrendered. Levey, Wright, and Eliot prefigure the sort of usurpation through strong misprision Bloom advocates. In Wright’s case, the strong misreading is a surprising treatment of a writer who seriously explored Gnosticism and continues to exert a profound influence upon Harold Bloom.

The fifteen chapters of Agon treat of a wide variety of writers and works that range from the Hellenistic Gnostic Valentinius to Sigmund Freud, William Blake, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, John Ashbery, John Hollander, and David Lindsay. In connection with David Lindsay’s fantasy novel A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Bloom...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)

Agon Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Choice. XIX, April, 1982, p. 1060.

Criticism. XXIV, Summer, 1982, p. 297.

Library Journal. CVI, December 15, 1981, p. 2394.

The New Republic. CLXXXVI, February 17, 1982, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, January 31, 1982, p. 8.

Times Literary Supplement. July 30, 1982, p. 811.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVIII, Summer 1982, p. 79.

Yale Review. LXXII, Autumn, 1982, p. 116.