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Misreading the Map

A Map of Misreading by Harold Bloom


Review by: John T. Irwin
The Sewanee Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Fall, 1975), pp. cxxix-cxxxiii
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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MISREADING
A Map

THE MAP

of Misreading

by Harold Bloom (Oxford Uni


versity

Press,

1975. 206 pages.

$8.95)
With A Map of Misreading
Harold

Bloom

presentation

continues
the
of what he called

in The Anxiety of Influence

antithetical

criticism. The Anx


iety of Influence was mainly
theoretical
criticism; A Map of
is mainly
practical.
Misreading
What
emerges from the two
books is a criticism
that is
in a double
sense.
antithetical
to
With
Bloom
respect
poetry
examines
the psychological/
rhetorical
strategies of counter
influence at work
in a poetic
tradition grown so rich that the
to greatness
young poet aspiring
seems to have no
imaginative
to be original.
space left in which
With
respect to literary criticism
Bloom applies his own strategies
of counterinfluence
to American
on the one hand
New Criticism
and to European
(mainly
theoretical
criticism on
French)
the other. The dedicatees
of
the two books establish
the
critical poles between which
antithetical
criticism
takes up its
the
is
earlier
book
position:
to the American
dedicated
formalist critic W. K. Wimsatt,
the later to the European
theo
retical critic Paul de Man.
stance replies to a
Bloom's
critical dilemma:
he feels that

American
formalist criticism has
since
done all that it is
long
ever going to do, and that what
ever European
theoretical
criticism might
do, it simply
isn't ours. In Bloom's
reading
of American
the spirit
poetry
that broods over the process
of
is that of Emerson's
influence
"The American
its
Scholar" with
call for a native counterinfluence
to the dominant
influence of
same spirit
is
it
this
Europe;
that is at work
in antithetical
criticism
and its pitting
of the
concerns of American
practical
formalism
the theoretical
against
obsessions
of French
antiformal
as
ism. Antithetical
criticism,
the "higher structure" into which
are incorporated,
these modes
is sure to bark shins in both
camps. Thus A Map of Mis
a practical
reading presents
criticism
that, in its intertextu
ality, its continual oscillation
between works and writers,
ignores just those formal
boundaries
that the new critic
for
the practical
requires
of a work; while on
explication
a
the other hand it presents
theoretical
criticism that, in its
emphasis of the prac
continuing
tical work of teaching poetic
texts and a poetic tradition to
other people
in a classroom,
calls into question
the narcissistic
so many
of
theoreti
ego-dancing
cal works. Bloom,
then, seeks
to avoid two extremes:
the
formalist encapsulation
of the
individual work
like
(or author)
OXXfrA

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a model
ship in a bottle, and the
dreaded
theoretical
"French kiss"
in which
both the work and
the author vanish from sight as
the critic bends over to kiss
his own backside
in a mirror.
The scenario that Bloom pro
the
poses for understanding
of
and
influence
that he
process
one
at
like
this:
develops
goes
point in our tradition poets began

to lose their belief in God and


started

that

long process of
a human absolute
substituting
for a divine absolute,
the indi
vidual
self for the deity. Before
that change the repetition
of
received models was experienced
as a source of
strength because
the ultimate
origin of the models
was assumed
to be divine; after
that change it was experienced
as a form of
weak
debilitating
ness because, when
the self
became
the absolute,
the primary
values became precisely
the
and
individuality,
uniqueness,
of each self. Bloom
originality
takes Milton's
Paradise Lost as
the historical
starting point for
his reading of this process,
and
he sees Milton's
Satan, in his
attempt to displace God, as the
of the strong post
paradigm
poet who strives
enlightenment
to displace his ancestors. The
ultimate
form of this act of
Bloom calls
displacement
an attempt
to
"transumption,"
reverse the temporal
priority
so that
of the poetic precursor
one's poetic ancestors become,
as it were,
one's descendants?

of the
the poetic equivalent
of
the
of genera
reversal
fantasy
tions in which
the child believes
that when his father grows older
and he grows up he will become
his father s father. What Homer,
were to
Virgil, and the Bible
Milton, Milton was to the
romantic poets, and the ro
are to us?the
mantics
great
creative power
precursors whose
seems
the loved and
godlike,
hated fathers whose
poetic
an ideal and
strength is at once
a threat.
In Bloom's Oedipal
version
of poetic
the young
influence,
poet (son) finds in the pre
the conjunction
cursor's work

of the older poet (father) with

the Imaginative
the Muse
Power,
Since it is from the
(mother).
influence of the precursor's
work
that the young poet learns
how to be a poet, i.e., takes his
the conjunc
poetic generation,
tion of the older poet and the
muse
in the precursor s poem
for
the younger poet, the
is,
fantasized
"primal scene" of
instruction. But if the young
poet aspires to the greatness
of the precursor, he must achieve
his own personal
strength against
the influence of the older poet.
six revisionary
Bloom's
ratios?
the notorious
apotropaic
litany
of clinamen,
tessera, kenosis,
daemonization,
askesis, and
of
apophrades?are
strategies
or reverse in
counterinfluence
fluence whereby
the younger
the
absorbs
achievement
poet

cxxx

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of the precursor
and then
uses that achievement
against
the precursor.
Since Bloom believes that all reading is mis
reading and all writing
rewriting,
this process of counterinfluence
involves a misinterpretation
of
so radical
the precursor's work
that it allows the younger poet
to believe
in his own
originality
as he rewrites the precursor.
Thus the younger poet's imagina
tive fantasy of
is
originality
an
illusion that
simply
energizing
allows him to void his own
sense of belatedness
in a tradi
tion. The embodiment
of that
of
is
belated
fantasy
originality
the poem itself.
ratios are
revisionary
tropes, modes of
simultaneously
availing oneself
of and speaking against the force
statement
of a previous
(the
Bloom's
rhetorical

precursor's
poem).
Certainly
one of Bloom's boldest vatic
is the equivalence
assertions
that he draws between
rhetori
cal tropes and psychological
He claims
defense mechanisms.
that for at least the last three
centuries
tropes and defense
are
mechanisms
interchangeable
in an absolutely
fixed pattern:
a
rhetorical
irony is always
a
reaction-formation;
synedoche
or a
reversal into the opposite
turning against the self;
an
or an
metonymy
undoing,
a
or
isolating,
regression; hyper
is
bole is repression; metaphor
and
sublimation;
metalepsis
is introjection
(transumption)

or
Further he thinks
projection.
that overdetermined
fixed areas
of imagery are always the
j
mask of these trop
phenomenal
or
tropes.
ing defenses
defending
i In calling his book A Map of
intends a
Bloom
Misreading
reference:
! dual "geographic"
first, to the book as a topological
and,
survey of a psychic domain;
second, to the fact that the
scenario of counterinfluence
in
crisis
postenlightenment

Ipoems (the only poems inwhich

is invariably
?Bloom is interested)
as an
| presented
interplay of
and enrich
| the impoverishment
ment of a
landscape
symbolic
as the precur
impoverishment,
is voided
sor's influence
and his

spirit (like the vanishing God)

recedes over the horizon


(though
is internal;
of course the horizon
the precursor
is being absorbed
into the younger poet);
and
as the young poet's
enrichment,
own self expands to fill the
void. Transumption,
then, as
an imaginative
reversal of time
in which
one's poetic ancestor
in
becomes
one's descendant,
volves a reciprocal
introjection
and projection.
The roots of Bloom's anti
thetical criticism are to be found
not in Aristotle but in Moses
Cordovero
and Isaac Luria, not
in formalism but in gnosticism.
?
Bloom has, of course, long in
sisted that there is no such
as form in poetry, and
thing
he has
? in A Map of Misreading
a
like
! achieved
goal,
something
cxxxi

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for now

there are no poems, but


only interpoems. Texts don't
have meanings,
because
there
are no texts. There are
only
litanies, strange
apotropaic
that ward
off other
keenings
The
implicit
gnosticism
keenings.

in The Anxiety of Influence is


explicit in A Map of Misreading

as a cabalistic critical framework.


The gnostic
is a
methodology
of
Bloom's
necessary
consequence
scenario of the process of in
for what
the young
fluence,
in
is
finds
the
poet
precursor
a man whose
direct confrontation
with
the Imaginative
Power
is,
like Moses'
confrontation
with
in a text that
God, manifested
has for the young poet the
force of a written
orthodoxy.
But, like the gnostic who seeks
a direct vision of the Word
the words,
the young
beyond
to transcend
the
poet attempts
mediation
of the precursor's
work in order to achieve his
own personal
with
confrontation
that Power. The strategies
for
such a direct vision are, Bloom
contends,
always gnostic.
One could object to Bloom's
critical obsession with "strong"
and "weak" poetry that it derives
from, and is restricted to, the
one kind of poem?
analysis of
the postenlightenment
crisis-of
vision poem. Bloom would,
I
think, admit the justice of the
objection but point out that
these categories
should not be
confused with major
and minor
"weak poetry"
poetry. Bloom's

is poetry that aspires to the


Satanic
self-exaltation
of strong
poetry and fails, while minor
itself to
poetry never addresses
the question
of struggling with
for a spot
the great precursors
I on Parnassus.
In minor poetry
is interested not at all.
Bloom
The ultimate problem
that
in any
must be confronted
review of a book by Harold
Bloom
is, of course, Bloom
Is Harold
himself.
Bloom
out
Nine
of ten
outrageous?
lost souls like dead leaves driven
by the great winds coursing

through the lobbies at MLA

agreed in calling Bloom out


rageous or some variant thereof.
Bloom himself,
rudely awakened
at 2 a.m. and asked to give a
minute
account of his work,
Faced
murmured,
"Outrageous."
I think we
such evidence,
with
must conclude not only that
Bloom is outrageous
but that his
a predi
is
both
outrageousness
lection of temperament
and
a conscious
strategy. Certainly
The Anxiety of Influence and
are in
A Map of Misreading
tended to outrage poets, for
Bloom feels that with the present
collapse of literary tradition
anyone with psychological
and the price of a
problems
|
Chief
tablet and a crayola
Big
can start writing
"poetry" and
j
Ibe taken
seriously, and it is
against these swarms of "poets"
is
that antithetical
criticism
|
as a pesticide.
directed
Bloom
I sees the current pragmatic

cxxxii

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a
of teaching
literary
as "valuable
precisely
it partly blocks, because
it
the weak, because
represses even the strong. To
study literary tradition today
is to achieve a dangerous
but
act
of
that
mind
works
enabling
against all" ease in fresh
'creation.'
To stifle the weak
and challenge
the potentially
them confront
strong by making
is the attempt
how desperate
to write great poetry when one
comes very late in a tradition?
these are the goals of the
vatic Emersonian/Paterian
that make up A
prose-poems

function
tradition
because
it stifles

Map of Misreading.
To point out that in many
in this book Bloom
passages
is his own worst
enemy is no
for Bloom's
stroke,
devastating
conscious
of the
understanding
of
in
daemonization
process
the period
since the self became
the absolute
is
that
precisely
strength lies in the selfs taking
itself as its own worst enemy.
What,
then, is one to do with
the outrageous
Bloom? He must
in his own broth.
be boiled
Like any strong influence he
must be resisted and absorbed,
absorbed
and resisted. A Map
of Misreading
gives us the practi
cal tools for misreading
Bloom.
?John

T.

Irwin

WHO

IS WHO

Sphere: The Form


by A. R. Ammons

of a Motion
1974.
(Norton,

80 pages. $6.95, $1.95 pb)

The first poem in A. R.


Poems: I95I
Ammons's Collected
1971 begins with an improbable
I said I am Ezra"?
fiction?"So
and the last poem in that volume
the assertion of a
ends with
sure fact, that
are what
things
an
"the
apple
apple
they are,
with its own hue/or
streak, the
drink of water,
the drink." In
the course of this difficult but
from fiction to
gracious progress
the
mask
of
the
fact,
prophetic
Ezra is replaced by the plain
face of the prosaic Archie,
who insists, at the end of "Cor
sons Inlet," that "tomorrow
a
new walk
is a new walk." And
now, in his first book since
the Collected
Poems, Ammons
concludes
again by asserting
equations:

"we're

clear:

we're

ourselves: we're sailing." The


title of the new book, Sphere:
The Form of a Motion,
invites
the observation
that Ammons,
in the motion
from "I am Ezra"
to

"we're

ourselves,"

has

come

full circle.
seems
in Ammons
The motion
to be away from the orthodoxies
of criticism
in
specializing
as
fictions
icons,
(such
symbols,
and para
ironies, ambiguities,
doxes) and toward the ortho
doxies of poetry specializing
in
and
But
facts,
things,
objects.

cxxxiii

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