When I was a teenager the F. O. Matthiessen edition of The Oxford Book of American Verse fell off a truck and became my bible. I absorbed Whitman and Dickinson, and also Emerson and Hawthorne as if they were my mother’s milk, not taking in how radical they were. Their gift was the ideal of a free and welcoming mind, an independence from all cant whatever. I could be open to any idea or feeling, on the condition that nothing was fencing me in. “No bird soars too high if he soars with its own wings.”…I started reading Blake at this time also.
In my adulthood, I saw the need for an established faith so I knelt before a bishop. I recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday. My favorite part of the service was at the end, the blessing. Wasn’t it a wonderful thing that one was being blessed? But there wasn’t enough of that part. If I examined the creed honestly, I had to admit that I thought its doctrines read like an out of print novel. But I told myself that reciting the creed was a gesture of solidarity with a procession of faith through time and space and that I didn’t actually have to believe it.
Now, in the third part of my life, I have returned to the open structured beliefs that I had as a teenager, yelping with joy at having, like a lost dog, found my way home and realizing, as I didn’t in my youth, what a rebellious choice that was. The first third and last third of my life are full of significance for me. The middle third, my adulthood, I consider irrelevant. I’m a literary punk again, and extravagantly happy about it.
The point of disclosing that personal history is that it makes me a good reader for Harold Bloom. In books, I generally like what he likes and I’m sympathetic to his positions and those of the American writers he loves…as he interprets them. We’re in the same literary family. If you’re not, why would you pick up his book?
Harold Bloom is a best selling literary critic. This baffles me. Just as I’m puzzled by people who love the Impressionists but not other painters, or who are interested in Frank Lloyd Wright but not other architects. Harold Bloom points out that of the twelve American writers he deep-reads in The Daemon Knows, Mark Twain and Robert Frost have popular followings. But all twelve of the writers that he has selected cry out for champion readers.
The first portion of Daemon is heavy into Whitman and Melville. I read the first forty pages twice and gave up. Then on the third reading I was launched. Daemon is a summa of distinguished reading by a gifted critic who tackled Moby Dick at age ten and asked intelligent questions about it at that time. Daemon takes as its focus twelve icons of the American religion, as Bloom calls it, our unique take. Perhaps it’s not an accident that twelve names were chosen to serve as literary apostles?
You need to consider that Bloom’s acute consideration of these writers was honed in discussions with his students at Yale. So his Yale students, as he says, very bright, would be reading the texts with Bloom and had the opportunity to ask him questions and hear his reaction to their opinions. One of the disadvantages of a solo reading is that you can’t raise your hand.
Another pitfall is…how much of this stuff have you read? Harold Bloom’s knowledge of literature is at floodtide. That’s one of the reasons for considering Daemon indispensable. Many great writers and their work…aside from the sacral twelve…are alluded to on the wing, and it can be a rapid flight.
Do you know what Lucretian materialism is? I happen to know…because I’ve read On the Nature of Things. I’ve read many of the writers that Bloom cites. But when I came across a gap in my reading and Bloom brings up an unfamiliar author, I got lost in that section of the book. Harold Bloom treats you like an equal in The Daemon Knows. That’s an undeserved compliment for most of us. But it makes you want to rise to the occasion.
It’s curious how Harold Bloom tries to be strenuously fair to T. S. Eliot, the only orthodox believer in Bloom’s twelve-sided literary Stonehenge. Bloom calls him “neo-orthodox” and ends up trashing him…like he can’t help himself despite his best intentions. I was brought up to think of T.S. Eliot as at the center of twentieth century literature. But Bloom treats him like an outlier…which in the scheme of The Daemon Knows, he is. Perhaps that’s more in line with current academic thinking, I don’t know. I can imagine Harold Bloom clothed as a high priest of the Druids, casting an unrepentant T.S. Eliot into the flames of some atavistic pagan ritual. But I am being frivolous.
Daemon is a book that says farewell. I don’t know if it will be Harold Bloom’s last book but it can be said to exemplify finality. Five or six times in the course of the book, Bloom refers to his advanced age. A just anxiety about death informs many pages. He mentions many beloved friends and colleagues, which is often followed by the refrain that they are now dead.
The Daemon Knows by Harold Bloom is available from Spiegel & Grau. I secured my copy through the expenditure of money.