Text: Eric W. Carlson, “Bloom on Poe,” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, December 1986, Vol. XIX, No. 2, 19:50-52


[page 50, column 2, continued:]

Bloom on Poe

Harold Bloom, ed. Edgar Allan Poe (Modern Critical Views). New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 155 pp. $17.95.

This volume is one of hundreds that are being edited, with introductions by Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University. It is obvious that the publisher has, for its convenience and profit as a trade-book firm, struck a deal with a distinguished professor willing to employ an assembly-line method for producing these anthologies of “modern critical views.” As the editor of two collections of critical essays on Poe, I [page 51:] know it is usually the publisher, not the editor, who decides on the nature, scope, and length of such volumes, determined largely by the economics of book-making. Only within those limits is the editor free to make his selections and write his introduction.

In this volume, Harold Bloom has substituted for a true introduction an earlier essay called aInescapable Poe,” ostensibly a review of the two new Poe volumes from the Library of America for the New York Review of Books (October 11, 1984, pp. 23-26, 35-37). Though passed over by American Literary Scholarship: 1984, this essay was clearly intended to be Bloom’s major statement on Poe, as suggested in part by its being retitled aAmericanizing the Abyss” in the acknowledgements. At the outset, Bloom rejects Uthe critical myth of the French Poe” (Poe as amisread” and aovervalued” by Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Valery), which avanishes utterly when confronted by what Poe actually wrote.” Quoting a adreadful” stanza from aFor Annie” and invoking Aldous Huxley’s 1930 attack on aUlalume” as a ajustn accusation, Bloom dismisses the poems as of little value. Even aIsrafel” and aThe City in the Sea” (highly praised by Huxley) are regarded as derivative echoes of Byron and Shelley, though elsewhere_aat its rare best“ — Poe’s poetry “echoes those High Romantic forerunners with some grace and a certain plangent urgency.” Intent on a negative report, however, Bloom chooses not to reveal from awhat Poe actually wrote” any examples of the author’s arare best.” Instead he takes pains to rank Poe as a poet who “scrambles” for twelfth place with Sidney Lanier, behind Whitman, Dickinson, Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Jones Very, Thoreau, Melville, Timrod, and Tuckerman. In short, “No reader who cares deeply for the best poetry written in English can care greatly for Poe’s verse.” Echoes of Henry James!

Poe’s applied criticism receives the same short shrift: “There are no critical insights, no original perceptions, no accurate or illuminating juxtapositions or historical placements.” One negative example follows: Poe’s mistaken praise of Tennyson’s aThe Lady of Shalott” for its aindefinitiveness” and avague” spiritual effect. The exception is athe problem-ridden Eureka,” which, though aextravagantly repetitious,” is Poe’s best apoem”; it asserts the post-Newtonian Utruth of feeling” or abodily intuition” that cosmologies really amap the universe of desire.” “Certainly Eureka is more of a literary achievement than Poe’s verse,” though “whether Eureka or the famous stories can survive [column 2:] authentic criticism is not clear.” Here is another echo, this time of Yvor Winters and Laura Riding, in the gratuitous implication that Poe criticism before Bloom cannot be “authentic“! Are the critiques by Hoffman, Tate, and Wilbur not authentic?

The tales fare better. For Bloom they have a permanent place in our literary culture, witness aWilliam Wilson,” which, despite its “awful diction,” survives by virtue of its apsychological dynamics and mythic reverberations.” (Bloom might have had second thoughts about the opening paragraph of aWilliam Wilson” had he read Donald Stauffer’s analysis of its tone and style — a critique far more aauthentic” than Bloom’s literal reading.) Poe’s power derives from his aown difficult sense that the ego is always a bodily ego.” Eureka, though inferior to Emerson’s Nature, is aa common nightmare,” with a concluding God-like triumph: aall is Life-Life-Life within Life . . . and all within the Spirit Divine.” Thus, in this fantasy of asbsorption,” the ego and the cosmos become one. Accepting John Irwin’s view of Poe as a visionary anticipating Freud, Bloom sees athe giant white shadow” as a magnified projection of Pym, the Gnostic self, the original bodily ego. In Ligeia’s daemon of will is defined the theme of character-as-destiny and “the American triumph of the will,” however illusory. Despite his “commonplace” thoughts and “dead” metaphors, Poe is aa great fantasist” in being aat once the Narcissus and the Prometheus of American literature,” with aa mythical power that makes him inescapable.” Whereas Emerson kept separate the atwo absorbing facts — I and the Abyss,” Poe declared aI will be the Abyss.” In sum, Poe is acentral to the American canon, both for us and the rest of the world” and all his work is a “hymn to negativity” in opposition to “the affirmative force of Emersonian America” and its apragmatic vision of American Self-Reliance.”

In addition to the introduction, this anthology reprints five familiar essays from 1921 to 1954 — Valery on Eureka (in the Cowley translation, not the improved Cowley-Lawler version, Princeton 1972), D. H. Lawrence’s 1923 essay (not the original, better 1919 version), Tate’s “The Angelic Imagination,” Wilbur’s “The House of Poe,” and Griffith’s “Poe’s Ligeia and the Romantic Tradition” (even though it seems to have been disowned by Griffith). No surprises here. The remaining three selections consist of “The Marriage Group” from Daniel Hoffman’s Poe (1972), “The White Shadow,” which is Section 13 from John Irwin’s [page 52:] American Hieroglyphics (1980), and Shoshana Felman’s “On Reading Poetry” from The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will (1980). Hoffman’s term aMarriage Group” seems oddly inappropriate for “The Black Cat,” “The Spectacles,” “Berenice,” “Loss of Breath,” “Ligeia,” and “The Assignation,” especially as Hoffman speaks Of “the intense symbiosis between love and hatred” and Poe’s pitiless gaze into his own tormented soul. Borrowing Marie Bonaparte’s Freudian view of Poe’s symbols (eye, teeth, and the like) in “The Black Cat,” Hoffman sees those symbols as substitutes for the vagina dentata and the theme as a longing for a return to the maternal womb, achieving primary unity. The sixteen pages on “Ligeia,” among the best in Hoffman’s study, identify the philosophical pattern of implications, despite the deference to Bonaparte’s and Krutch’s “findings” that Poe was impotent. Insightful also is Hoffman’s sense that Poe is in full artistic control, that his “stylistic grotesqueries” function as a rhetoric appropriate to the narrator’s character and “psychal state,” and that Poe’s personal loss and grief has been mythologized and universalized to the level of archetype.

Next comes Section 13 from Irwin’s extended discussion of Pym, with special focus on the ending “the gigantic white shadow“ — and parallel passages in Coleridge, Brewster, and the New Testament. Irwin’s strained theological speculation returns finally to Eureka as an aaesthetic cosmology” and to related aalogical” myths of the self. But because the discussion of the ending is not completed until Section 14, the reader is left here with a doubly indeterminate conclusion of this selection, along with Irwin’s final equating of Eureka’s primal Oneness with aa death wish,” which it is not. In aOn Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches,” Shoshana Felman, professor of French at Yale, offers a lucid follow-up to Barbara Johnson’s widely reprinted discussion of the Lacan-Derrida seminar on Poe’s aThe Purloined Letter.” Felman professes to build a literary case history from Poe’s “genius effect,” his aeffective poetic power,” the impressive body of scholarship on Poe, the crudity of Bonaparte’s and Krutch’s clinical portraits of Poe, which fail to grasp the dynamic interaction between the conscious and the unconscious, and the paradoxical fact that Poe’s irresistible poetry has proved to be the most resisted in literary history. Felman recommends Lacan’s approach of “textual problematization” as a different way by which psychoanalysis can help to account for poetic genius, with its emphasis on [column 2:] structural patterning of scene and character and on the displacement of the signifier, especially as the displacement moves toward a different place with each repetition compulsion. Felman claims that this type of reading is “methodologically unprecedented in the whole history of literary criticism” because it holds that what can (and perhaps should) be read is “not just meaning but the lack of meaning; that significance lies not just in consciousness but, specifically, in its disruption . . . that the lack of meaning — the discontinuity in conscious understanding — can and should be interpreted as such [and that] what calls for analysis is the insistence of the unreadable in the text.” This approach is not concerned with Poe’s “sickness,” equating the poetic with the psychotic. It is no longer a matter of the application of psychoanalysis to literature, but rather, of their interimplication in each other.

A skeptical reviewer may ask whether every work of art must be psychoanalyzed, and if so, in this way? What, precisely, is this way? What is the meaning of meaning? And what is the relationship of meaning to “the lack of meaning” in this context? What role, if any, is played by formalistic analysis and by the deeper aesthetic interpretation that seeks out the interimplications of the author’s philosophic perspective, epistemology, and creative work? Or is the literary work no longer an art form but only a “text“? Neither Felman in this article nor Bloom in his introduction considers these basic questions.

Eric W. Carlson, Univ. of Connecticut, Emeritus


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]