Finding Wisdom (I)

The final week of the year is a still week. The calendar counts down the days of December, and although there is always work to be done, people might be able to enjoy a day or two of recreation.The Prophet Elijah learned that God speaks not in a heavy wind nor in an earthquake nor in a fire, but a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13), and so I've tried to be a bit more attentive to finding wisdom during this still week.

As you might expect, this attentiveness has come in the form of reading, and the latest works of two great scholars have been my guides. It is nearly impossible to do justice either to Harold Bloom or to Wm. Theodore de Bary, and so I won't even dare to write about them together. For today, then, Ill focus on Bloom's latest book The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, and I'll have to leave de Bary's edited collection Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics until next week.

In the Anatomy of Influence, which Bloom describes as his "final reflection upon the influence process" (ix), the gnostic of New Haven writes that "the art of literary criticism for the present time is to read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate" (24). A key component of Blooms' description, evaluation, and appreciation is his argument is that all literary influence is labyrinthine. He writes,

Belated authors wander the maze as is an exit can be found, until the strong among them realize that the windings of the labyrinth are all internal. No critic, however generously motivated, can help a deep reader escape from the labyrinth of influence. I have learned that my function is to help you get lost (31).

It all depends, I suppose, on how you define "lost."

To get lost with Bloom is to explore Shakespeare and Whitman, Dante and Joyce, Wallace Stevens and John Ashberry. This exploration helps the reader to recognize how each poem struggles with the inheritance that came before it in order to find its own voice. For Bloom, there is no poetry de novo. Every poem, every piece of criticism, every work of the human imagination only exists within the labyrinth created by other poetry, other criticism, other art.

I found the Anatomy of Influence to be more accessible than Bloom's two earlier monographs The Anxiety of Influence and Map of Misreading, and certainly one need not have read anything else by Bloom to learn from his latest book. Bloom does not rehearse the six-fold taxonomy of influence that he laid out in the earlier works. Anatomy is also more serene than the polemical earlier works. The obvious joy he takes in writing about great poetry and criticism is infectious. I even enjoyed the autobiographical passages in the book. Bloom's has been a life spent reading and teaching and writing about poetry. Reading him makes me see favorite authors anew. In Anthony Domesticos fine phrase, reading Bloom helps me "test thought against feeling, feeling against thought." Thanks to Bloom, I now begin each day by reading Shakespeares sonnets and end each day by reading the essays of one of his favorite critics, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The title of Bloom's book exhibits the influence process. Northrop Frye wrote The Anatomy of Criticism, and Bloom's work has long been in conversation -- indeed, in a struggle -- with Frye's. Even the subtitle of the book, literature as a way of life, put the book in competition with Pierre Hadot's study of ancient philosophy entitled Philosophy as a Way of Life. For Bloom the struggle between philosophy and poetry already found in Plato's Republic, when Socrates bans the poets from his ideal city, continues. Socrates once said that to philosophize, to love wisdom, is to prepare to die. Bloom disagrees. He ends the book by writing,

There is no way out of the labyrinth of literary influence once you reach the point where it starts reading you more fully than you can encompass other imaginations. The labyrinth is life itself. I cannot finish this book because I hope to go on reading and seeking the blessings of more life (335).

As we end one year and begin another, let's hope to find more wisdom by continuing to read and and continuing to seek the blessings of life.

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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