In the world according to Harold Bloom, there are those who occupy the heights of objective judgment and the barbarians below. Or, as Bloom would have it, what he reads with pleasure and profit must possess lasting aesthetic value. Those who do not see that value have been blinded to the true purpose of literature by a political or ideological agenda. In contrast, Bloom’s judgment has nothing to do with his race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, or politics. He possesses no extra-literary agenda, no personal biases. If we point out that all the writers he holds up in admiration are white and most of them male, we are replacing objective literary criteria with sociology.
I am not convinced that Bloom’s sight is so unequivocally accurate and god-like. When he proclaims that his opponents are entirely preoccupied with the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet, I see either a misunderstanding or a mischaracterization of their arguments. Characteristics such as race and gender surely suggest areas of study that might aid in understanding and evaluating a poet. Moreover, for certain poets, such study might be required to appreciate fully their aesthetic value. It does not follow that matters of technique or analyses of form should be dismissed or denied preeminent importance-though even here one might certainly find instances where the forms a poet employs derive from aspects in their background.
At the same time, Bloom would probably maintain that the critic’s own background or identity ought to be irrelevant. Or at least, that his must be. Perhaps Harold Bloom is special. But for myself and every other critic I’ve encountered, such factors are relevant. It’s not a question of whether we carry prejudices and blinders within our psyches, but what kind. But I suppose that for Harold Bloom, I’m just one of those (critics and poets) who have politicized literature and broken from that Edenic paradise where literature possessed no political designs or effects and existed in a separate realm altogether.
According to Bloom, remnants of that apolitical period existed before the onslaught of the sixties and the resulting deterioration of culture. Yet even in the late seventies, when I was a graduate student, the curriculum I studied would have probably met Harold Bloom’s approval. Other than a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka, all the poets were white, and the overwhelming majority were white males. According to Bloom, then, I studied the apolitical canon. That’s not how I remember it. Certain professors and critics such as James Dickey implied or explicitly stated that women were less capable than men of writing great literature (the logic here: if women were more capable, then of course we’d be studying them). Similarly, I was told outright and subtly that to identify myself as an Japanese American or Asian American writer or a writer of color was to relegate myself to a literary ghetto– to enter literature through a back door affirmative action program. This only reinforced the cultural lessons I had learned growing up in an all white suburb, wanting to assimilate and erase my difference, wanting to disassociate myself from other Japanese-Americans or people of color. I told myself I wanted to be judged as an individual, for my own merits. What I knew subconsciously was that I really wanted to be white. And nothing in my literary training through grad school ever led me to question this desire or enabled me to formulate any other understanding of my identity.
After graduate school, I began reading such authors as James Baldwin, Aimé Césaire, Alice Walker, and Frantz Fanon:
In the Antilles . . . in the magazines, the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary ‘who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes’. . . .The black school boy in the Antilles, who in his lessons is forever talking about “our ancestors, the Gauls,” identifies himself with the explorer, the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to savages-an all-white truth. There is identification-that is, the young Negro subjectively adopts a white man’s attitude. He invests the hero, who is white, with all his own aggression-at that age closely linked to sacrificial dedication, a sacrificial dedication permeated with sadism.
When I came upon this passage in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, I suddenly understood what had been happening to me all my life, and I understood then that the literature I had been reading in graduate school had had a profound political effect on me. Bloom creates straw hoards who resent and hate Shakespeare or idiotically believe Shakespeare’s power derives solely from being a white European male. But surely it is possible to love Shakespeare both because of his artistic power and his position as a white European male; as a Freudian, Bloom should recognize that our desires are multiply determined. And it is also possible to love Shakespeare and, at the same time, read him with a critical eye to the historical and cultural values embedded in his work. Indeed, such readings may even augment our sense of Shakespeare’s artistry at the same time we may find him more human and fallible.
Bloom harps on Shakespeare’s greatness, as if that will somehow prove Bloom’s contemporary pantheon are Shakespeare’s rightful heirs. But I do not convinced by his connections between Merrill, Ammons, or Ashbery and Shakespeare (Bishop is another case). Rather than the heirs of Whitman, I believe at least one of these three contemporary poets, if not all three, will eventually be seen as more like James Russell Lowell or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow than the bard of “Song of Myself”-genteel versifiers upholding a moribund tradition.
Which brings us to the question of how we judge and use literature-more precisely, to differences in criteria for judging literature. I would argue that such criteria have little or nothing to do with the sociological categories Bloom associates with the multiculturalist rabble (indeed, the critics I’ll be referring to are all white males). But reflection on criteria does lead me to a very different set of questions and ideas about the contemporary scene.
How do we achieve gravity in our work? How can we push ourselves to where we are scared to go? Where others don’t want us to go? How can we produce writing which risks something? Czeslaw Milosz wrote that when he was scrabbling to save himself in the streets of Warsaw during World War II and bullets were ricocheting off the cobbles, it was clear to him that only literature which can speak to such a world, can speak to those who live in such a world, really matters. He also implied that we all live in that world, whether we think we do or not.
Elias Canetti believed that a great writer must be unique, and this uniqueness comes from something which may very well be a distortion or defect in the writer’s character or sensibility, some aspect sharpened to an unlikely and unnatural acuity; that the writer must be against every thing in her time; and that the writer must be for everything in her time. From which it follows that the writer must understand, intuitively or consciously, what it means to live in her time, and what it is for literature to remain complex and alive, adequate to its surrounding reality.
Kenneth Burke, too, remarked that literature ought to be equipment for living. Burke’s criterion-like Milosz’s and Canetti’s-need not be seen in opposition to aesthetic pleasure or profit, to use Bloom’s phrase. But if literature can and ought to serve as equipment for living, I would guess that some of the requirements for my life-and therefore some of my literary sensibilities-might differ from Bloom’s.
As a practicing writer, I have learned things-about life and the world-from Walcott and Cesaire or Baldwin and Morrison that I could never have learned from Merrill or John Cheever. My work has also been influenced by Shakespeare, Donne, Browning, and Yeats, yet the ways I read their work have shifted over the years. Among other things, I see Yeats now not as a major British author (the title of the course in which I first read him) but as an Irish author, one who, despite his conservatism, can be read in the context of anti-colonialist movements around the globe. As T. S. Eliot told us, when you add new writers to a tradition, your sense of that tradition changes.
Eliot also told us that great writers possess wit, by which he meant not simply erudition or cleverness, but the knowledge that other people at other times and in other places have lived and thought differently than oneself. Critics like Bloom constantly argue for universal standards of excellence or aesthetic value, yet they never stop to examine the way they define their universe. A few years ago, I taught a course in third world post-colonial literature in English. The book list included Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, Bessie Head, V. S. Naipaul, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie. In such a group, who appears more universal, Toni Morrison or John Updike, A. R. Ammons or Robert Hayden, Li-Young Lee or Jorie Graham?
To return, finally, to the question of objectivity: When I was in graduate school and a black student won an NEA, a white male poet professor said to a white male student, “We white guys didn’t have a chance this year. There were too many minority members on the panel.” Presumably this professor, like Bloom, believed that in the past the all white panels possessed an aesthetic objectivity that the more diverse panel could not. (Of course, this professor would not have made this remark to me, which told me something about my place in the program, which contained no professors of color.) When a black poet friend was in graduate school, his professor told him literature which drops the ‘g’ from participles and gerunds doesn’t last. Also that his lecture on black aesthetics was really about paranoia and not aesthetics. Recently, a distinguished white female novelist said to an Asian American novelist, “Everybody’s reading writers like you and Leslie Marman Silko and Toni Morrison and not American writers like me.” The white writer immediately corrected herself, but her subconscious had already been revealed.
Richard Wright once remarked that black and white America are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. Poetry cannot escape being part of that confrontation. For myself, Bloom’s arguments sound no different from those of conservatives who argue that affirmative action should be abolished because we should judge persons on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But what is happening in literature now by no means reflects exactly the legal processes or contradictions of affirmative action. Nor do questions of affirmative action or the conservative quoting of Martin Luther King accurately reflect the knots of the real problem: Can the majority of white people adequately judge the character of people of color or describe their reality? Unfortunately, the majority of people of color would answer that question in the negative. (I guarantee you that when this state of affairs changes, the chancellors of the American Academy of Poetry will no longer reflect the makeup of a Jim Crow country club.) And for me, there’s little reason to believe things are different when the object of scrutiny is our poetry.