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My Personal Literary Aesthetic, Laid Out Nicely for Me By Harold Bloom

"You're welcome, Amber Sparks. Also, I am awesome."

When people ask me why I write what I do, or read the things I do, I tend to use the word ‘mystery’ a lot. Not as in ‘gumshoe’ or ‘whodunnit. I mean, I guess, the sort of mystery that you feel in the back of your head when you watch Kubrick, or listen to Dvorak, or read Shakespeare. The idea of something larger and grander pushing at you, prodding and poking and daring you to be something greater, or at least to understand a little.

My best friend in college and I used to call it “the Know,” a reference to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Writing is a big part of it. Art is a big part of it. Music, theatre, film–but also science, math, logic, games, beauty, elegance…all kinds of things contribute to it. But I’ve never been able to describe it very well, as you see, though I’ve tried with all my sad meaty little heart to do so. Then I was re-reading some Harold Bloom the other day–his intro to The Best Poems of the English Language, actually. I was moving my books around and picked it up and, like I always seem to do with Bloom, I couldn’t stop once I’d started. Go head, laugh at me describing Bloom as a page-turner. But really, it’s oddly compelling stuff. Anyway, I came upon this section and BOOM. That’s it. That’s my aesthetic. Laid out by someone brilliant and described in (almost) crystal clarity. Damn. Here it is and I’m about to go put this baby on wallet sized cards and carry it with me everywhere:

I think that poetry at its greatest–in Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake–has one broad and essential difficulty; it is the true mode for expanding our consciousness. This it accomplishes by what I have learned to call strangeness. Owen Barfield was one of several critics to bring forth strangeness as a poetic criterion. For him, as for Walter Pater before him, the Romantic added strangeness to beauty: Wallace Stevens, a part of this tradition, has a Paterian figure cry out: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.”…

…Consciousness is the central term here. As Barfield intimates, consciousness is to poetry what marble is to sculpture: the material that is being worked. Words are figurations of consciousness: metaphorical of consciousness, the poet’s words invite us to share in a strangeness.

Yep. Pretty much exactly my thoughts, albeit phrased in a far more succinct, elegant and graceful fashion. This may also explain why I love the Romantics so much. This may explain the “know,” the mystery, the deepening in the back of the head when my conscious is being altered. May it always be so.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

26 thoughts on “My Personal Literary Aesthetic, Laid Out Nicely for Me By Harold Bloom

  1. Couldn’t agree more re: Bloom being compelling. He is ridiculous as often as not but I think The Ringers in the Tower may be one of my favorite books. I frequently re-read it and feel not only “at home” but also electrified into greater pursuits.

    1. Oh, that one is terrific. Yes, Bloom is definitely sometimes ridiculous–but always full of such joy and passion for good things that I mostly don’t mind.

      Sent from my iPhone

      1. I was trying to figure out whether Bloom was borrowing the concept from Shklovsky et al. I know he’s aware of it.

        Shklovsky’s ostranenie strikes me as being a richer concept, applying as it does to many things other than poetry. Although, as Shklovsky notes, one commonly encounters defamiliarization in poetry because it is “impeded speech.”

        But I also simply see Shklovsky everywhere. Every other time I point him out, I should be ignored. If not more frequently.

        1. I feel like Bloom’s theory can be applied more widely than just to poetry…it seems to apply to every art form, anything that holds the proverbial mirror up to nature. But yes, Shklovsky’s point about defamiliarization in poetry is a good one. Applies to any form of elevated speech, I suppose. I like that.

          1. Shklovsky uses the term “poetry” very loosely. The basic idea is that anything ordinary or easy or familiar (“prosaic”) encourages “recognition,” which is the opposite of truly seeing. But that difficult art impedes recognition, and slows down one’s experience with it, thereby causing one to see the object (and the situation) for what it really is. One becomes aware of the thing in itself, and one’s relationship to it, what one is doing; the experience of defamiliarization wakes up to the life one is looking. (“The stone feels stony.”) It’s almost Buddhist. I wonder if John Cage read it…

            As Shklovsky notes, the thing itself is unimportant. One can have such an experience with anything. But art is good at producing that experience, which is one of the reasons why people make it.

            (I was going to add something about how this relates to the Impressionists and Symbolists, and to later artists like Marcel Duchamp, and even later artists like Joseph Kosuth, but it was just too loose, so pretend I didn’t say anything.)

            1. this is a cool little post and discussion. the idea of defamiliarization is a necessary ingredient in all good art, whether the artist is dealing with the mundane or something less, eh, familiar. and i’m intrigued by Shklovsky. looking forward to looking into him. oh, and it does look a little buddhist, but it’s not, from the little i’ve read about him – still cool though.

    1. Surely Bloom’s sense of strangeness and defamiliarization is Shelleyan…this is from “A Defence of Poetry”: “[Poetry] makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

      1. I totally agree. It seems only natural that Bloom would arrive at this theory partly through the influence of his favorite poets, who were immersed in this sense of strangeness and even wrote about it, like Shelley or Stevens.

        That’s a beautiful quote, by the way. I’ve never read his entire Defence–I need to rectify that.

  2. What’s missing in Bloom, as ever, is the social dimension. Schlovskian enstrangement is explicitly social; it’s about ideology. To say that it’s simply about consciousness in some vague “me and the universe” way is to radically misunderstand the Romantics and even the Romantic’s most important influences: Dante, Shakespeare…Sterne! The Romantics were only about consciousness expanding (sounds like he’s talking about LSD) in the sense that they were trying to undermine the culture they lived in, the Church, the state, the old hierarchies, the monumental waste of human life, the indifferent destruction of the natural world (Keats once abandoned a vacation on the Isle of Wight because he was sickened by the clear cutting of the forests in order to build warships). The social/political is always the point for them. It’s why Leigh Hunt was the center of second generation English Romantics, in spite of the fact that he was a crummy poet. He was incorrigibly radical. He wrote things and went to jail. The raising of consciousness found in nature (and opium) was the path they took in creating countercultures or the idea of alternative worlds, really. The critical genius of Romanticism was Morse Peckham. See his introduction to “Romanticism: the Culture of the Nineteenth Century.” Much more knowing than Bloom.

  3. a couple of things that may get Adam going (not hard to achieve normally, right?). So, not much aware of Shklovsky I picked up Theory of Prose and was confronted with the Preface wherein I am immediately tossed upon the waters of multiple assertion.

    “It is perfectly clear that language is influenced by socioeconomic conditions.” Okay, sure, as it seems those are the “rules” for human organization, but is this the “surface” of language as in “search for the white salmon” that conforms to the culture that gives rise to the content (is this “word” or “shadow”?)

    “The word is a thing. It changes in accordance with the linguistic laws that govern the physiology of speech and so on.” Um. Are these “laws” the things that are subject to socioeconomic conditions (or is that the shadow?) or are they perhaps something akin to the Chomskian Universal Grammar? (As Chomsky posits, this is plausibly the only “object” of mind that can be studied as a science.)

    “As a literary critic, I’ve been engaged in the study of the internal laws that govern literature.” The same laws that govern language and the “word” or are these different?

    By “analogy”–“markets” and “politics” don’t concern him–I assume because these too are simply manifestations of the “internal” or “linguistic” laws.

    “One thing alone concerns me: the number of strands that make up the cotton plant and the different ways of weaving them.” This seems far more than “one thing”. Or is this the “molecular” mode that the intro by Gerald Bruns offers? Or perhaps this is a kind of “monadology” of literary form?

    And I suppose the Word might the the Monad here?

    Bruns says in “Toward a Random Theory of Prose” that Grammar is mastery asserting that grammar is akin to the “inner workings” of molecular structures (deep structures).

    So, is literary form something to be studied scientifically as if “generative”.

    You see I’m losing my way…it seems that with the space of two short pages I am floundering. It started out somewhat promising.

    The Preface begins with socioeconomic influence but ends with literary form–does this mean that I can equate the two somehow?

    Perhaps it’s no surprise that I might prefer this formulation by Angus Fletcher: “Prose may exhibit recurrences of phrasal, narrative, or discursive elements, but poetry is the definitive verbal art of intensified recurrence; literally, it’s verses turn and return.”

    1. http://youtu.be/dvyDWGF290M

      The Preface begins with socioeconomic influence but ends with literary form–does this mean that I can equate the two somehow?

      No, quite the opposite. He mentions socioeconomics to do away with the subject. (It’s worth remembering that he wrote this in Russia in the teens. The scienfitic study of economies, and how they determines all aspects of culture, was everywhere around him.)

      What interests him are the units that make up stories, and how those units can be recombined. He wants to break narrative down to its formal elements, and demonstrate how they operate with one another.

      Beyond that, he wants to claim a social function for literature—that literature’s social value can be claimed and defined purely in formal terms. According to his argument, it is the novel recombination or employment of the familiar formal aspects of literature (“defamiliarization”) that give writing its artistry, and therefore its social worth. (Hence, “Art as Device” (or “Technique”)—art arises out of specific deployments of the formal aspects of (in this case) writing.

      I remember that when I first read Shklovsky, I got hung up on a few things here and there; I found it best to just keep going. By the third chapter, I was beginning to understand the first chapter, and so on. By halfway through, everything was clear. It’s not unlike philosophy, in that way.

      (But I’m happy to keep talking about it!)

  4. gotcha, it’s perfectly clear and it’s not of interest. But I assume it is really of interest as these “formal units” are “useful” in that sphere, or is this simply a diagnostic effort much the way of Marx’s Capital?

    I will take your word for it, but I’m not sure why it would “matter” to read VS–am I reading to see that formal units are deployed to a particular end and in this way I am trying to “ruin the sacred truths”?

    I am advanced enough in age (and my role as a parent may have some effect) to believe that I need to call out to my fellows regarding the “hidden persuaders” who are manipulating my (our) being toward poverty in systemic and systematic fashion.

    Do I take it that this may be useful to me in that regard? (As the translator notes Shklovsky’s relationship with Mayakovsy and Pasternak perhaps this is the case.)

    Also, to note, the translator, Sher, claims that “defamiliarization” as a translation of “ostraniene” is “dead wrong” and entirely “wrongheaded”.

    1. Shklovsky (along with a few others) pretty much invented formalist literary criticism. So his work is of interest to anyone interested in formalism, both in literature and elsewhere.

      Personally, I consider Theory of Prose the single most influential and important book I’ve ever read, in terms of my understanding of writing. (The only other possible contender would be David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art, which was itself so heavily influenced by Shklovsky that it probably couldn’t have existed without him). Nearly everything that I know about writing prose, I learned from reading Shklovsky (and from studying with those who had read him). And most of my “critical style,” and knowledge of film (in terms of how to analyze it), descends from the man.

      …That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s in the service of the truth; I consider him that important. Would others…? I don’t know; I think that depends a lot on their interests and situations.

      But I can objectively state that Shklovsky is one of the most important literary critics, if not critics, of the 20th century, and that he influenced a huge swath of critics and artists, and so understanding his writing (or at least Theory of Prose and Third Factory) does aid one’s understanding a great many things: the “new formalism” of Bordwell and Thompson, the formalist literary criticism of postmodernists like Brian McHale and Patricia Waugh et al, the New York School of poetry, Language Poetry, a big chunk of William H. Gass, Curtis White’s work, much of the aesthetic of Dalkey Archive Press (and to some extent FC2), …

      Also, to note, the translator, Sher, claims that “defamiliarization” as a translation of “ostraniene” is “dead wrong” and entirely “wrongheaded”.

      Yes, he prefers “enstrangement.” Which is what we Shklovskty-ites use when we hold our secret meetings. I revert to “defamiliarization,” though, around those who don’t yet bear the mark.

  5. that is fine as far as it goes, but potato/potahto in terms of choosing one’s brand of scalpel. I suppose I meant to ask more forcefully how this “works” in terms of the greater role of understanding how to be a better ape.

    I never once thought Harold Bloom helped me in anyway other than to suggest certain ways one could “live” in literature.

    You are claiming for Shklovsky what exactly? As a critic he does what “socially”? When I hear that type of talk I assume it means I can “use” what he says in some way or other.

    I’m struggling I guess because I don’t think you really said anything yet other than calling him important and formalist–well why do I care? Why do I care that he influenced particular schools of academic industry?

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