The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime,
by Harold Bloom,
Spiegel & Grau, 524 pp.
Though he no longer divides opinions as he once had, Harold Bloom remains one of the most recognizable names in the literary world. From all the controversy he has generated and relished, it is nearly impossible to come to his latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, without some preformed opinion. Whatever your thoughts on the man, after thirty-five books, the last dozen or so being rather tedious, even Bloom’s admirers and allies in the cultural wars must wonder why, apart from financial motives, has he written a new book?
To be blunt: there isn’t one. The book is a repackaging of his previous work. If there is anything new in the pages, it is minor and inconsequential. What’s more, the book is a mess. It is maddeningly repetitive, gets lost in predictable digressions, fails to illuminate its central thesis, and moments of insight are skimmed over and cast off to join the countless afterthoughts that make up the bulk of its five-hundred pages. In short, it is a compendium of the defects that have steadily overwhelmed Bloom’s writings over the past twenty years.
It hurts me to write this because Bloom has had a major impact on me. His charm, intelligence and vitality has led me, as with thousands of others, to spend more time with books, to read deeply and develop a sense of the power possessed by the written word. If, as La Rochefoucauld claimed, people would never have fallen in love if they had not heard others speak of love, then I would not have fallen in love with literature if people like Harold Bloom had not spoken about their own love for literature, thereby initiating me into a lifelong passion.
The Daemon Knows gathers together twelve authors, Whitman, Melville, Emerson, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Henry James, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, and Hart Crane. Bloom sees these twelve as the creators of the American Sublime, and their major works as testament of a struggle to bring a vision of the sublime to the earth. As Bloom writes, “these writers represent our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism”(3).
Bloom’s concern with these authors is their relationship with the daemon that possessed them. This theme of the daemon has preoccupied Bloom for decades, and as in his other works, the vagueness, spiritualist fuddy-duddy, and sheer frequency that the word “daemon” is used, is utterly distracting. Whether this daemon is to mean the god within, personal genius, a mediator between this world and the spiritual world, or what most of us would simply call inspiration, is never clear. It is a word that seems to take on every meaning and no meaning. Depending on the reader, this is either profound or obnoxious.
Part of the difficulty is that Bloom’s understanding of the daemon is one that necessarily evades definition. Only when we arrive at Bloom’s reading of Emerson, some 150 pages into the book, does the picture sharpen and we get a sense of the daemonic as a force that is above fear and hope, apart from our daily concerns, that drives and possesses us, yet we can never posses.
Bloom’s authors are continually struggling to heed the voice of their daemon, to listen and manifest its call in their works and so bring its voice to form. The prevailing anxiety shared among these twelve authors can be traced to a more general human condition of brokenness, of incomplete existence and the resulting spiritual hunger. Fusing their identity with their daemon is a quest for completeness.
A melancholy runs through this quest, for it is a quest that is necessarily doomed to fail. Even Whitman, the most overtly celebratory of the authors discussed, produced a poetics that was haunted by incompleteness and failure. Bloom points out that the importance of the intransient verbs in a poem such as Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, underline the lack of object in this quest. Here is one of Bloom’s clearest examples of the daemonic mode. A poet reaches after the power that lacks any object or reference and struggles to bring it forth into words and so transform both poet and reader. Yet, for as much as Whitman famously proclaimed himself to be part of everything and for everything to be the composition of himself, his all-encompassing embrace could not be sustained:
Walt’s authentic drive is self-integration, which he discovers he can never achieve…[he] lived and died without ever finding an answering voice. Whitman’s eros, like his verbs, remained intransitive (66).
Whitman is paired beside Melville, and the contrast between the abundance of the sublime pursued by Whitman, and the negative sublime, the great blank that Ahab obsessively chases, produces a counterpoint that plays throughout both author’s works. This tension between the richness of the earth and the nothingness of the sea, between absence and excess, nihilism and optimism, is woven throughout the book. It is in these moments that Bloom is at his strongest, and where we are provided glimmers of what this book could have been.
In a 1991 interview with the Paris Review, Bloom infamously proclaimed, “I refuse to be edited.” Perhaps things have changed, for in the acknowledgement section of The Daemon Knows, Bloom thanks his editor. However, the sheer lack of control, the thin and gossipy evocation of authors who were predecessors or influencers and vice versa of other authors, the blunt assertions and murky randomness of it all, makes it hard to believe that this book was edited in even a loose sense of the word. The fundamental problem is that Bloom loves how he loves these authors. Scrawled over almost every page, his level of self-involvement eclipses his lifelong knowledge. We do not get a close reading of the author’s works so much as we get a transcript of Bloom’s wandering mind. If there was an editor who could tame Bloom’s ego, or if Bloom could have believed this editor to be his embodied daemon, and so heed its call, this may have been a great book.
Though he had produced an uneven body of work before its publication, the injustice of The Daemon Knows is that it further blurs Bloom’s legacy. We should not forget the gifts that were his earlier works, The Visionary Company, Blake’s Apocalypse, Yeats, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, and The American Religion, to name my favorites. Beyond his many books, we should be grateful to Bloom who, though he irritated many, guided many others to understand and experience the transformative power of literature. We need to be thankful to critics like Bloom who taught us the value of devoting our hours and energy to literature that can, in his words, “give us the blessing of more life”(7).
Peter Marshall is a well-known adventurer who has canoed over 10,000 kilometers through remote regions of the North. He holds advanced degrees in English and Eastern Classics and currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.