By Robert Savino Oventile
The ancient critic scholars know as Longinus pioneered thought about the literary sublime. When a work of literature sparks in the reader a moment of exaltation, of stepping beyond, of ecstasy, the work evidences sublimity. Longinus proposed Homer's Iliad as the touchstone of sublimity. In his treatise On the Sublime, to exemplify how Homer brings forth the daemonic in the Iliad, Longinus alludes to fiery-eyed Athena's plunging chariot ride out from the realm of the immortals and down among the Greeks besieging Troy. Above, atop Olympus or in the skies, is the realm of the immortals: Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and so on. Below, on earth, the mortals live out their fleeting days. The region between belongs to the daemonic. In rare and glorious visitations, Athena comes down to inspire, to daemonize, a mortal. In the Iliad Athena comes down to inspire Achilles, finally transporting the warrior from the stasis of his melancholy brooding in the Greek camp and toward the ekstasis of his final battle with the Trojan champion Hector. In this process Athena becomes Achilles's daemonic muse.
In his verse "Essay on Criticism," Alexander Pope declares that the Greek muses inspired Longinus, and so Longinus "is himself that great sublime he draws." From the Iliad, from Longinus, through such poetic and critical works as John Milton's Paradise Lost, James Thomson's The Seasons, Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry," the sublime and the attendant inspiration by the daemonic, by a daemonic muse, migrated to the United States. And so Emerson could write, "The fairest fortune that can befall man, is to be guided by his daemon to that which is truly his own."
Thus we arrive at Harold Bloom's The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. This book is Bloom's most substantial work to date on American literature. The Daemon Knows offers chapters examining major American authors in pairs, Walt Whitman paired with Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson paired with Emily Dickinson, and so on, twelve authors in all: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Hart Crane fill out the dozen. Bloom focuses on how works by each of his authors evidence sublimity brought about by visitations of the daemonic or by a daemonic muse.
In The Daemon Knows, Bloom evidences inspiration and shows himself to be the great sublime he draws. Bloom writes on daemonic sublimity in American literature as such sublimity's leading exemplar in critical prose written in the United States. I take this statement about Bloom to be simply evident, given his unmatched learning and his criticism's unmatched breadth, depth, and copiousness. Yet this statement especially applies to The Daemon Knows and this also because of Bloom's resolute commitment to and indeed daemonic articulation of the sublime in literature, in this case American literature. Only by way of such commitment and through such daemonic access do the sublimities of a literary work yield themselves to readers, should the work harbor such.
To gain access to the sublime is one reason why Bloom insists on reading, teaching, and writing about literature in a personal and passionate manner, offering his critical work as itself a kind of literature. This approach on Bloom's part once motivated Frank Lentricchia to denounce Bloom as welcoming "an interpretive anarchy" (After the New Criticism, 339). Lentricchia's worry about "anarchy" does inadvertently speak to Bloom's Gnostic stance. The English word "anarchy" derives from the Greek "an" ("without") and "arkhos" ("ruler"). Bloom would read, teach, and write free of blockage by any ruler or archon. Various archons stand between the Gnostic adept and Wisdom, the true alien god, and the fullness of the pleroma. The Gnostic strives to wrestle past and to struggle free of those violent, tasteless, imprisoning wardens the archons are. Between the daemon and sublime pathos of any given reader and the sublimities of a poem by Dickinson or a novel by Faulkner stand the archons we know as reductive modes of interpretation, deadening accretions of non-literary concerns, and moralistic, political, or other modes of censorship. By the way, few readers are freer of the archons of sexism, racism, and classism than Harold Bloom.
As Emerson hints in regard to being found by one's daemon, to attain to a reading of the sublime in a work of literature is to attain to a reading of one's own. However erudite and informed, such a reading indeed will remain personal and passionate. Just such a reading has a chance of touching on the sublime and of inviting other readers toward awakening their daemons and encountering the sublimity of the work in question. Only enthusiastic, attentive, impassioned readers, readers striving to confront the sublime, are found by their daemons. That is why Bloom argues readers should seek out the greatest and most accomplished literary works. Rather than cementing a consensus among his readers, Bloom's critical practice in The Daemon Knows encourages them toward their own lively, distinct, and singular interpretations.
In The Daemon Knows, Bloom invites his readers to join him on his quest for the sublime. Bloom offers his own quite lively readings and interpretations of Whitman and Melville, Emerson and Dickinson, Hawthorne and James, Twain and Frost, Stevens and Eliot, and Faulkner and Crane. In Bloom's judgment, these are the twelve authors who set the standard for sublimity in American literature. But remember: Bloom's quest is energetically anarchistic, and the last thing Bloom would want to become is another archon. Rather, Bloom hopes to provoke his readers into their own vitality as interpreters. Bloom challenges readers to seek and to find the freedom to nominate as evidencing sublimity their own candidates from among authors active in America past or present. For example, I would nominate Sandy Florian, especially in her authorship of The Tree of No and Boxing the Compass.
The Daemon Knows is an invigorating and challenging read. The book assumes readers will bring to its chapters their full capacities for thought and their entire sensitivities for sentences, tropes, and words. For readers new to the notion of the daemonic, useful preparation for plunging into The Daemon Knows would be to read the chapter titled "The Daemonic Agent" in Angus Fletcher's Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. For introductions to the literary sublime, readers might consider Samuel Holt Monk's The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England or Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence.
Robert Savino Oventile is the author most recently of Satan's Secret Daughters: The Muse as Daemon.