Reading and Misreading

Jonathan Culler

NEW DIRECTIONS IN LITERARY HISTORY, edited by RALPH COHEN, Johns Hopkins University Press.
A MAP OF MISREADING, by HAROLD BLOOM, Oxford University Press.

Literary history, once relegated to the province of scholarship, now invades criticism and makes bold to subsume it entirely. Why? The simple answer might be a growing impatience with the impossible fiction on which the New Criticism was based: that the reader, be he innocent or subtly trained in forgetting, should approach the poem wholly without preconceptions and, treating it as an autonomous artifact, read “the words on the page.” “What happens,” asks Harold Bloom,

if one tries to write, or to teach, or to think, or even to read without the sense of a tradition? Why, nothing at all happens, just nothing. You cannot write or teach or think or even read without imitation, and what you imitate is what another person has done, that person’s writing or teaching or reading. Your relation to what informs that person is tradition, for tradition is influence that extends past one generation, a carrying-over of influence.

Setting aside for the moment the question of persons and origins (tradition originates in persons but as tradition it is an effacement of persons: not a set of personal actions but what informs these actions), one can say that to read something as a literary work is to place it in a context, a tradition, and the context of literature is a historical space. Indeed, the reader’s relation to a text is doubly historical. To read is to come after; the distance between reader and text is best captured as a historical figure. And reading itself, the concepts and operations with which one approaches literature, is a historical construct. Like consciousness, reading has a history.

The primary reason for the revival of literary history thus relates to interpretation, which is always a historical act: an act in history, an act which makes history. Literary history is what one constructs if one is to talk about literature: the move from the interpreter’s present (which is also the present of literature) to the past of the work and of literature.

What if James Joyce solves a formal or moral problem raised by Thomas Pynchon and, in his turn, raises new problems?

The second reason is more complicated and, like all better reasons, transumptively antithetical. One engages in literary history not in order to interpret but as a rejection of interpretation. To understand literature is to know how interpretation is and has been possible: on what grounds, through what codes and conventions. To study literature as an institution, a set of historically evolving expressive and communicative possibilities, is to focus on the conditions of interpretation; and precisely because interpretation is a historical act, literary history is the appropriate metacommentary.

In his introduction to New Directions in Literary History, an excellent collection of rather disparate essays, Ralph Cohen speaks of literary history as “a history of the relation of readers to works.” Hans Robert Jauss, adept of Rezeptionsästhetik, is perhaps the leading advocate of this view. In his “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” he argues that the history of literature “should be viewed as a dialogue between work and public.” A literary work appears against a “horizon of expectations” which gives it significance, and as these expectations change, literature itself (including works of the past) evolves.

This approach might lead to various projects. Jauss himself seems inclined to use the notion of reception as a way of constructing historical series: literature has a history in that for readers “a subsequent work solves formal and moral problems that the last work raised and may then itself present new problems.” But such series may not be historical at all: what if James Joyce solves a formal or moral problem raised by Thomas Pynchon and, in his turn, raises new problems?

Alternatively, one might study changes in ways of reading a particular work as indicators of changes in the general operations of reading, displacements in the horizon of expectations and thus in the conventions of literature itself. And this might lead to a study of the various components of literature which bear the major burden of historical continuity and discontinuity: what Michael Riffaterre in his essay on “The Stylistic Approach to Literary History” calls “de-scriptive systems” (verbal and thematic complexes which may be carried over from one poem to another with different functions), or the forms and modes of various genres and sub-genres. In this approach to literary history the work itself is an object in which a whole series of historically defined forms and processes may be observed.

For Alastair Fowler, whose masterly “The Life and Death of Literary Forms” is the best essay in this collection, a literary history of this kind is grounded on the study of genres. A genre is not a set of works but “a whole series of form-complexes occurring as elements in a series of finite subsets of works.” Genres are sets of conventions, possibilities of meaning, and thus, though individual works may transcend their historical occasions, may elude time and place, genres themselves and genre-linked structural forms do not: “the more formal the constituent, the more its significance depends on social context.” Study of the rise and fall of genres is important for interpretation (“the discontinuation of the allegorical morality play, for example, has made obscure certain non-naturalistic passages in Shakespearean plays belonging to other kinds”), but above all it reveals a series of processes which are the processes of literary history itself.

Genre proper develops through at least three principal phases. . . . During the first phase, the genre complex assembles, until a formal type emerges. . . . In phase two, a “secondary” version of the genre develops: a form that the author consciously bases on the earlier primary version. . . . The tertiary form may be burlesque, or antithesis, or a symbolic modulation of the secondary.

And there are two other evolutionary processes central to literary history: change in the hierarchy of genres, which generally depends on a change in the evaluation of a genre’s “whole conventional subject matter,” and the tendency of genre to become mode. A genre itself, “closely linked to specific social forms, is apt to perish with them. But the mode corresponds to a somewhat more permanent poetic attitude or stance. . . . Pastoral elegy is dead: long live pastoral. . . . The gothic novel or romance yielded a gothic mode that outlasted it.” This rich essay goes some way to identifying the major constituents and processes of literary tradition and to showing why genres and their associated modes may prove the most appropriate focus for literary history.

Another critic who might espouse this view is Geoffrey Hartman, who repeatedly proves himself a subtle analyst of genres, though he usually prefers to invent or discover his own. Several essays in The Fate of Reading illustrate the kind of criticism he now does best: the grouping together, as a sub-genre, of a series of thematically linked poems which, when arranged in this way, come to manifest different degrees of consciousness and self-consciousness (consciousness of the group in which they find themselves) and thus tell a tale of the adventures of Poesy or of the trials of the Poetical Character. The best of these, “Evening Star and Evening Land,” invokes poems addressed to the evening star and explores the way in which the investigation of poetic consciousness and its development arises as a solution to the problem of how to narrate Nature.

Expert in the perception of self-reflexive figures, Hartman discovers, as the preoccupation of most sub-genres, the task of continuing poetry and the difficulties of emerging as poet through a representation of self in poetic language. As he writes in an essay on Wordsworth, Goethe, and the ballad form, “the notion of character, in its link to the question of mimesis, then to the problem of the character or identity of the poet, may be the largest subject of a historical poetics.” Literary history is the history of fictions and of the anxieties which accompany fiction: fear of a decline in poetical energy, concern with the impossibility of achieving unmediated presence through fictive representation, anxiety about the authenticity of the self that emerges through poetic representation.

Bloom either juxtaposes passages without adequate explanation of their supposed relations or else states relations abstractly with no textual evidence.

There are real problems here, real opportunities for literary history, which Hartman explores with a cunning elegance. But his historical project has a perverse accompaniment which ultimately hints at an ahistorical nostalgia: the revival of late eighteenth-century critical discourse as the privileged metalanguage. Notions of the poetical spirit and the poetical character may well be apposite figures for the problems of poetic reflexivity, but this supposed historical fidelity is finally part of an escape from real literary history. Hartman seems uncertain whether to reconstruct historical series and modes or to play the role of gloomy oracle, announcing cultural decline, the intolerable burden of history and the necessity of error; and his language assists a studied equivocation. It is sad when so talented a critic evades problems he could treat so well, and one may be forgiven for supposing that he feels pursued by a demon. Certainly here, in the glorification of Romanticism’s impossible calling, in the surrender to the temptations of the gnomic, one recognizes the debilitating influence of Harold Bloom, a true anxiety of influence.

A Map of Misreading continues Bloom’s determined attempt to incarnate and prolong Romanticism, to convince us that literature is essentially a heroic daemonization, centered on “the fearsome process by which a person is reborn a poet.” The poet, or at least the post-Miltonic poet, is an indomitable Spirit who feels the curse of belatedness and takes arms against his predecessors, slays them by misreading, so as to create a space in which his own poetry can take place, as an antithetical completion of his precursors’ supposed qualities. The theory of poetic influence itself is extremely valuable, and if this book adds little to The Anxiety of Influence it is because it so blatantly fails to live up to its claims: “This book offers instruction in the practical criticism of poetry, in how to read a poem, on the basis of the theory of poetry set forth in my earlier book.”

Bloom once knew what this involved; in the days of The Visionary Company he had some sense of what it might be like to show someone how to read a poem, but he has now effectively slain his past and fully acceded to a new oracular role. One hopes to learn from his book how to recognize a relation of influence, how to identify in a poem the slaying of a precursor, what it looks like for one poem to be a misreading of another, or for a late poet to become in his poem the ancestor of his predecessor. Juxtapositions and assertions we have in plenty, but demonstrations and explanations I think only twice, neither of which even begins to illustrate the scope claimed for the theory: by saying in Areopagitica that Guyon is assisted by his Palmer in the cave of Mammon, Milton misreads or rewrites Spenser so as to distance him (this is our one fully explained case of misreading), and the reference in Book I of Paradise Lost to Galileo and his telescope is Milton’s attempt to “make his own belatedness into an earliness” (our one explained case of transumption).

Except in these cases, Bloom’s method is evasive and allusive. He either juxtaposes passages without adequate explanation of their supposed relations or else states relations abstractly with no textual evidence, thus: “In what ways is Tintern Abbey a revision, a reading. by-misprision, of the Miltonic invocations [of Books III & VII]? The answers will be found in the dance of substitutions, of one trope for another, one defense against another, one imagistic masking in evasion of another, that makes up the rhetoric that is Tintern Abbey’s.” If Bloom is actually capable of showing us such a dance of substitutions, it is strange indeed that he never does so, and one may be forgiven for thinking A Map of Misreading an experiment in bad faith, especially when one comes upon the patronizing evasions of sentences like this: “Here, as in my chapter on Milton’s poetic descendants, I will try to remember that the common reader cares little to be taught to notice tropes or defenses. Images must suffice, and so I will concentrate on images.” Bloom’s theory makes attack the best defense, and obviously this applies to critics as well as to poets: an attack on the reader defends expository inadequacy.

Since he has written other good books, one is reluctant to suggest that Bloom does not perceive and understand the influence-relations he repeatedly asserts, but certainly this book gives us no grounds for accepting them. Are there in fact reasons for believing that Shelley, rather than, say, Wordsworth, is the predecessor who obsesses Hardy, or that Stevens’s true precursor is Whitman, rather than some French poet? If Bloom were to consider how he knows these things, tell us the story of his formidable poetic perceptions, he would produce a far more valuable and instructive book.

But the demonstration, the making explicit, would be difficult, for poets need not resemble the predecessors who obsess them. (“Browning, who resembles Shelley even less, was yet more fully Shelley’s ephebe than even Hardy was.”) Indeed, one begins to suspect, overcoming one’s ire, that there are no demonstrations because it does not matter whom a poet slays. One begins to understand that Bloom boldly creates a theory of influence because it is the best way of disarming his critical opponents and of sustaining the myth of poetic genius and human tragedy which can rescue and inform his own style of apocalyptic interpretation. Influence is but a device to save a romantic thematics. How does this device work?

Bloom sees himself locked in battle with “the school of Deconstruction, the heirs of Nietzsche, among whom Derrida, de Man, Hillis Miller are the most distinguished.” Nietzsche’s ephebes threaten to “de-spiritualize” literature by suggesting that “language itself writes the poems and thinks,” whereas in fact “the human writes, the human thinks”: literature is the record, indeed the scene, of the tragic human struggle against the individual’s belated and transitory condition. But since the “deconstructors” do not deny that literature speaks of the human but only claim that literary works are determined more by the play of language and the problems of fictional representation than by the human project of an individual consciousness, how can Bloom gain purchase against them? The strategy is to concede that literature is self-reflexive, or rather to proclaim it with a vengeance: poems are about other poems; “there are no texts, but only relationships between texts.” Literature is an intertextual space, but this is so, Bloom might say, because there are no poets, only relationships between poets, only the internecine struggles of the Family Romance in which poetic texts are born. And therefore, though literature is always about literature, one cannot be content with tracing in a poem the play of forms and languages, the operations for the production of meaning. The significance of a poem, of every poem, is the act of refusal and transumption from which it emerges, the heroic struggle against the past and future in which Poetic Genius engages. The “school of deconstruction” deconstructs, but Bloom’s “antithetical criticism” interprets: names repeatedly and with an orotund energy the poet’s struggle.

Freudian language, on which Bloom extensively relies, dissolves the individual subject into a series of interpersonal processes, into the scenarios of dramas he unconsciously enacts.

Bloom seeks to save the individual subject, to preserve the poet as originating genius, and his strategy is a bold one; but in fact he has conceded too much for it to succeed. The influence-relation between poems, designed to confer value on the human and the individual, escapes the individual poetic subject and does not depend on him. Relations between poems, as established by the critic from his historical perspective, prove more important than the empirical poet’s reactions to poems he has read. Thus Bloom can invoke (if not establish) a special American tradition, dominated by Emerson, even though modern poets whom he places in this tradition have not read Emerson and would deny his influence. The meaning of a poem is another poem, Bloom writes, “any central poem by an indubitable precursor, even if the ephebe never read that poem. Source study is wholly irrelevant here; we are dealing with primal words, but antithetical meanings, and an ephebe’s best misinterpretations may well be of poems he has never read.” As this makes clear, we are concerned not with what individual poets know or the influences they experience but with poetic tradition, with what poetry knows, with the way in which poetry works itself out in dialectical fashion, taking individual poets as its momentary and unconscious messengers. Poetry feels the burden of the past more than poets, who, as Bloom must admit, are often unconscious of the role they are playing in poetry’s family romance. Bloom’s rhetoric individualizes and personifies, reducing poetry to a series of archetypal Poets, whom he must then admit are different from the empirical individuals whose names they bear.

Freudian language, on which Bloom extensively relies, dissolves the individual subject into a series of interpersonal processes, into the scenarios of dramas he unconsciously enacts. Bloom wrestles with this language, striving to reverse its figures and arrest the dissolution of the subject; but there is, necessarily, a return of the repressed, and the language proves too strong for him in the end.

What emerges from A Map of Misreading, and the more forcefully because against all the author’s explicit defenses, is the necessity of focusing not on heroic poets but on poetry itself, on the historical and dialectical relations between texts, on literature as a tradition and institution with its own adventures. “No poet can write a poem without, in some sense, remembering another poem.” Applying the regular corrective gloss, one can say that the reading or writing of a poem is made possible not just by another poem (for that poem would require yet another poem in turn) but by other poems, by poetry or the poetic. The task of literary history is to explain what a poem remembers or can remember of poetry, to elucidate in what various senses one poem bears the traces of other poems. Perhaps one day Bloom’s figures, swerves, and misprisions may contribute to this enterprise.

Jonathan Culler is the author of On Deconstruction: Literature and Theory After Structuralism; Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction; and Theory of the Lyric.
Originally published:
October 1, 1975


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