Sunday, August 16, 2009

Harold Bloom's Gospel of Gloom

Chapter 2 of A Map of Misreading ends with a very interesting discussion about "contemporary" (1975) American literature. I'm not sure I can do it justice but it goes something like this. American literature is in a bad way and the novel is in worse shape than poetry. Because of its belatedness, even its most "conspicuous literary energies" are reduced to producing parodies. And here's the interesting twist: some produce these parodies voluntarily, others involuntarily. I guess we could say that some do it with irony, others in earnest.

This allows him to lay out the field as follows. In poetry, Lowell does voluntary parody and Ginsberg does involuntary parody. In prose, Pynchon is a voluntary parodist (through something he calls "Kabbalistic inversion") and Mailer is an involuntary one (deploying "a mock-vitalistic lie-against-time"). His judgement about the relative "health" of poetry over prose stems from his assessment of the alternatives to these parodists. In prose, we have Saul Bellow. But in poetry, says Bloom, we have Ashbery and Ammons.

But even these poets, he says, may not survive because the past is much, much stronger than the present. Before closing the chapter, he admits that this must also seems like "Gospel of Gloom" but it is nonetheless a necessary truth we must face when teaching literature. I think I have another approach. But that's for another post.

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