The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
Mesmerizing and at times mesmerizingly confusing, Harold Bloom’s new opus, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, is (but only fractionally) this: A mix of the tenderly personal and the academically arcane, reports on conversations with well-read friends, unabashed declarations of passion and disapproval, musings on students, on teachings, on the reading life.
It is, in Bloom’s words “about the dozen creators who have formed the American Sublime. . . . These writers represent our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.”
For his exploration, Bloom has paired Walt Whitman (to whom he mostly refers as “Walt”) and Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, Mark Twain and Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, and William Faulkner and Hart Crane. He has settled on this word “daemon”—a term Oxford defines as “a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans”—as his returning investigative trope. In Bloom’s words: “The common element in these twelve writers—albeit covertly in Eliot—is their receptivity to daemonic influx.”
Their receptivity to daemonic influx. The reader stops. Ponders.
Having announced his purpose, the esteemed scholar goes off and has some Harold Bloom Style fun. He riffs on authors he has taught now for decades at Yale, and known and loved for even longer. He takes a jab at 21st century novelists. He ponders his own penchant for off-the-cuff quotations and offers up some highly quotable material of his own. He rejoices “at all strong transports of sublimity, from Aeschylus and the first Isaiah, through Shakespeare and Milton, and on to Friedrich Holderlin, Giacomo Leopardi, and Shelley.”
And every once in a while (my favorite parts) he traipses into memoir territory:
“At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an over-emotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.”
The man holds canons in his head. He terrifies and delights. He keeps his readers on alert for all the sideways material that flies in during discussions of Hawthone’s “The Marble Faun,” say, or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Robert Frost’s “Directive.” One tries to keep track and then one stops trying.
The key, it seems, is to enjoy what is directly on the page, the immediate page, and to stop trying to work it all back toward some overarching method or design. To delight in the cursives of Bloom’s mind—one thought sparking another, one line of Eliot unleashing a line of Stevens, one remembered conversation with an old friend reminding Bloom of a debate he might still have.
Read the book for lines like these. For the tenderness behind the great scholar’s long familiarity with the classics of all time:
“We do not read only as aesthetes—though we should—but also as responsible men and women. By that standard, Eliot, despite his daemonic gift, is unacceptable once and for all time.”