Christopher Batty: More on Bloom and Value Judgments

Further to Jonathan Allan’s response to my earlier post, I’d like to clarify that I didn’t mean to imply that Bloom is wrong to have preferences, or wrong about the selections for his poetry anthology. I only intended to rebut Bloom’s erroneous claim – which he has repeated many times – that Frye was against value judgments. He wasn’t. Frye made no secret of the fact that he considered Blake the greatest English language poet of his generation, and one of the greatest of all poets. That’s an overt value judgment, and Frye made no effort to conceal it. Bloom is entitled to like or dislike whatever he chooses. But it is unfair that he keeps repeating false claims about Frye. His hostility appears to have grown over time, and he seems to mention Frye frequently in interviews these days, but always misleadingly and always entirely to Frye’s detriment.

Frye’s point about value judgments is that any attempt to approach literary criticism based upon them is a dead-end. I love Shakespeare, but Bloom’s incessant bleat about Shakespeare’s supremacy over all other writers gets in the way of his ability to say anything fresh about the plays. And the assertion is unproveable. What does Bloom’s assessment even mean? Is it really the case that Shakespeare was wiser and smarter than all other writers in all ways? Bloom is entitled to his opinion, but what good does it do to hammer away at this point?

And what if he’s wrong? It might seem foolhardy to question the supremacy of Shakespeare, yet surely there are crucial ways in which someone like Chekhov, for example, could be considered a greater artist. Nobody ever spoke the way Hamlet speaks. Chekhov’s greater mimetic realism makes him, in some crucial ways, more accessible, just as Vermeer’s or Rembrandt’s paintings are in some ways more accessible than Michelangelo’s titanic renditions.

Yet this is the sort of thing Bloom doesn’t even like to think about. Artists are constantly being ranked: Shakespeare is #1, Dante is #2, Joyce is #3. . . It is silly and pointless. Recently, he declared Beckett the greatest English language writer of the 20th century, surpassing Conrad, Woolf, Lawrence. How is Beckett “better” than Conrad? They deal with different aspects of existence and illuminate different experiences of life. Where do we go next with this sort of critical criteria? Are we going to declare Mozart superior to Beethoven and Bach? Or maybe it is Bach who’s the supreme musical genius. But then again, it must be Beethoven because of the symphonies. It is always possible to play this parlor game, but it can only remain a parlor game.

Bloom has become an involuntary parody of the sort of critic Frye warned about. For instance, Bloom despises Poe; he claims Poe’s writing has no value, and that he “inaugurated precisely nothing.” But Poe was perhaps the first American writer to inaugurate a peculiar genre of his own, a combination of horror, fantasy, sardonic humor and science (Poe seems to have been keenly interested in the sciences) which, in my view, paves the way for a modern form of “anatomy” (in Frye’s sense of the term), such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a work both Bloom and Frye consider a masterpiece.

Everyone makes value judgments. We cannot dispense with them, nor should we want to. But an obsessive, relentless overemphasis on value judgments is harmful. While Bloom ranks Pynchon as the major living American novelist, it is also obvious that Gravity’s Rainbow was crucially influenced by several writers, “precursors” whom Bloom simply has no use for, such as Joseph Heller, William S. Burroughs, and even the detested Poe. In The Western Canon, Bloom argues that Pynchon amalgamates Nathaniel West and S. J. Perelman; I guess you could argue thatThe Crying of Lot 49 derives from Miss Lonelyhearts. But Gravity’s Rainbow owes a more serious debt to Heller’s Catch 22 and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; Burroughs’ blackly comic scenes of sex and violence in particular.

Bloom never comes to terms with this. The reason he doesn’t, I believe, is that he doesn’t like to admit that writers he respects draw “strength” from writers he finds worthless. There’s an element of unconscious Puritanism to Bloom’s approach. He explicitly states that “only strength can join itself to strength” – yet Pynchon clearly “joined himself” to writers Bloom considers “weak.”  All he can do in response is to falsify these obvious relations in order to prop up a bizarre, ultimately untenable theory of literary descent, his so-called “anxiety of influence.”

Here’s one last example: I suspect that the main reason Bloom can find nothing of interest in Philip Larkin’s verse is that Larkin owes a good deal to T.S Eliot. Since we know how much Bloom dislikes Eliot, and how badly he wants Eliot’s stock to lose value in what Frye calls the literary stock market, he can hardly have time for a poetic descendant of Eliot’s. Ashbery, by contrast, whom Bloom has tirelessly championed since the early 1970s, is an obvious descendant of Wallace Stevens. If Ashbery is the poetic genius Bloom makes him out to be, that could only be in Stevens’ favor. If, however, Larkin is the great poet of his generation, it would be a boon to Eliot’s reputation, and that’s something Bloom simply will not allow. Bloom would probably vehemently deny that these sorts of personal prejudices and grudges get in the way of his judgment, but it is fair to suggest that they apply to him as much to anyone else who places value upon judgment with no reference to anything but personal preference.

Bloom’s obsession with ranking and canonization often leads him astray. It interferes with his ability to produce actual criticism. This is a danger Frye was well aware of, and that is what he was getting at with regard to value judgments. He wasn’t trying to turn readers into critical automatons reflexively enumerating archetypes; he was trying to make criticism more intelligible, more responsive, more practical. I think his lesson has gone largely unheeded, and that’s a shame.

Frye could have, had he wished, devoted any number of books to the glorification of his own tastes, as Bloom likes to do. Instead he wrote works like Fearful Symmetry. Frye makes the case for Blake not by badgering and berating the reader, but by presenting the most cogent interpretation of Blake’s work he was capable of producing. That’s what genuine criticism does.

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One thought on “Christopher Batty: More on Bloom and Value Judgments

  1. Joe Adamson

    Thanks for this astute assessment. I think that pretty well covers the subject. It is funny, though, how often Frye is misread, even by people who generally think highly of his work. I am reading a book now, David Shaw’s Secrets of the Oracle, the author of which acknowledges his great indebtedness to Frye’s ideas and friendship. He cites and quotes him throughout. But even he cannot forgo critiquing Frye on two subjects: value judgments and Marshall McLuhan. His argument in favor of McLuhan appears to be based on one piece of evidence: the existence of the internet. As if what McLuhan wrote on the subject of modern media is clearly proven true by the fact that we now have ultra-modern media.

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