11 November 2005

The Threefold Critic

In the October 7 issue of Eurozine, Ieva Lešinska reports an interview with Harold Bloom, which she conducted for the Latvian cultural journal Rīgas Laiks last year on the occasion of the publication of his book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Bloom is arguably the fastest typist since Isaac Asimov, and shares the amazing ability to apparently remember everything he ever read. Yet, where Asimov was the encyclopédist, Bloom seems more like an alchemist, brooding in solitude over the texts of the masters, searching for some deep power that explains the transmutation of the reader.

No surprise, perhaps, that he is a Kabbalist.

The book had a mixed reception, generally because it returns to questions he has raised many times since The Western Canon and, perhaps because the problems are now familiar or perhaps because the format was intentionally brief, gives answers so shorn of argumentation that they strike the reader as fiats. Perhaps I am more attuned to his obsession, but I think that it is always worth returning to this mystery, even if we have learned little since the last time we approached it. I have a hard enough time properly understanding how the creatures around me can have internal states that resemble my own consciousness. The fact that some of their artifacts have the power to affect me so profoundly is a problem worthy of devotion.

One remark in the interview struck me in particular.
I remark in this new book that I have only three criteria for whether a work should be read and reread and taught to others, and they are: aesthetic splendour, cognitive power, and wisdom.

Of course, it is the wisdom that is his subject, and he says that he never really talked about it before. It may well be that he has focused more deeply on the other criteria in the past, under the rubric of ‘genius’. But seeing the trinity set out like this was a startling coincidence to my just having finished reading Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker.

Sayers is best known as a mystery novelist these days, which is a shame, as her translation of, and notes on, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a rewarding experience, and her explorations of Christian doctrine are deep and passionate. Written in 1941, The Mind of the Maker is an attempt to explore the relation of man and God through the insight of the creative artist.
How then can [man] be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the ‘image’ of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, ‘God created.’ The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This is just one metaphor by which we attempt to understand the nature of God through experience – a king, a father, a creative artist. But Sayers has thought deeply about why one writes and how one writes and how one’s writing becomes meaningful to the reader – just the question of interest – and she is very good at explaining her thinking.

The key to my frisson is Sayers’ explication of the Trinitarian form of the creative act. Sayers works in the tradition of St. Augustine, who likens the threefold nature of God to vision:
[T]hese three things, although diverse in nature, are tempered together into a kind of unity; that is, the form of the body which is seen, and the image of it impressed on the sense, which is vision or sense informed, and the will of the mind which applies the sense to the sensible thing, and retains the vision itself in it. (On the Trinity, Book XI, chapter 2)

Her trinity of creative activity is the Idea (in some sense outside of time, beholding the whole work in its complete form), the Energy (the activity within time that results in the work), and the Power (the meaning of the work, the response that it generates in the soul of the reader – including, indeed especially, the author). These correspond, respectively, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. They also correspond, I would claim directly, to Bloom’s cognitive power, aesthetic splendor, and wisdom.

The difficulty of defining the wisdom of the work – Bloom himself says that he has no good definition, and flippantly settles for William James’ aphorism that “Wisdom is in learning what to overlook.” – is apparent in Sayers’ difficulty in explaining the Power of the book as read.
This is a very difficult thing to examine and analyze, because our own perception of the thing is precisely what we are trying to perceive. We can, as it were, note various detached aspects of it: what we cannot pin down and look at is the movement of our own mind. In the same way, we cannot follow the movement of our own eyes in a mirror… The eye is the instrument by which we see everything, and for that reason it is the one thing we cannot see with truth. The same thing is true of our Power of response to a book, or to anything else.

Later, Sayers explores how failures of these aspects of the creative act are manifested, and we may get a better sense of her meaning. Failure of the Power, the ghost, is worse than failure of the other aspects, because it is a failure of the medium by which Thought (the Idea) and Action (the Energy) are creative. The unghosted are not unintelligent, nor are they unskilled. It’s just that there are things that they seem incapable of knowing, and those are the things that bring the reader fully into the world of the artist’s creation. They are the unliterary writers and inartistic artists who are complacent to the deadness of their creations. “[F]ailure in the ghost is a failure in Wisdom – not the wisdom of the brain but the wisdom of the heart and bowels.”

Bloom’s perspective is not Christian, although it is informed by a full appreciation of the Yahwist as author and of St. Augustine as, he says, “the inventor of reading as we know it.” Yet, the strong resonance of Sayers’ analysis with Bloom’s suggests that there may indeed be in this some deep power engaged in the transmutation of the reader. If not the philosopher’s stone, then something wonderfully like it.

1 Comments:

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11 November, 2005 23:30  

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