Emerson’s Art and Criticism in the Twenty-First Century: Harold Bloom and TED

November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Harold Bloom, one of the more famous living literary critics and theorists, is also among the most well-known readers and critics to have been inspired by Emerson.  He refers to him as “the Mind of America” and “our father Emerson.” Bloom is, if nothing else, a student from Emerson’s school.

Among other things, Bloom developed a highly idiomatic theory of poetic criticism (known by one of the titles of his books, The Anxiety of Influence, with critical perspective analogized from the Kabbalah, a Hebrew mystical tradition and method of interpretation). For Bloom, every great poet is a critic of precursor poets (Stevens and Whitman must wrestle anxiously with Emerson, for example) and every great critic (Bloom, of course, most prominently seeks to make his or her criticism poetic. As Emerson puts it at the end of “Art and Criticism”: “Then the critic is poet.” This is something Bloom has in mind. For Bloom, a key rhetorical principle in the Emersonian toolkit of poetry becoming criticism and criticism becoming poetry is the figure Emerson names in “Art and Criticism” as the “principal power of rhetoric,” namely “metonymy.” [Bloom refers to Emerson and metonymy in his book The Breaking of the Vessels]

How does Emerson’s understanding of metonymy provide a foundation for critical perspective? If metonymy is the rhetorical figure that represents or relates by way of context and contiguity (parts that are touching or proximate), what kind of criticism results? How might such “metonymy” guide your own critical work in the final project?

All conversation, as all literature, appears to me the pleasure of rhetoric, or, I may say, of metonomy. “To make of motes mountains, and of mountains motes,” Isocrates said, “was the orator’s office.” Well, that is what poetry and thinking do. Whatever new object we see, we perceive to be only a new version of our familiar experience, and we set about translating it at once into our parallel facts. We have hereby our vocabulary. [“Art and Criticism”]

What new version and vocabulary of familiar experience might you translate in your project?

For some further reading into Bloom on Emerson, of a sort that might be useful for the final project, and for bibliographic exploration, consider this recorded interview with Bloom from 2003 (the year of the Emerson bicentennial). In the first tape early on, Bloom discusses contemporary Emersonians. This gives us some sense of what, at least according to Bloom, Emersonian means.

Bloom is something of a public intellectual. Though an academic and theorist, longtime professor at Yale, who is also known for publishing books intended for a wider audience, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and an entire series of introductory guides to literature designed for high school students. Another place–is it the only place?–we might locate an Emersonian criticism, an intellect speaking to a public audience beyond the academy, is TED. This is something I’d like to explore further. This discussion of TED talks begins with reference to Emerson and the importance of lecturing for his writing. This public forum of intellect from the 19th century, the Lyceum which shaped Emerson’s work and writing, has seemingly moved to a digital forum. This TED talk on the power of aphorism and metaphorically speaking refers briefly to Emerson. With an understanding of Emerson’s theory, not just practice, of creative reading and metonymic thinking–where criticism reveals new versions of familiar experience–we might recognize Emerson’s larger influence in this new media forum of conversation and intelligence. We might even think of the 18 minute limit of TED talks in terms of Emerson’s principle of “compression,” the value of omitting. And we might wonder, yet again, about the problem of getting transcendent ideas and genius into some sort of readable or translatable form. Consider this problem Nathan Heller raises in his essay about TED, “Listen and Learn”:

Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence—and on the Internet, of all places? Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a genericTED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from its substance.

I am curious to explore this potential parallelism further. I do so with questions and concerns motivating my curiosity. Is there the potential here for conformity. Is TED just the newest kind of house that inevitably comes to confine the spirit? Or a spirit for possibly better understand the houses we live in?

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Research links

August 27, 2009 § 12 Comments

Use this category to post (by way of comment) suggested secondary sources, articles, links, ideas for possible research, further reading, or just something you find that might be of interest or relevance to our study of Emerson and Whitman. When you begin to dig into your own writing, including the final project, you can share some of your bibliography here–as Emerson puts it, we are of one mind.

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