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Agon : Toward a Theory of New Revisionism

Excerpts from two reviews of this book are also available.

Agon book cover

A pivotal work of transition between Bloom's poetic theory and his later religious criticism, this book broadens "revisionism," making it the "fierce process" not only of poetry but also of personal life and society. Bloom achieves this redefinition by shifting his emphasis from Gnosticism as a method of interpretation to Gnosticism as dialectical process, a move that allows him to equate Gnosis and poetry. The opening chapters develop a model of Gnostic or poetic knowledge "compounded of three elements: negation, evasion, extravagance." Subsequent chapters apply this perspective to Freud and a variety of American writers, including Emerson, Whitman, and John Ashbery.


broadens revisionism
It is revisionism, and not repression or supposed sublimation, that is the discontent in civilization Freud most truly explored. But what is revisionism? Revisionism, as Nietzsche said of every spirit, unfolds itself only in fighting. The spirit portrays itself as agonistic, as contesting for supremacy, with other spirits, with anteriority, and finally with every earlier version of itself...The first theologians of agon were the Gnostics of Alexandria, and the final pragmatists of agon have been and be the Americans of Emerson's tradition...the American religion of competitiveness, which is at once our glory and (doubtless) our inevitable sorrow...

Gnosis and poetry
To ask how poems can be the Gnosis is to ask what is it that poems know, which in turn is to ask what is it that we can come to know when we read poems? But to make the question itself Gnostic we need to cast away nearly the entire philosophical tradition of knowledge..."Poetic knowledge" may be an oxymoron, but it has more in common with Gnosis than it does with philosophy. Both are modes of antithetical knowledge, which means knowledge both negative and evasive, or knowledge not acceptable as such to epistemologists of any school...A knowledge that is at once "secret, revealed, and saving"...that opens up a new, Sublime, negative Creation in the Abyss

Negation in Gnosis needs to be distinguished from negation in Hegelian philosophy and from what Freud calls negation, though the distance from psychoanalysis is not nearly so great as it is from philosophy. If philosophy is, as Novalis said, the desire to be at home everywhere, then Gnosis is closer to what Nietzsche thought the motive of art: the desire to be elsewhere, the desire to be different...Whereas Hegelian negation also insists that true knowledge begins when philosophy destroys the experience of daily life, such destruction is a phase on the way to a universal, and so Hegelian truth finally negates both the per se existence of the object and the individual ego. But Gnosticism would not accept this shifting of the truth to a universal. The warrant for the truth remains personal, indeed is the true personal, the pneuma of the Gnostic, his self as opposed to his mere psyche or soul. Shall we say, against the philosophers, that Gnosis is the rapid, impatient labor of the Negative?

the idea of substitution (is) an idea which in the Gnostic dialectic is usurped by the idea of evasion...Now substitution, whether in erotic, religious, or literary contexts, is always the doctrine of the Second Chance. Gnosticism evades, rather than substitutes, because like every mode that battles its own belatedness Gnosticism insists upon evading time rather than fulfilling time in an apocalyptic climax, or living in time through substitution.

The third term of the triad is extravagance, the restitution of power by a mode of figuration that moves from the symbolic or synecdochic through the Sublime or hyperbolic and ends in an acosmic, anti-temporal trope that reverses the Alexandrian predicament of belatedness. This final extravagance is the earliest instance I know of the rhetoric of transumption, which is the ultimate modal resource of post-Miltonic poetry, and which projects lateness and introjects earliness, but always at the expense of presence, by the emptying out of the living moment.

© 1982, Oxford University Press. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.


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