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Kabbalah and Criticism

Excerpts from two reviews of this book are also available.

Kabbalah book cover

Bloom here offers the Kabbalah's strategies of interpretation, particularly the revolutionary methods of the 16th-century writer Isaac Luria, as "the ultimate model for Western revisionism from the Renaissance to the present." Bloom relies on Gershom Scholem's scholarly studies to trace the evolution of the Kaballah from the medieval book of Zohar to Luria's Gnostic rewriting, or "misreading" of the tradition. Kabbalah and Criticism also clarifies how Bloom's "dialectic of revisionism" functions in both strong poets and strong critics. It provides as well a succinct summary of Bloom's overall conception of "the nature of the poem."


The great lesson that Kabbalah can teach contemporary interpretation is that meaning in belated texts is always wandering meaning, even as the belated Jews were wandering people. Meaning wanders. Like human tribulation, or like error, from text to text, and within a text, from figure to figure. What governs this wandering, this errancy, is defense, the beautiful necessity of defense, but meaning itself is defense, and so meaning wanders to protect itself. In its etymology, "defense" refers to "things forbidden" and to "prohibition." And we can speculate that poetic defense rises in close alliance with the notions of trespass and transgression, crucial for the self-presentation of any new strong poet.

dialectic of revisionism
The center of my theory is that there are crucial patterns of interplay between literal and figurative meanings, in post-Miltonic poems, and these patterns, though very varied, are to a surprising degree quite definite and even over-determined. What determines them is the anxiety of influence, because it is the war against belatedness that results in certain patterns of analogous images, tropes, psychic defenses, and revisionary ratios. I do not say that these patterns produce meaning, because I do not believe that meaning is produced in and by poems, but only between poems. But the interaction of these patterns, between poems, suggests or opens up all possibilities of poetic meaning. The hidden roads that go from poem to poem are: limitation, substitution, representation; or the dialectic of revisionism. Even as the language of modern or post-Miltonic poetry becomes over-determined, in a movement down to the present, so signification tends to wander, which means that a loss in meaning accompanies a tradition's temporal passage.

the nature of poem
1. There is the religious illusion, that a poem possesses or creates a real presence.
2. There is the organic illusion, that a poem possesses or creates a kind of unity.
3. There is the rhetorical illusion, that a poem possesses or creates a definite form.
4. There is the metaphysical illusion, that a poem possesses or creates meaning.

© 1975, Seabury Press. Kabbalah and Criticism. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.


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