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A Map of Misreading

Excerpts from two reviews of this book are also available.

Misreading book cover

This book refines and applies the ideas in The Anxiety of Influence. The first half is theoretical and draws on a wide range of earlier thinkers, including Giambattista Vico, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Kenneth Burke. Particularly notable are: (1) Bloom's use of Vico's ideas about figurative language in order to associate poetic tropes with psychic defenses against death; and (2) Bloom's "misreading" of Freud, which makes repression , not sublimation, the imagination's true medium. The results of these lines of speculation are summarized in Bloom's chart (link to folder 2 -chart.jpg) of the "dialectic of revisionism." The second half of the book applies Bloom's theory to specific writers, including Milton, the principal Romantics, Robert Browning, and the Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Wallace Stevens.


Vico's ideas about figurative language
Vico's poetic logic charmingly associates tropes with "poetic monsters and metamorphoses," necessary errors that "arose from a necessity of this first human nature, its inability to abstract forms or properties from subjects...Vico thus sees figures as defenses against any given criteria that challenged "this first human nature," that interfered with the literalizing divination that he sees as the essence of the poetic urge. Tropes then are necessary errors about language, defending ultimately against the deathly dangers of literal meaning, and more immediately against all other tropes that intervene between literal meaning and the fresh opening to discourse.

poetic tropes with psychic defenses against death
If death ultimately represents the earlier state of things, then it also represents the earlier state of meaning, or pure anteriority; that is to say, repetition of the literal, or literal meaning. Death is therefore a kind of literal meaning, or from the standpoint of poetry, literal meaning is a kind of death. Defenses can be said to trope against death, rather in the same sense that tropes can be said to defend against literal meaning, which is the antithetical formula for which we have been questing.

To write in praise of repression is only to say that antithetical criticism must drive a wedge between sublimation and poetic meaning, and so depart from Freud. The central argument of this book, as of The Anxiety of Influence, is that sublimation is a defense against limitation even as a metaphor is a self-contradictory trope of limitation. What the Romantics called creative imagination is akin, not to sublimation and metaphor, but to repression and hyperbole, which represent rather than limit. Repression, Freud's Verdrangung, is a defensive process by which we try to keep instinctual representations (memories and desires) unconscious. But this attempt to keep representations unconscious actually creates the unconscious (though to assert this is again to depart from Freud). No deep student of poetry could agree that "the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious." Hyperbole, the trope of excess or of the over-throw, like repression finds its images in height and depth, in the Sublime and the Grotesque. To drive down into the unconscious is the same process as heaping up the unconscious, for the unconscious, like the Romantic imagination, has no referential aspect. Like the Imagination, it cannot be defined because it is a Sublime trope or hyperbole, a cast of the spirit. When the poem has endured such emptying-out that its continuity threatens to be broken off, then it represses its representing force until it achieves the Sublime or falls into grotesque byways, but in either case it has produced meaning. The glory of repression, poetically speaking, is that memory and desire, driven down, have no place to go in language except up onto the heights of sublimity, the ego's exultation in its own operations.

What is revisionism? As the origins of the word indicate, it is a re-aiming or looking-over-again, leading to a re-esteeming or a re-estimating. We can venture the formula: the revisionist strives to see again, so as to esteem and estimate differently, so as then to aim "correctively." In the dialectical terms that I will employ for interpreting poems in this book, re-seeing is a limitation, re-estimating is a substitution, and re-aiming is a representation.

© 1975, Oxford University Press. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.


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