By “high unpleasure,” Bloom meant the experience of participating in the struggle of a supreme mind to understand the world and itself. The reward (please don’t say payoff) is the ability “to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves, and perhaps to accept change in ourselves, as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change,” which is of course death. Needless to say, this high unpleasure “is altogether solitary, despite all traditional obsessive attempts to socialize it”—that is, to make it yield a message or a marching order or, God forbid, a policy.
In his essay “An Elegy for the Canon,” from which I have been quarrying, Bloom recalled a moment when he entered upon the aesthetic transcendence he celebrated. The sentence introducing his account of the event is itself an instance of the experience he prized, the experience of being compelled by a text to read it rather than consume it: “Some years ago, on a stormy night in New Haven, I sat down to read, yet once more, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.”
This apparently straightforward sentence contains many detours and small, but significant, adventures. For the casual reader, “On a stormy night in New Haven” is merely a conventional piece of stage-setting at home, reminiscent of a romance novel. But the reader Bloom was and wanted his readers to be would immediately hear and be arrested by the reference to Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” a poem in search of exactly the aesthetic purity and autonomy that Bloom sought: “The poem is the cry of its own occasion / Part of the res itself and not about it / The poem speaks of the poem as it is.”
Graeme Wood: Why readers resented Harold Bloom
At once we have sedimented poems and poets and readers. Bloom recalling Stevens, Bloom rereading Milton, who read everybody, and not just rereading, but rereading “yet once more”—the rereading of a rereading. And if that were not enough, the Bloomian reader will immediately recognize “yet once more” as the first three words of Milton’s “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy whose speaker resists assimilation by the conventions he employs in an effort to assert a place and an identity of his own not already occupied by history. This was Milton’s lifelong effort, and Bloom participated in it yet once more as he sat down to reread Paradise Lost. And so a perfectly ordinary sentence recounting a perfectly ordinary evening in New Haven becomes itself the object of a necessary rereading that will not exhaust its ramifying significances.
The main objection to this attempt to give aesthetic value a room of its own has always been the unavoidable situating of the work of art in the world from which it would hold itself aloof. Bloom knew this and noted it: “All my passionate proclamations of the isolate selfhood’s aesthetic value are necessarily qualified by the reminder that the leisure for meditation must be purchased from the community.” The scene from which art emerges is a social scene complete with political and economic interests and displaying everywhere the marks of history and contingency. But Bloom declared that to grant this dependency of art on the world is “to grant very little,” because while the freedom to apprehend aesthetic value may arise from social and economic forces, “the value is not identical with that freedom.” Even though “the production of the aesthetic is a question of historical forces,” it is nevertheless the aesthetic that is being produced, and the vehicle of its production is less important than what it enables to be visible.