Still Life, Aflutter – Harold Bloom and an Old Incantation: Prasanta Chakravarty


Harold Bloom had made it clear many times that his investment in the Greek literary critic Dionysius Longinus, writing in the first century AD, was a way to address and revisit the fundamental encounter of the sublime in our living. Commentators have noticed a remarkable ‘agon’ being played out in Bloom’s career: between his idealizing enthusiasm in romantic-messianic visions and his equal investment in gnostic wisdom and stoic classicism. This agon, or contestation, was his way of addressing a certain space of the uncanny in dealing with art and literature, in contrast to the modernizers and tropologists who, he believed, rejected subjectivity itself as a fallacy. Not Bloom—who had always claimed that the ‘strong critic’ is a kind of poet. As he saw it, literary criticism is an ongoing tussle between the pathos of the heroic will and the ‘literalizers’ who deal in tropes and textual juggleries. But has he been successful in strictly distinguishing the daemonic from the analytic? Are the uncanny and surpassing moments entirely separable from the sensory and the figurative? 

Here is a singular song, penned and sung by Suman Chattopadhyay (now Kabir Suman) decades ago.

In an instant you returned

a simple glance, gazing.

Look, in your eyes

my fresh new verse, homing.

That verse, harmonized

kindles a song of two?

The naïve arithmetic of charm

in that simple glancing touch

you returned to my eyes.

Says age, “Here I grow.”

And death, “So near I wait.”

Life adds, “Life, you say?

Mere hide-and-seek I play.”

Advises sense, “Grasp right now

the future that is a mirage.”

In the pyre cools every bonfire –

Such is life! phew and phooey!

Yech and yuck, phew and phooey,

Time ekes away in this drudge

The wish to live free of vexation

is now an insignification!

This stormy whirlpool of desire

You seized from me strolling by

By the simple graze of a gaze

You returned the glance to my eye.

এক মুহূর্তে ফিরিয়ে দিলে / সহজ চোখে তাকিয়ে থাকা।

ওই তো তোমার চোখেই আমার / সদ্য লেখা পদ্য রাখা।

পদ্যটাতে সুর ছোঁয়ালে / গান হবে কি দুজন মিলে?

সহজ কৌতূহলের অঙ্ক / চোখের ছোঁওয়ায় মিলিয়ে দিলে।

বয়স বলে, “বাড়ছি দেখো!/ “মৃত্যু বলে, “কাছেই আছি”।

জীবন বলে, “কোথায় জীবন?/ খেলছি শুধু কানামাছি!”

বুদ্ধি বলে, “গোছাও কিছু / –আখের মার্কা মরীচিকা”।

ফুরোবে সব চিতা’র কাঠে / –এই তো জীবন! দুত্তেরিকা!

ধ্যাত্তেরি আর দুত্তেরিকা / বলতে বলতে সময় কাটে

বিরক্তিহীন বাঁচতে চাওয়ার / ইচ্ছে এখন বেগার খাটে!

বেদম বেহাল ইচ্ছেটাকে /  চলতে চলতে কুড়িয়ে নিলে।

সহজ চোখের ছোঁওয়ায় তুমি / আমার চোখে ফিরিয়ে দিলে।

The song (almost an incantation) pivots around nailing the temporal aspect of the arche emotion of the sublime experience [a combination of astonishment (ekplêxis) and wonder (thaumasion)] that Longinus had proposed long ago: where the point of origin for surpassing sublimity is a certain occasion, the right moment (kairos), which is always ‘happily timely.’ But that same moment is also uncanny and interruptive.  

In an instant you returned / a simple glance, gazing.

A breathtaking gesture, this— I glance and beckon and someone takes heed, turns around and looks at me. Two moments coalesce in a single and unified knot. The first sub-moment is purely extempore in nature: without any prior notice someone decides to invoke me through a glance. This is a direct, simple and naïve gaze, a wondrous and silent call.  And I respond without any overt intention of doing so. Something in me responds. It responds. The instant gaze interrupts my time and turns it around. This encounter was always about to happen and it has happened now. The moment and the initial gestures of the song take place in the gap between the call and reply. The initial glance brings forth the response and the simple arc gets completed. The singular swish of the completed and uncut moment unfolds. 

The responder recognizes me by the simple and unconditional return-gaze. The unknown is admitted in my known world; a moment of miraculous reassurance. In the blink of an eye I am exposed, and am responded to by a similar vulnerable gesture. In the gap, a certain closeness is being gestured at; but is the distance surpassed? The crucial question for the sublime lies here: is it a moment that flies up fatelessly, its success being in the kairotic instant itself, or does this moment transcend all the other significant motivations of our living and make life worth celebrating in terms of discovering eternity within the shell of this instant, which then can be kept alive as an afterlife through art or contemplation? 

But behold! It seems that emboldened by the return of the gaze, the initiator wishes to prolong the moment:

Look, in your eyes / my fresh new verse, homing.

That verse, harmonized / kindles a song of two?

The composed verse is of course the glance itself, which has concentrated within itself the intensity of all that versification can ever achieve. And yet this is also a self-conscious acknowledgement that you are not just creating this moment collectively, but also objectively: that you can detach yourself and see the moment unfolding. You further hope that this instantiated moment can now be given a future and chronological dimension. This projected futurity is also marked by a singular hierarchy: that between poetry and song. The magic of the lightest touch of the glance, and the poetic result that it has achieved, can be prolonged by you if music descends between the two-some, now that the arc of the sublime moment is completed. From the singular and localized ethereal instant of the reciprocity emerges the not-yet. Surely the not-yet summons us towards prolonging and making the already versified instant into something more ethereal: hoping to make the fleeing instant a surpassing one, by injecting music into it. Making a song out of a verse where rhythm and tune conjoin. And yet this is just a hope, self-consciously enacted by the poet-beholder. The interrogation mark at the end of line 6 shows the hope involved in this extension of the moment. This hope materializes since the participating beings are witnessing something in their own lives about which they have always heard. In one of the most beautiful utterances ever pronounced in the history of literary criticism, Longinus says: “It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity [hypsos]. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe we have created what we have only heard.” This is the heart of genuine and ‘transporting’ intersubjectivity fostered by the sublime moment: a fictive creation of joy and pride by believing in the reality of togetherness.  Within such a transporting microcosm, no analytical access is allowed.

But the shimmering nature of the moment also makes this hope just that: a hope. Can the moment be really held and made into an incantation? The sensuousness of the reciprocal gazing is all that can be shored up, perhaps? Here is one of enduring conundrums of the ‘happy occasion’ of reciprocal and sublime beholding—it overwhelms us, and by doing so breaks down our egotistic cores into utter and complete vulnerability (which is the classical-modern component);yet the same moment also elevates us into a fairy-tale world of boundless and surpassing joy (the idealistic/transcendent component). The first impulse takes us closer to frailty, incompleteness and hence, gradually closer to self-reflectivity. The second, towards accomplished fulfillment and elevation. Hit by the force of the encounter, the moment summons the fleeting and the fulfilled at the same time.  The naive arithmetic of charm is completed by the reciprocation. It is indeed the equation of 1+1=1, as the arc is circled back into that moment. Perhaps this is bliss. And yet, can that simple glancing touch hold eternity within it? Is this epiphanic moment metaphysically harmonic and whole, or does it show us the power of the fleeting aesthetic reckonings of our contingent living through psychological and linguistic imaginings of a material being—a mode to reach the state of ‘profane illumination’? 

The long middle of the poem is conceptual and thoughtful. It gives us a tableau of other temporal moments that must eventually lead to nothingness. And our wants and desire for the essentialities of living must remain most abstract (as opposed to the image of the illuminated moment). In between the many enchantments of life, one feels the sense of time’s fleetingness since all human flourishing, ‘every bonfire’ must eventually lead to the pyre. And that sense makes life banal and wasted. This is the manifestation of urban ennui, as has been enacted in art and literature in many different ways in the past two centuries. Chattopadhyay has used two remarkable unlyrical expressions here—ধ্যাত্তেরি and দুত্তেরিকা (yech and yuck, phew and phooey) in order to cement the notion of our everyday drudgery, and hence affirm our distance from the simple conjugation of a rare reciprocation.  To live a life free of vexation is what we aspire for, which is at best a life of fastened anchorage. But the moment of illumination has now made life lyrical, by that ‘graze of a gaze.’ And so we hanker. 

The classical-modernist axis of the poem relies on the several factors—the leveling simplicity of the fleeting gazes, the plucking of the gaze by the responder most unceremoniously (seized from me strolling by), the bravado of the hope of extending the moment, the restive nature of desire seeking anchorage,and the arguments marshaled in the middle for ‘seizing the moment’–all depicting the poet’s self-conscious capacity to recapitulate the encounter, reflexively gathering thoughts and images and performing the lyric through a fine structuration of first delineating and projecting the heightened moment,following on by a conceptual list of four personified abstractions (age, death, life and sense), and then taking us back to the initial image: the gathered equation of the moment’s respite.  The profane/classical-modernist way of approaching instants of sublimity is through aesthesis/structures, which are always cultural products. Affect and style can be read, deciphered and accounted for in this manner. It is the transitory quality of life that makes life worth it: for genuine sublimity is always contingent. Only through contingency can such singular events, such as the one sung by the illumined minstrel here, gain universal validity. The very solidity of living lies in the astonishing surprise element of all that is fleeting and wondrous in this universe, in contrast to the drudgery involved in merely serving time. Is the sublime moment then a way of enacting a kind of compensatory affirmation of the self?

The metaphysical-idealistic axis resists this reading. It seeks a visionary and surpassing pattern within such lyrical instants. It seeks repeatability and harmony.  It believes that that we can not only hold sublimity within a cosmic frame but can extend it to eternity by various means—through summoning of mnemonic memory, beckoning and moulding imagination, submitting metaphysically to the aura of the sublime event and so on. In transporting and ecstatic moments, we are in thrall of the daemonic from which there is no respite. It keeps beckoning us and we submit to its charm involuntarily. Enchantment is a one-way route to faith and repose. It is a meditative process by which creatures are transformed and brought closer to the harmony that inheres in the cosmos. Sublimity thus turns into a moment of integrity, a subtle knot that cannot be severed.

At his most visionary moments Harold Bloom can therefore say this about poetry: “Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of a gulf, in the darting of an aim.” But it is the same Bloom who plays the shaman and the analyst who meticulously culls out gestures and allegories within such surpassing moments that great art bequeaths us. Though beholden to Longinus, Bloom knows that we live by certain essential fictions, which make life incandescent. The messiah never arrives and yet we keep envisioning his arrival. Therefore an essential wisdom, a certain stoic ennui vies with an incandescent vision in his critical output. Bloom gives this state a name: ‘achieved anxiety.’ Here, one elevates and deflates illumination at the same time. The transformative poet, the erstwhile and evanescent Suman Chattopadhyay, in his oracular moments of minstrelsy, must have experienced the pangs of similar agonistic journeys. 


Select Readings

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1983.

Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

—The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. Spiegel &Grau, 2015. 

Carson, Anne. “Foam: (Essay with Rhapsody) On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni”. Conjunctions. (2001)pp. 96–104.

Culler, Jonathan.‘The Hertzian Sublime.’Vol. 120, No. 5, Comparative Literature Issue.JHU Press (2005) pp. 969-985.

Doran, Robert. ‘Literary History and the Sublime in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.’ New Literary History 38.2 (2007): 353-369.

Ferguson, Frances. Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation. Routledge, 1992.

Friese, Heidrun (edt). The Moment: Time and Rupture in Modern Thought. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.    

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J.H. Bernard. London: Macmillan, 1951.

Longinus. “On the Sublime,” in Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. T. S. Dorsch. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. 97-158.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Monk, Samuel H. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1935/1960.

Quinney, Laura. Literary Power and the Criteria of Truth. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. 

-‘Weiskel’s Sublime and the Impasse of Knowledge.’Philosophy and Literature, Volume 18.2, (1994) pp. 309-319.

Tsang, Lap Chuen. The Sublime: Groundwork towards a Theory. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1998.

Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty. Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory. New York: Modern Library, 1955.

Thomas, Weiskel, Portia Williams Weiskel. The Romantic Sublime. Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.


Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in University of Delhi. He is the editor of the web-magazine humanitiesunderground

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