- Such Violent Laughter
I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people, even myself, so I can't blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. … What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didn't do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesn't know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I don't believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?—Nathanael West (1975, 4)
"What did I do to deserve such a terrible fate?" "Ought I commit suicide?" The questions are serious, and as we sometimes say, seriously funny. Harold Bloom's appreciation of the passage quoted above from Nathanael West's remarkable novel Miss Lonelyhearts, takes account of our relief that the violence suffered by the questioner is hers to endure. By the same token, Bloom does not flinch from the recognition that West's narrative conscientiousness wrings a confession from his readers, that the laughter is ours. How do we laugh at such existential violence without fearing for our lives? How else can we live?
The peculiar discomfort Bloom registers in his reflection on West's greatness as a novelist turns out to be the aim of more than one twentieth century American fiction writer. One only has to quickly thumb through Bloom's writings in his posthumous collection The American Canon to pick out a conspicuous bloody thread. The essays on Nathanael West, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner configure themselves as a suite of reflections on what Bloom might argue is a uniquely American rapport with comic violence, though he doesn't deploy the term. One quickly understands that Bloom's enthusiasm for these authors individually and as a group derives from their syncretistic penchants for extorting laughter from our otherwise shocked witness to the most violent human actions. It is no coincidence that each of these authors is frequently mentioned in Bloom's appreciation of each of the others. More to the point, Gnosticism, a career long obsession of Bloom's, appears to be at the root of his experience reading of West, O'Connor, and Faulkner. From a Bloomian perspective, Gnosticism is arguably equivalent [End Page 479] to knowledge of our propensity for error and suffering. I would argue that it is oddly akin to Greek hamartia, the promise of corrigibility through experience. Bloom's readerly persistence through the trials of gnostic knowing is, thanks to Gershom Scholem's reliably paradoxical phrase, "redemption though sin, easily construed as acceptance of our entrapment in experience. The relevant sin here is especially cautionary for American readers who keep faith with the phantom of an American Adam. Sin is perforce the manner of human striving after more and more experience. What is redeemed is simply what is wrought through striving. Sin, after all is the refusal of death and transcendence. It is more durable. More to the point, it is do-able; it is brutal agency itself, unencumbered by the visionary spirits of romantic sublimity.
In Bloom's opening essay on Emerson, the point is already taken: "Emerson is an experiential critic and essayist, and not a Transcendental philosopher" (Bloom 2019, 13). Bloom invites us to think of Emerson's American exemplarity (though he finds the same wisdom in the Bible, Shakespeare, Freud), as his acceptance of the confliction of experience. For Emerson "…we need to be everything in ourselves while we go on fearing that we are nothing in ourselves" (14). The literary imagination is quintessentially conflicted in the very impetus of the writer to imagine what is not the case.
Of course the literary confliction that we know most terrifyingly, which is to say most violently, comes to us in the genre of tragedy where human agency hangs drastically in the balance. Oedipus is of course presumed to be mistaken about who he...