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Misinterpretation and Artificiality


Allen Grossman



There is a strange relationship between poets and trauma. On the one hand, we have poets who are called "Confessional" - Anne Sexton, say, or Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke. While I can't say I know exactly what "confessional" means, the word does imply trauma, since to confess implies having done something wrong, and often the feeling that we have done something wrong comes from guilt, which itself stems from trauma.


There is a difference between confession and disclosure, and there is a difference between permissiveness and consent. And these things are not levels or stark black and white differences but ratios which lead to stances. Every artist has a different relationship to trauma, but they would not create art without it. This is why Harold Bloom argued that we create art not because of the Muse but because of the Sphinx.


I wonder if every trauma, no matter what kind, comes from different forms of rape. I say this with the fear of minimizing physical rape, but there is emotional rape, intellectual rape, and spiritual rape, and any person who experiences any of these types of things, or all of these types of things, for a prolonged period of time must sooner or later find a voice to voice it, however directly or indirectly.


To voice trauma because of rape is both an individual and a societal matter. Individual, because the person - in this context, a poet, meaning an artist in the largest sense of the word as someone who creates out of imaginative need - has to find his or her own slant on it, and they do so by reading other poets, "reading" meaning any kind of experiencing in other art forms. Yet it's a societal matter as well, because every person in the world knows in some manner what it feels like to be raped, whether emotionally, intellectually, physically, or spiritually.


To rape is to steal, or to take what is not one's own. It is to do something without another person's consent. To create art is to figure out a way to use the violence caused by the rape to not repeat the violence, but to go in a different movement, to dance in a different way, to look in a different direction, in order to channel the violence in a way that is true to the individual's need and experience. That is why violence, in the form of rape and art, is central to the humanities, and we should not avoid saying this, because we should not idealize the humanities nor reduce them.


Allen Grossman writes about this, in an essay in The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle. He writes,


When the themes of art reproduce crime (the rapists' reading) rather than prevent it (as might have occurred had the story taught the father not to hunt in the "ruthless, vast and gloomy woods") - when, in short, the pattern ceases to regulate form and becomes fact - then the pain of the paradigm becomes the pain of history and the competition for the description of the human world is lost to the energies that do not know human form (the duras arator). It is the bitter fact (and the subject of this book) that the energies that do not know the human form are among the energies (barbarism both of the divine and natural) that also construct the human form, as the pain of Philomela produces consolatory song and the grief of Orpheus elegiac possibility. But the logic of representation is unendurable by the natural person. The function of poetic practice is to defer the implosion of the poetic principle into the actual world.

When the difference, then, between representation and reality is lost, we are all with Philomela among the slaves. (35)


"The competition for the description of the human world" means the narratives we tell ourselves to keep us sane or insane, depending on who we are. If we are rapists rather than artists, our narratives will be false. There will be holes in them; they will appear to be one thing but will turn out to be something else. But false narratives are more harmful than that. Why? Because rape is actual. Children are emotionally and physically and intellectually and spiritually raped everyday in our shared world. Parents neglect their children; parents mock their children; parents attempt to keep their children infants. When Claudia Rankine writes that white people attempt to police Black people's imaginations, she is only half right, because at a deeper level, I think, we could say just that parents attempt to police their children's imaginations, and that that is an enormous and perennial problem and the root of racism and other horrors in society.


There is a relationship between authentic narratives, the creation of art, and love. Rape is the opposite of love, which is to say the opposite of the imagination. Harold Bloom wrote in The Anxiety of Influence that "to imagine is to misinterpret." (93) Yet this does not mean imagining is rape, though the rapists want us to think it is. The difference between imagining and raping is the difference between authority and artificiality (as opposed to artifice). We should trust the deeper takes, the more robust and textured interpretations; and when we fight against them immaturely, we should recognize that that says more about the immaturity than the take. Projecting on a person is rape. Imagining persons, or situations, or possibilities, is creation, and therefore a form of extension. Artists know this difference, just as critics do. That's what makes them artists and critics.


To imagine, which is a powerful force, like violence directed at the rapists, is balanced or softened by love, which Harold Bloom spoke about in the context of "knowing" or Gnosis. To love is to know who one is, and out of that unconditional state, to see things as clearly as possible, though there will always be blindspots. Harold Bloom himself wished to be seen as the authentic heir of Freud and Nietzsche, and he was, I suppose, but he was even more so the authentic heir of Johnson, and his swerve into aesthetics came because of Johnson's emphasis on morality. But Bloom had to read Johnson this way, because Johnson was too close; in order to individuate, he misread his relationship to Johnson so that he could imagine his own destiny.


To see clearly does not mean neutrality, or nambypambyness, or even objectivity. It means to have a slant, but an honest slant. You have that honest slant because you know, which means you love. To love means you trust, which means you see, which means you listen. When we imagine - when we fight the rapists and create art or criticism (if there is a difference) out of love and need - then we help to create new forms of art that can produce both catharsis and justice, if there is a difference, through the remembrance of the image of the beloved, and therefore through the remembrance of the only thing that matters in this world.





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