Harold Bloom, W.B. Yeats, and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Some people love to hate Harold Bloom and others hate to love his opinions.   Over the years, his critical views have been both lauded and deplored with equal ferocity.  He is an ardent apologist for the Western Canon and a great defender of literature and certain versions of literary criticism.  He is a gatekeeper of literary values and for him the scribbling messengers of wisdom include luminaries such as Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, and Hart Crane.  I love Bloom for his controversial opinions and passionate polemics in the service of literature.  We live in an era that almost exclusively identifies forceful conviction with zealous fanaticism or wrong-headed dogmatism.  Surely, we should be wary of the fanatic, but some causes are worthy of zealous evangelism.  As Bloom would likely say, literary lessons teach us humanistic tolerance to different perspectives.  However, some folks maintain that Bloom represents post-structuralist “Yale criticism” and is thereby a dinosaur from a bygone stage in the evolution of literary studies.  Accordingly, we’ve advanced as an intellectual community informed by “political correctness” and “leftist” trends; often Bloom is seen as an obsolete conveyor of values in desperate need of revision.  However, in most cases I think the naysayers are misguided.  Among his virtues, I would say, is that he quixotically rails against instantiations of populism and like Yeats’s Cuchulain fights against the rising tide of mediocre writing that calls itself literature.  He has famously denounced Stephen King and J.K. Rowling in favor of a “sublime” literary canon.  I admire Bloom for the timely bravado of his opinionated statements, such as the following:

More than a half a century as a teacher has shown me that I am best as a provocation for my students, a realization that has carried over into my writing.  That stance alienates some readers in the media and in the academy, but they are not my audience.  Gertrude Stein remarked that one writes for oneself and for strangers, which I translate as speaking both to myself (which is what great poetry teaches us how to do) and to those dissident readers around the world who in solitude instinctually reach out for quality in literature, disdaining the lemmings who devour J.K. Rowling and Stephen King as they race down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the Internet.

Inasmuch as I may not always agree with Bloom on Yeats, or on Shakespeare’s characters, I respect his views.  One must pay attention to them–not as irrelevant or outmoded views of yesterday–but rather as studied conclusions of a formidable literary expert.  And if we value expertise, and I’m not always certain that we do, then Bloom’s contributions are significant.

Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence is an important addition to his scholarly corpus.  In many ways, it is a continuation of his previous efforts in The Anxiety of Influence, The Map of Misreading, and Agon.  He discusses the concept of influence in post-Freudian terms, more akin to Kierkegaard’s ‘anxiety’ than to modern psychoanalysis.  Due to space considerations, I cannot review the entire book, but will rather focus on brief sections in which he discusses W.B. Yeats and Wittgenstein.

There are many facets of the book worth attending to, however, I’m particularly interested in Bloom’s quotations from Wittgenstein.  First, Bloom is perplexed at Wittgenstein’s ambivalence to Shakespeare.   Wittgenstein’s comments can be found in his Culture and Value (84).   There he remarks that Shakespeare cannot be set aside any other poet (perhaps he had Goethe in mind), because the Bard wasn’t so much a poet as a ‘creator of language.’  Bloom admits that he’s uncertain of Wittgenstein’s meaning here.

Although Wittgenstein “stares in wonder” at Shakespeare he cannot make sense of his place in the Western literary tradition.  He claims that Shakespeare does not portray human types that are ‘true to life,’ but rather provides brush strokes that stand out individually. Wittgenstein’s point seems to be that Shakespeare’s characters are not idealizations or types, that is, abstract personalities or moral emblems of allegorical fableaux.

Second, Bloom’s discussion of Wittgenstein’s views on Shakespeare leads him to Angus Fletcher’s comments on Milton’s Satan, a solipsist.  Here Bloom draws connections to various poets, including Shakespeare: “In Shakespeare, I do not find that anyone ever truly listens to anyone else: whom can Hamlet hear except the Ghost?”  Shakespeare’s tragedy pivots on the notion that we don’t always listen to one another.  Milton’s Satan is a Shakespearian tragic hero because, for Bloom, he is a solipsistic poet.

Faults in listening and responding often result from a confounded poet who only understands himself.  In composition pedagogy we call this phenomenon “cognitive egocentricity” or “self-orientation” —the idea that a writer isn’t quite communicating with her reader.  She understands what is meant but not exactly what is said.

On this point, Bloom cites Wittgenstein’s statement on solipsism in the Tractatus: “What the solipsist means is right but what he says is wrong.”  This elaborates on another previous statement: “The limits of language mean the limits of my world” (5.6).  To understand Wittgenstein’s position more fully, we would do well to consider Bertrand Russell’s exposition of it:

According to [Wittgenstein’s] view we could only say things about the world as a whole if we could get outside the world, if, that is to say, it ceased to be for us the whole world. Our world may be bounded for some superior being who can survey it from above, but for us, however finite it may be, it cannot have a boundary, since it has nothing outside it. Wittgenstein uses, as an analogy, the field of vision. Our field of vision does not, for us, have a visual boundary, just because there is nothing outside it, and in like manner our logical world has no logical boundary because our logic knows of nothing outside it. These considerations lead him to a somewhat curious discussion of solipsism. Logic, he says, fills the world. The boundaries of the world are also its boundaries. In logic, therefore, we cannot say, there is this and this in the world, but not that, for to say so would apparently presuppose that we exclude certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the boundaries of the world as if it could contemplate these boundaries from the other side also. What we cannot think we cannot think, therefore we also cannot say what we cannot think.

This, he says, gives the key to solipsism.  What solipsism intends is quite correct, but this cannot be said, it can only be shown. That the world is my world appears in the fact that the boundaries of language (the only language I understand) indicate the boundaries of my world. The metaphysical subject does not belong to the world but is a boundary of the world.

Bloom’s appeal to Wittgenstein counters Adorno’s “myth of isolation” (“On Lyric Poetry and Society”) –that the lyric is both “the (illusory) embodiment of perfected voice and also the consequence of the isolation of the artist in capitalist society.”  Although I think Bloom is right on this point, he is wrong to say that “the Shelleyan-Yeatsian poet…intended a realism beyond philosophical idealism, Platonic or Hegelian, despite his only apparent solipsism” (180).  Bloom acknowledges that “Yeats played at an idealist system in his Hermetic A Vision, but his grim accuracy in calibrating the loss of guilt and gain in relying upon Romantic tradition validates Shelley’s own precision in realizing the profit and loss of inheriting from Milton and from Wordsworth.”

Perhaps Yeats is closer to Wittgenstein than we might at first assume.  Plenty of philosophers have discussed Wittgenstein’s idealism, which is informed by his study of Kant’s ‘transcendental’ project of limiting the scope of human reason.   Moreover, plenty of critics have discussed Yeats’s idealism, rather than a commitment to realism.  In fact, he was utterly opposed to realism— all his writings confirm his views on this—esoterical, hermetical, or philosophical.

Yeats was not merely a poet who wrote “occult scripture,” as Bloom claims.  The poet studied philosophy to substantiate his anti-materialistic occult bent.  That is, he fervently opposed any philosophy that reduces reality or mental processes to a strict material basis, because, for him, such a view led to strong determinism or fatalism.  In opposition to this outlook, and committed to individual freedom, he espoused the tenets of philosophical idealism.

In his research on the subject he became acquainted with the work of Kant.  Yeats was fascinated with the philosopher’s views on space and time—as a priori conditions of experience—and on certain metaphysical topics: God, Freedom, and Immortality.  According to Kant, humans are disposed to stretch the limits of reason by cognition on such subjects.  Kant’s critical project, as it appealed to Yeats (and to Wittgenstein), limited the scope of reason and the bounds of sense.  That is, Yeats was indebted to Kant’s view of the mind as in part fashioning the world—the famous Copernican Revolution—and he saw continuity between the regulative properties of Kant’s antinomies and his own views on metaphysical opposites.  Kant’s antinomies influenced his ideas on “the antithetical man” and the cyclical (as in a gyre) patterns of history and individual lives.  In particular, Yeats queried the issue of how regulative properties of cognition—normative or constitutive—limited the scope of individual freedom and action.

Yeats believed that there was a connection between his favorite poets in the Romantic tradition (i.e. Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley) and his favorite idealist philosophers.  He said that “the Romantic movement seems related to the idealist philosophy; the naturalistic movement, Stendhal’s mirror dawdling down a lane, to Locke’s mechanical philosophy, as simultaneous correspondent dreams are related, not merely where there is some traceable influence but through their whole substance.”  For Yeats, idealistic philosophy included figures such as Berkeley, Kant, and Croce: “When I speak of idealist philosophy I think more of Kant than of Berkeley, who was idealist and realist alike, more of Hegel and his successors than of Kant, and when I speak of the romantic movement I think more of Manfred, more of Shelley’s Prometheus, more of Jean Valjean, than of those traditional figures, Browning’s Pope, the fakir-like pedlar in The Excursion.”   Yeats claimed that there is a connection between Romantic poetry and idealism in philosophy.

Yeats’s use of the terms ‘romantic’ and ‘idealist’ and the relationship between them provide us with insights into a number of Yeats’s poems, and to a fuller understanding of his work as a whole.  One way to understand Yeats’s use of ‘romanticism’ is to see it in contrast to an interpretation of the Aristotelian notion of mimesis or imitation.  Yeats rejects the idea that art is a representation of reality.  He avidly opposed ‘realism.’  That is, he thinks that art creates, rather than reflects, reality.  By ‘romantic’ he does not refer to subject matter or style, but to Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s views on poetry as stated in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

For Yeats ‘idealism’ is an epistemological doctrine that the human mind in some sense creates the external world.  Yeats applies ‘idealism’ to any philosophical position that implies that objective reality is mind-dependent.  However, this is not quite the standard meaning of the term.  The philosophical term ‘idealism’ refers to the position, such as Plato’s view, that the ideal, or the realm of the ‘forms,’ is real.  That is, Plato and his disciples claim that there are some things that differ from the ordinary things our senses report to us.  These things are immaterial and in some way distinct from material things.  Or it may include a position, such as Berkeley’s, that objective reality is a composition of ideas.  According to Berkeley, these ideas are in the mind of God and are thus ‘objective.’  In this way, Yeats believes that Berkeley is both realist and idealist alike.  Yet Yeats was displeased with both these idealist theories because they characterize the human mind as a passive mechanism for perception—a camera or a mirror.  For example, he says:

When Stendhal described a masterpiece as a ‘mirror dawdling down a lane’ he expresses the mechanical philosophy of the French eighteenth century.  Gradually literature conformed to his ideal; Balzac became old-fashioned; romanticism grew theatrical in its strain to hold the public; till, by the end of the nineteenth century, the principal characters in the most famous books were the passive analysts of events, or had been brutalized into the likeness of mechanical objects.

Although aspects of it appealed to Yeats, he often repudiated Berkeley’s idealism because it claims that external reality is as intransigent as the exterior reality of philosophical realism; in other words, they hold up a mirror to reality to reflect the whole of reality.  Yeats eventually turned from Plato and Berkeley to concentrate on the idealism of Kant, Croce, Gentile, and McTaggart; however, he often appeals to Plato and Berkeley for his own purposes and at his own convenience.  In Kant’s case, Yeats does not maintain that the philosopher holds a strict form of idealism.  In fact, few philosophers would label Kant as an idealist; if so, then the label is qualified in a certain way.  For example, Henry Allison considers Kant to be a ‘transcendental idealist’; Peter Strawson labels him an ‘empirical realist.’  Both labels can be made to fit; in colloquial terms they focus on two different aspects or sides of the same coin, but to explain this would require much more space that I have here.  Nonetheless, Yeats’s Berkeley is more Kantian than most Berkeley scholars would recognize him to be.

Let’s return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:


The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.


Logic fills the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.

We cannot therefore say in logic: This and this there is in the world, that there is not.

For that would apparently presuppose that we exclude certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case since otherwise logic must get outside the limits of the world: that is, if it could consider these limits from the other side also.

What we cannot think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think.


This remark provides a key to the question, to what extent solipsism is a truth.

In fact what solipsism means, is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but it shows itself.

That the world is my world, shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world.


I am the world. (The microcosm.)


Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The “I” in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.

Bloom misinterprets the “pure realism” in Wittgenstein’s statement.   It is more idealist in a Platonic sense than he recognizes.   Wittgenstein’s solipsism is relevant to Yeats because the latter always tried to extend the limits of the human mind beyond the scope of the world to ascertain a perspective of it—that is, he frequently attempted to create the vision of Soul (as in “The Dialogue of Self and Soul”) to fashion a world of becoming in his own image.  For Yeats, the world, the self, and the lyrical “I,” were all one and the same; each combined from antithetical units into a “Unity of Being.”  Thus, the limits of his language meant the limits of his world.


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