Setting up an Argument through Contrast

by MT

Harold Bloom achieves both eloquence and clarity in his writing. How does he combines the two? In the first exemplar paragraph, he defines Goethe’s use of character (personality) through its relation to the development of ideas (thematic metaphors). He contrasts the relation of the two in Faust with that in Calderon’s play. This strategy of contrast is adroitly fused with the flow of the text, in which he uses a third term “protagonist” to act as the interim between the two elements:

“By the impossible standard, Goethe’s Faust, and even his Mephistopheles, scarcely seem characters at all. Goethe, wary of challenging Shakespeare, turned to the Baroque drama of Spain’s Golden Age, to Calderon in particular, for a rival model. In Calderon’s greater plays, as in Faust, the protagonists move and have their being somewhere in the indeterminate realm between character and idea; they are extended metaphors for a Calderon as for Lope de Vega, but Goethe wanted to have the opposition between personalities and thematic metaphors both ways and felt free to drop the mode of Calderon and reenter the Shakespearean cosmos almost at will. [Bloom, 1994: 214a]

In another place Bloom sets up an argument through the opposition of the other in the same paragraph:

[defining the purpose] Because this book concerns itself with the canonical question, my interest in Faust, Part Two is limited here to precisely that: What makes so strange a poem permanent and universal? … [opposition to past cliché interpretation] Faust’s wager with Mephistopheles is a traditional crux fro critics of both parts of the drama, but it seems a minor matter to me. His lack of personality makes me indifferent to whether he achieves a beautiful moment, and so begs it to tarry for a while. The theme of his endless striving also seems to me of little consequence, whether as stimulus to a devil’s bargain or as supposed salvation from such a pact. [the final blow] The power of Goethe’s work does not reside in these now-exhausted commonplaces, which would have long since sunk Faust if they mattered as much as they are said to do. [end of opposition, beginning of argument] The mythopoetic strength of Part Two is centered on very different inventions: Faust’s descent to the Mothers and subsequent vision of Helen; the genesis and career of Homunculus; the classical Walpurgis Night; the idyll of Faust, Helen, and Euphorion; finally, the struggle for the dead Faust’s should and the rather equivocal depiction of heaven that concludes the poem. Out of these curious imaginings, Goethe shapes a composite myth that makes a difference to any reader willing and able to struggle with a poetry as difficult as it is rhapsodic.” [Bloom, 1994: 223c-4a.]

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