Meta-cognition: How I Read Bloom and Why

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill by Pieter Claesz  (1628).
Pieter Claesz [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

How To Read And WhyHow To Read And Why by Harold Bloom

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read of Bloom in The Paris Review article Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1. I took particular note of his relationship with his teacher, William K. Wimsatt, whom Bloom "agreed to disagree" with on matters literary. In my academic work, I hear this phrase often, and again only recently. For Epictetus, we should thank those who point out our faults so we may change ourselves. Bloom, however, suggests that we can bring about self-change on the basis of self-overhearing. A number of coinciding readings and experiences led me to self-consciously self-overhear myself. For Bloom:
Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves... he may teach us how to accept change in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.
This book outlines "how to read and why", and focuses on a handful of Bloom's chosen authors of short stories, novels, plays , and poems, and how and why to read them, in particular. Bloom's (p. 21) thesis is:
It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly upon themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interest... but eventually you will read against the clock... One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change is universal.
Further, Bloom quotes Sir Francis Bacon's advice on reading:
Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.
When I found myself recently forced to "agree to disagree" with a few people who like to argue for the sport of argument, and who, rather than to learn and change, prefer to find themselves persistently correct and take the final word as some form of noble victory, I found myself overhearing myself. In a case of reading "with an overt urgency" (p. 21), I stumbled upon the concept of meta-cognition in the literature on "self-consciousness". And, thanks to Bloom, a new horizon is visible from the scaffolding of my inner citadel.

Alexander Pope, in the first stanza of Part 2 of An Essay on Criticism, tells me that ignoramuses have the strongest biases, and they let pride prevent them from changing (or "growing"). Instead, our power of reason should drive away pride, so that we can see our faults - not through ourselves, but through friend and foe alike. In effect, we can use feedback from others to correct our knowledge, but only if we can learn to "overhear" ourselves.

The concept of overhearing ourselves, as in being able to hear what we are saying almost as an independent observer, is what Bloom meant. But when I first read it, I immediately thought of it as hearing ourselves too much. When I think of "agreeing to disagree", I see an un-shifting opinion, where facts are "false news", where it is no longer about knowledge, but about some sense of superiority, one over the other. For a very long time, for me this has been a form of "class self-consciousness". Not false consciousness, nor class consciousness, but of being simultaneously conscious of one's class and of one's position in one's class. (I must point out that I mean the class one inhabited as a child, rather than the class one may have "moved to" since.) It is often that I hear from silver-tails and dyed-in-the-wool working class comrades this inability to use reason to develop knowledge.

Pope (and later, Mortimer Adler) wrote that being educated and having read widely are not guarantees of wisdom. Indeed, many well-educated people I have met, particularly those who love to argue for sport and "agree to disagree" when they cannot beat down their opponent with their own sense of righteousness, may properly be referred to as "bookful blockheads, ignorantly read". Given Bloom's focus on the "Western Canon", I wondered how much he was of the Huntington creed of imaginary belonging to some mythical people who span half the globe and much of recorded history. I suspected at first that I might have to acquiesce and accept; to agree to disagree. Yet Bloom doesn't take it there at all.

I meet these people (too often), who, whenever they speak of democracy, are "extremists" who think that democracy is the source of all good, and all political alternatives are the sources of all evil. I don't mean Neoconservatives, but a form of non-violent insistence that "democracy is good for you even if you don't know it" - a form of Western pride. While I am not suggesting that political and economic circumstances are irrelevant, I am of the democracy "deserves two cheers, not three" camp. And I am open to learning more.

So as I "overhear" myself when ambushed by such projected pride in an ambiguous and abstract idea of where I belong in the "Clash of Civilisations" thesis, I feel class self-consciousness, rather than a sense of who is right or wrong. And this is why I read. But how?

Bloom paints so many pictures of literary theory, especially concerning Shakespeare, that focus on the concept of the "will to change". For Bloom, literature is of either the Shakespearean or Cervantean (of Don Quixote fame) modes. Shakespearean characters change when they overhear themselves, as if it were someone else who had spoken.

The Cerveantean approach is where we "learn how to listen to one another" (p. 195) as the basis of change. Further down page 195, Bloom suggests that the solitary reader is more likely to learn, from reading, how to talk to herself than to others. To put these two literary modes in context, authors in the Shakespearean camp include Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Henry James, Proust, Jane Austen, and Stendhal. In the Cervantean camp reside Italo Calvino, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, and Guy de Maupassant. I suppose this is why my mind expands when I read the latter, because the mode is less Anglo. And this is where I find Bloom confusing. Is he talking about the Anglo (Shakespeare) versus the Continental (Cervantes) philosophical approaches? Or is there some mystical, mythical, "other" Eastern Canon, as opposed to the Western Canon? In the final pages, it seems more likely that Bloom means the West in all its Abrahamic glory. This makes more sense, hence my refusal to agree to disagree with Bloom. (And thank God I did not imagine Bloom waving a flag with Huntington's nonsense.) Which all leads to my own experience with overhearing myself, and the concept of meta-cognition in relation to my class self-consciousness:
The term “meta-cognition” typically refers to the capacity to monitor and control one’s own cognitive states, and is manifest in one’s judgements (or feelings) concerning one’s own learning and consequent level of certainty or confidence (J.D. Smith 2009; Beran et al. 2012; Proust 2013; Fleming & Frith 2014). The suggestion is that if a creature is able to monitor their own level of confidence, they are to that extent self-conscious.
So, how to read Bloom and why? There is genuine wisdom in his work, and, if one will only listen for oneself while reading, the reader may just "overhear" herself speak. Unless, of course, you prefer to agree to disagree. But I suspect if that is what is happening for you, you might be "overhearing" yourself in the manner of hearing yourself too much. The former helps us to change, the latter helps us to "harden the categories". Or at least that is what I overheard.