Integral Literary Theory - an iteration

I’m not really sure why I am writing this now, as I’m at work and should probably be doing something…different.

But I’ve been thinking about this integral literary theory business for some time, and wanted to throw it out there, to see if anything sticks, or if anyone else is interested in this.

I started thinking about this because there has long been a simmering and out-in-the-open animosity between a critic like Harold Bloom, who is a devout Romantic and “aesthetic critic,” and various other critics, historicists, “symptomatic critics” (Wilber phrase), formalists, etc.

I suppose in some ways my interest in integral theory is personal - I have been a sort of student of Bloom’s for many years, and I’ve accepted many of his criticisms of historicism and Foucault as…commonplace? But after reading Integral Spirituality, I am wondering if Bloom is actually first and foremost a phenomenologist, interested in the UL, in consciousness (zone 1) and aesthetics, and that he is critical of the structuralists (zone 2) because he can’t in some ways see their arguments, he can’t see the outside of his own zone 1 view.

While I was thinking about this, I took out a book by M.H. Abrams from the 1950’s (though it’s been reissued I think a few times) called The Mirror and the Lamp. Abrams was interested in exploring the evolution of aesthetic theory, from the use of the mirror as the dominant metaphor (mimesis, emphasis on the external in some sense, whether actual or ideal), to the use of the lamp as the dominant metaphor (Romanticism, emphasis on the poet and the internal, expressivism). Abrams even came up with a handy chart, which locates what he considers to be the four main aesthetic theories, which focus respectively on 1. the Work, 2. the Poet, 3. the Audience, and 4. the Universe.

This is where things get interesting (and somewhat confusing?). Because don’t these four emphases/theories fit into Wilber’s quadrants? The poet would clearly fit the UL (expressivism, ethos, Romanticism, lamp). The audience could then be located in the LL (didacticism, moralism, pragmatic theories, pathos, much of Samuel Johnson, say). The work itself could be considered an aspect of the UR, i.e. the logos, the It, the dharma, formalism). And the universe (great vague term) would then be the LR, which is to say, empiricism, in some ways mimesis (although the concept of mimesis was created before the “cultural value spheres” differentiated, a la Wilber, so seems to take part in many aspects of the pre-differentiated quadrants).

Does this make sense? It’s kind of confusing, because we are talking about “aesthetic theories,” which you’d think would be primarily UL stuff, and yet when you consider the dominant academic mode of interpreting literature today, it’s primarily symptomatic theories, which seem to fall in the LL. So what does this mean - i.e. are we just saying that there are four quadrants to everything, and therefore four quadrants to aesthetic theory? (Maybe “aesthetic theory” is a misnomer).

One last thing - then I started thinking about how to think about POETRY within the context of Wilber stuff. Because I really do think that some poets, like Ashbery, write from a high level of consciousness, and this explains why their work can be so absorbing. It’s almost like his poems transmit something, an expansive awareness, which then makes the world itself seem different, deeper somehow. (Bloom always says that literature has the power to “augment the self.”) I’m pretty sure this argument for literature as a form of consciousness has been written about extensively by the Belgian literary critic Georges Poulet, so it’s really nothing new. Anyways, am I just falling into the trap of prioritizing the UL in literary theory and literature? Wasn’t Poulet interested more in consciousness (zone 1) than structuralism (zone 2)?

For my entire adult life, I have believed strongly that literature is primarily an aesthetic matter. Today I’m not sure this is true - at least, that other theories (ethical, formal, what have you) are valid - as long as they don’t collapse aesthetics into ethics or claim that symptomatic literary theory is the only answer, which seems to be what has happened. No one in academia reads or talks about Bloom anymore (alas). And while some critics, like Cleveland’s own Michael Clune, seems interested in thinking in new ways about aesthetics, these voices are probably today in the minority. Food for thought.

Harold Bloom


A quick, gut-level response, Andrew, to your thoughtful post.

Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare is fascinating. Since I played a lot of Shakespeare on stage I found little in literary criticism that was really useful except for Bloom. I am a performer and I played lots of Shakespeare and so know the plays from performing on stage. I find Bloom’s ideas often exaggerated and a bit shrill but I don’t hold that against him. He has a distinctive theatrical quality that appeals to me. He rants a bit too much against the Post-modern, which I think the New York School, at it’s best , epitomized. It was also a notoriously queer community. All of this queer theory stuff he loathed. He had a notoriously funny show down with the queen of the post modern, Marjorie Perloff. They appeared to loathe each other but I find both of them are lively writers. Bloom is very comfortable with the weird and the occult. I have not found this true of the Wilberian crowd. Wilber is a smart guy but he strikes me as if he is working hard to stay at the top of his class. His field is Science, and he is quite knowledgeable about Science and Buddhism. I find his take on the arts too simple. Abrams and Bloom skate circles around Wilber.

I read a critic not for his opinion but for his style, and Bloom has a lot of style. I spent ten years, back in the nineties, putting everything into Wilber’s pie chart until I realized that movement in the arts is from achievement to achievement. If you love a poem or play who cares if the artist fit into preconceived categories? Shakespeare, by everyone’s account, is an anomaly. The color codes and the pie chart are designed to crack a code, not catch a rhythm. I guess you can guess that I am a perceptual learner. Most performers are. We stay up late, and drink too much and have leaky margins. The NY school was mostly gay men, who drank and partied a lot. They were also hyper-ironic around identity and politics. To call them " green" is kind of obvious but sort of missing the point.

So, thanks for giving me a chance to rant about one of my favorite critics. Have you checked out the Gebser videos? We did a reading of Gebser that helped us all to wean ourselves away from the some of the dogmatisms of the WIberians. Gebser was a poet who is much more adept working with Integral Art than Wilber is. William Irwin Thompson is another compelling cultural critic, highly critical of Wilber. Good luck with finding your way through these challenging areas. We are very interested in poetics here. Others, like Marco, are much more informed about these dynamics than I am.


Really like those two quotes above. Bloom is shrillness incarnate! But that’s partly why I love him so much; he intends to be provocative, like one of his heroes, Emerson (“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul”). His is a ridiculously, wonderfully outsized personality, seemingly as large as another of his heroes, Falstaff. If it’s true that we become what we think about (I think it’s true), then Bloom over time seemed to become a character in a Shakespeare play, brooding like Hamlet, exorbitantly exuberantly passionate like Sir John Falstaff. I guess he did rant a lot about a certain form of postmodernim (“The School of Resentment,” which he once characterized as “a rabblement of lemmings” which I thought was kind of funny), but I guess I sort of agree with him, i.e. there are many academics in English departments across the U.S. who, to put it in Wilber terms, collapse ethics into aesthetics, which can be sort of…exhausting and even infuriating. I often associate these academics with Wilber’s “mad green meme” thingamajig.

Have no idea if you have the time or interest, but there was an utterly fascinating debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently (I think there is a paywall but someone posted the free articles on Twitter) about the sort of issues that Bloom used to really rail against. I posted links below - the first article is a sort of participant-observer hilarious and sad and moving (I thought) critique of academia and English deparments (it is about a former PhD student who never finds a job in the impossible academic job market, but still goes to an important academic conference to see about the field); the second is a response to the first article, as well as the kind of thing that Bloom would have had an apoplexy about (I join the Bloomasaurus on this one); and the third is (again, what I thought at least) a very measured and reasonable response - and, hopefully, the direction that English professors and departments might hopefully take one day.

Interesting re: your take on Wilber and art. I confess I often find his more ecstatic passages, where he sort of loses himself in praising the divine or whatever, kind of numbing and flat (and always the same-sounding). But Wilber isn’t really an artist or a stylist, at least not the way I think about him - he is a transpersonal psychologist. I’ll have to check out more Gebser, his poetry and thought.

Wait, where can I find the Gebser videos?


I hope this link works. We have done a lot of work on Gebser

And here is a recent Cafe on Emerson, where I quote Bloom.

Thanks for the links. I look forward to checking them out.


(Watched 20 minutes so far of Emerson conversation - just wonderful, and nice to see real live beautiful human beings! Looking forward to watching the rest soon. Thanks for the link.)


Feel free to join us, Andrew. We want to see and hear our members!


Having started out as a secondary English teacher who never really taught English (the Vietnam debacle thwarted my “plans” (if that’s what they were) so my life took a 90 deg. turn, and has been zig-zagging ever since), I was a big fan of Northrop Frye, if I had to name one single source. Half-a-dozen years after my escape from the 'Nam threat, I found myself doing a master’s in applied linguistics (I was teaching TEFL at a German boarding school), literature and psychology at a German university. In spite of the reign of critical rationalism at the time, I ended up a hopeless (hapless?) Hermeneutiker; Gadamer was the man of the hour. I haven’t read much Bloom, other than his Kabbalah and Criticism. The criticism part was fine, but I found the Kabbalah a bit weak; still I much appreciated his attempt to move toward the margins in a reasonable way. Then about a decade ago, I shadowed my daughter through an MA in English Literature at an English university (I was tutoring strategy in for their Business School), whose literature faculty had gone down the postmodern rabbit hole. I’ve never gotten over my appallment at the utter meaninglessness of what they were doing, but she got her paper and doesn’t seem to be all the worse for the experience and is living a normal life.

Anything that I might say in regard to literature, then, are simply the remarks of an interested bystander. I started out and have more or less remained one of those folks who thinks literature speaks for itself. I’m with @johnnydavis54 that critics are best read for style than content.

On the other hand, I’m not much of a Wilbur fan. He’s a bright guy and a hard worker, but he strikes me as having fallen prey to his own sense of self-importance. I read his early work which was based to an exceedingly large degree on Gebser, but whom he never properly credited. When the opportunity arose here on the platform to perhaps re-engage him, I was put off by all the colors, lines, levels, and jargon of a model based ultimately on a 2x2 matrix. I suppose I have a lot of problems I need to work on, but 2x2 matrices are anathema to me. In my almost 15 years of business-strategy tutoring, we were awash with models for everything from external influences to product/service development that were nothing more than 2x2 matrices. (Boston Consulting Group made billions off them and in essence reducing a rich and complex reality to flat, four-factor pictures that even CEOs could supposedly understand.) The very premise is ridiculous: they leave out far more than they can possibly include, thereby distorting an already limited perspective of whatever phenomenon they address. Again, as @johnnydavis54 has noted, both Gebser and Thompson have, IMONSHO, much more to offer.

What is more, and as the name “Gebser Channel” implies, Gebser gets a lot of reference in these parts. The Ever-present Origin is a dense read, to be sure, but I believe very much worth the effort.

What I wanted to say, though, is I much appreciated your thoughts here and the further references you offered. It’s nice to hear a new voice. Hopefully, we’ll hear more of it.


You know, I have Gadamer’s Truth and Method here at my house - I can picture exactly where it is - and I have tried a few times to read said book, but I really have a terrible time reading philosophy. I once was really interested in Gadamer’s ideas about play, and wanted to write a paper about this concept in relationship to John Ashbery’s poetry. (I have been obsessed with Ashbery for some time now, and spent a good amount of time a few years back trying with some desperation to find adequate contexts to explain what I felt and thought he was doing. I don’t think I ever succeeded - Ashbery sort of outstrips any attempt to theorize about him - as you said about literature, his work speaks for itself.)

I do not know where my copy of Kabbalah and Criticism is, but I wish I knew. I also like Bloom’s openness to ideas. One of my favorite books of his, The American Religion (it’s on Kindle, if you use that app or device, for about ten bucks), which is Bloom’s foray into what he calls “religious criticism” (he wrote Kabbalah and Criticiism much before American Religion, but the former was really still an extension of his theory of influence; the latter is something much different). In American Religion, Bloom write with wonderful insight and candor about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, whom Bloom feels is an authentic religious genius (though not, according to Bloom, the best writer), and someone who goes unappreciated and not really thought about by many non-Mormons in the states. I’ve been reading the book intermittently when I have time - there are also chapters on Southern Baptists, Pentecostalism, and other religions, like Christian Science, that took root in the US. Bloom is essentially someone who evaluates - and I have trusted his critical opinion, his evaluations, for many years (with one exception - he is absolutely enamored with Hart Crane, who I really cannot stand). So it is fun and great to read his evaluations of these various religious founders and writings.

Re: your comments and experience vis a vis your daughter’s MA - yes, I can relate, unfortunately. I moved to Cleveland in 2014 to start a PhD in English at a university here, Case Western Reserve, and spent one year in the program before dropping out. While I can’t say Case is representative of all English departments, I do feel that my experience was not unique in terms of what the majority of English departments in the country focus on and do. One of my colleagues in the program seemed to me to be the kind of apotheosis of the less helpful aspects of postmodernism. She had a very intense hatred of the “dead white males,” and would often shut down conversations if they went into a direction that didn’t agree with her political stance or ideology. She was very into the 90’s culture debate about “opening the canon,” which is fine, but I don’t think she had any sense of quality in her evaluations, so it was just a weak form of multiculturalism. She wound up not writing about literature - the last I heard her thesis was concerned with rhetoric and medicine - so about this I was not surprised.

My feelings about Wilber are kind of complicated. He has been a formative influence for me - I read him as an undergraduate in the early 2000s, when I first started meditating and becoming interested in spirituality. Sex, Ecology and Spirituality had a big impact on me. And now that I’ve returned to an interest in spiritual things, I am finding Integral Spirituality to be really interesting and helpful. I often use the four quadrants (yes, admittedly a 2x2 matrix) to think about things and contextualize them. But I do think that there is something about Integral Life, which I started subscribing to, which is kind of too brand-obsessed, for lack of a better term. As someone who never studied business, perhaps this is a natural extension of Wilber’s desire to reach as many people as possible. My own meditation practice, which is called Heartfulness, is totally free, so I was also to some degree kind of like “huh, okay,” when I realized that much of the Integral stuff costs some $, but then again, so do many of Marianne Willamson’s lectures, for example, which I don’t pay for, but also don’t fault her for that.

Good to hear from you, @achronon.


John, how does it work - would I film myself talking about some Emerson readings?

Also, if this if of any interest whatsoever, as there was some talk about Whitman, great barbaric yawper, here is an essay I once wrote about silence and wonder in Whitman (fair warning, it is pretty (very?) academic). I love Whitman very much, and enjoyed what @Michael_Stumpf had to say about his tenderness.


My supervisor at Giessen had studied under Gadamer, so I guess that rubbed off. I don’t fault anyone who has trouble reading philosophy. There’s so much around that simply makes no sense, and that which does is not the easiest fare to digest, that’s for sure. Fortunately, here we’ve done some of that reading in groups, which I find quite helpful, even when there’s some of that which I never got (e.g., Sloterdijk).

Bloom’s The American Religion sounds interesting, but if I get in on Kindle, I’ll probably never read it. I can only take small doses of electronic text. (It’s my age, on the one side, but I’ve spent so much time online in my life (Silicon Valley through the 80s and 90s) that I truly relish every moment I spend offline … and so, when I read, I want to do so with a pencil in hand. :face_with_raised_eyebrow:

RE: your PhD colleague: Robert Frost once noted, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” She strikes me as the kind of uneducated academic who are all too much in abundance these days. I have lots of reasons to be as curmudgeony as I am, but there are some stories that make me thankful for all the zigs and zags in my life. As I understand it, most postmodernism lacks quality generally in its evaluations. If you can show anything at all to be utterly meaningless, then how can you establish anything even remotely resembling a criterion of quality? It’s sad what has happened, and I’m not overly hopeful that things will change before the neolibs eliminate the humanities anyway.

There are many – and many around here – who garner much from Mr. Wilbur, and I think that those who do should continue to do so. My comments reflect only my own personal view (and, I feel the same way about Sloterdijk, even). I became perhaps overly skeptical of 2x2-ism, though any one of those silly models I had to deal with could certainly be used as a starting point for thinking seriously about a matter. In the end, each of us, individually and hopefully with the help of others, have to figure things out for ourselves. You can’t pay to be free.


I love Whitman and would like to do a group read. I believe Geoffrey is working on putting together a William Blake study. Unless you have an appetite for being alone in front of a camera, you may want to take time to get to know the crew. We focus on collaborative efforts, such as the Emerson reading of Circles. The Cafe is a weekly event and is on the Calendar, organized by Doug. Some of the big books take lots of attention and are not for the timid and need planning and scheduling. We want to create community of scholar-activists.

We are just finishing up a comparative study of Gregory and Nora Bateson, a very interesting pairing. I am drawn to the more experiential side of things, some prefer history, ecology, research of different kinds. I would recommend you check out some of the offerings and join a conversation and learn how we do things. We seek a disciplined flow but we are okay with messy and unprepared. We try to catch the rhythm. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasms! I am sure you will find comrades here. Please let us know what kind of support you need to get started.