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GeniusReview - Genius
A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds
by Harold Bloom
Warner Books, 2002
Review by Costica Bradatan
Jan 20th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 4)

            I cannot see how one could possibly read Harold Bloom’s most recent book without developing mixed, very mixed feelings and thoughts about it. As a matter of fact, this review itself is an attempt at making (some) sense of the contradictory impressions that my reading of the book made on me. It is as though Bloom’s deeply idiosyncratic attitude to the authors he comments upon and especially to those he does not is so contagious that it ends up contaminating somehow the reader’s own attitude to Bloom’s book.

There are in Bloom’s book idiosyncrasies he openly admits, and idiosyncrasies he cautiously passes over and does not say a word about (the latter being somehow much more puzzling than the former). He admits, for example, that the very choice of the one hundred authors is “wholly” idiosyncratic: “At one point I planned many more, but one hundred came to seem sufficient. Aside from those who could not be omitted Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Homer, Vergil, Plato, and their peers my choice is wholly arbitrary and idiosyncratic. These are certainly not ‘the top one hundred,’ in anyone’s judgment, my own included. I wanted to write about these.” (ix) Once this confession has been (so strategically) made, you cannot but accompany Bloom in his very personal enterprise. As far as his unacknowledged idiosyncrasies are concerned, I will deal with some of them later on in this review.

One of the major merits of Bloom’s Genius consists undoubtedly in the art of reading he proposes. In general, Bloom is a master of showing how one has to approach a work of literature in order to fully enjoy it and make the most of it. In a world in which the endlessly sophisticated interpretations proposed by the secondary literature tend to overwhelm, suffocate, and ultimately destroy that which is interpreted, Bloom teaches his readers how to read the perennial works of world literature. (One of his previous books is significantly titled How to Read and Why). It happens sometimes that simplicity and commonsense are the most difficult things to attain, and Harold Bloom teaches us how to approach Shakespeare, Milton, Borges, St. Augustine, Cervantes, Plato, and even the Scriptures: without prejudices, without ideological or political lenses, without any useless sophistication and presumptuousness, but with common sense, freshness, humility (“I am a literary critic attempting to reeducate myself, as I go on seventy-one, with the help of the master Saramago.” [519]), and joyousness, and with an openness of mind and heart alike: “That is the prime purpose of this book: to activate the genius of appreciation in my readers” (3) Yes, there is, beyond any doubt, a “genius of appreciation”, and the study of the works of genius is, in Bloom’s view, the proper way of cultivating it. As a matter of fact, if literature proves to be of any use for life, this happens only because of those works produced by genial minds: “Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.” (4)

It is difficult to overestimate the superior value and sanity of Bloom’s insight: there is, there must be, in any isolated writing something that renders it “useful for life”, useful in a very peculiar sense: in the sense in which the reading of an authentic literary masterpiece necessarily elevates, augments and enlarges the reader’s consciousness. This lies, in fact, at the very heart of the test Bloom proposes for distinguishing genius from mere talent: “The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effectual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have encountered talent, not genius.” (12) As Miguel de Unamuno sharply noticed, it often happens in the history of literature that some literary characters come to be seen as more real and more authentic than the writer who imagined them. Thus, for Unamuno Don Quixote has more reality, vitality and more unforgettable charm than Cervantes himself. This is because a genius has the miraculous capacity not only to reflect life, the existent life, but also to produce new life. A real genius does what William Shakespeare did: “at the least [he] changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not the human nature itself…” (16) Certainly, this “production of new life” (change of human nature) is one of the most fascinating things about imaginative literature: it is as if the human condition transcends itself in a dramatic attempt to resemble God. 

Under such circumstances, the job of the literary critic (which is: “the appreciation of originality and the rejection of the merely fashionable.” [172]) is undoubtedly an extremely difficult and demanding one. Actually, it is so difficult that, Bloom seems to imply, an authentic literary critic must have nowadays something of a frightening prophetic figure. Upon reading Genius, I have been taking great delight in following how Harold Bloom charmingly tends throughout the book to portray himself whether knowingly or unknowingly as some sort of (post-)modern prophet under the humble guise of a nonconformist literary critic and professor of English. Our prophet has thus the crucial advantage of having already gotten inside the modern Babylon. For the corrupted city, rotten to the bones by such terrible plagues as feminism, political correctness, Marxism, Catholicism, etc. resides mainly in our universities and cultural journalism: the academic world “rewards cheerleading and loathes genius” (352); “I have lived to find the temples of learning consigned to amateur social workers.” (302); “nothing is more soul-destroying than any praise from the New York Times Book Review” (389); “We are governed, in academic and journalistic circles these days, by feminist Puritans.” (705); “poetry and its absorption alike have been all but destroyed by the creeping plague so appropriately called ‘political correctness’” (726). All jesting aside, it is a touch perplexing, if not simply incomprehensible, to read in this book by Harold Bloom, someone who happens to be an extremely influential and well-respected professor of literature at Yale and NYU (formerly at Harvard) that: “In our era, being excluded from the universities is quite likely to be a blazon of excellence.” (430) Maybe this is true, and Bloom is right, but in this case he lives his life in the most self-ironical fashion, to say the least.

No doubt, one of the most ingenious and challenging things about Bloom’s book is the principle based on which the one hundred “exemplary minds” are divided into specific groups or “families of minds”: “Each [genius] of my hundred is unique, but this book requires some ordering or grouping, as any book does.” (xi) In his book Bloom does not simply portray, however sketchily, one hundred “exemplary minds”: he is much more daring than that. He endeavors to offer a “principle of order” governing the complex, multifaceted realm of the history of imaginative literature, and moreover to derive this principle from a venerated tradition of esoteric and theosophical thought belonging to the Jewish spirituality. And it is at this point that Bloom’s project reveals its indubitable and courageous originality: “From the time …when I first conceived of this book, the image of the Kabbalistic Sefirot has been in my mind. Kabbalah is a body of speculation, relying upon a highly figurative language. Chief among its figurations or metaphors are the Sefirot, attributes at once of God and of the Adam Kadmon or Divine Man, God’s Image. These attributes or qualities emanate out from a center that is nowhere or nothing, being infinite, to a circumference both everywhere and finite.” (xi) The one hundred geniuses dealt with in Bloom’s book (and, very importantly, they are not only poets, dramatists or novelists, but also philosophers, psychoanalysts, religious thinkers, founders of religion) are thus divided into ten groups, corresponding to the ten Sefirot of the Kabbalistic tradition: Keter, Hokmah, Binah, Hesed, Din, Tiferet, Nezah, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut. Then, each Sefirah has two “lustres”, with each of them covering five kindred “exemplary minds”. As such, by placing it within this complex scheme, and massively relying upon the dialectics of the Kabbalistic thinking, Bloom makes each individual genius reveal something essential about divinity. If we can have some form of access to the divine nature, this is made possible, in Bloom’s view, only by the tremendous creative efforts of the geniuses of language. “The Sefirot are the center of Kabbalah, since they purport to represent God’s inwardness, the secret of divine character and personality. They are the attributes of God’s genius, in every sense that I use ‘genius’ in this book” (xii) It is as if through the works of a genius some divine and primordial wisdom is brought forth; in other words, whenever we come across a piece of great literature, it is God himself or, anyway, something divine who in some way describes himself through those pages. According to this line of thought, the great literature of all ages and of all peoples has some religious dimension it is work in the service of God as it reminds us incessantly of God himself as Creator: the ten “Sefirot chart the process of creation; they are the names of God as he works at creating. The Sefirot are metaphors so large that they become poems in themselves, or even poets.” (xi)

Yet, for all its originality, ingeniousness and brilliance, there is a sense in which Bloom’s employment of this Kabbalistic scheme is unconvincing, insufficiently documented and with no essential consequences upon the substance of the descriptions of the one hundred geniuses he portrays. It is true, he makes several references to the works of Gershom Sholem and Moshe Idel, but the few introductory paragraphs in which Bloom advances the Kabbalistic theoretical framework to contain his one hundred geniuses seem insufficient, insufficiently wrought and badly tailored for his very ambitious project. I believe that Kabbalah is much more complex a tradition than one could summarize in few pages, and the works of genius Bloom comments upon are only superficially and externally connected to this theoretical framework; there is no sense in which the works of his one hundred geniuses are derived necessarily from his theoretical (Kabalistic) apparatus. In short, it seems to me that the Kabbalistic theosophical frame in which Bloom chooses to place his “exemplary minds” and make sense of them remains an artificial element of his book, a rather rhetorical and inconsequential device employed simply for conferring upon it a touch of exoticism and peculiarity, but nothing more. Bloom’s insight that every work of genius has something divine in it, and, consequently, that the works of all geniuses must say something about God’s character is, needless to say, a great one. But I think that in this book Bloom did not develop this insight as fully as he should (could) have done.

On the other hand, one wonders whether this failure is not simply a premeditated, a carefully engineered failure. I am wondering whether the employment of this Kabbalistic scheme is not one of the big ironies of this book. For to say that the “Sefirot are metaphors so large that they become poems in themselves, or even poets.” (xi) is to subtly imply that, maybe, who knows?, not (genial) literature is divine, and geniuses some sort of angels (demons, respectively), but on the contrary that divinity belongs in some way or other to the field of literature. That, as Feuerbach says, it is not God who created us, but it is us who incessantly create God. Actually, upon reading Bloom’s book, I have had serious problems with understanding how someone who has a very critical attitude to any established religion, someone who considers himself unbeliever or, at the best, a modern “Gnostic heretic” (121) can found a literary theory upon the Kabbalistic theosophy, other than ironically very, very ironically. As a matter of fact, that Bloom has extremely ambiguous attitudes to matters religious is abundantly illustrated in his book. For example, he confesses that he “found my Bible in the poets and my Talmud in the literary critics” (181) In his book St. Paul and Muhammad are regarded simply as “geniuses of language”, as authors of books. In a way Jesus Christ himself did not escape the same cruel fate: he was initially one of the one hundred geniuses, but eventually Bloom changed his mind (Jesus “was there, but has been somewhat withdrawn, partly because of my perplexities, partly through sage editorial counsel.” [113]) Bloom has a very “original” way of reading the Scriptures: for him, just as the Yahwist is merely “a storyteller, of amazing sophistication and yet with a childlike directness” (115) so “Jesus, in his sayings and in his symbolic acts, was the greatest of all ironists.” (138) Well, in such an increasingly secularized and dechristianized world as ours, when there is no real faith left, Jesus Christ should be happy that at least he had an excellent literary career and still is a big name in world literature: “To speak of the genius of Jesus is to speak of the sayings attributed to him, and some of these authentically manifest an authority, memorability, and individuality that are marks of genius.” (135) As a matter of fact, Bloom ends up candidly admitting the absolute preeminence of literature over everything, be it mundane or celestial: “I should observe, with diffidence, that God and the gods necessarily are literary characters. The Jesus of the New Testament is a literary character, just as are the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible and the Allah of the Koran.” (135)

What I have found particularly annoying in Bloom is the way in which he completely refuses throughout this book to control his numerous personal idiosyncrasies, resentments and antipathies. I think that this goes well beyond the limits of an ironical discourse, and tends at times to become simply a list of cheap injuries and ordinary slander. For example: Bloom finds it very easy to talk about “the disturbed Jung, a mock-Gnostic” (179), just as he confesses: “Celine, whom I find unreadable …is my garbage bin..” (637). He, for example, complaints so aggressively about “our still-current French intellectual disease” (519) as well as about the very bad influence that some French authors (especially Michel Foucault) may have upon the American intellectual life that someone who does not know anything about these authors might rightly imagine that all what they have written is gross pornographic literature, to be kept safely away from the reach of children. There is something sadly narrow and unwise in the way Bloom understands to approach other cultures. I can not simply understand how can a man, of his eminence, with his learning and esprit de finesse, identify German culture with Nazism (he talk about “the death camps awaiting Kafka’s lovers and sisters a quarter-century later, when German culture triumphed.” [209]). Among the most disappointing things I came across in his book are these comments on Dostoevsky: “His obscurantism, which he calls Russian Christianity, embraces a worship of tyranny, a hatred of the United States and of all democracy, and a profound and vicious anti-Semitism.” (785); “In spiritual matters, he merely was a bigoted know-nothing, whose authentic anti-Semitism was the only evidence of his election as a Russian prophet.” (790) Somewhere in his book Bloom says: “The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done?” So, taking seriously his advise, I am now asking: how could possibly Harold Bloom augment our consciousness (or his or anyone’s) when writing such nonsense? 

 

© 2003 Costica Bradatan

 

 

Costica Bradatan is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Durham (UK). His research interests include early modern philosophy, history of ideas, philosophy and literature, philosophy of religion. Bradatan is the author of two recent books (in Romanian): An Introduction to the History of Romanian Philosophy in the XX-th Century (Bucharest, 2000) and Isaac Bernstein’s Diary (Bucharest, 2001), as well as of numerous book chapters, scholarly papers, articles and reviews, published in both Romanian and English.


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