Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Harold Bloom, still the man

Having nursed Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" and "How to Read and Why" over the weekend, I was prepared to fire off a few salvos against the great and good man. "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" is a modern masterpiece, a work which helped greatly to clarify my own attitude towards Shakespeare (not "the Bard" for me, please!); despite my essential attitude of disinterest towards Bloom's governing thesis in that work, that Shakespeare is the definer of modern character, not only in fiction but in life, I draw deeply from its insights into Shakespeare's art, his characters, and moreso, from the Bloomo-Shakespearean philosophy of life. Like the eponymous character, nee Allan Bloom of Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein" (though not the Allan Bloom of Allan Bloom's own books), Harold Bloom gives a simmeringly vitalistic meaning to the word "nihilism" which makes even such a normative sort as myself feel there is essential universal truth in Bloom's attitude. But outside of the noble confines of "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" I find myself more often at (affectionate) odds with Bloom. He is wildly, and correctly, enthusiastic about Jane Austen, but tends to forget her whenever he is brooding over Cervantes or Proust as Shakespearean rivals (one seems to never find Austen amid those boys' club litanies). When on the subject of Oscar Wilde's epigrams (remember, all bad poetry is sincere!), which he unblushingly often iterates as absolute truths, he sounds like a garden-variety Paterian, which doesn't quite sort with his Gnostic intimations of sublimity (though heavens knows "Plato and Platonism" drinks deeply of the high Platonic spirit, however subjectively reinterpreted). Bloom's Bardolatry is perhaps the central weakness of his latter-day work, however; if Shakespeare is the greatest of all writers, Bloom isn't content to leave him first among equals, or even-- thus begin the incrustations of dogma-- to fail to establish Dante as anything less than the definite and absolute No. 2 in the Pantheon. It may have taken Bloom some time to figure out just where he stands as a reader, but having committed himself, there are clearly no fluctuations on his Great Chain of Writing.
All of this isn't so bad, after all; I'm just as committed to putting Milton in the seat Bloom assigns to Dante as he is to keeping Dante there! But can't the man even give Milton a page without rubbing it in his nose that Shakespeare is greater, or that Dante "won" the contest? Bloom's obsession with literary characters as vitalistic presences, really so many demiurges unleashed upon the earth, leads him into really idiosyncratic territory-- Milton's Satan must be a cosmological Iago, a failed Iago mind you, instead of a terrible creation of Milton's own great spirit, out of the Christian tradition and in agonistic relation to IT, not Shakespeare!, and endowed with a galvanizingly sublime rhetoric that has absolutely left a deeper impression on me than any of Iago's soliloquies. Fantastic and awful a presence as Iago is, Bloom can't see him simply as a dramatic representation of evil incarnate, a Mephistopheles tempting Othello's Faust to destroy Desdemona's Gretchen (just putting this Goethean cart before the Shakespearean horse would get me quartered by Bloom!)-- my god, man, what am I saying?!-- that Iago is a MARLOWIAN character?!!!? Don't we know that Shakespeare BESTED Marlowe, sailed forever beyond him?! Well of course he did: what are any of Marlowe's rhetorical, aesthetic or psychological splendors against "The Winter's Tale" or "Macbeth", et. al.? But why can't Iago simply be Iago, instead of some Satanic (more than Satanic!) living void, with Hamlet's intellect and (depending on what page we consult), say, Macbeth's prophetic intimations of essential Nothing, or Falstaff's immensity turned inside out, or what have you?
Turning Hamlet and Falstaff into gods also means that all attempts at expressing or, heavens help us, systematizing human knowledge must fail by comparison. For Bloom, Hamlet's restless intellect not only means that Hamlet the melancholy Prince is "the intellectual's Christ" (I agree) but the greatest philosopher, so that, in contradiction to all those mutterings about the moral or truth-value indifference of literature, answerable only to the aesthetic standard, Hamlet's collected utterances comprise the greatest set of philosophical ponderings ever commited to the page (for Bloom that should probably read simply, "committed", since Hamlet himself has, in some funny way, committed them)-- forget Plato, Emerson, Nietzsche, never mind Spinoza, Aquinas, Hegel or any of those other discredited non-aesthetic daydreamers! To what depths has Bardolatry led this brilliant man, that our enormous enjoyment of "Hamlet", our awed sense of its truthfulness to the human condition, our suspicion that it is the greatest literary artifact of all time even, must also commit him to promoting it to the rank of Greatest Philosophical Work of All Time? Even Shelley, for whom Dante, Shakespeare and Milton were "philosophers of the first rank" (again, true!) would not venture so far, for he would recognize that there are separate tasks to be undertaken in literature and philosophy, and imaginative literature cannot ask all the Socratic questions, let alone venture to systematize reasonings, in such a way as to successfully poach on philosophy's turf so far as to discredit it in the way Bloom blithely, blindly does.
But here-- I was going to have a conniption over his astonishing hypothetical that Samuel Johnson had a greater-- he lists three areas in fact, greater imagination, greater good taste, and greater moral judgment, or some such combination-- than Alexander Pope! Ye gods!, must he also elevate Johnson, his own role-model as critic, to more-than-Popean heights in order to affirm the critic's art? Must criticism be rendered central to the canon by undoing one of the authentically great poets of the English language? Johnson, whatever his outbursts of Sublimity, is a deeply 18th Century character, as so many persons of that century are, so mercilessly did it stamp itself upon its children; even Rousseau, that walking drum of dynamite, essentially talks the talk of a philosophe: the content is different, but the manner is the same, and it should be appreciated that in matters of the heart his own heartlessness is essentially the Laclosian norm of selfishness-- Burke didn't succeed in defending his age's gallantries, rather he failed to note what a precious little gallant Rousseau himself was. And the 18th Century is not happy turf for Bloom, who is no rationalist or moralist or materialist. A human being such as Washington, who could favor Addison's "Cato" as his favorite work of literature, might as well never have bothered to exist (and God knows, too true, too true!). Yanking at Pope's heels, I fear, is Bloom's way of fighting another action against the French Neo-Classicists, an argument that fortunately Bloom comes clean on in the introductory pages of "The Western Canon." And with reason-- Jacques Barzun, after all, perpetuates the Frenchie pseudo-Classical disdain for Shakespeare's 'roughness' in the pages of "From Dawn to Decadence", but really-- it's not like we're about to abandon Shakespeare for Racine, are we? or to elevate the sternly classical "Julius Caesar" to the preeminent place of "Hamlet" or "Lear"? "French Shakespeare", as he likes to describe Foucauldian interpreters, is indeed a contradiction; labeling it "French Shakespeare" is also very funny. But can't we let heroic couplets be the lovely things they are? Of course Dryden and company were foolish to make them the ne plus ultra of verse, a foolish and frivolous misjudgment. But that era made many such foolish misjudgments-- they took Voltaire more seriously than Leibniz, after all; they made fun of Plato and Aristotle, and Jefferson wrote philosophical arguments that would flunk him in a freshman introduction-- but they were charming people in their own right, and Pope was also a man of genius, and did extraordinary things that are his own. Perhaps "The Rape of the Lock" isn't an equal achievement in blessed insouciance to "Twelfth Night", but neither is "Twelfth Night" a substitute for "The Rape of the Lock". And even if one chooses to dismiss the "Essay on Man" as Bloom does, Pope was a person of rare moral sensibility as well as extraordinary verve, and Bloom himself should take enormous relief in the unprecedented and unmatchable vitriol of "The Dunciad", as he himself occasionally remembers.
Okay, but then "The New Republic" had to weigh in on his new "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine". James Wood makes some of the same general points as above, in generally entertaining fashion. But he has missed a great deal on Bloom's new book which, whatever its merits as literary criticism, makes some of Bloom's best post-Nietzschean arguments. Dismissively listing eight separate quotations as examples of "painful repetitiousness", he gives us instead a nice microcosm of the book's argument-- whether or not the book could have been pared down to an essay, as Wood contends, his eight quotations are not indistinct repetitions of the same idea. More troublingly, Wood seems to embark upon a course of selective sensitivity: Bloom "ignores much of the nonsense and fraudulence of Mormonism", whose adherents Wood thus confidently takes on, while he is charged with being "defensively Jewish". "It clearly irritates Bloom that Christianity became so important," Wood charges, also accusing him of "blasphemous ambling" and "ardent blasphemy."
Regardless of Wood's own religious affiliations, it's clear he feels Bloom shouldn't mess around with Christianity, not the real, orthodox stuff anyway. Wood very questionably asserts that, "For him, Yahweh is God and Jesus is only a man pretending to be God: standard fare." By "standard fare" does he mean standard Judaism, or standard wicked non-Christianism? Surely Wood is familiar enough with Bloom's corpus to recognize that he has never asserted himself to be a believer in any theologically-sanctioned God of any kind? Or has he missed the fact that Bloom, like most liberal interpreters of the Gospel of Mark, would assert that the historical Jesus had no pretensions of Divinity? It sounds as if Wood wishes to besmirch Bloom as another blue state Voltaire-wannabe, a blasphemous baby of the 18th Century who just doesn't "get it", why the New Testament is so profound a document-- because Christians believe it to be true.
Irritatingly, Wood would try to con Bloom into making "theological" assertions, even when the thought-content of these theological assertions is entirely negative. If Bloom asserts that the New Testament is not up to the standard of the Old, this must mean only that, for him, the Old Testament is truth (a wildly unfounded interpretation of the equivocal statement 'Torah "IS God"') and that Jesus is thus not the Messiah. This, for Wood, is a "theological belief", one that Bloom won't own up to, and thus Bloom has failed to own up to doing theology. Has Wood never opened Spinoza's "Theologico-Political Tractatus", from which all higher criticism springs? For there the non-theistic pantheist Spinoza argues that the New Testament is simply a different kind of animal, full of homilies and moralizing and not much in the way of miracles. These seemingly simply insights (which I do no justice to here) are what so many alleged "liberal theologians" still cannot get their heads around, or at least cannot confront honestly. How many Biblical scholars happy to rationalize away the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus rambling and whatnot, freeze up over the question of the resurrection of Jesus? If global flooding and seven-day creations go against the scientific record, how about victims of crucifixtion returning to life? Is the New, Christian Testament to be free from the scientific criticisms offered of the Old? Are the miracles of the New Testament more sacrosanct than those of Judaism? Wood insinuates that the New Testament writings were created with "the conviction" that "they were bearing witness, that they were reporting a historical occurrence", whereas the Pentateuch is "a blend of Mesopotamian mythology and Semitic history", "much of that history closer to epic narrative than to historical record". All this bears the stain of a double-standard. Anyone familiar with the record of miracles in the "Civitas Dei", or the Book of Legends or, for that matter, anyone not disposed by upbringing or proselytizing to lend credence to the miracles of Mohammed, knows how little science or "history" can do to lend credibility, let alone provide outright evidence, for the theological assertions that underpin Christianity. If Tacitus was entirely mistaken about the character of Tiberius, how much should we trust so unscientific an historian as Paul or "John"? But for Wood, Bloom's cardinal sin is not to take the Christian's Jesus seriously enough. One can hardly assent to Wood's insinuation that Bloom doesn't take Jesus seriously at all; hasn't he seen him compare Mark's Jesus to HAMLET?!? Gods man, don't you know what praise that is!? When Wood descends to accusing Bloom of "blasphemous ambling", he's lost all dignity, and properly speaking should send his credentials to the House of Buckley. It's for the scribes of the "National Review" to charge with blasphemy a man who never claimed to believe. The atheist or aesthete has a complete right to abstain from being treated as a pretend-member of any faith or sect they choose to joust with. Being a non-believer is not meant as some sneaky way to affirm believers in the seriousness of "belief".

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