Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Lazy Gardener

The New York Sun September 28, 2005 Edition

The Lazy Gardener

BY ADAM KIRSCH - Staff Reporter of the SunSeptember 28, 2005URL:
It has been a long time since Harold Bloom produced a book with the density, crazed though it was, of "The Anxiety of Influence," his reputation-making 1973 study. Ever since his polemical best seller "The Western Canon" (1994), he has devoted himself instead to book-of-the-month-club subjects like "Genius" and "How To Read and Why."
In spite of his popularity and productivity, however, Mr. Bloom remains an odd candidate for the mantle of Mortimer Adler, Daniel Boorstin, and Jacques Barzun. He completely lacks the good teacher's humility before his subject and the good popularizer's ability to make a complex subject clear. Mr. Bloom is an impatient and mannered writer, unwilling or unable to take trouble over his prose or to follow an argument from premise to conclusion. Like a lazy gardener, he lets the seeds of his insights fall where they may, never lingering to make sure they have sprouted into an actual thought.
I am willing to believe that the jacket of Mr. Bloom's latest book was not designed by a sly satirist, but whoever arranged for the cover to read "Jesus and Yahweh, Harold Bloom, The Names Divine," could not have found a better image of the eminent critic's self-esteem. Surely a writer so lordly and unaccountable does not mind seeing his own name coupled with that of God: Mr. Bloom, too, writes in the spirit of "I am that I am," take it or leave it.
"Jesus and Yahweh" (Putnam, 256 pages, $24.95) is Mr. Bloom's latest brief swipe at a subject that most scholars spend lifetimes trying to understand. Many such scholars are, indeed, quoted at length by Mr. Bloom, especially if their books were written in English in the last 15 years or so, and even more especially if they are his personal friends. (Often Mr. Bloom writes as though he were engaged in a private dialogue with writers like Jack Miles, Robin Lane Fox, and Donald Harmon Akenson, of whose work he makes copious use.) Mr. Bloom has long interested himself in Jewish and Christian religious texts - many of the ideas in "Jesus and Yahweh" were first aired in earlier books like "The American Religion" and "The Book of J" - but not with the scholar's distinterested rigor. Rather, he writes as a literary critic and approaches Yahweh and Jesus not as deities, or even cultural myths, but as fictional characters. "I am inclined," he says, "to believe that the best poetry, whatever its intentions, is a kind of theology, while theology generally is bad poetry."
This equation of religion and literature gives Mr. Bloom's writings on both subjects a kind of baffled intensity. In "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" (1998), he wrote about the playwright in terms befitting a god, considering him the creator of the modern human mind, as God was the creator of the original human species. This is a metaphor, of course, and a Wildean paradox, reminiscent of the aesthete's observation that the fogs in London were beginning to imitate Impressionist paintings. But Mr. Bloom did not treat it as a metaphor; he wrote as though, through some means he did not even attempt to explain, our consciousness was actually created by Shakespeare's representations of consciousness.
For Mr. Bloom to treat biblical characters as equivalent to Shakespearean ones, then, is not as much of a demotion as it might seem. Shakespeare, to Mr. Bloom, is a kind of demiurge, and his characters are more than just words on a page. In "Jesus and Yahweh," when Mr. Bloom writes that "Yahweh fuses aspects of Lear, Falstaff, and Hamlet," he does not mean to diminish Yahweh, but to suggest the real ontological status of Lear, Falstaff, and Hamlet. We don't read Shakespeare, Mr. Bloom has insisted, Shakespeare reads us; so, too, he writes in the new book, "Yahweh, though evident only as a literary character, reduces us to the status of minor literary characters, supporting casts for the protagonist-of-protagonists."
If "Jesus and Yahweh" offers Mr. Bloom an opportunity to expand on his quasi-mystical notion of literary character, so too it is a perfect proving ground for his trademark theory of the anxiety of influence. All the techniques with which modern critics approach works of literature, after all, were originally used by theologians to understand the Bible: allusion is a secular version of typology, interpretation a descendant of hermeneutics. And Mr. Bloom's theory of influence, which posits that every strong writer is motivated by Oedipal rivalry with a chosen predecessor, finds its great original in the way the Christian scriptures rewrote the Hebrew Bible, subduing it into the Old Testament. "As a literary critic whose quest, these last forty years, has been for some secrets of the dynamics of the influence process," Mr. Bloom writes, "I find myself prepared to examine the most important instance of it, the Greek New Testament's anxiety of influence in regard to the Hebrew Bible."
The substance of the book, then, is Mr. Bloom's examination of the Bible's two divine characters, and the ways they reveal that anxiety in action. The Hebrew Bible, especially the narrative strand from Genesis to Kings called the "J" text, is dominated by Yahweh, a God whose true strangeness may come as a surprise to readers who haven't opened a Bible recently. Yahweh, as Mr. Bloom points out, is not a distant sky-God, as he is sometimes called by detractors; rather, he is "human, all-too-human," fond of outdoor picnics and liable to fly into sudden rages. His closest literary relation is the Shakespearean king who "ever but slenderly [knew] himself": "Yahweh, like King Lear, demands a bewildering excess of love, the frequent stigma of bad fathers."
Mr. Bloom's second "name divine," Yeshua of Nazareth, is a historical individual, now barely discernible through the Gospels and two millennia of commentary. His unknowability - "quests for 'the historical Jesus' inevitably fail," Mr. Bloom insists - leaves him a perfect prey to the critic's interpretive whimsy. Thus, just as he spun a yarn, in "The Book of J," about the Bible being written by a woman at the court of Solomon - possibly Queen Bathsheba - so now Mr. Bloom makes hay with the ancient legend that Jesus was never crucified, but ended his days peacefully in India. The slippery way in which Mr. Bloom endorses this Gnostic myth - "I suspect that, as lore has it, he had the wisdom to escape execution" - is typical of his refusal to distinguish clearly between fact and parable, historical judgment and poetic metaphor.
Whether he really believes it or not is less important than the way this telling of Jesus's story detaches the man Jesus from the crucified Christ. This is what makes it appealing to Mr. Bloom, who argues that the New Testament character of Jesus bears little relation to the abstract second person of the Trinity elaborated in later, Hellenized theology. "It is likely," he writes, "that Yeshua of Nazareth, had he somehow survived the crucifixion and lived on into old age, would have regarded Christianity with amazement."
In its attempt to replace the manlike God Yahweh with the God-like man Jesus, Mr. Bloom argues, the New Testament is a supreme example of anxiety of influence - so much so that, he suggests, it would be better to call it the Belated Testament. This literary-critical argument is the core of "Jesus and Yahweh," and it is genuinely stimulating, if not exactly novel. It is a shame that, to get to it, the reader must wade through so much of the usual Bloomian detritus - irrelevancies, digressions, careless repetitions, grand pronouncements. Is it vain to hope that, in his next book, Mr. Bloom will stop hiding his intellectual light under a bushel of mannerisms?


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