Life pales in comparison

Genius
December 20, 2002

"That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilized form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one's life; not with life's physical accidents of death and circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind."

Not Harold Bloom, but Oscar Wilde, in his essay "The decay of lying", as quoted by Bloom in his most recent, most vast, somewhat ridiculous, yet rather wonderful opus, Genius . The quotation comes about a third of the way into the book but might be taken for its epigraph. For Bloom's criticism is nothing other than the record of his soul, the soul of a reader who swallows literature whole and then digests over decades; the soul of a reader who looks to literature for companionship, who believes that characters he meets in books are more "real" than the flesh-and-blood creatures that surround him (especially true if the poor things happen to be denizens of any kind of academic institution). If you are interested in the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of a rather extraordinary mind, this might be the book for you.

Not everyone will warm to it. It calls itself "a mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds" and I suppose that might be one way to describe it, although the figure in the mosaic is somewhat hard to discern. Bloom has never been small scale, but this book exceeds even his 1994 epic, The Western Canon . However, here the arrangement of Bloom's pantheon is eccentric: as he says, "My ten headings are the commonest names for the [Kabbalistic] Sefirot. 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." And so the Sefirot, Keter, Hokmah, Binah and so on are then each divided into two "lustres", each encompassing about five authors (for Bloom's geniuses lived by the pen; Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin may have made it to the final ten of Great Britons, but they are not on his list).

If that arrangement makes perfect sense to you, I'll be frank: you are one up on this reviewer. Bloom, it should be remembered, coined the phrase "the anxiety of influence"; few have written so eloquently, or originally, on the way writers speak to each other across cultures and generations. So it is not his groupings themselves that are obscure (it makes perfect sense to discuss, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot as a group); rather, his choice to call it the first "lustre" of Din - "Din serves as the edge or horizon of Hesed's covenant love". (Hesed is the previous attribute.) Give up on the attributes is my advice, focus instead on the essays. For they are compelling, although their balance of precision and imprecision is a delicate one. Each essay is only a few pages long: how could Bloom hope to encompass William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens in so tight a space? In the main, he manages this by focusing on one work only, or a single character. So the discussion of Dickens is in fact about The Pickwick Papers ; his look at Italo Calvino is really a look at The Non-Existent Knight ; the essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne takes Hester Prynne, the "American Eve" of The Scarlet Letter , as its subject.

Even so, you could not call Bloom a close reader, but perhaps he has gone beyond that. He admits, in this book, to knowing by heart a great deal of the literature he writes about (and it is said that in his youth he was able to recite from memory Hart Crane's epic poem The Bridge backwards). Bloom knows what he is talking about, the references are all in his head - what need is there to be more explicit? He flatters his readers by presuming they are as well read as he is. Yet even if the reader is familiar with the work he is discussing, this great body of subsumed, not entirely articulated, knowledge more than occasionally gives one the feeling of having sat down on the subway next to the ancient mariner. Of course, the mariner is telling the wedding guest his story; but at bottom he is talking to himself, and it is hard to escape the notion that Bloom is doing the same.

Perhaps that is because he knows he has few enough people left to talk to. In his essay on George Eliot, he writes: "Desdemona, Cordelia, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are slain by their creators, and we are compelled to absorb the greatness of the loss. Perhaps it trains us to withstand better the terrible deaths of friends, family, and lovers, and to contemplate more stoically our own dissolution."

Taking literature personally in this manner is, to say the least, no longer fashionable. Bloom's way is to discuss characters as if they exist, and for him it is clear that they do: he is in love with Emma Bovary, sexually enraptured by Hester Prynne. But now, as Bloom reiterates over and over in this book, literature is more often taught not for the responses it can generate of itself, but as a window on social history. He has no time for that - for him the written word is pure, and genius speaks only to itself and to us. "This book is a continuous protest against historicizing and contextualizing the imagination of genius," he writes.

Yet I am on Bloom's side. Why else bother with literature? Francis Spufford, in his recent - and quite enchanting - memoir, The Child that Books Built , perfectly captured the need, the hunger for words that first consumed him as a child and continues to consume him to this day. He describes the dive into a book like a dive beneath the ocean, an absolute entry in a world close to our own and yet totally removed from it. This kind of reader, Spufford's kind of reader and, I venture, Bloom's kind of reader, seeks a kind of recognition or affirmation that is simply not to be found in the "real" world. Critics are thought to have moved beyond that, but why? Surely their goal should be not to make the work under consideration more alien - to remove it from its emotional context and instead transform it into an abstraction its author never intended - but more familiar. Why did Emily Bront write Wuthering Heights if not to move us? Didn't William Blake want our lives to be transformed as his had been? Abstraction is simply not the point.

It must be said that Bloom's refusal to move away from the personal borders on the amusing, but this is, perhaps, more the fault of his editors than his own. I lost count of the times he referred to his age: if you do not know that he is 71 years old by the time you reach the end of this volume, you have not been paying attention. He clearly feels that at this age he is entitled to his opinions: and his passion is such that it is hard to disagree. (The book is marred by other repetitions. The first time you read that "it ought to be a scandal that an agnostic or atheist cannot be elected dogcatcher in the United States, but it is a weary fact we must accept", the notion raises a smile; the second time the smile is a bit forced.) One wonders, too, about the inclusion of Muhammad in his pantheon; for all Bloom's railing against political correctness, the reader gets a whiff of it here, not least because the essay on the Prophet is among the least convincing. Yet, all in all, here is a wide-ranging and generous critical mind: why not sit and listen for a while?

It is inadvisable to read this book as a reviewer must - from the first page to the last, right the way though. Rather, stroll though the table of contents and see who catches your fancy or whose work you don't know anything about. Bloom has the quality that the best teachers have: his enthusiasm makes you want to read not Bloom, but whoever he is talking about. As I read I found myself making mental notes: why has it been so long since I read any John Donne? - or, I must go back and read Moby-Dick again. That is no small thing.

Finally, Bloom's definition of genius reminds us that whatever crimes and misdemeanours our species is capable of, it is also capable of greatness. "When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? The Comedy of Errors is already a work of genius, yet who could have prophesied Twelfth Night on the basis of that early farce? Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius recognise itself?

"The ancient answer is that there is a god within us, and the god speaks." We are capable, Bloom seems to be saying, of something larger, something grander than that which is indicated by our corporeal selves, and what is truly wonderful is that it is not simply the geniuses themselves gifted by the speaking god - the spark transmits to the reader too. At the dark beginning of the 21st century, Bloom, with his expansive brilliance, is surely the kind of critic we need.

Erica Wagner is literary editor, The Times .

Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds

Author - Harold Bloom
ISBN - 1 84115 398 2
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £25.00
Pages - 814

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