Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds

by Harold Bloom
814 pages,
ISBN: 0446527173

Post Your Opinion
Describing Without Defining Genius
by Don Akenson

One of my favourite country songs goes "If You Don't Like Hank Williams, You Can Kiss My Ass" and I feel the same way about Harold Bloom. Like the song says, What he Done was well worth Doing, and I'm dead-sick of reading English academics and their even paler North American imitators reef on Old Harold. What they hate about him is pretty clear. First, that he is so obviously quicker, smarter and better-read than they are is something they cannot forgive. He has lost nothing since his days in graduate school at Yale when he was able to settle an argument about how many stanzas there were in Spenser's Epithalamion by reciting them while his fellow students counted. And, secondly, Bloom is embarrassingly uncool about things he loves. In an era when the height of academicians' chic in cultural studies departments is to act like totally, totally cool high school juniors¨crapping on everything, taking no risks, running with the pack¨ Bloom is an affront to their adolescent sophistication. He actually loves literature and believes that great writers enlarge our collective humanity. And, oh yes, Bloom in recent books has made the unforgivable gaffe of talking to a larger audience: laity, some of whom are rather better acquainted with world literature than are those cultural specialists who now make their living reading the backs of cereal boxes and baseball cards.
Of course, Bloom's book, Genius, is a whirlwind of opinion, prejudice, argument, hectoring and moral improvement, but that is to miss the point. It is also a very cunningly constructed work of art. That Bloom has chosen an especially hermetic Jewish form and cross-riffed it with some of the motifs of Jewish and Christian Gnosticism¨a pre-Creation Adam and sharp light-darkness distinctions¨is neither accidental nor self-indulgent. It does, however, take some wrestling with if one is not to misread this book as a Wall-Mart of the western mind.
Kabbalah is Bloom's chosen form, and he re-creates the ten-sector wheel of kabbalistic belief. (Or, strictly speaking, of one of the several variants of kabbalism.) Ten groups of ten-cohort writers spin round a centre that in the original belief was both finite and infinite and formed the location of the Almighty, a concept more palatable to topologists than to most of us in the humanities. Each of these groups of ten has a Hebrew name or letter that governs its main characteristics and in the original religious situation these are only partially known to outsiders. (Kabbalah continues to be an underground river in modern Judaism.) Fair enough. Where things become really complicated is that Bloom introduces into this Jewish mystical wheel a bifurcation of each set of ten writers. In true Gnostic fashion, he thinks digitally, so that each member of the set of ten is loaded into a "lustre" (a gloriously pseudo-Gnostic term) of five related writers. At a conceptual level, this is elegant and is also textually defensible: Kabbalists and Gnostics interacted in real time and therefore merging the two forms is a respectful trope on an existing structure. This bowing to earlier forms is necessary for, in any work of appreciation, it is important not to appear very original¨especially when one is.
But, elegant as all this is, can I say that Genius is any fun to read? Absolutely, but it should be read the same way one approaches the wheel of Kabbalah. That is: don't start at the beginning. Pick any point and spin the wheel from there. Begin and end at an arbitrary place of your own choosing, and then keep going, circling again, and on and on, reflecting, reading, finding new authors, arguing with Bloom's opinions. If done in that spirit, one gains the dizzy drunkenness of mind and soul that Kabbalah intends.
The Kabbalah-form clustres together writers one would not often associate, and does so with real profit. Probably few readers would be surprised by the grouping of Yahwist, Socrates, Plato, Saint Paul and Muhammed. But putting Stendhal, Falkner, Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor in the same box with Mark Twain is surprising and freshly productive.
This vast mosaic of geniuses will vex you at times. Why Swinburne? And Iris Murdoch has always seemed to me to be a faux-Irish fraud. And some of the designated geniuses I've never heard of: JosT Maria Eca de Queiroz, Gerard de Nerval and Fernando Pessoa, to name a few. That, though, is part of the use of the book¨to expand horizons. The real fun, however, is hearing Old Harold trumpet the writers he loves and see him give backhanded slaps to the ones he really hates. (The anti-Semite T.S. Eliot takes stick memorably.) The biggest problem with the actual pieces on specific writers is that there is no index (is AOL-Time-Warner really that broke?) And, since comparison is so frequent in this volume, one desperately needs a cross-referencing system.
At the end of the day, what is a genius? Here is where the system of Kabbalah is illuminating, for it describes characteristics of God without ever saying what God is, or is not. Attributes are not definitions and Bloom gives us only attributes of genius, not delimitations. Ultimately, genius in literature is for Bloom what miracles are in Christian apologetics: they are the magical events that cannot be explained by any reductionist system or, indeed, any rational one. Genius, like Miracle, acts upon humanity but cannot be explained by merely human reasons.
This is not comfortable for most of us trained in the Enlightenment belief that every human experience has a humanly-explicable cause, but there you are. Old Harold is really the angel, Old Herald. He is engaged in reading great literature in a way that is High Victorian, an activity that is part of a spiritual experience and, ultimately, a very humble one. Despite his roundhouse opinions, he is humble before the great teachers, as any postulant should be. But that humility does not extend to small-window academic professionals. They really should get off his case, for the angel Old Herald can turn into the Archangel Michael fairly swiftly and he carries a broad and vengeful celestial sword.

Don Akenson is author of Surpassing Wonder. The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds and of the forthcoming An Irish History of Civilization. ˛

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