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Summoning Up the Kabbalah

Kabbalah and Criticism

by Harold Bloom
Seabury, 127 pp., $6.95

I

It is Bloomsday for the study of literature. The stale air of academic literary criticism now bristles with the heated language of the works of Professor Harold Bloom of Yale. Seminars and symposia hunt for “precursors” and “ephebes,” instate or banish poets from Bloom’s canon of modern English poetry. His favorite contemporary poets are called “new laureates.” His many admirers greet his books rhapsodically, and adulatory reviewers speak of his genius. It brings to mind Roethke’s holy prayer: “…and may I never use the word ‘brilliant.”’

What all the fuss is about is an absorbing if inflated theory of how a poet becomes a poet. This happens, says Bloom, in a life-and-death contest with the poetic tradition. The young candidate for imaginative accomplishment begins in thrall to “a dead man (the precursor) more outrageously alive than himself.” From this precursor, who may be a fusion of various antecedent poets, the aspiring poet or “ephebe”—the term is Stevens’s—inherits not simply stylistic devices but the very pitch of his imaginative existence, his very manner of being in the world. His fledgling individuality is inundated by the oceanic presence of the precursor; the young poet embarks by submitting to love with his poetic father.

Such love, however, is an abdication of self, and the great poets are those who chafe beneath this dybbuk’s existence, and endeavor to resist their own self-devouring mimetic passion. These poets experience what Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence,” which is his way of describing the humiliation of owning someone else’s soul. By the rising fire of this anxiety, love changes in finest Empedoclean fashion to strife, and a war with the father commences. Bloom’s work attempts to chart the battles in this war for poetic identity, to outline the various strategies by which the poet overthrows his enfeebling masters. These range from clinamen, the first critical swerve away from the influence of the precursor, to apophrades, by which the father’s work reappears as if it was itself begotten by the son. By way of such “ratios of revision” the poetic self is born, and from the anonymity of apprenticeship attains finally to a ferocious independence itself intimidating for its own poetic progeny.

What is required to secede successfully from the sphere of the father is what Bloom calls “strength.” All great poets are strong. Strength for Bloom, as for his mentor Freud, consists essentially in a capacity for winning identity by driving cart and plough over the bones of the dead. The weak remain redundant, trapped in the half-existence of an echo. The strong, however, transform the tradition, and they do so by deliberately misreading it. Their interpretations must, if they are to be productive, be misinterpretations. Thus Bloom offers “a map of misreading” as a guide to the modern poetic tradition, because tradition can develop only by a rebellious distortion of what came before.

To achieve identity is always catastrophic—with this fearful insight Bloom hopes to castigate the Romantic conceit according to which the poet is inspired, and self-originating. He is instead derivative and self-orphaning, Bloom warns, and guilt is the ineluctable price for Emersonian self-reliance. With such views Bloom wants also to foster a more apt practical criticism, and his own explorations into the genealogies of numerous poets are of great interest.

Whatever the merits of this deidealizing, pragmatic critical position, its ultimate appeal may lie elsewhere. Bloom’s criticism is founded after all upon the most sensible of all critical premises—that the critic who would understand poetry must understand what it feels like to be a poet.1 Whatever the social, political, religious, or intellectual commitments of a poet, his foremost concern is to write poems, to set pen to paper in full view of a highly sophisticated tradition.

About this Bloom is appropriately uncompromising, and he is therefore singularly sympathetic to the predicament of the artist. Indeed, his work can offer comfort to the young poet stunted by the feeling that there is nothing any longer left to do after the modernist explosion. To so many at present all roads appear to have been finally trod, and no legacy bequeathed save an incitement to originality, which is certainly the most malevolent of all artistic ideals. Bloom counters such melancholy, however, with historical wisdom: such has always been the case, artists have always been anxious and defensive, at least since Milton. The Romantics made this preying awareness of having arrived too late into a self-conscious project (hence they are Bloom’s chosen critical kingdom); as for modernism, it “has not passed; rather, it has been exposed as never having been there.”

His theory of poetic influence has been the leitmotif of Bloom’s writings for many years, but it is only recently that he has presented it in full-blown theoretical fashion. He is indefatigable. In 1973 he published The Anxiety of Influence, a frantically allusive and aphoristic manifesto which ran through the “ratios of revision” in a rather exasperating way. Shortly afterward came A Map of Misreading, in which Bloom expounded his views more congenially, and adorned them with some extremely fine textual explications. Kabbalah and Criticism is his latest meditation on the subject, and at least two more titles have already been announced. While hardly “the cardinal work in Harold Bloom’s critical enterprise,” as its nonsensical dust jacket claims, Kabbalah and Criticism is nonetheless valuable in evaluating Bloom’s entire enterprise. It is an intriguing, unconvincing book.

Bloom’s theory was initially elaborated to explain the tradition of modern English verse, and his command of that tradition is breathtaking. Milton, Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Stevens, Ashbery—these are among the chief protagonists of Bloom’s dramas of revision. But Bloom has also looked beyond the confines of English poetry for support and corroboration. There is, of course, Freud, whose patronage for such an Oedipal theory is readily available. And there is Nietzsche, who ceaselessly argued for the life-enhancing potency of error, and protested that what we call truth at any given moment is simply that moment’s most cherished interpretation. Vico hovers nebulously in the prehistory of the theory. Valentinus, Proclus, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Eduard Bernstein, Jarry, Rilke, Fenichel and Ferenczi, Peirce, Borges, Goffman, Malraux, the arcane Jacques Derrida—all these and more are impressed into Bloom’s service. And now, most intrepidly of all, Bloom summons the Kabbalah.

Before this mighty army one is more than simply persuaded of Bloom’s erudition. One is also left with the nagging feeling that Bloom has been hunting, that he is busily employing a kind of Cinderella’s-slipper method in his reading, and that what fits his theory he will not hesitate to wear immediately. Nor is it surprising that so many things do appear to fit, because Bloom’s relations of poetic development are in fact the unqualifiably universal—even truistic—requirements of all human traditions. Bloom’s obsessive citations confirm nothing more specific than that all kinds of sons revolt against all kinds of fathers, and for more or less the same reason.

This is of course hardly a trivial point, but to discover and develop convincingly truths of such generality requires the courage and intellect of a man like Freud, and that is why Bloom is always best when he stays close to poems, why his notions seem derivative or rhetorical when they are not closely applied. Obviously this is not to blame Bloom for not being Freud, but rather to suggest that he has begun to repeat himself. His theoretical resources appear exhausted, and his researches narcissistic. Everywhere he looks—and he looks everywhere—he finds influence and its imbroglios. This is glaringly apparent in his exploitation of the Kabbalah, whose conformity to his theory is purchased only at the price of a gross distortion. And that distortion broaches the real limitations of Bloom’s larger views about poetry and criticism.

II

‘Kabbalah’ is the traditional and most commonly used term for the esoteric teachings of Judaism and for Jewish mysticism, especially the forms which it assumed in the Middle Ages from the twelfth century onward. In its wider sense it signifies all the successive esoteric movements in Judaism that evolved from the end of the period of the Second Temple and became active factors in Jewish history.”

Thus the Kabbalah’s greatest scholar, Gershom Scholem, writes at the outset of a recent book. Scholem is the undisputed master of Jewish studies in our age, a giant of humanistic scholarship who is probably the most distinguished student of the religious imagination now at work. His vast achievement has been, to put it plainly, to have restored the tradition of Jewish mysticism to its rightful and historical place at the heart of the Jewish experience, and thereby to have definitively altered our understanding of Judaism itself. As Bloom notes with fitting reverence, to all students of his subject Scholem has made himself indispensable.

Nor would even the most fanatical believer in primary sources want to dispense with Scholem’s aid. The Kabbalah—the Hebrew word means “that which is received,” or tradition—is a self-enclosed system, a unique blend of mysticism, theosophy, myth, and ritual. Its secrets are protected by an excruciatingly introverted vocabulary in Hebrew and Aramaic. Its texts, like so many other ancient and medieval Jewish texts, consist of exegeses, and refer consistently, in however odd or fanciful a manner, to the legal and theological traditions to which they fell heir.

According to Scholem the Kabbalah originated in the murky syncretistic world of Hellenistic religion. Its early medieval phases, of which scant evidence exists, were varieties of Jewish Gnosticism, but it was not until the thirteenth century that a Jewish mystical tradition clearly emerged. This occurred in Provence, whence it moved to Spain, which remained the locus classicus of Kabbalistic speculation for centuries. Spanish Kabbalah flowered in the pseudepigraphic Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor), a generous collection of commentary and homiletics whose mysterious language of symbols was to exert an overwhelming influence upon succeeding generations of Kabbalists.

The Kabbalah which so exercises Bloom, however, is the Lurianic Kabbalah, named after the legendary Isaac Luria, a Palestinian mystic of the sixteenth century. Lurianic Kabbalah as we know it is actually a combination of Luria’s magnetic personality and spiritual force with the elaborate theoretical formulations of Moses Cordovero, his teacher. In their hands Kabbalistic thinking underwent a complete transformation, away from the systematic theosophy of the Zohar to an arresting myth of cosmic creation and redemption. This myth was a stunning feat of imagination, and it is heartening and entirely apt for Bloom to include Luria in the company of Dante, Milton, and Blake.

As opposed to the theory of creation of the world through emanations from God, which was a staple of pre-Lurianic theosophical speculation, Luria’s cosmogonic myth begins with a dramatic recoil or shrinkage of God into Himself so as to “make room” for the imminent universe. This recoil is called Zimzum, or “contraction,” and it is for Scholem “one of the most amazing and far-reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Kabbalism.” Creation was thus preceded by a Divine act of self-limitation and it properly commences only as the Divine light flows into the primordial, abstract space thus vacated.

  1. 1

    Bloom shares this premise, and a good many other things, with Walter Jackson Bate. Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (Harvard, 1970) lucidly treats the issue of influence as it determined the course of English literature from Dryden to Wordsworth; it is an elegant and extremely illuminating book which should be rescued from the pile of stolid professorial writings to which it has apparently been consigned. Bloom’s somewhat condescending reference to it in The Anxiety of Influence is unworthy.

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