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.
“‘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.
Since the Divine scheme called for the formation of discrete, finite things hierarchically ordered, numerous “vessels” or “bowls” were created to contain the respective portions of light which would collectively constitute the realized universe. A cosmic catastrophe occurred, however, and the impact of the onrushing light proved too great for the vessels, and shattered them. This “breaking of the vessels” (Shevirat ha-kelim) was the convulsion which inaugurated reality as we know it, an unredeemed world in which the Divine light is scattered and imprisoned in a myriad of impure shards. Luria’s myth concludes with Tikkun, or “restoration,” in which the fragmented glory would be mended or reconstituted in a Messianic age. The precise procedure for this restoration belongs, however, to the puzzling domain of practical Kabbalah, a labyrinth of rites and incantations into which Bloom wisely declines to enter.
The Kabbalah has had a tortuous and colorful history. Within Judaism its ideas subsequently became the incendiary stuff of the movement centering on the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi of the seventeenth century, a millennial upheaval which polarized the Jewish world and ended ignominiously when Zevi chose to accept conversion to Islam rather than death. In the eighteenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah was taken up by the populist spirituality of Hasidism, and in that guise its images and customs still illuminate the days of hordes of observant Jews. But the fervid rationalism of emancipated Jews of the last century was only compromised by the bizarre obscurantisms haunting their Jewish patrimony; the great historian Graetz, for instance, dismissed Kabbalah as a “fungus” on the Jewish organism. The murderous European experience of this century, however, disabused many of their descendants of their self-effacing cosmopolitanism. The shot of confidence given by Zionism contributed to a Jewish scholarship interested in the Kabbalah as a vital expression of Jewish life; this was the setting for Scholem’s own pioneering investigations.
The Kabbalah has also drawn its non-Jewish adepts. Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin introduced a Christologically interpreted Kabbalah into the mainstream of the Renaissance. Later the enormously influential theosophical writings of Jacob Boehme gave Kabbalistic notions wide currency in a variety of occultisms and idealisms; the Cambridge Platonists and later the German Idealists were among the more reputable benefactors of this diffusion. Naturally, like all mysticisms, the Kabbalah has attracted its share of charlatans, and of hasty souls for whom confusions are relieved by being dubbed mysteries. A glance at the “religion” shelf in any bookstore today will show that this is still the case; nor is the Jewish community free of its own glib enthusiasms in this regard.
The application of Kabbalah to issues other than explicitly spiritual ones is of comparatively recent vintage. For Walter Benjamin, Kabbalistic thinking was in some way relevant to his social and cultural criticism, though their precise connection is still hotly disputed by students of his highly complex works. Some years ago a rather silly study of Freud’s relation to the Jewish mystical tradition appeared. More recently, the art critic Thomas Hess made a great deal of Barnett Newman’s avid reading of Scholem, perhaps more than Newman’s paintings can support. Happily the critical crew in France has not yet hit upon Kabbalah2—that would result in as kabbalistic a view of the Kabbalah as can be imagined—but still it is at present literary criticism which is its newest academic home. The Kabbalah is in fact in vogue at Yale. Geoffrey Hartman referred briefly but significantly to it in Beyond Formalism, and now Harold Bloom presents it as the earliest source of his own ideas. But what on earth can the extravagant visionary world of Luria have to do with a history of English poetic influence?
Bloom’s own unraveling of Kabbalistic theory is very well informed.3 He makes at least three claims for his admittedly weird juxtaposition. The first is that the history of Kabbalah itself displays tensions over influence—tensions both between Kabbalah itself and its Talmudic precursor, and between successive generations of Kabbalists. This is true, but it is a rather modest truth. Strained and ambivalent feelings about influence can be found in virtually any other chapter of the Jewish interpretative tradition—the Talmud, for example, is rife with revisions—and the notion that “Kabbalah is a collective psychic defense of the most imaginative medieval Jews against exile and persecution pressing on them inwardly” from their Talmudic predecessors is according to Scholem greatly exaggerated. The Kabbalists remained, however precariously, always within the fold of normative Judaism,4 committed to the traditional laws.
This is a point which Bloom should (and does not) note, because it suggests a fundamental difference between literary and religious traditions. Whatever the alleged Oedipal origins of religion itself, the Oedipal impulse within a religious traditions is consistently modified by a faith and acknowledged authority which is inviolable. When it is violated, the tradition in question is not revised but destroyed. For this reason Bloom’s dream of parricidal strength cannot be satisfied in Judaism by Isaac Luria, who was, for all his epoch-making originality, a traditional observant Jew, but rather by the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, whose offense consisted indeed in a misreading of Lurianic doctrine that justified liberation from the law. It was simply not possible for Luria to “swerve’ as far as Zevi, just as it was not possible for Maimonides to swerve as far as Spinoza, though both were very aware that their thought could lead in such subversive directions.
A literary tradition can consist in a succession of heresies and deicides, but the adaptive and self-examining powers of a religious tradition must stop short of such extremes if its integrity as a tradition is to be preserved. Yeats’s revolt against his God-like precursors Blake and Shelley, for instance, could be a far more drastic rejection and transformation than Luria’s revolt against Cordovero, or the Kabbalah’s revolt against the Talmud. There is a fatal step which neither could take—Luria would not deny Cordovero’s God, or the fundamentals of his faith—and by their reluctance to take this step they place themselves within their tradition. Nietzsche’s splendidly ephebe-like argument that since he was not God, God could not exist, could never apply to the dynamics of religious revision, however revealing it may be for literary development.
Bloom’s next and more pertinent claim for juxtaposing the Kabbalah and criticism is that Lurianic Kabbalah is “the ultimate model for Western revisionism from the Renaissance to the present”; it offers “both a model for the processes of poetic influence, and maps for the problematic pathways of interpretation.” Bloom has two things in mind. The first is to take the Lurianic myth as a model for poetic creation itself. Zimzum is the young poet’s attempt to limit the precursor’s presence, an act of contraction which frees an imaginative space in which to elaborate his own revisionary poem. Zimzum is thus an archetypically belated act. Shevirat ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels, is the act of substitution itself, the usurpation of the prior poem by the later; in its belligerence it is also catastrophic, and leaves the poet racked by guilt and mechanisms of defense. Tikkun is the restitution of this conflicted poetic self, in which the poet restores the assaulted precursor to a heightened presence. The precursor is re-presented, but transformed by his now more powerful successor.
Bloom has another Kabbalistic paradigm in mind as well, and a far more intricate one. At the heart of Spanish Kabbalistic teaching lay the tangled doctrine of the Sefirot, or the ten attributes of the Divine as it relates to creation. According to the Zohar, the Godhead, which is itself too sublime for positive description, is nonetheless somehow differentiated into ten qualities, or powers, or stages, which are hierarchically arranged and form a network of Divine capacities for interacting with the world and each other. These ten hypostases—the inadequacy of any single English equivalent should be plain—are called the Sefirot and were for centuries the central concern of Kabbalists eager to depict the structure of their God in all its maze-like detail.
Moses Cordovero’s contribution to this line of “research” was far-reaching and particularly complicating. He maintained that to each of these Sefirot there are an infinite number of aspects, and by understanding these aspects—which he called behinot—the relationship of one Sefirah to another could be ascertained. Cordovero distinguished primarily six behinot; that is, he counted six modes of causation by which one Sefirah influences another. As it happens, there are also six relations of influence enumerated in The Anxiety of Influence, and Bloom contends that his own revisionary “ratios” are precisely analogous to Cordovero’s behinot.
This is, let us say, an unlikely analogy, but, like the previous one drawn with Luria’s myth, it is ingeniously conceived. Both, indeed are triumphs of the critical imagination. Bloom has cunningly mined the symbolic richness of Lurianic Kabbalah, however questionable his ends, and his patience and inventiveness in studying these “thaumaturgical rabbis” deserves the highest admiration.
Had Bloom contented himself with a metaphorical boost from the Kabbalah, had he demanded of it no more than models, paradigms, and maps, Kabbalah and Criticism would have been a tour de force which, like all his other books, would stand or fall on the validity of his theory of influence. Unfortunately, however, Bloom demands more of the Kabbalah. He advances the further and unfelicitous claim that Kabbalah itself is a theory of influence because it is likewise “a theory of writing.”
For Bloom Kabbalah is about language. (What is not nowadays?) The Sefirot, he maintains, are “primarily language,” and the Zohar seems to him on the verge of suggesting that “God and language are one and the same.” The seven lower Sefirot, called God’s “short face,” are “nearly identical with the principles of figurative or poetic language,” and solely because they are described by analogy. Similarly, Luria’s vision of the creation of the vessels is an emanation of “patterns of writing,” and the vessels shatter because of “too strong a force of writing.” And so on.
Scholem has stressed the “unusually positive” attitude of the Kabbalah toward language. For the Kabbalists language reflected the spiritual essence of the world. Creation was seen as the act by which God gives Himself a name, and there exists a lively tradition of calligraphic mysticism devoted to unpacking the properties of that name, and of the Hebrew alphabet in general. But the basic Kabbalistic tenet, in Scholem’s paraphrase, that “all that lives is an expression of God’s language,” does not imply that the essence of Kabbalistic teaching is linguistic. The Kabbalists had certainly little interest in human language as such, even less in metonymy and synecdoche and metalepsis; nor was Cordovero “the first Structuralist,” the Ferdinand de Saussure of sixteenth-century Safed. The main preoccupation of the Kabbalists was with the structure of Divine reality, and they saw this structure mirrored in certain aspects of the Hebrew language. If they looked at language, it was in order to see through it.5
Bloom’s error lies in more than his tactic of regarding every substance or expression as a “text,” every “text” as a “poem,” and every reaction or response as a “commentary.” He can treat Kabbalah as a theory of writing only because he omits its most crucial feature, and that is its historical character—the intimate relation of Kabbalistic symbols to Jewish experience. This is the cardinal point of Scholem’s entire oeuvre—and, since Scholem believes in the Jewish people as opposed to the Jewish God, the very justification of his life’s work. Scholem has argued that the phenomenon of the Kabbalah cannot be understood until “phenomenological” analysis of it is joined to historical research into its origins. For, as he has demonstrated in case after case, the Kabbalah was saturated in the sordid and punishing character of Jewish life.
Of nothing is this more resoundingly true than of its Lurianic episode. The Lurianic myth, he shows, was a response to the traumatic expulsion from Spain in the late fifteenth century, which unleashed a flood of Messianic hopes and placed the banished Jews in sore need of theodicy and solace. Lurianic Kabbalah became the first widespread mystical movement in Jewish history precisely because it was drafted in response to the emergency. Luria provided his people with “a mystical interpretation of Exile and Redemption, a great myth of Exile.” The exile of the Jewish community was transposed by Luria into the cosmic reality of a Divine Being fragmented and scattered; God was Himself made to undergo the fate of the Jews. Tikkun was the redemptive overcoming of the historical exile of the Jewish community and the deeper exile which all creation suffers. Luria and his disciples in Safed were thus driven not by the “inward” persecution of precursors, but by the extremely outward persecution of Ferdinand and Isabella, a distress which called for something other than a theory of Divine rhetoric. To omit the historical genesis of Kabbalah is to distort its very meaning, and so Bloom’s version is a misunderstanding.
But this will hardly ruffle Bloom, and may even come as something of a compliment. “Whatever misprision of both Kabbalah and poetry is involved,” he writes in anticipation of all criticism, “is of course my own belated and revisionist creation, my own misreading.” Of course. Bloom’s errors of emphasis and omission, he would maintain, are sanctioned by all the high principles of revision; he would see himself not as being wrong when he swerves away from Scholem’s authoritative account, but as audacious and strong. But this apology makes one very uneasy about a critical method for which anything goes so long as it comes from somewhere, and which will recognize no historical or even textual examination of its opinions. Misreading makes mistakes legitimate, and so Bloom appears to advocate a literary criticism devoid of scholarly conscience, a method of reading which is finally an interpretative anarchism.
Reasons for this are not far to seek. Bloom’s survey of poetic tradition is systematically ahistorical because for him literature is, as Steven Marcus once put it, something sacerdotal. His theory of influence requires a poetry which is wholly introverted and reflexive, an elevated and self-sufficing realm of discourse which itself provides all that is necessary for its interpretation. Poets are the elect, denizens of a mysterium tremendum oblivious to everything but their own sacred history. In this classically Romantic view, biography, psychology, society, history—indeed, all the profane matter of the workaday world—can only be an embarrassment or an insult to poetry. The identity of the poet is entirely other than the identity of the man, “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem”: the tattered mantle of his precursors the New Critics appears to have fallen upon the ephebe Bloom.
Beyond his numinous view of literature, Bloom’s indifference to history originates in his peculiar appraisal of the relation between the poet and the critic. To Bloom they are identical. To believe that all poems are conceived as responses to other poems is, after all, to believe that the writing of poetry is intrinsically an act of criticism. Whether they are anxious over influence or not, all poets do work within a tradition which they must assess in one way or another, and it is not unreasonable to surmise that a good poet will exhibit some critical discernment.
This is not controversial, but Bloom goes a decisive step further. Not only does the poet have critical obligations, but the critic has poetic privileges. In fact, Bloom’s very model of criticism is the poetic license which he calls misreading. “Poets’ misinterpretations or poems are more drastic than critics’ misinterpretations or criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.” (Indeed, every act of reading and writing—this review, for example—is an act of misreading and an “event” in literary history.) Thus, what Blake can do to Milton or Ashbery to Stevens, Bloom can do to Ashbery, or to Scholem.6
The obvious problem with this kind of criticism is that it invites a hopeless relativism. “There are no texts, but only relationships between texts”—this is either nonsense or a warrant for irresponsibility, for a fluidity of judgment in which all criteria of evaluation have disappeared. Bloom’s hopes to found a new practical criticism upon his principles are vain, because these principles pull the very ground from under our feet.
Bloom’s enchantment with the charmed circle of poetry has resulted in an unfortunate and rather unbecoming contempt for scholarship, which he misses no opportunity to deride. Literary criticism, he concludes, can be either dusty antiquarianism or strong poetry. Posing such alternatives, he naturally opts for the latter. And undoubtedly there are noble didactic motives at work; like any good teacher now, Bloom rails against the spineless receptivity of so many students and resolves to induce in them the courage of their own insights. But his ultimatum to criticism is none the less a false one. Between pedantry and creativity—an artificial distinction itself—a different and more inclusive criticism can be pursued, one more old-fashioned and secularist in spirit.
Such a criticism would be grounded first and foremost in what the historian Rostovtzeff once called “the complicity of life.” Instead of trafficking in partisan half-truths, it could profitably try to give to each aspect of the poet’s career its proper place; there is no good reason why aesthetic considerations should be in the least threatened by historical ones, unless one is operating with a straw distinction between form and content. A basic axiom of such criticism would be that the relationship between art and life is a dialectical one, that experience and design in a work of art are too densely interwoven to be tidily taken apart and labeled. It was against such simplifications that the late Lionel Trilling argued in 1942 when he proposed that the historicity of a work of art enters into our aesthetic appreciation of it, and his point is still good. Such a dialectical approach reigns also in Gershom Scholem’s work. As for scholarship, such criticism is wise enough to perceive with Flaubert that “le bon Dieu est dans le détail.”
All of us are readers, some of us are critics, still fewer of us are poets. These distinctions deserve to stand, if the business of making literature and discussing it is to get on. In The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde championed the imagination by celebrating, among other things, its “superb irresponsibility.” Music to Bloom’s ears. He too would lament the paucity of liars, and scorn the claims of fidelity and knowledge. But then Wilde was talking about poets, and Bloom is not. In a literary critic, irresponsibility is hardly superb.
February 19, 1976
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. ↩
But see Maurice Blanchot’s Amitié Gallimard, 1971) for a sympathetic discussion of the Kabbalah; and, in a more conventional work, the passing reference to it in Henri Meschonnic’s Le signe et le poème (Gallimard, 1975). ↩
Except, that is, for a series of off-the-cuff and thin comparisons of certain theosophic ideas with aspects of Freudian psychology. At one point in the book Bloom crudely remarks that “the Kabbalah is nothing if it is not sexist.” ↩
Scholem amply considers the tensions between Kabbalah and traditional religious authority in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (Schocken, 1969), pp. 5-32, 118-158. ↩
A detailed presentation of Kabbalistic theories of language can be found in Scholem’s paper “Der Name Gottes und die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala,” included in his Judaica, III (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), pp. 7-71. ↩
It does not take too long a sojourn in Bloom’s writings to suspect that his liberal notion of the critic’s creativity is in part the sour grapes of a poet manqué. The Anxiety of Influence was presented as “a severe poem,” and both that book and the present one contain poetic parables of a leaden sort. His profound sensitivity to the poet’s problems undoubtedly owes something to such an ambition, and it would not be surprising if one day Harold Bloom’s first book of poetry was published—it would certainly be among the most “anxious” ever to appear. ↩