harold bloom on gnosticism, poetry, knowing the self and our contemporary religion:
I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
If you seek yourself outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster, whether erotic or ideological. That must be why Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his central essay, “Self-Reliance” (1840), remarked that “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” I am sixty-five, and it is past time to write my own version of “Self-Reliance.” Spiritual autobiography in our era, I thought until now, is best when it is implicit. But the moment comes when you know pretty much what you are going to know, and when you realize that more living and reading and brooding will not greatly alter the self. I am in my fortieth consecutive year of teaching at Yale, and my seventh at NYU, and for the last decade I have taught Shakespeare almost exclusively. Shakespeare, aside from all his other preternatural strengths, gives me the constant impression that he knows more than anyone else ever has known. Most scholars would call that impression an illusion, but to me it seems the pragmatic truth. Knowing myself, knowing Shakespeare, and knowing God are three separate but closely related quests.
Why bring God into it?
Seeking God outside the self courts the disasters of dogma, institutional corruption, historical malfeasance, and cruelty. For at least two centuries now most Americans have sought the God within rather than the God of European Christianity. But why bring Shakespeare into all this, since to me he seems the archetype of the secular writer?
You know the self primarily by knowing yourself; knowing another human being is immensely difficult, perhaps impossible, though in our youth or even our middle years we deceive ourselves about this. Yet this is why we read and listen to Shakespeare: in order to encounter other selves; no other writer can do that for us. We never encounter Shakespeare himself, as we can encounter Dante or Tolstoy in their work. Whether you can encounter God himself or herself depends upon yourself; we differ greatly from one another in that vital regard. But to return to the self: we can know it primarily through our own solitude, or we can know representatives of it, most vividly in Shakespeare, or we can know God in it, but only when indeed it is our own self. Perhaps the greatest mystics, poets, and lovers have been able to know God in another self, but I am skeptical as to whether that possibility still holds at this late time, with the Millennium rushing upon us.
Even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self. At sixty-five, I find myself uncertain just when my self was born. I cannot locate it in my earliest memories of childhood, and yet I recall its presence in certain memories of reading, particularly of the poets William Blake and Hart Crane, when I was about nine or ten. In my instance at least, the self came to its belated birth (or second birth) by reading visionary poetry, a reading that implicitly was an act of knowing something previously unknown within me. Only later could that self-revelation become explicit; Blake and Hart Crane, like some other great poets, have the power to awaken their readers to an implicit answering power, to a previously unfelt sense of possibilities for the self. You can call it a sense of “possible sublimity,” of “something evermore about to be,” as the poet William Wordsworth named it. Emerson, advocating self-trust, asked: “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” His answer was a primal power, or “deep force,” that we discover within ourselves. In the eloquence of certain sermons, Emerson found his deep force; for me it came out of exalted passages in Blake and Crane that haunt me still:
God appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.
– WILLIAM BLAKE,
“Auguries of Innocence”
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love,
An instant in the wind (I know not whither
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
– HART CRANE,
“The Broken Tower”
These days, in our America, so many go about proclaiming “empowerment,” by which actually they mean “resentment,” or “catering to resentment.” To be empowered by eloquence and vision is what Emerson meant by self-reliance, and is the start of what I mean by “mere Gnosticism,” where “mere” takes its original meaning of “pure” or “unmixed.” To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self ’s potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self ’s potential as power involves the self ’s immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born. It is a curious sensation when a young person realizes that she or he is not altogether the child of that person’s natural parents. Freud reduced such a sensation to “the changeling fantasy,” in which you imagine you are a faery child, plucked away by adoptive parents who then masquerade as a natural mother and father. But is it only a fantasy to locate, in the self, a magical or occult element, older than any other component of the self? Deep reading in childhood was once the norm for many among us; visual and auditory overstimulation now makes such reading very rare, and I suspect that changeling fantasies are vanishing together with the experience of early, authentic reading. At more than half a century away from the deep force of first reading and loving poetry, I no longer remember precisely what I then felt, and yet can recall how it felt. It was an elevation, a mounting high on no intoxicants except incantatory language, but of a rather different sort than contemporary hip-hop. The language of Blake and Hart Crane, of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, transcended its rush of glory, its high, excited verbal music, and gave the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one’s outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown…
We live now, more than ever, in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it, which is a peculiar irony…
I recall that the ancient Gnostics denied both matter and energy, and opted instead for information above all else. Gnostic information has two primary awarenesses: first, the estrangement, even the alienation of God, who has abandoned this cosmos, and second, the location of a residuum of divinity in the Gnostic’s own inmost self. That deepest self is no part of nature, or of history: it is devoid of matter or energy, and so is not part of the Creation-Fall, which for a Gnostic constitutes one and the same event. . .
Our current angel worship in America is another debased parody of Gnosticism…
Gnosticism… in my judgment rises as a protest against apocalyptic faith, even when it rises within such a faith, as it did successively within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Prophetic religion becomes apocalyptic when prophecy fails, and apocalyptic religion becomes Gnosticism when apocalypse fails, as fortunately it always has and, as we must hope, will fail again. Gnosticism does not fail; it cannot fail, because its God is at once deep within the self and also estranged, infinitely far off, beyond our cosmos. Historically, Gnosticism has always been obliterated by persecution, ranging from the relatively benign rejections of normative Judaism through the horrible violence of Roman Catholicism against the Christian Gnostics throughout the ages, wherever and whenever the Church has been near allied to repressive secular authorities. The final organized Western Gnosticism was destroyed in the so-called Albigensian Crusades, which devastated southern France in the thirteenth century, exterminating not only the Cathar Gnostic heretics but also the Provençal language and its troubador culture, which has survived only in the prevalent Western myth and ideal of romantic love. It is yet another irony that our erotic lives, with their self-destructive reliance upon the psychic disease called “falling–or being–in love,” should be a final, unknowing heritage of the last organized Gnosticism to date…
Our rampantly flourishing industries of angel worship, “near-death experiences,” and astrology–dream divination networks–are the mass versions of an adulterated or travestied Gnosticism. I sometimes allow myself the fantasy of Saint Paul redescending upon a contemporary America where he still commands extraordinary honor, among religions as diverse as Roman Catholicism and Southern Baptism. He would be bewildered, not by change, but by sameness, and would believe he was back at Corinth and Colossae, confronted again by Gnostic myths of the angels who made this world. If you read Saint Paul, you discover that he was no friend of the angels.
There is his cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels,” which I suspect goes back to the Book of Enoch’s accounts of angelic lust for earthly women. In the Letter to the Colossians, the distinction between angels and demons seems to be voided, and Christians are warned against “worship of angels,” an admonition that the churches, at the moment, seem afraid to restate. The “near-death experience” is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being “embraced by the light,” by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as “the astral body,” “the Resurrection Body,” or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a “near-death experience,” it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and of out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream divination.
As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.
The anarchistic Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century, like the Provençal Cathars in the twelfth, join the Manichaeans as the three large instances of Gnostic movements that transcended an esoteric religion of the intellectuals. Ancient Gnosticism, like Romantic and modern varieties, was a religion of the elite only, almost a literary religion. A purified Gnosticism, then and now, is truly for a relative handful only, and perhaps is as much an aesthetic as it is a spiritual discipline.
—from Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection (1996), pp 13 – 33
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