warren ellis versus harold bloom’s bardolatry (plus philip k. dick, booze, fathers & cave paintings)


Stories, Drinking and the World

 

Written in June of 2005

 

The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully

human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare

completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter

bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of

play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms

of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only

humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.

 

And we’ve always had them.

 

Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney

Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn

to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded

and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is

dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist

around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and

sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.

Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and

you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially

reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought

out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious

experience—a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and

revelation. It’s a plotline.

 

Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s

all stories.

 

And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made

out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we

make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the

day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we

make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.

 

Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience

of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.

I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would

wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the

accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a

hundred times because of that bastard.

 

An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an

apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside

his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing

himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand.

Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?

You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy

said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and

yelled, This is MINE!

 

Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling

cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one.

Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement.

Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or

Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was

and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was

that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings.

Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the

weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.

 

My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was

one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those

people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One

night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked

if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the

time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany

 

“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.

 

He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers,

and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to

ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once

imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship—said prison being a

thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.


You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe

you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an

unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that

he’d become part of my story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on

my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only

seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph

Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the

black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.

 

Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up

in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of

something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life,

I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just

control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t

return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up

naked and halfway up a tree. Again.

 

Read the rest…

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from harold bloom’s anxiety of influence: clinamen, or poetic misprision & milton’s paradise lost

Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a "swerve" of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves. . . .

 

. . . Shelley speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress. Borges remarks that poets create their precursors. If the dead poets, as Eliot insisted, constituted their successors’ particular advance in knowledge, that knowledge is still their successors’ creation, made by the living for the needs of the living.

 

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor ]ohnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: "This is dead, this is living, in the poetry of X." Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect. Milton’s Satan, archetype of the modern poet at his strongest, becomes weak when he reasons and compares, on Mount Niphates, and so commences that process of decline culminating in Paradise Regained, ending as the archetype of the modern critic at his weakest.

 

Let us attempt the experiment (apparently frivolous) of reading Paradise Lost as an allegory of the dilemma of the modern poet, at his strongest. Satan is that modern poet, while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet. Adam is the potentially strong modern poet, but at his weakest moment, when he has yet to find his own voice. God has no Muse, and needs none, since he is dead, his creativity being manifested only in the past time of the poem. Of the living poets in the poem, Satan has Sin, Adam has Eve, and Milton has only his Interior Paramour, an Emanation far within that weeps incessantly for his sin, and that is invoked magnificently four times in the poem. Milton has no name for her, though he invokes her under several; but, as he says, "the meaning, not the Name I call." Satan, a stronger poet even than Milton, has progressed beyond invoking his Muse.

 

Why call Satan a modern poet? Because he shadows forth gigantically a trouble at the core of Milton and of Pope, a sorrow that purifies by isolation in Collins and Gray, in Smart and in Cowper, emerging fully to stand clear in Wordsworth, who is the exemplary Modern Poet, the Poet proper. The incarnation of the Poetic Character in Satan begins when Milton’s story truly begins, with the Incarnation of God’s Son and Satan’s rejection of that incarnation. Modern poetry begins in two declarations of Satan: "We know no time when we were not as now" and "To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering."

 

Let us adopt Milton’s own sequence in the poem. Poetry begins with our awareness, not of a Fall, but that we are falling. The poet is our chosen man, and his consciousness of election comes as a curse; again, not "I am a fallen man," but "I am Man, and I am falling" — or rather, "I was God, I was Man (for to a poet they were the same), and I am falling, from myself." When this consciousness of self is raised to an absolute pitch, then the poet hits the floor of Hell, or rather, comes to the bottom of the abyss, and by his impact there creates Hell. He says, "I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell."

 

There and then, in this bad, he finds his good; he chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the limits of the possible within it. The alternative is to repent, to accept a God altogether other than the self, wholly external to the possible. This God is cultural history, the dead poets, the embarrassments of a tradition grown too wealthy to need anything more. But we, to understand the strong poet. must go further still than he can go, back into the poise before the consciousness of falling came.

 

When Satan or the poet looks around him on the floor of fire his falling self had kindled, he sees first a face he only just recognizes, his best friend, Beelzebub, or the talented poet who never quite made it, and now never shall. And, like the truly strong poet he is, Satan is interested in the face of his best friend only to the extent that it reveals to him the condition of his owncountenance. Such limited interest mocks neither the poets we know, nor the truly heroic Satan. If Beelzebub is that scarred, if he looks that unlike the true form he left behind on the happy fields of light, then Satan himself is hideously bereft of beauty, doomed, like Walter Pater, to be a Caliban of Letters, trapped in essential poverty. in imaginative need, where once he was all but the wealthiest, and needed next to nothing. But Satan, in the accursed strength of the poet, refuses to brood upon this, and turns instead to his task, which is to rally everything that remains.

 

This task, comprehensive and profoundly imaginative, includes everything that we could ascribe as motivation for the writing of any poetry that is not strictly devotional in its purposes. For why do men write poems? To rally everything that remains, and not to sanctify nor propound. The heroism of endurance — of Milton’s post-lapsarian Adam, and of the Son in Paradise Regained — is a theme for Christian poetry, but only barely a heroism for poets. We hear Milton again, celebrating the strong poet’s natural virtue, when Samson taunts Harapha: "bring up thy van,/ My heels are fetter’d, but my fist is free." The poet’s final heroism, in Milton, is a spasm of self-destruction, glorious because it pulls down the temple of his enemies. Satan, organizing his chaos, imposing a discipline despite the visible darkness, calling his minions to emulate his refusal to mourn, becomes the hero as poet, finding what must suffice, while knowing that nothing can suffice.

 

This is a heroism that is exactly on the border of solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it. Satan’s later decline in the poem, as arranged by the Idiot Questioner in Milton, is that the hero retreats from this border into solipsism, and so is degraded; ceases, during his soliloquy on Mount Niphates, to be a poet and, by intoning the formula: "Evil be thou my good," becomes a mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories, another wearisome ancestor of student non-students, the perpetual New Left. For the modern poet, in the gladness of his sorrowing strength, stands always on the farther verge of solipsism, having just emerged from it. His difficult balance, from Wordsworth to Stevens, is to maintain a stance just there, where by his very presence he says: "What I see and hear come not but from myself" and yet also: "I have not but I am and as I am I am." The first, by itself, is perhaps the fine defiance of an overt solipsism, leading back to an equivalent of "I know no time when I was not as now." Yet the second is the modification that makes for poetry instead of idiocy: "There are no objects outside of me because I see into their life, which is one with my own, and so ‘I am that I am,’ which is to say, ‘I too will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present.’ I am so much in process, that all possible movement is indeed possible, and if at present I explore only my own dens, at least I explore." Or, as Satan might have said: "In doing and in suffering, I shall be happy, for even in suffering I shall be strong."

 

It is sad to observe most modern critics observing Satan, because they never do observe him. The catalog of unseeing could hardly be more distinguished, from Eliot who speaks of "Milton’s curly haired Byronic hero" (one wants to reply, looking from side to side: "Who?") to the astonishing backsliding of Northrop Frye, who invokes, in urbane ridicule, a Wagnerian context (one wants to lament: "A true critic, and of God’s party without knowing it"). Fortunately we have had Empson, with his apt rallying cry: "Back to Shelley!" Whereto I go.

 

Contemplating Milton’s meanness towards Satan, towards his rival poet and dark brother, Shelley spoke of the "pernicious casuistry" set up in the mind of Milton’s reader, who would be tempted to weigh Satan’s flaws against God’s malice towards him, and to excuse Satan because God had been malicious beyond all measure. Shelley’s point has been twisted by the C. S. Lewis or Angelic School of Milton Criticism, who proceed to weigh up the flaws and God’s wrongs, and find Satan wanting in the balance. This pernicious casuistry, Shelley would have agreed, would not be less pernicious if we were to find (as I do) Milton’s God wanting. It would still be casuistry, and as discourse upon poetry it would still be moralizing, which is to say, pernicious.

 

Even the strongest poets were at first weak, for they started as prospective Adams, not as retrospective Satans. Blake names one state of being Adam, and calls it the Limit of Contraction, and another state Satan, and calls it the Limit of Opacity. Adam is given or natural man, beyond which our imaginations will not contract. Satan is the thwarted or restrained desire of natural man, or rather theshadow or Spectre of that desire. Beyond this spectral state, we will not harden against vision, but the Spectre squats in our repressiveness, and we are hardened enough, as we are contracted enough. Enough, our spirits lament, not to live our lives, enough to be frightened out of our creative potential by the Covering Cherub, Blake’s emblem (out of Milton, and Ezekiel, and Genesis) for that portion of creativity in us that has gone over to constriction and hardness. Blake precisely named this renegade part of Man. Before the Fall (which for Blake meant before the Creation, the two events for him being one and the same) the Covering Cherub was the pastoral genius Tharmas, a unifying process making for undivided consciousness; the innocence, pre-reflective, of a state without subjects and objects, yet in no danger of solipsism, for it lacked also a consciousness of self. Tharmas is a poet’s (or any man’s) power of realization, even as the Covering Cherub is the power that blocks realization. . . .

. . . I arrive at my argument’s central principle, which is not more true for its outrageousness, but merely true enough: Poetic Influence  — when it involves two strong, authentic poets,— always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. . . .

. . . My own Idiot Questioner, happily curled up in the labyrinth of my own being, protests: "What is the use of such a principle, whether the argument it informs be true or not?" Is it useful to be told that poets are not common readers, and particularly are not critics, in the true sense of critics, common readers raised to the highest power? And what is Poetic Influence anyway? Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers? Is there not the shibboleth bequeathed us by Eliot, that the good poet steals, while the poor poet betrays an influence, borrows a voice? And are there not all the great Idealists of literary criticism, the deniers of poetic influence, ranging from Emerson with his maxims: "Insist on yourself: never imitate" and" Not possibly will the soul deign to repeat itself" to the recent transformation of Northrop Frye into the Arnold of our day, with his insistence that the Myth of Concern prevents poets from suffering the anxieties of obligation?

 

Against such idealism one cheerfully cites Lichtenberg’s grand remark: "Yes, I too like to admire great men, but only those whose works I do not understand." Or again from Lichtenberg, who is one of the sages of Poetic Influence: "To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation, and the definition of imitation ought by rights to include both." What Lichtenberg implies is that Poetic Influence is itself an oxymoron, and he is right. But then, so is Romantic Love an oxymoron, and Romantic Love is the closest analogue of Poetic Influence, another splendid perversity of the spirit, though it moves precisely in the opposite direction. The poet confronting his Great Original must find the fault that is not there, and at the heart of all but the highest imaginative virtue. The lover is beguiled to the heart of loss, but is found, as he finds, within mutual illusion, the poem that is not there. "When two people fall in love," says Kierkegaard, "and begin to feel that they are made for one another, then it is time for them to break off, for by going on they have everything to lose and nothing to gain." When the ephebe, or figure of the youth as virile poet, is found by his Great Original, then it is time to go on, for he has everything to gain, and his precursor nothing to lose; if the fully written poets are indeed beyond loss.

 

But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admitted its intimate alliance with opacity. The state of Satan is therefore a constant consciousness of dualism, of being trapped in the finite, not just in space (in the body) but in clock-time as well. To be pure spirit, yet to know in oneself the limit of opacity; to assert that one goes back before the Creation-Fall, yet be forced to yield to number, weight, and measure; this is the situation of the strong poet, the capable imagination, when he confronts the universe of poetry, the words that were and will be, the terrible splendor of cultural heritage. In our time, the situation becomes more desperate even than it was in the Milton-haunted eighteenth century, or the Wordsworth-haunted nineteenth, and our current and future poets have only the consolation that no certain Titanic figure has risen since Milton and Wordsworth, not even Yeats or Stevens.

 

If one examines the dozen or so major poetic influencers before this century, one discovers quickly who among them ranks as the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradles: Milton. The motto to English poetry since Milton was stated by Keats: "Life to him would be Death to me." This deathly vitality in Milton is the state of Satan in him, and is shown us not so much by the character of Satan in Paradise Lost as by Milton’s editorializing relationship to his own Satan, and by his relationship to all the stronger poets of the eighteenth century and to most of those in the nineteenth. Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English . . .

 

. . . we can see the final irony of Poetic Influence, and come full circle to end where we began. This clinamen between the strong poet and the Poetic Father is made by the whole being of the later poet, and the true history of modern poetry would be the accurate recording of these revisionary swerves. To the pure ‘Pataphysician, the swerve is marvellously gratuitous; Jarry, after all, was capable of considering the Passion as an uphill bicycle race. The student of Poetic Influence is compelled to be an impure ‘Pataphysician; he must understand that the clinamen always must be considered as though it were simultaneously intentional and involuntary, the Spiritual Form of each poet and the gratuitous gesture each poet makes as his falling body hits the floor of the abyss. Poetic Influence is the passing of Individuals through States, in Blake’s language, but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The strong poet indeed says: ..I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell," but he is thinking, as he says this, "As I fell, I swerved, consequently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own making."

—from Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973)

 

james merrill’s ouija board: the opening of the book of ephraim

Known in popular circles as “the Ouija poet”—one who composed with assistance from the spirit world—Merrill was always most popular with scholarly audiences. As Brigitte Weeks noted in the New York Times Book Review, “Mr. Merrill’s artistic distinction is for the most part acknowledged, particularly in the academy, where he has already become part of the permanent canon. With his technical virtuosity and his metaphysical broodings, he is, like Wallace Stevens, an ideal seminar poet whose complex work lends itself to exhaustive explication.” . . . 

It was “The Book of Ephraim”—which appeared in Divine Comedies—that prompted many critics to reevaluate the poet. Among them was Harold Bloom, who wrote in the New Republic, “James Merrill . . . has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout. The publication of Divine Comedies . . . converts me, absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill. . . . The book’s eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill, but its apocalypse (a lesser word won’t do) is a 100-page verse-tale, ‘The Book of Ephraim,’ an occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats’ ‘A Vision,’. . . and even some aspects of Proust.” . . .

The twenty-six sections of “The Book of Ephraim” correspond to the board’s A to Z alphabet, the ten sections of Mirabell: Books of Number correspond to the board’s numbering from zero to nine, and the three sections of Scripts for the Pageant (“Yes,” “&,” and “No”) correspond to the board’s Yes & No. The progression of poems also represents a kind of celestial hierarchy, with each book representing communication with a higher order of spirits than the one before. Humans in the poem are identified by their initials—DJ and JM; spirits speak in all capitals. By the time Merrill transcribed the lessons of the archangels in book three, he offered nothing less than a model of the universe. “Were such information conveyed to us by a carnival ‘spiritual adviser,’ we could dismiss it as mere nonsense,” observed Fred Moramarco in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “but as it comes from a poet of Merrill’s extraordinary poetic and intellectual gifts, we sit up and take notice.”  

In the first book, Merrill’s guide is Ephraim, “a Greek Jew / Born AD 8 at XANTHOS,” later identified as “Our Familiar Spirit.” Over a period of twenty years and in a variety of settings, Ephraim alerts DJ and JM to certain cosmic truths, including the fact that “on Earth / We’re each the REPRESENTATIVE of a PATRON” who guides our souls through the nine stages of being until we become patrons for other souls. Witty, refined, full of gossip, Ephraim is “a clear cousin to Merrill’s poetic voice,” Kalstone wrote in the Times Literary Supplement 

Other spirits also appear in the poem, many of them family members or old friends who have died: Merrill’s mother and father, the young poet Hans Lodeizen (whose death Merrill addressed in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace), the Athenian Maria Mitsotaki (a green-thumbed gardener who died of cancer), as well as literary figures such as W. H. Auden and Plato. They form a community, according to Ephraim, “WITHIN SIGHT OF ALL CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER DEAD OR ALIVE NOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT HEAVEN IS IT IS THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING.” As Helen Vendler explained in the New York Review of Books, “The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that . . . the poet’s paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined.” For this reason, Vendler maintained that “The Book of Ephraim” is “centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse’s materials.”  

Aware of the incredulity his spiritualism would provoke, Merrill addressed this issue early in book one: “The question / Of who or what we took Ephraim to be / And of what truths (if any) we considered / Him spokesman, had arisen from the start.” Indeed, Vendler said, “for rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija ‘guests’ from the other world a folie a deux [mutual madness] between Merrill and his friend David Jackson.” 

In a Poetry review, Joseph Parisi suggested that Merrill used “his own doubt and hesitation to undercut and simultaneously to underscore his seriousness in recounting . . . his fabulous . . . message. Anticipating the incredulity of ‘sophisticated’ and even cynical readers, the poet portrays his own apparent skepticism at these tales from the spirit world to preempt and disarm the attacks, while making the reader feel he is learning the quasi-occult truths . . . along with the poet.” 

As the experience proceeded, Merrill’s skepticism declined. And while the reader’s may not, Judith Moffett suggested in American Poetry Review that disbelief is not the issue: “Surely any literary work ought to be judged not on its matter but on the way the matter is presented and treated. . . . The critical question, then, should not be, Is this the story he ought to have told? but How well has he told this story?” Moffett, as well as numerous other critics, believed Merrill has told it very well: “‘The Book of Ephraim’ is a genuinely great poem—a phrase no one should use lightly—and very possibly the most impressive poetic endeavor in English in this century.” 

—from the James Merrill page at Poetry Foundation

 

 
 

 

THE BOOK OF EPHRAIM

 

 

Tu credi ‘l vero; ché i minori e ‘ grandi 

                                                                   di questa vita miran ne lo speglio 

in che, prima che pensi, il pensier pandi. 

Paradiso XV 


Admittedly I err by undertaking

This in its present form. The baldest prose

Reportage was called for, that would reach

The widest public in the shortest time.

Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.

Time, the very attar of the Rose,

Was running out. We, though, were ancient foes,

I and the deadline. Also my subject matter

Gave me pause–so intimate, so novel.

Best after all to do it as a novel?

Looking about me, I found characters

Human and otherwise (if the distinction

Meant anything in fiction). Saw my way

To a plot, or as much of one as still allowed

For surprise and pleasure in its working-out.

Knew my setting; and had, from the start, a theme

Whose steady light shone back, it seemed, from every

Least detail exposed to it. I came

To see it as an old, exalted one:

The incarnation and withdrawal of

A god. That last phrase is Northrop Frye’s.

I had stylistic hopes moreover. Fed

Up so long and variously by

Our age’s fancy narrative concoctions,

I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found

In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean

Over the centuries by mild old tongues,

Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.

Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant

Nouveau roman (even the one I wrote)

Struck me as an orphaned form, whose followers,

Suckled by Woolf not Mann, had stories told them

In childhood, if at all, by adults whom

They could not love or honor. So my narrative

Wanted to be limpid, unfragmented; 

My characters, conventional stock figures

Afflicted to a minimal degree

With personality and past experience–

A witch, a hermit, innocent young lovers,

The kinds of being we recall from Grimm, 

Jung, Verdi, and the commedia dell’ arte. 

That such a project was beyond me merely

Incited further futile stabs at it.

My downfall was “word-painting.” Exquisite

Peek-a-boo plumage, limbs aflush from sheer

Bombast unfurling through the troposphere

Whose earthward denizens’ implosion startles

Silly quite a little crowd of mortals

–My readers, I presumed from where I sat

In the angelic secretariat.

The more I struggled to be plain, the more

Mannerism hobbled me. What for?

Since it had never truly fit, why wear

The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

Measures, furthermore, had been defined

As what emergency required. Blind

Promptings put at last the whole mistaken

Enterprise to sleep in darkest Macon 

(Cf. “The Will”), and I alone was left

To tell my story. For it seemed that Time— 

­The grizzled washer of his hands appearing

To say so in a spectrum-bezeled space

Above hot water–Time would not;

Whether because it was running out like water

Or because January draws this bright

Line down the new page I take to write:

The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings

Spent With David Jackson at the Ouija Board

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backdrop: The dining room at Stonington.

 

Walls of ready-mixed matte “flame” (a witty

Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn).

Overhead, a turn of the century dome

Expressing white tin wreathes and fleurs-de-lys

In palpable relief to candlelight.

Wallace Stevens, with that dislocated

Perspective of the newly dead, would take it

For an alcove in the Baptist church next door

Whose moonlit tower saw eye to eye with us.

The room breathed sheer white curtains out. In blew

Elm- and chimney-blotted shimmerings, so

Slight the tongue of land, so high the point of view.

1955 this would have been,

Second summer of our tenancy.

Another year we’d buy the old eyesore

Half of whose top story we now rented;

Build, above that, a glass room off a wooden

Stardeck; put a fireplace in; make friends.

Now, strangers to the village, did we even

Have a telephone? Who needed one!

We had each other for communication

And all the rest. The stage was set for Ephraim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Properties : A milk glass tabletop.

 

A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.

Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheet

Over which the letters A to Z

Spread in an arc, our covenant

With whom it would concern; also

The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.

What more could a familiar spirit want?

Well, when he knew us better, he’d suggest

We prop a mirror in the facing chair.

Erect and gleaming, silver-hearted guest,

We saw each other in it. He saw us.

(Any reflecting surface worked for him.

Noons, D and I might row to a sandbar

Far enough from town for swimming naked

Then pacing the glass treadmill hardly wet

That healed itself perpetually of us—

Unobserved, unheard we thought, until

The night he praised our bodies and our wit,

Our blushes in a twinkling overcome.)

Or we could please him by swirling a drop of rum

Inside the cup that, overturned and seeming

Slightly to lurch at such times in mid-glide,

Took heart from us, dictation from our guide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But he had not yet found us. Who was there?

 

The cup twitched in its sleep. “Is someone there?”

We whispered, fingers light on Willowware,

When the thing moved. Our breathing stopped. The cup,

Glazed zombie of itself, was on the prowl

Moving, but dully, incoherently,

Possessed, as we should soon enough be told,

By one or another of the myriads

Who hardly understand, through the compulsive

Reliving of their deaths, that they have died

–By fire in this case, when a warehouse burned.

HELLP O SAV ME scrawled the cup

As on the very wall flame rippled up,

Hypnotic wave on wave, a lullaby

Of awfulness. I slumped. D: One more try.

Was anybody there? As when a pike

Strikes, and the line singing writes in lakeflesh

Highstrung runes, and reel spins and mind reels

YES a new and urgent power YES

Seized the cup. It swerved, clung, hesitated,

Darted off, a devil’s darning needle

Gyroscope our fingers rode bareback

(But stopping dead the instant one lost touch)

Here, there, swift handle pointing, letter upon

Letter taken down blind by my free hand—

At best so clumsily, those early sessions

Break off into guesswork, paraphrase.

Too much went whizzing past. We were too nice

To pause, divide the alphabetical

Gibberish into words and sentences.

Yet even the most fragmentary message—

Twice as entertaining, twice as wise

As either of its mediums–enthralled them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

harold bloom on the fading american dream and the deepening american nightmare

 

I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).

 

Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.

 

Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.

 

But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.

 

What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?

 

Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.

 

—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)

harold bloom on the visionary in cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian and all the pretty horses


They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

 

 

Bookseller Photo 

 

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2010 than it was twenty-five years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian, much as I appreciate Don DeLillo’s Underworld; Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, Sabbath’s Theater, and American Pastoral; and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. McCarthy himself, in his Border Trilogy, commencing with the superb All the Pretty Horses, has not matched Blood Meridian, but it is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.

My concern being the reader, I will begin by confessing that my first two attempts to read through Blood Meridian failed, because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage that McCarthy portrays. The violence begins on the novel’s second page, when the fifteen-year-old Kid is shot in the back and just below the heart, and continues almost with no respite until the end, thirty years later, when Judge Holden, the most frightening figure in all of American literature, murders the Kid in an outhouse. So appalling are the continuous massacres and mutilations of Blood Meridian that one could be reading a United Nations report on the horrors of Kosovo in 1999.

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and convert goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s. When I teach the book, many of my students resist it initially (as I did, and as some of my friends continue to do). Television saturates us with actual as well as imagined violence, and I turn away, either in shock or in disgust. But I cannot turn away from Blood Meridian, now that I know how to read it, and why it has to be read. None of its carnage is gratuitous or redundant; it belonged to the Mexico–Texas borderlands in 1849–50, which is where and when most of the novel is set. I suppose one could call Blood Meridian a “historical novel,” since it chronicles the actual expedition of the Glanton gang, a murderous paramilitary force sent out both by Mexican and Texan authorities to murder and scalp as many Indians as possible. Yet it does not have the aura of historical fiction, since what it depicts seethes on, in the United States, and nearly everywhere else, well into the third millennium. Judge Holden, the prophet of war, is unlikely to be without honor in our years to come.

Even as you learn to endure the slaughter McCarthy describes, you become accustomed to the book’s high style, again as overtly Shakespearean as it is Faulknerian. There are passages of Melvillean-Faulknerian baroque richness and intensity in The Crying of Lot 49, and elsewhere in Pynchon, but we can never be sure that they are not parodistic. The prose of Blood Meridian soars, yet with its own economy, and its dialogue is always persuasive, particularly when the uncanny Judge Holden speaks (chapter 14): 

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

 

Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.

 

The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Judge Holden is the spiritual leader of Glanton’s filibusters, and McCarthy persuasively gives the self-styled judge a mythic status, appropriate for a deep Machiavelli whose “thread of order” recalls Iago’s magic web, in which Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio are caught. Though all of the more colorful and murderous raiders are vividly characterized for us, the killing-machine Glanton with the others, the novel turns always upon its two central figures, Judge Holden and the Kid. We first meet the Judge on page 6: an enormous man, bald as a stone, no trace of a beard, and eyes without either brows or lashes. A seven-foot-tall albino, he almost seems to have come from some other world, and we learn to wonder about the Judge, who never sleeps, dances and fiddles with extraordinary art and energy, rapes and murders little children of both sexes, and who says that he will never die. By the book’s close, I have come to believe that the Judge is immortal. And yet the Judge, while both more and less than human, is as individuated as Iago or Macbeth, and is quite at home in the Texan–Mexican borderlands where we watch him operate in 1849–50, and then find him again in 1878, not a day older after twenty-eight years, though the Kid, a sixteen-year-old at the start of Glanton’s foray, is forty-five when murdered by the Judge at the end.

McCarthy subtly shows us the long, slow development of the Kid from another mindless scalper of Indians to the courageous confronter of the Judge in their final debate in a saloon. But though the Kid’s moral maturation is heartening, his personality remains largely a cipher, as anonymous as his lack of a name. The three glories of the book are the Judge, the landscape, and (dreadful to say this) the slaughters, which are aesthetically distanced by McCarthy in a number of complex ways.

What is the reader to make of the Judge? He is immortal as principle, as War Everlasting, but is he a person, or something other? McCarthy will not tell us, which is all the better, since the ambiguity is most stimulating. Melville’s Captain Ahab, though a Promethean demigod, is necessarily mortal, and perishes with the Pequod and all its crew, except for Ishmael. After he has killed the Kid, Blood Meridian’s Ishmael, Judge Holden is the last survivor of Glanton’s scalping crusade. Destroying the Native American nations of the Southwest is hardly analogous to the hunt to slay Moby-Dick, and yet McCarthy gives us some curious parallels between the two quests. The most striking is between Melville’s chapter 19, where a ragged prophet, who calls himself Elijah, warns Ishmael and Queequeg against sailing on the Pequod, and McCarthy’s chapter 4, where “an old disordered Mennonite” warns the Kid and his comrades not to join Captain Worth’s filibuster, a disaster that preludes the greater catastrophe of Glanton’s campaign.

McCarthy’s invocation of Moby-Dick, while impressive and suggestive, in itself does not do much to illuminate Judge Holden for us. Ahab has his preternatural aspects, including his harpooner Fedellah and Parsee whaleboat crew, and the captain’s conversion to their Zoroastrian faith. Elijah tells Ishmael touches of other Ahabian mysteries: a three-day trance off Cape Horn, slaying a Spaniard in front of a presumably Catholic altar in Santa Ysabel, and a wholly enigmatic spitting into a “silver calabash.” Yet all these are transparencies compared to the enigmas of Judge Holden, who seems to judge the entire earth, and whose name suggests a holding, presumably of sway over all he encounters. And yet, the Judge, unlike Ahab, is not wholly fictive; like Glanton, he is a historic filibuster or freebooter. McCarthy tells us most in the Kid’s dream visions of Judge Holden, towards the close of the novel (chapter 22): 

In that sleep and in sleep to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon

his commencing.

I think that McCarthy is warning his reader that the Judge is Moby-Dick rather than Ahab. As another white enigma, the albino Judge, like the albino whale, cannot be slain. Melville, a professed Gnostic, who believed that some “anarch hand or cosmic blunder” had divided us into two fallen sexes, gives us a Manichean quester in Ahab. McCarthy gives Judge Holden the powers and purposes of the bad angels or demiurges that the Gnostics called archons, but he tells us not to make such an identification (as the critic Leo Daugherty eloquently has). Any “system,” including the Gnostic one, will not divide the Judge back into his origins. The “ultimate atavistic egg” will not be found. What can the reader do with the haunting and terrifying Judge?

Let us begin by saying that Judge Holden, though his gladsome prophecy of eternal war is authentically universal, is first and foremost a Western American, no matter how cosmopolitan his background (he speaks all languages, knows all arts and sciences, and can perform magical, shamanistic metamorphoses). The Texan–Mexican border is a superb place for a war-god like the Judge to be. He carries a rifle, mounted in silver, with its name inscribed under the checkpiece: Et In Arcadia Ego. In the American Arcadia, death is also always there, incarnated in the Judge’s weapon, which never misses. If the American pastoral tradition essentially is the Western film, then the Judge incarnates that tradition, though he would require a director light-years beyond the late Sam Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch portrays mildness itself when compared to Glanton’s paramilitaries. I resort though, as before, to Iago, who transfers war from the camp and the field to every other locale, and is a pyromaniac setting everything and everyone ablaze with the flame of battle. The Judge might be Iago before Othello begins, when the war-god Othello was still worshipped by his “honest” color officer, his ancient or ensign. The Judge speaks with an authority that chills me even as Iago leaves me terrified: 

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. 

If McCarthy does not want us to regard the Judge as a Gnostic archon or supernatural being, the reader may still feel that it hardly seems sufficient to designate Holden as a nineteenth-century Western American Iago. Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them: 

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted. The scalps of the slain villagers were strung from the windows of the governor’s house and the partisans were paid out of the all but exhausted coffers and the Sociedad was disbanded and the bounty rescinded. Within a week of their quitting the city there would be a price of eight thousand pesos posted for Glanton’s head.

I break into this passage, partly to observe that from this point on the filibusters pursue the way down and out to an apocalyptic conclusion, but also to urge the reader to hear, and admire, the sublime sentence that follows directly, because we are at the visionary center of Blood Meridian. 

They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.

Since Cormac McCarthy’s language, like Melville’s and Faulkner’s, frequently is deliberately archaic, the meridian of the title probably means the zenith or noon position of the sun in the sky. Glanton, the Judge, the Kid, and their fellows are not described as “tragic”—their long-suffering horses are— and they are “infatuate” and half-mad (“fond”) because they have broken away from any semblance of order. McCarthy knows, as does the reader, that an “order” urging the destruction of the entire Native American population of the Southwest is an obscene idea of order, but he wants the reader to know also that the Glanton gang is now aware that they are unsponsored and free to run totally amok. The sentence I have just quoted has a morally ambiguous greatness to it, but that is the greatness of Blood Meridian, and indeed of Homer and of Shakespeare. McCarthy so contextualizes the sentence that the amazing contrast between its high gestures and the murderous thugs who evoke the splendor is not ironic but tragic. The tragedy is ours, as readers, and not the Glanton gang’s, since we are not going to mourn their demise except for the Kid’s, and even there our reaction will be equivocal.

My passion for Blood Meridian is so fierce that I want to go on expounding it, but the courageous reader should now be (I hope) pretty well into the main movement of the book. I will confine myself here to the final encounter between the preternatural Judge Holden and the Kid, who had broken with the insane crusade twenty-eight years before, and now at middle age must confront the ageless Judge. Their dialogue is the finest achievement in this book of augmenting wonders, and may move the reader as nothing else in Blood Meridian does. I reread it perpetually and cannot persuade myself that I have come to the end of it.

The Judge and the Kid drink together, after the avenging Judge tells the Kid that this night his soul will be demanded of him. Knowing he is no match for the Judge, the Kid nevertheless defies Holden, with laconic replies playing against the Judge’s rolling grandiloquence. After demanding to know where their slain comrades are, the Judge asks: “And where is the fiddler and where the dance?” 

I guess you can tell me.

 

I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?

 

You aint nothin.

To have known Judge Holden, to have seen him in full operation, and to tell him that he is nothing, is heroic. “You speak truer than you know,” the Judge replies, and two pages later murders the Kid, most horribly. Blood Meridian, except for a one-paragraph epilogue, ends with the Judge triumphantly dancing and fiddling at once, and proclaiming that he never sleeps and he will never die. But McCarthy does not let Judge Holden have the last word. 

The strangest passage in Blood Meridian, the epilogue is set at dawn, where a nameless man progresses over a plain by means of holes that he makes in the rocky ground. Employing a two-handled implement, the man strikes “the fire out of the rock which God has put there.” Around the man are wanderers searching for bones, and he continues to strike fire in the holes, and then they move on. And that is all.

The subtitle of Blood Meridian is The Evening Redness in the West, which belongs to the Judge, last survivor of the Glanton gang. Perhaps all that the reader can surmise with some certainty is that the man striking fire in the rock at dawn is an opposing figure in regard to the evening redness in the West. The Judge never sleeps, and perhaps will never die, buta new Prometheus may be rising to go up against him.

All The Pretty Horses

If there is a pragmatic tradition of the American Sublime, then Cormac McCarthy’s fictions are its culmination. Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s major, early novels are McCarthy’s prime precursors. Melville’s Ahab fuses together Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth—and crosses them with a quest both Promethean and American. Even as Montaigne’s Plato became Emerson’s, so Melville’s Shakespeare becomes Cormac McCarthy’s. Though critics will go on associating McCarthy with Faulkner, who certainly affected McCarthy’s style in Suttree (1979), the visionary of Blood Meridian (1985) and The Border Trilogy (1992, 1994, 1998) has much less in common with Faulkner, and shares more profoundly in Melville’s debt to Shakespeare. 

Melville, by giving us Ahab and Ishmael, took care to distance the reader from Ahab, if not from his quest. McCarthy’s protagonists tend to be apostles of the will-to-identity, except for the Iago-like Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, who is the Will Incarnate. John Grady Cole, who survives in All the Pretty Horses only to be destroyed in Cities of the Plain, is replaced in The Crossing by Billy Parham, who is capable of learning what the heroic Grady Cole evades, the knowledge that Jehovah (Yahweh) holds in his very name: “Where that is I am not.” God will be present where and when he chooses to be present, and absent more often than present. 

The aesthetic achievement of All the Pretty Horses surpasses that of Cities of the Plain, if only because McCarthy is too deeply invested in John Grady Cole to let the young man (really still a boy) die with the proper distancing of authorial concern. No one will compose a rival to Blood Meridian, not even McCarthy, but All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing are of the eminence of Suttree. If I had to choose a narrative by McCarthy that could stand on its own in relation to Blood Meridian, it probably would be All the Pretty Horses. John Grady Cole quests for freedom, and discovers what neither Suttree nor Billy Parham needs to discover, which is that freedom in an American context is another name for solitude. The self’s freedom, for Cormac McCarthy, has no social aspect whatsoever.

I speak of McCarthy as visionary novelist, and not necessarily as a citizen of El Paso, Texas. Emerson identified freedom with power, only available at the crossing, in the shooting of a gulf, a darting to an aim. Since we care for Hamlet, even though he cares for none, we have to assume that Shakespeare also had a considerable investment in Hamlet. The richest aspect of All the Pretty Horses is that we learn to care strongly about the development of John Grady Cole, and perhaps we can surmise that Cormac McCarthy is also moved by this most sympathetic of his protagonists.

All the Pretty Horses was published seven years after Blood Meridian, and is set almost a full century later in history. John Grady Cole is about the same age as McCarthy would have been in 1948. There is no more an identification between McCarthy and the young Cole, who evidently will not live to see twenty, than there is between Shakespeare and Prince Hamlet. And yet the reverberation of an heroic poignance is clearly heard throughout All the Pretty Horses. It may be that McCarthy’s hard-won authorial detachment toward the Kid in Blood Meridian had cost the novelist too much, in the emotional register. Whether my surmise is accurate or not, the reader shares with McCarthy an affectionate stance toward the heroic youth at the center of All the Pretty Horses.

—from Cormac McCarthy, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)

 

 

  

 

harold bloom on literary genius & kabbalah

. . . all the Sefirot are images constantly in motion, and any creative spirit must move through all of them, in many labyrinths of transformation.

 

Genius and Kabbalah

 

I have juxtaposed these one hundred geniuses of language in ten sets of ten each, and then divided the sets into subsets of five. All genius, in my judgment, is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone. A contemporary of Dante could have had precisely his relation to tradition, his exact learning, and something like his love for quite another Beatrice, but only Dante wrote the Commedia.

Each of my hundred is unique, but this book requires some ordering orgrouping, as any book does. I have arranged it as a mosaic, believing that significant contrasts and illuminations emerge. From the time, years back, when I first conceived of this book, the image of the Kabbalistic Sefirot has been in my mind. My ten headings are the commonest names for the 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. These attributes or qualities emanate out from a center that is nowhere or nothing, being infinite, to a circumference both everywhere and finite.

The idea of emanation is founded upon Plotinus, greatest of Neoplatonists, but in Plotinus the emanations proceed out and away from God, whereas in Kabbalah the Sefirot stay within God or the Divine Man. Since the Kabbalists believed that God created the world out of himself, he being Ayin (nothing), the Sefirot chart the process of creation; they are the names of God as he works at creating. The Sefirot are metaphors so large that they become poems in themselves, or even poets. The Hebrew sappir ("sapphire") is the probable origin of the word Sefirot. One can think of the Sefirot as lights, texts, or phases of creativity. Here I have grouped my hundred brief studies of genius under the Sefirot that seemed most relevant to me, but no two souls ever agree upon what is most relevant to them.

 

My placement of the hundred geniuses is hardly one that fixes them in place, since all the Sefirot are images constantly in motion, and any creative spirit must move through all of them, in many labyrinths of transformation.

 

Gershom Scholem, the founder of modern scholarship on the Kabbalah identified Kabbalah with the genius of the Jewish religion. Moshe Idel: Scholem’s successor, finds in Kabbalah, despite its apparently sudden eruption among the Jews of thirteenth-century Provence and Catalonia, the recurrence of ancient Jewish speculations. In a sense, Scholem and Idel agree with Kabbalah’s assertion that it takes us back to an unfallen Eve and Adam in Eden, as well as its equally intense claim that Moses received it as the esoteric element in the Oral Law conveyed by Yahweh to Moses on Sinai.

 

The Sefirot are the center of Kabbalah, since they purport to represent God’s inwardness, the secrets of divine character and personality. They are the attributes of God’s genius, in every sense that I use "genius" in this book.

 

 

 

Keter, the first Sefirah, could be called the crown, since it is visualized as the crowned head of Adam Kadmon, the God-Man, before his fall. Yet, like all the Sefirot, Keter is a paradox, since Kabbalists also called it Ayin or nothingness.

 

Borges remarked that Shakespeare was everyone and no one, which I modify to everything and nothing, the crown of literature, and yet the primal nothingness. As a Bardolator-in-Chief, I find it no audacity to consider Shakespeare’s genius a kind of secular godhead, which is why I place him foremost among my hundred representatives of the geniuses of language.

 

I have followed Shakespeare here, under Keter, with four almost comparable figures: Cervantes the "first novelist," Montaigne the first personal essayist, Milton the reinventor of epic poetry, and Tolstoy, who fused epic and novel. In a second group I give a sequence of great autobiographers of the self: the poets Lucretius and Vergil, the psychologist-theologian Augustine, and the supreme poets (with Shakespeare and Homer) Dante and Chaucer. These five figures are arranged in a sequence of influence, since each was inspired by the one before, except for Lucretius, who proudly stemmed from the philosopher Epicurus.

 

Since the ten Sefirot form a system in constant motion, all of my hundred persons could be illuminated almost equally well by the other nine Sefirot, beyond the one where I group them, and I intend this book to be a kind of mosaic-in-perpetual-movement. Still, print demands a sequence, and mine is intended to be suggestive, rather than fixed or arbitrary.

 

Hokmah, the second Sefirah, is frequently translated as "wisdom," for which one should invoke the general aura of "wisdom literature" in the Hebrew Bible and its commentaries. I have given Socrates, Plato, the Yahwist, Saint Paul, and Muhammad as a first group of wisdom figures, and then juxtaposed a second sequence of Dr. Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, the sages Goethe and Freud, and the ironist Thomas Mann as a panoply of secular wisdom.

 

The third Sefirah, Binah, is intellect in a receptive mode, an intelligence not so much passive as dramatically open to the power of wisdom. For me, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Kafka represent mind in this openness, as do Proust, the last of the great novelists, and the Anglo-Irish seer Beckett. In a second sequence, I have grouped five of the major European dramatists—Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, Wilde, and Pirandello—all of whom have the swiftness of understanding that Kabbalists associate with Binah.

 

With Hesed, the bountiful covenant love that issues from God (or from women and men), I have found an initial set of representatives in five great ironic writers, really ironists of love: John Donne, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and—gentler in their mastery of ironic longing—Jane Austen and Lady Murasaki. A second grouping are also geniuses of eros, but deal more with the anguish of covenant: Hawthorne and Melville, the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf.

 

Din, which comes next, is also called Gevurah. Din means something like strict judgment, while Gevurah is the power that enables such rigor. Here I have begun with a severe line of great American poet-seers of genius: Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, all exemplars of our native strain, that once was a kind of Puritanism. After them I have placed five High Romantic poets who manifested the power of rigorous imagination: Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, and the Italian Leopardi.

 

With Tiferet, beauty, also known as Rahamin or compassion, I have turned first to five great figures of the Aesthetic movement—Swinburne, the Rossettis, Walter Pater, and the Austrian Hofmannsthal—and then gone on to major poets of French Romanticism and its heirs: Victor Hugo, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Valéry.

 

The seventh Sefirah, Nezah, can be rendered as God’s victory, or as the eternal endurance that cannot be defeated. Here I have begun with three giants of epic: Homer, Camoens of Portugal, and James Joyce, and added to them the superb Cuban epic novelist Alejo Carpentier and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, most powerful in his "brief epics." A second group shares perhaps less in victory and more in a superb endurance: Stendhal, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, all of them also ironists of eternity.

 

Hod, the splendor or majesty that has prophetic force, is seen here as governing first a sequence of poet-prophets, commencing with Walt Whit man and three poets he influenced: Pessoa of Portugal, Hart Crane, and Federico Garda Lorca of Andalusia (southern Spain). A great modern Spanish poet-in-exile, Cernuda, completes this majestic group. Since Hod is the emblem of moral splendor, it has sway also over the novelistic sequence of George Eliot, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, and the late philosopher-romancer Iris Murdoch.

 

With Yesod, the ninth Sifirah, sometimes translated as "foundation," we have an attribute akin to the initial Roman meaning of "genius," a fathering force. I have placed under Yesod first a sequence of masters of erotic narrative: Flaubert, Eça de Queiroz of Portugal, the African-Brazilian Machado de Assis, Borges the Argentine, and Italo Calvino, the modern Italian fabulist. A second sequence is constituted by five heroic vitalists: the prophet-poet William Blake, the prophetic novelist D. H. Lawrence, the major American dramatist, Tennessee Williams, strongly influenced by Lawrence and by Hart Crane, and two foundational modern poets, the Austrian-German Rilke and the Italian Montale.

 

The tenth and final Sefirah is Malkhut, the kingdom, also known as Atarah, the diadem. Though Malkhut is identified with the descended Shekhinah, the female radiance of God, I have relied upon its deep inwardness as an attribute, and have grouped under it ten male geniuses who transcend sexuality. Malkhut is, to me, the most fascinating of the Sefirot, since it displays divine immanence in the kingdom of this world. You reach the other Sefirot only through Malkhut, so that I employ it here first to group the diverse but curiously interfused sequence of those who created their own human comedies: Balzac, Lewis Carroll, the psychologist-novelist Henry James, Robert Browning, inventor of the dramatic monologue, and W. B. Yeats, Irish dramatic lyricist. A second, allied group is constituted by Dickens and Dostoevsky, visionary novelists of the grotesque, and by Isaac Babel, Russian-Jewish storyteller, and Paul Celan, Romanian-Jewish inventor of a post-Holocaust poetry in German that matches the radiance of Kafka’s German narrative prose. The late African-American novelist Ralph Waldo Ellison, whose visionary genius achieved a perfection in his Invisible Man, completes this descent of Malkhut into our time, and is the last of the hundred geniuses studied in this book.

 

 

The Lustres

 

Each of my ten groups governed by a particular Sefirah is subdivided into two sets of five, that I have chosen to call "Lustres." A paragraph or two at the start of each Lustre attempts to indicate something of my process of associating these five figures with one another.

 

"I read for the lustres," Emerson said, echoing Plutarch and other ancients in the Platonic tradition. "Lustres" in this sense refer to the condition of shining by reflected light, the gloss or sheen that one genius imparts to another, when juxtaposed in my mosaic.

 

—from Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds

 

harold bloom on literary genius and the self

 

Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? … Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius first recognize itself?

 


Cover Image

 

What Is Genius?

Harold Bloom

 

In employing a Kabbalistic grid or paradigm in the arrangement of this book, I rely upon Gershom Scholem’s conviction that Kabbalah is the genius of religion in the Jewish tradition. My one hundred figures, from Shakespeare through the late Ralph Ellison, represent perhaps a hundred different stances towards spirituality, covering the full range from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine to the secularism of Proust and Calvino. But Kabbalah, in my view, provides an anatomy of genius, both of women and of men; as also of their merging in Ein Sof, the endlessness of God. Here I want to use Kabbalah as a starting-point in my own personal vision of the name and nature of genius.

 

Scholem remarked that the work of Franz Kafka constituted a secular Kabbalah, and so he concluded that Kafka’s writings possess "something of the strong light of the canonical, of that perfection which destroys." Against this, Moshe Idel has argued that the canonical, both scriptural and Kabbalistic, is "the perfection which absorbs." To confront the plenitude of Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah is to work at "absorbing perfections."

 

What Idel calls "the absorbing quality of the Torah" is akin to the absorbing quality of all authentic genius, which always has the capacity to absorb us. In American English, to "absorb" means several related processes: to take something in as through the pores, or to engross one’s full interest or attention, or to assimilate fully.

I am aware that I transfer to genius what Scholem and Idel follow Kabbalah in attributing to God, but I merely extend the ancient Roman tradition that first established the ideas of genius and of authority. In Plutarch, Mark Antony’s genius is the god Bacchus or Dionysus. Shakespeare, in his Antony and Cleopatra, has the god Hercules, as Antony’s genius, abandon him. The emperor Augustus, who defeated Antony, proclaimed that the god Apollo was his genius, according to Suetonius. The cult of the emperor’s genius thus became Roman ritual, displacing the two earlier meanings, of the family’s fathering force and of each individual’s alter ego.

 

Authority, another crucial Roman concept, may be more relevant for the study of genius than "genius," with its contradictory meanings, still can hope to be. Authority, which has vanished from Western culture, was convincingly traced by Hannah Arendt to Roman rather than Greek or Hebrew origins. In ancient Rome, the concept of authority was foundational. Auctoritas derived from the verb augere, "to augment," and authority always depended upon augmenting the foundation, thus carrying the past alive into the present.

 

Homer fought a concealed contest with the poetry of the past, and I suspect that the Redactor of the Hebrew Bible, putting together his Genesis through Kings structure in Babylon, struggled to truncate the earliest author that he wove into the text, in order to hold off the strangeness and uncanny power of the Yahwist or J writer. The Yahwist could not be excluded, because his (or her) stories possessed authority, but the disconcerting Yahweh, human-all-too-human, could be muted by other voices of the divine. What is the relationship of fresh genius to a founded authority? At this time, starting the twenty-first century, I would say: "Why, none, none at all." Our confusions about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries.

 

Since my book, by presenting a mosaic of a hundred authentic geniuses, attempts to provide criteria for judgment, I will venture here upon a purely personal definition of genius, one that hopes to be useful for the early years of this new century. Whether charisma necessarily attends genius seems to me problematic. Of my hundred figures in this book, I had met three—Iris Murdoch, Octavio Paz, Ralph Ellison—who died relatively recently. Farther back, I recall brief meetings with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. All of them impressive, in different ways, they lacked the flamboyance and authority of Gershom Scholem, whose genius attended him palpably, despite his irony and high good humor.

 

William Hazlitt wrote an essay on persons one would wish to have known. I stare at my Kabbalistic table of contents, and wonder which I would choose. The critic Sainte-Beuve advised us to ask ourselves: what would this author I read have thought of me? My particular hero among these hundred is Dr. Samuel Johnson, the god of literary criticism, but I do not have the courage to face his judgment.

 

Genius asserts authority over me, when I recognize powers greater than my own. Emerson, the sage I attempt to follow, would disapprove of my pragmatic surrender, but Emerson’s own geniuswas so large that he plausibly could preach Self-Reliance. I myself have taught continuously for forty-six years, and wish I could urge an Emersonian self-reliance upon my students, but I can’t and don’t, for the most part. I hope to nurture genius in them, but can impart only a genius for appreciation. That is the prime purpose of this book: to activate the genius of appreciation in my readers, if I can.

 

These pages are written a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist triumph in destroying the World Trade Center and the people trapped within it. During the last week I have taught scheduled classes on Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare’s early comedies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot know whether I helped my students at all, but I momentarily held off my own trauma, by freshly appreciating genius.

 

What is it that I, and many others, appreciate in genius? An entry in Emerson’s Journals (October 27, 1831) always hovers in my memory:

 

Is it not all in us, how strangely! Look at this congregation of men;—the words might be spoken,—though now there be none here to speak them,—but the words might be said that would make them stagger and reel like a drunken man. Who doubts it? Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,-did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.

It still burns into me: "did they not sound to you as old as yourself?" The ancient critic Longinus called literary genius the Sublime, and saw its operation as a transfer of power from author to reader:

 

Touched by the true sublime your soul is naturally lifted up, she rises to a proud height, is filled with joy and vaunting, as if she had herself created this thing that she has heard.

 

Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self’s integrity. "Greatness" may be out of fashion, as is the transcendental, but it is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary.

 

Meeting the extraordinary in another person is likely to be deceptive or delusionary. We call it "falling in love," and the verb is a warning. To confront the extraordinary in a book—be it the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Dante, Proust—is to benefit almost without cost. Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.

 

James Joyce, when asked, "Which one book on a desert island?", replied, "I would like to answer Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman, because he is richer." The Joycean Irish edge against the English is given adequate expression, but the choice of Shakespeare is just, which is why he leads off the hundred figures in this book. Though there are a few literary geniuses who approach Shakespeare—the Yahwist, Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Moliére, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dickens, Proust, Joyce—even those dozen masters of representation do not match Shakespeare’s miraculous rendering of reality. Because of Shakespeare we see what otherwise we could not see, since we are made different. Dante, the nearest rival, persuades us of the terrible reality of his Inferno and his Purgatorio, and almost induces us to accept his Paradiso. Yet even the fullest of the Divine Comedy’s persons, Dante the Poet-Pilgrim, does not cross over from the Comedy’s pages into the world we inhabit, as do Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra.

 

The invasion of our reality by Shakespeare’s prime personages is evidence for the vitality of literary characters, when created by genius. We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces, and finally rub down into rubbish. It is worth knowing that our word "character" still possesses, as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word’s likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or the mark of the stylus’s incisions. Our modern word "character" also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.

 

It was fashionable, quite recently, to talk about "the death of the author," but this too has become rubbish. The dead genius is more alive than we are, just as Falstaff and Hamlet are considerably livelier than many people I know. Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read in search of more life, and only genius can make that available to use.

 

What makes genius possible? There always is a Spirit of the Age, and we like to delude ourselves that what matters most about any memorable figure is what he or she shared with a particular era. In this delusion, which is both academic and popular, everyone is regarded as being determined by societal factors. Individual imagination yields to social anthropology or to mass psychology, and thus can be explained away.

 

I base this book, Genius, upon my belief that appreciation is a better mode for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals. Appreciation may judge, but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder.

 

By "appreciation" I mean something more than "adequate esteem." Need also enters into it, in the particular sense of turning to the genius of others in order to redress a lack in oneself, or finding in genius a stimulus to one’s own powers, whatever these may emerge as being.

 

Appreciation may modulate into love, even as your consciousness of a dead genius augments consciousness itself. Your solitary self’s deepest desire is for survival, whether in the here and now, or transcendentally elsewhere. To be augmented by the genius of others is to enhance the possibilities of survival, at least in the present and the near future.

 

We do not know how and/or why genius is possible, only that—to our massive enrichment—it has existed, and perhaps (waningly) continues to appear. Though our academic institutions abound in impostors who proclaim that genius is a capitalistic myth, I am content to cite Leon Trotsky, who urged Communist writers to read and study Dante. If genius is a mystery of the capacious consciousness, what is least mysterious about it is an intimate connection with personality rather than with character. Dante’s personality is forbidding, Shakespeare’s elusive, while Jesus’ (like the fictive Hamlet’s) seems to reveal itself differently to every reader or auditor.

What is personality? Alas, we use it now as a popular synonym for celebrity, but I would argue that we cannot give the word up to the realm of buzz. When we know enough about the biography of a particular genius, then we understand what is meant by the personality of Goethe or Byron or Freud or Oscar Wilde. Conversely, when we lack biographical inwardness, then we all agree that we are uncertain as to Shakespeare’s personality, an enormous paradox since his plays may have invented personality as we now mostreadily comprehend it. If challenged, I could write a book on the personality of Hamlet, Falstaff, or Cleopatra, but I would not attempt a book upon the personality of Shakespeare or of Jesus.

 

Benjamin Disraeli’s father, the man of letters Isaac D’Israeli, wrote an amiable volume called The Literary Character of Men of Genius, one of the precursors to this book, Genius, together with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Emerson’s Representative Men, and Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Isaac D’Israeli remarks that "many men of genius must arise before a particular man of genius can appear." Every genius has forerunners, though far enough back in time we may not know who they are. Dr. Johnson considered Homer to have been the first and most original of poets; we tend to see Homer as a relative latecomer, enriching himself with the phrases and formulas of his predecessors. Emerson, in his essay "Quotation and Originality," slyly observed, "Only an inventor knows how to borrow."

 

The great inventions of genius influence that genius itself in ways we are slow to appreciate. We speak of the man or woman in the work; we might better speak of the work in the person. And yet we scarcely know how to discuss the influence of a work upon its author, or of a mind upon itself. I take that to be the principal enterprise of this book. With all of the figures I depict in this mosaic, my emphasis will be on the contest they conducted with themselves.

 

That agon with the self can mask itself as something else, including the inspiration of idealized forerunners: Plato’s Socrates, Confucius’s the Duke of Chou, the Buddha’s earlier incarnations. Particularly the inventor of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, the Redactor of the sequence from Genesis through Kings, relies upon his own genius at reimagining the Covenant even as he honors the virtues (and failings) of the fathers. And yet, as Donald Harmon Akenson argues, the inventor-redactor or writer-editor achieved a "surpassing wonder," utterly his own. This exile in Babylon could not have thought that he was creating Scripture; as the first historian he perhaps believed only that he was forwarding the lost cause of the Kingdom of Judah. And yet he seems too cunning not to have seen that his invention of a continuity and so of a tradition was largely his own.

 

With the Redactor, as with Confucius or with Plato, we can sense an anxiety in the work that must have communicated itself to the man. How can one be worthy of the fathers with whom Yahweh spoke, face-to-face, or of the great Duke of Chou, who gave order to the people without imposing it upon themby violence? Is it possible to be the authentic disciple of Socrates, who suffered martyrdom without complaint, in order to affirm his truth? The ultimate anxiety of influence always may be, not that one’s proper space has been usurped already, but that greatness may be unable to renew itself, that one’s inspiration may be larger than one’s own powers of realization.

 

Genius is no longer a term much favored by scholars, so many of whom have become cultural levelers quite immune from awe. Yet, with the public, the idea of genius maintains its prestige, even though the word itself can seem somewhat tarnished. We need genius, however envious or uncomfortable it makes many among us. It is not necessary that we aspire after genius for ourselves, and yet, in our recesses, we remember that we had, or have, a genius. Our desire for the transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons us slowly, and never completely.

 

To say that the work is in the writer, or the religious idea is in the charismatic leader, is not a paradox. Shakespeare, we happen to know, was a usurer. So was Shylock, but did that help to keep The Merchant of Venice a comedy? We don’t know. But to look for the work in the writer is to look for the influence and effect of the play upon Shakespeare’s development from comedy to tragicomedy to tragedy. It is to see Shylock darkening Shakespeare. To examine the effects of his own parables upon the figure of Jesus is to conduct a parallel exploration.

 

There are two ancient (Roman) meanings of the word "genius," which are rather different in emphasis. One is to beget, cause to be born, that is to be a paterfamilias. The other is to be an attendant spirit for each person or place: to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who, for better or for worse, strongly influences someone else. This second meaning has been more important than the first; our genius is thus our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or imaginative power, not our power to beget power in others.

 

We all learn to distinguish, firmly and definitively, between genius and talent. A "talent" classically was a weight or sum of money, and as such, however large, was necessarily limited. But "genius," even in its linguistic origins, has no limits.


We tend now to regard genius as the creative capacity, as opposed to talent. The Victorian historian Froude observed that genius "is a spring in which there is always more behind than flows from it." The largest instances of genius that we know, aesthetically, would include Shakespeare and Dante, Bach and Mozart, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Donatello and Rodin, Alberti and Brunelleschi. A greater complexity ensues when we attempt to confront religious genius, particularly in a religion-obsessed country like the United States. To regard Jesus and Muhammad as religious geniuses (whatever else they were) makes them, in that regard only, akin not only to one another but to Zoroaster and the Buddha, and to such secular figures of ethical genius as Confucius and Socrates.

 

Defining genius more precisely than has yet been done is one of my objectives in this book. Another is to defend the idea of genius, currently abused by detractors and reductionists, from sociobiologists through the materialists of the genome school, and on to various historicizers. But my primary aim is both to enhance our appreciation of genius, and to show how invariably it is engendered by the stimulus of prior genius, to a much greater degree than it is by cultural and political contexts. The influence of genius upon itself, already mentioned, will be one of the book’s major emphases.

 

My subject is universal, not so much because world-altering geniuses have existed, and will come again, but because genius, however repressed, exists in so many readers. Emerson thought that all Americans were potential poets and mystics. Genius does not teach how to read or whom to read, but rather how to think about exemplary human lives at their most creative.

 

It will be noted in the table of contents that I have excluded any living instances of genius, and have dealt with only three recently dead. In this book I am compelled to be brief and summary in my account of individual genius, because I believe that much is to be learned by juxtaposing many figures from varied cultures and contrasting eras. The differences between a hundred men and women, drawn from a span of twenty-five centuries, overwhelm the analogies or similarities, and to present them within a single volume may seem the enterprise of an overreacher. And yet there are common characteristics to genius, since vivid individuality of speculation, spirituality, and creativity must rely upon originality, audacity, and self-reliance.

Emerson, in his Representative Men, begins with a heartening paragraph:

 

It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it will not surprise us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of Gautama, the first men ate the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.

 

Gautama, the Buddha, quests for and attains freedom, as though he were one of the first men. Emerson’s twice-told tale is a touch more American than Buddhist; his first men seem American Adams, and not reincarnations of previous enlightenments. Perhaps I too can only Americanize, but that may be the paramount use of past geniuses; we have to adapt them to our place and our time, if we are to be enlightened or inspired by them.

 

Emerson had six great or representative men: Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Four of these are in this book; Swedenborg is replaced by Blake, and Napoleon I have discarded with all other generals and politicians. Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe remain essential, as do the others I sketch. Essential for what? To know ourselves, in relation to others, for these mighty dead are among the otherness that we can know, as Emerson tells us in Representative Men:

 

We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.

 

And yet this is the conclusion of his book:

 

The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know.

 

To realize all that we know, fictions included, is too large an enterprise for us, a wounded century and a half after Emerson. The world no longer seems young, and I do not always hear the accents of affection when the voices of genius call out to me. But then I have the disadvantage, and the advantage, of coming after Emerson. The genius of influence transcends its constituent anxieties, provided we become aware of them and then surmise where we stand in relation to their continuing prevalence.

Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian Scottish genius now out of fashion, wrote an admirable study that almost nobody reads anymore, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. It contains the best remark on Shakespeare that I know:

 

If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of intellect, and think I had included all under that.

 

Adumbrating the observation, Carlyle characteristically exploded into a very useful warning against dividing any genius into its illusory components:

 

What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, etc. as he had hands, feet and arms.

 

"Power of Insight," Carlyle continued, was the vital force in any one of us. How do we recognize that insight or force in genius? We have the works of genius, and we have the memory of their personalities. I use that last word with high deliberation, following Walter Pater, another Victorian genius, but one who defies fashion, because he is akin to Emerson and to Nietzsche. These three subtle thinkers prophesied much of the intellectual future of our century that has just passed, and are unlikely to fade as influences during the new century. Pater’s preface to his major book, The Renaissance, emphasizes that the "aesthetic critic" ("aesthetic" meaning "perceptive") identifies genius in every era:

 

In all ages there have been some excellent workmen, and some excellent work done. The question he asks is always:-In whom did it stir, the genius, the sentiment of the period find itself? Where was the receptacle of his refinement, its elevation, its taste?

 

"The ages are all equal," says William Blake, "but genius is always above its age." Blake, a visionary genius almost without peer, is a superb guide to the relative independence that genius manifests in regard to time: it "is always above its age."

 

We cannot confront the twenty-first century without expecting that it too will give us a Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong, a Picasso or Matisse, a Proust or James Joyce. To hope for a Dante or Shakespeare, a J. S. Bach or Mozart, a Michelangelo or Leonardo, is to ask for too much, since gifts that enormous are very rare. Yet we want and need what will rise above the twenty-first century, whatever that turns out to be.

 

The use of my mosaic is that it ought to help prepare us for this new century, by summoning up aspects of the personality and achievements of many of the most creative who have come before us. The ancient Roman made an offering to his genius on his birthday, dedicating that day to "the god of human nature," as the poet Horace called each person’s tutelary spirit. Our custom of a birthday cake is in direct descent from that offering. We light the candles and might do well to remember what it is that we are celebrating.

 

I have avoided all living geniuses in this book, partly so as to evade the distractions of mere provocation. I can identify for myself certain writers of palpable genius now among us: the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, the Canadian poet Anne Carson, the English poet Geoffrey Hill, and at least a half-dozen North and Latin American novelists and poets (whom I forbear naming).

 

Pondering my mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds, I arrive at a tentative and personal definition of literary genius. The question of genius was a perpetual concern of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is the mind of America, as Walt Whitman is its poet, and Henry James its novelist (its dramatist is yet to come). For Emerson, genius was the God within, the self of "Self-Reliance." That self, in Emerson, therefore is not constituted by history, by society, by languages. It is aboriginal. I altogether agree.

 

Shakespeare, the supreme genius, is different in kind from his contemporaries, even from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Cervantes stands apart from Lope de Vega, and Calderòn. Something in Shakespeare and Cervantes, as in Dante, Montaigne, Milton, and Proust (to give only a few instances), is clearly both of and above the age.

 

Fierce originality is one crucial component of literary genius, but this originality itself is always canonical, in that it recognizes and comes to terms with precursors. Even Shakespeare makes an implicit covenant with Chaucer, his essential forerunner at inventing the human.

 

If genius is the God within, I need to seek it there, in the abyss of the aboriginal self, an entity unknown to nearly all our current Explainers, in the intellectually forlorn universities and in the media’s dark Satanic mills. Emerson and ancient Gnosticism agree that what is best and oldest in each of us is no part of the Creation, no part of Nature or the Not-Me. Each of us presumably can locate what is best in herself or himself, but how do we find what is oldest?

 

Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? 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 first recognize itself?

 

The ancient answer is that there is a god within us, and the god speaks. I think that a materialist definition of genius is impossible, which is why the idea of genius is so discredited in an age like our own, where materialist ideologies dominate. Genius, by necessity, invokes the transcendental and the extraordinary, because it is fully conscious of them. Consciousness is what defines genius: Shakespeare, like his Hamlet, exceeds us in consciousness, goes beyond the highest order of consciousness that we are capable of knowing without him.

 

Gnosticism, by definition, is a knowing rather than a believing. In Shakespeare, we have neither a knower nor a believer, but a consciousness so capacious that we cannot find its rival elsewhere: in Cervantes or Montaigne, in Freud or in Wittgenstein. Those who choose (or are chosen) by one of the world religions frequently posit a cosmic consciousness to which they assign supernatural origins. But Shakespearean consciousness, which transmutes matter into imagination, does not need to violate nature. Shakespeare’s art is itself nature, and his consciousness can seem more the product of his art than its producer.

 

There, at the end of the mind, we are stationed by Shakespearean genius: a consciousness shaped by all the consciousnesses that he imagined. He remains, presumably forever, our largest instance of the use of literature for life, which is the work of augmenting awareness.

 

Though Shakespeare’s is the largest consciousness studied in this book, all the rest of these exemplary creative minds have contributed to the consciousness of their readers and auditors. The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effectual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have encountered talent, not genius. What is best and oldest in myself has not been activated.

 

—from Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds