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