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…

“may we not speak of the old days?” [silence]—samuel beckett’s come and go

samuel beckett’s very short dramatic piece come and go is best understood through its title, its structure, and the overt allusion to macbeth at its outset.  most tellingly, at the play’s conclusion, the three figures link hands “in the old way”, turning the whole piece—for me, at least—into a carefully wound möbius strip of drama about life and the ever-present effects of temporality.

Come and Go opens with three similar figures of indeterminable age—Flo, Vi, and Ru— childhood friends who once attended “Miss Wade’s” together. They are sitting side-by-side on a narrow bench-like seat, something they used to do in the playground as children, and are wearing colourful full-length coats, somewhat dulled by time, In effect, they three faded flowers. “Drab nondescript hats … shade [their] faces.”

The play’s structure is circular or ring-like, and is divided into three equal segments of seven lines during which a character exits and enters after completing her circuit, and takes a seat different from the one she previously occupied. In this sense the characters also move around their seats in a ring shape. Hence the typical interpretation of the play as being about time, terminality and infinity. The play’s first line, with its deliberate echoes of Macbeth, seem to confirm that interpretation that Shakespeare’s meditation on time is an informing principle:

 

Macbeth
Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton
The queen, my lord, is dead.

Macbeth
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

 

Come and Go

A dramaticule


For John Calder

 

Written in English early in 1965. First published in French by Editions de Minuit, Paris, in 1966. First published in English by Calder and Boyars, London, in 1967. First produced as Kommen und Gehen, translated by Elmar Tophoven, at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, on 14 January 1966. First performed in English at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 28 February 1968 and subsequently at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 9 December 1968.


CHARACTERS :

FLO

VI

RU

(Age undeterminable)

 

Sitting centre side by side stage right to left FLO, VI and RU. Very erect, facing front, hands clasped in laps.

Silence
.


VI : When did we three last meet?


RU : Let us not speak.
     [Silence.
     Exit VI right.
     Silence.]


FLO : Ru.


RU : Yes.


FLO : What do you think of Vi?


RU : I see little change. [FLO moves to centre seat, whispers in
       
RU’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each other. FLO
       puts her finger to her lips,] Does she not realize?


FLO : God grant not.
        [Enter VI. FLO and RU turn back front, resume pose. VI
        sits right.
        Silence.]
        Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss 
        Wade’s.

RU : On the log.
      [Silence.
      Exit  FLO left.
      Silence.]
      Vi.


VI : Yes.


RU: How do you find FLO?


VI : She seems much the same. [RU moves to centre seat,
      whispers in
VI’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each 
      other
. RU puts her finger to her lips.] Has she not been 
      told?


RU : God forbid.
       [Enter FLO. RU and VI turn back front, resume pose. FLO
       sits left.]
       Holding hands . . . that way.


FLO : Dreaming of . . . love.
        [Silence.
        Exit RU right.
        Silence
.]


VI : Flo.


FLO : Yes.


VI : How do you think Ru is looking?


FLO : One sees little in this light. [VI moves centre seat, 
        whispers in
FLO’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at 
        each other
. VI puts her finger to her lips.] Does she not 
        know?


VI : Please God not.
      [Enter RU. VI and FLO turn back front, resume pose. RU
      sits right.
      Silence
.]

      May we not speak of the old days? [Silence.] Of what
      came after? [Silence.] Shall we hold hands in the old
      way?

     
      [After a moment they join hands as follows : VI’s right
      hand with
RU’s right hand. VI’s left hand with FLO’s left
      hand
, FLO’s right hand with RU’s left hand, VI’s arms
      being above
RU’s left arm and FLO’s right arm. The three
      pairs of clasped hands rest on the three laps.
      Silence
.]


FLO: I can feel the rings.
       [Silence.]


CURTAIN

 

 

 

NOTES

 

                                  

Successive positions

 

 

 

1

FLO

VI

RU

2

FLO

 

RU

 

 

FLO

RU

3

VI

FLO

RU

4

VI

 

RU

 

VI

RU

 

5

VI

RU

FLO

6

VI

 

FLO

 

 

VI

VLO

7

RU

VI

FLO

Hands

 

 

 

 

RU

VI

FLO

 

RU         VI        FLO

 

 

    

Lighting
Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area.
Rest of stage as dark as possible.


Costume

Full-length coats, buttoned high, dull violet (RU), dull red (Vi),
dull yellow (Flo). Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to
shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up
to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.


Seat

Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to
accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as
possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.


Exits

The figures are not seen to go off stage. They should disappear a
few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this,
recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible
as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.


Obs

Three very different sounds.


Voices

As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for
three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.
 


Watch an adaptation of Come and Go on
YouTube.


freud on melancholia and hamlet

 

If my cigar was that small I wouldn’t let
people take pictures of it!

 

In Freud’s great essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he makes a sustained comparison between normal sadness (associated with grieving for the loss of a loved one) and the disturbed self of dispirited mood states and self-hatred (which he associates with the clinical condition of melancholia). By introducing the concepts of object-relations theory, projective identification and introjection, Freud’s theoretical constructs in this essay informed most psychoanalytic thought on melancholia and depression in the twentieth century. Whereas previous thinkers had considered melancholia to be a state of imbalance or a mood of despondency, Freud recasts it as a frame of mind characterized by the loss of something. Indeed, melancholia is properly characterized by loss of an object of which its subject may be unconscious. In this respect it seems to mimic the earlier characterizations of melancholy as a nebulous mood state of fear and sadness without cause. And by choosing the character of Hamlet as an exemplar, and admitting that the melancholic “has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic,” Freud seems to allow that melancholia may have a glamorous aspect. Despite his scientific ambitions, Freud concedes that the categories of melancholy and melancholia elude formal definition: “the definition of melancholia is uncertain; it takes on various clinical forms . . . that do not seem definitely to warrant reduction to a unity.” 

 

In her anthology The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva (2000), Jennifer Radden highlights the technical contents of Freud’s great essay as follows:

 

Three aspects of “Mourning and Melancholia” distinguish it from earlier writing: the theme of loss, the emphasis on self-accusation and self-loathing in melancholic subjectivity, and the elaborate theory of narcissism, identification, and introjection it introduces. Melancholia represents loss of the “object,” that is, the beloved parent whose love has been perceived to be withdrawn. Self-accusation and self-hatred, which Freud describes as central characteristics of the melancholic patient, are a form of rage redirected from the loved object to the self.

 

Such redirected rage can occur because the self is deeply identified with the other. (This identification is so strong that Freud speaks of the other person as incorporated by the self. Introjection is Freud’s term for this process of incorporation.) In developmental terms, the infant’s love energy is at first directed exclusively upon the ego; later it turns to the other, a loved person with whom the infant is intimately identified. That identification allows the fantasy that the ego has incorporated the mother, or “object.” In those suffering from melancholia, some adult sorrow or slight reignites those infantile experiences. Now with the characteristic ambivalence of the oral phase, the ego attacks the loved, introjected “object” in self-accusations whose curious quality of indifference, Freud believes, proves their true object to be not the self but the incorporated other. (282)

 

 

Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholy” (1917) 

 

Now that dreams have proved of service to us as the normal prototypes of narcissistic mental disorders, we propose to try whether a comparison with the normal emotion of grief, and its expression in mourning, will not throw some light on the nature of melancholia. This time, however, we must make a certain prefatory warning against too great expectations of the result. Even in descriptive psychiatry the definition of melancholia is uncertain; it takes on various clinical forms (some of them suggesting somatic rather than psychogenic affections) that do not seem definitely to warrant reduction to a unity. Apart from those impressions which every observer may gather, our material here is limited to a small number of cases the psychogenic nature of which was indisputable. Any claim to general validity for our conclusions shall be forgone at the outset, therefore, and we will console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal to-day, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, at least of a small group if not of a whole class of disorders.

 

A correlation of melancholia and mourning seems justified by the general picture of the two conditions.1 Moreover, wherever it is possible to discern the external influences in life which have brought each of them about, this exciting cause proves to be the same in both. Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on. As an effect of the same influences, melancholia instead of a state of grief develops in some people, whom we consequently suspect of a morbid pathological disposition. It is also well worth notice that, although grief involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a morbid condition and hand the mourner over to medical treatment. We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful.

 

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in grief. The fall in self-esteem is absent in grief; but otherwise the features are the same. Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of a loved person, contains the same feeling of pain, loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall the dead one—loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love, which would mean a replacing of the one mourned, the same turningfrom every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription in the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to its mourning, which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests. It is really only because we know so well how to explain it that this attitude does not seem to us pathological.

 

We should regard it as a just comparison, too, to call the temper of grief “painful.” The justification for this comparison will probably prove illuminating when we are in a position to define pain in terms of the economics of the mind.2

 

Now in what consists the work which mourning performs? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in the following representation of it. The testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object. Against this demand a struggle of course arises—it may be universally observed that man never willingly abandons a libido-position, not even when a substitute is already beckoning to him. This struggle can be so intense that a turning away from reality ensues, the object being clung to through the medium of a hallucinatory wish-psychosis. The normal outcome is that deference for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its behest cannot be at once obeyed. The task is now carried through bit by bit, under great expense of time and cathectic energy, while all the time the existence of the lost object is continued in the mind. Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and the detachment of the libido from it accomplished. Why this process of carrying out the behest of reality bit by bit, which is in the nature of a compromise, should be so extraordinarily, painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics. It is worth noting that this pain3 seems natural to us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.

 

Now let us apply to melancholia what we have learnt about grief. In one class of cases it is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object; where this is not theexciting cause one can perceive that there is a loss of a more ideal kind. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love (e.g. the case of a deserted bride). In yet other cases one feels justified in concluding that a loss of the kind has been experienced, but one cannot see clearly what has been lost, and may the more readily suppose that the patient too cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost. This, indeed, might be so even when the patient was aware of the loss giving rise to the melancholia, that is, when he knows whom he has lost but not what it is he has lost in them. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss.

 

In grief we found that the ego’s inhibited condition and loss of interest was fully accounted for by the absorbing work of mourning. The unknown loss in melancholia would also result in an inner labour of the same kind and hence would be responsible for the melancholic inhibition. Only, the inhibition of the melancholiac seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that absorbs him so entirely. Now the melancholiac displays something else which is lacking in grief—an extraordinary fall in his self-esteem, an impoverishment of his ego in a grand scale. In grief the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself. The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any effort and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and chastised. He abases himself before everyone and commiserates his own relatives for being connected with someone so unworthy. He does not realize that any change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism back over the past and declares that he was never any better. This picture of delusional belittling—which is predominantly moral—is completed by sleeplessness and refusal of nourishment, and by an overthrow, psychologically very remarkable, of that instinct which constrains every living thing to cling to life.

 

Both scientifically and therapeutically it would be fruitless to contradict the patient who brings these accusations against himself. He must surely be right in some way and be describing something that corresponds to what he thinks. Some of his statements, indeed, we are at once obliged to confirm without reservation. He really is as lacking in interest, as incapable of love and of any achievement as he says. But that, as we know, is secondary, the effect of the inner travail consuming his ego, of which we know nothing but which we compare with the work of mourning. In certain other self-accusations he also seems to us justified, only that he has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic. When in his exacerbation of self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weaknesses of his own nature, for all we know it may be that he has come very near to self-knowledge; we only wonder why a man must become ill before he can discover truth of this kind. For there can be no doubt that whoever holds and expresses to others such an opinion of himself—one that Hamlet harboured of himself and all men—that man is ill, whether he speaks the truth or is more or less unfair to himself. Nor is it difficult to see that there is no correspondence, so far as we can judge, between the degree to self-abasement and its real justification. A good, capable, conscientious woman will speak no better of herself after she develops melancholia than one who is actually worthless; indeed, the first is more likely to fall ill of the disease than the other, of whom we too should have nothing good to say. Finally, it must strike us that after all the melancholiac’s behaviour is not in every way the same as that of one who is normally devoured by remorse and self-reproach. Shame before others, which would characterize this condition above everything, is lacking in him, or at least there is little sign of it. One could almost say that the opposite trait of insistent talking about himself and pleasure in the consequent exposure of himself predominates in the melancholiac.

The essential thing, therefore, is not whether the melancholiac’s distressing self-abasement is justified in the opinion of others. The point must be rather that he is correctly describing his psychological situation in his lamentations. He has lost his self-respect and must have some good reason for having done so. It is true that we are then faced with a contradiction which presents a very difficult problem. From the analogy with grief we should have to conclude that the loss suffered by the melancholiac is that of an object; according to what he says the loss is one in himself.

 

 

1. “Abraham, to whom we owe the most important of the few analytic studies on this subject, also took this comparison to his starting point. (Zentralblatt, Bd. II., 1912.)”

 

2. “The words ‘painful’ and ‘pain’ in this paragraph represent the German Schmerz  i.e., the ordinary connotation of pain in English) and not Unlust, the mental antithesis of pleasure, also technically translated as ‘pain’.—Trans.”

 

3. “The German here is Schmerzunlust, a combination of the two words for pain.—Trans.” 

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levinas on existence: “imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness”


From Emmanuel Levinas, Existence And Existents:

  

2. EXISTENCE WITHOUT EXISTENTS 

Let us imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness. One cannot put this return to nothingness outside of all events. But what of this nothingness itself? Something would happen, if only night and the silence of nothingness. The in-determinateness of this “something is happening” is not the indeterminateness of a subject and does not refer to a substantive. Like the third person pronoun in the impersonal form of a verb, it designates not the uncertainly known author of the action, but the characteristic of this action itself which somehow has no author. This impersonal, anonymous, yet inextinguishable “consummation” of being, which murmurs in the depths of nothingness itself we shall designate by the term there is. The there is, inasmuch as it resists a personal form, is “being in general.”

We have not derived this notion from exterior things or the inner world — from any “being” whatever. For there is transcends inwardness as well as exteriority; it does not even make it possible to distinguish these. The anonymous current of being invades, submerges every subject, person or thing. The subject object distinction by which we approach existents is not the starting point for a meditation which broaches being in general. 

We could say that the night is the very experience of the there is, if the term experience were not inapplicable to a situation which involves the total exclusion of light. 

When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not “something.” But this universal absence is in its turn presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. It is not the dialectical counterpart of absence, and we do not grasp it through thought. It is immediately there.

There is no discourse. Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of. There is, in general, without it mattering there is, without our being able to fix a substantive to this term. There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential. The mind does not find itself faced with an apprehended exterior. The exterior — if one insists on the term — remains uncorrelated with an interior. It is no long given. It is no longer a world. What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it. The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot disappear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously. Being remains, like a field of forces, like a heavy atmosphere belonging to no one, universal, returning in the midst of the negation which put it aside, and in all the powers to which that negation may be multiplied.

There is a nocturnal space, but it is no longer empty space, the transparency which both separates us from things and gives access to them, by which they are given. Darkness fills it like a content; it is full, but full of the nothingness of everything. Can one speak of its continuity? It is surely uninterrupted. But points of nocturnal space do not refer to each other as illuminated space; there is no perspective, they are not situated. There is a swarming of points.

Yet this analysis does not simply illustrate Professor Mosch Turpin’s thesis, in the Tales of Hoffman, that night is the absence of day. The absence of perspective is not something purely negative. It becomes an insecurity. Not because things covered by darkness elude our foresight and that it becomes impossible to measure their approach in advance. For the insecurity does not come from the things of the day world which the night conceals; it is due just to the fact that nothing approaches, nothing comes, nothing threatens; this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace. The indeterminateness constitutes its acuteness. There is no determined being, anything can count for anything else. In this ambiguity the menace of pure and simple presence, of the there is, takes form. Before this obscure invasion it is impossible to take shelter in oneself, to withdraw into one’s shell. One is exposed. The whole is open upon us. Instead of serving as our means of access to being, nocturnal space delivers us over to being.

The things of the day world then do not in the night become the source of the “horror of darkness” because our look cannot catch them in their “unforeseeable plots”; on the contrary, they get their fantastic character from this horror. Darkness does not only modify their contours for vision; it reduces them to undetermined, anonymous being, which sweats in them.

One can also speak of different forms of night that occur right in the daytime. Illuminated objects can appear to us as though in twilight shapes. Like the unreal, inverted city we find after an exhausting trip, things and beings strike us as though they no longer composed a world, and were swimming in the chaos of their existence. Such is also the case with the “fantastic,” “hallucinatory” reality in poets like Rimbaud, even when they name the most familiar things and the most accustomed beings. The misunderstood art of certain realistic and naturalistic novelists, their prefaces and professions of faith notwithstanding, produces the same effect: beings and things that collapse into their “materiality,” are terrifyingly present in their destiny, weight and shape. Certain passages of Huysmans or Zola, the calm and smiling horror of de Maupassant’s tales do not only give, as is sometimes thought, a representation “faithful to” or exceeding reality, but penetrates behind the form which light reveals into that materiality which, far from corresponding to the philosophical materialism of the authors, constitutes the dark background of existence. It makes things appear to us in a night, like the monotonous presence that bears down on us in insomnia.The rustling of the there is … is horror. We have noted the way it insinuates itself in the night, as an undetermined menace of space itself disengaged from its function as receptacle for objects,as a means of access to beings. Let us look further into it.

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update from the international necronautical society!

Interim Report on Recessional Aesthetics

 

International

INS

Necronautical

Society

 

Official Document

 

Authorized: First Committee, INS

Authorization Code: TMcCSC140109

 

Document follows

 

Envoi

 

We begin by congratulating the Obama Administration on commissioning this report from the INS. Turning to an organization whose thinking is steeped in literature, philosophy, and the arts in the hope of acquiring insight into the economic recession and suggestions as to how this hardship might be overcome may to some smack of desperation. Yet the INS commends the administration’s decision to do so as both courageous and enlightened. In (implicitly) acknowledging the critical role played by art in creating (and subverting) value, President Obama has, symbolically at least, righted the wrong done to the poet Seanchan in W. B. Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold. Seanchan is denied a place at the king’s table on the grounds that poetry does not constitute the “proper” business of state—to which he retorts

that the King’s money would not buy,

Nor the high circle consecrate his head,

If poets had never christened gold, and even

The moon’s poor daughter, that most whey-faced

     metal,

Precious.

Seanchan’s argument is incisive. As we hope to show, not only is art (as any second-rate Marxist literature professor will tell you) haunted by the language of economics, but economics is also haunted by art—that is, by aesthetic processes of creation, narration, speculation, value-generation, skillful condensation, occlusion, and just plain old lying. On behalf, therefore, of Seanchan and all the other barred poets in history for whom he stands, we accept the president’s invitation with a sense of entitlement and also with trepidation: the length of our spoon has yet to be determined. Below, then, we present four interim findings, which hint at the content of the full report, scheduled for delivery in April 2010.

 

1. I Owe Therefore I Am

 

It is the INS’s resolute conviction that there is not a single aspect of the current crisis that is not anticipated in The Merchant of Venice. For Shakespeare, credit is the economic judgment on the morality of man. In the credit system, man is transformed into money, and money has literally been incorporated into him, into his blood and pounds of flesh. When Shylock says that Antonio is “a good man” and Bassanio asks if he has heard otherwise, Shylock replies,

 

Ho no, no, no, no: my meaning, in saying he is a
good man, is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient.

 

That is, Antonio has a sound credit rating and is therefore “good.” Antonio echoes this moral judgment when, in speaking to the object of his desire, Bassanio, he elides the words “purse” and “person”:

 

My purse, my person, my extremest means
lie all unlock’d to your occasions.

 

Personality is pursonality. The problem is that Antonio’s purse is empty, for his argosies with portly sail are far-flung, all abroad, to the Indies, England, andthe whole globalized geography of the commercial orb for which the urbs of Venice is both the mirror and the marketplace. The trading floor of the Rialto is the prospect of what Shakespeare’s Elizabethan London might turn into and a fortiori the latter’s hypertrophy in New York some centuries later. Its economic logic is one not of self-sufficiency in the here and now but rather of overstretched indebtedness with promises of returns to come in the future. The cash-strapped Bassanio’s hoped-for acquisition of Portia’s inheritance helps solicit Antonio’s loan, which itself is “guaranteed” by his own ships’ prospective return, which in turn secures a new, three-month loan underwritten by his body—a set of deferrals and suspensions, of withdrawals and disappearances as joined up and mutually dependent as the networks of global capital itself.

 

Not only is Shakespeare’s Venice, like Madoff’s New York, a giant speculative system, steeped in avarice and expectations and underpinned by assurances that are themselves far from solid; beyond this, attraction itself is an economy to be both experienced and expressed in purely economic terms. What is going on in the drama of The Merchant of Venice is the transformation of the language of courtly love into that of commerce, the moneying of desire. And when it all goes wrong, then (as now) some Jew is going to have to pay.

 

2. Then Must the Jew Be Merciful

 

Sticking with Shakespeare’s play for a while: when Shylock calls the whole caboodle in, returning the speculation-based Venetian economy to its gold (or, rather, flesh) standard, disaster looms. The strategy initially advanced to avert disaster is not a sudden injection of resources but rather the invocation of a bottomless reserve of mercy. Portia, cross-dressed as the young lawyer Balthazar, announces a mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”—that is, without measure, infinitely. Portia (an impostor, let’s not forget) supplants economic law with a “higher,” moral order. And yet Shakespeare, good etymologist that he is, is all too aware that the mercy that cannot be strained, that should season justice, that the Jew Shylock should show, and that is even—according to Portia—an attribute of God himself, is derived from merces, meaning “payment,” “price,” or “fee.” Mercantile revenue is revenu in moral talk of mercy. Christianity (and, by extension, the moral rhetoric of liberalism into which it has mutated) is the hypocritical spiritualization of the originally material.

 

To avoid such Portian impostures, which, besides masking brutality (Shylock, it will be recalled, is viciously dispossessed by the court’s judgment), merely reboot the cycle of credit and bust by reinstituting its founding lie, we would urge the president to abandon his unconvincing Christian faith and embrace instead the doctrine of necronautical materialism expounded by the INS in numerous platforms and on numerous occasions.

 

3. Joyce’s Pawnography

 

There is an anti-monetary tradition in philosophy that extends from Aristotle’s Politics to Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, wherein money is the principle of corruption of all social relations (an ideal communist society would be one purged of money altogether). Yet there is an opposing tradition, culminating in the thought of Levinas and Derrida, in which money operates, to quote the Bard again, not simply as “Thou common whore of mankind” but also as “Thou visible god,/That solder’st close impossibilities./And mak’st them kiss”—that is, as both ontological and ethical enabler. The INS celebrates this second view and finds its supreme literary expression in Finnegans Wake, which we would urge the president and his aides to keep by their bedsides at all times. Not only is Joyce’s masterpiece suffused with monetary language (“shelenks,” “haypennies” and “dogmarks,” “sylvan coyne” and “ghinees”); it is also mired in the rhetoric of debt: of pawnshops, unpaid loans, “wallstrait” crashes, and what Joyce, theo-neologizing, calls “deblinity.”

 

The most debt-ridden of the Wake’s characters is Shem, who “lives off loans.” Shem is both an artist and a forger. Perusing other writers’ work, he decides to

 

study with stolen fruit how cutely to copy all their various styles of signature so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit

 

—the “cheque” in question being the text itself, the “profit” that ensues being self-evident (Joyce’s work, the most celebrated in the history of prose, not only sells decades after his death but also inspires other writers to write, criticsto publish, teachers to teach, and so on). For Joyce, then, the creative act—an act of forgery—translates the negative space of debt into positive, “epic” productivity, returning us to credit. The implication for the president is simple: far from cracking down on counterfeit currency, he should encourage its circulation, since it gives the economy the creative fillip it so badly needs.

 

4. Recessional Epiphany

 

In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in the middle of her stunning monologue about negative space

and negational language, Addie Bundren, a dark emissary of pure negativity, of death itself,

uses the word “recessional.” Faulkner’s obtuse—indeed, jarring—use of the term here

sends a diligent reader to the dictionary, which defines “recessional” as

 

Of or belonging to the recession or retirement of the clergy and choir from the chancel to the vestry at the close of a service; belonging to a recess (e.g., of Parliament).

 

“Recess,” in its turn, is given as

 

The act of retiring, withdrawing, or departing; a period of cessation.

 

  

Recession, then, is temporal and spatial: an interval at once legislative and sacred; an end that guarantees a new beginning. These meanings are doubly significant in relation to the overall structure of Faulkner’s novel, which sees every action come around again, all life’s cycles repeating around Addie as she slips away, recedes. Between each cycle, at the heart of a dead woman’s silent speech, recession intercedes, a death between each life. Read allegorically, recession, like a sacristy or harem, is the intimate space at the heart of all economics, its muted truth. Celebrate it as you would the revelation of godhead itself.

 

Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy

 

—from Harper’s Magazine, June 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

“even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self”: harold bloom

harold bloom on gnosticism, poetry, knowing the self and our contemporary religion:


SELF−RELIANCE OR

MERE GNOSTICISM

 

I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.

 

—RALPH WALDO EMERSON

 

If you seek yourself outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster, whether erotic or ideological. That must be why Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his central essay, “Self-Reliance” (1840), remarked that “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” I am sixty-five, and it is past time to write my own version of “Self-Reliance.” Spiritual autobiography in our era, I thought until now, is best when it is implicit. But the moment comes when you know pretty much what you are going to know, and when you realize that more living and reading and brooding will not greatly alter the self. I am in my fortieth consecutive year of teaching at Yale, and my seventh at NYU, and for the last decade I have taught Shakespeare almost exclusively. Shakespeare, aside from all his other preternatural strengths, gives me the constant impression that he knows more than anyone else ever has known. Most scholars would call that impression an illusion, but to me it seems the pragmatic truth. Knowing myself, knowing Shakespeare, and knowing God are three separate but closely related quests.

 

Why bring God into it?

 

Seeking God outside the self courts the disasters of dogma, institutional corruption, historical malfeasance, and cruelty. For at least two centuries now most Americans have sought the God within rather than the God of European Christianity. But why bring Shakespeare into all this, since to me he seems the archetype of the secular writer?

 

You know the self primarily by knowing yourself; knowing another human being is immensely difficult, perhaps impossible, though in our youth or even our middle years we deceive ourselves about this. Yet this is why we read and listen to Shakespeare: in order to encounter other selves; no other writer can do that for us. We never encounter Shakespeare himself, as we can encounter Dante or Tolstoy in their work. Whether you can encounter God himself or herself depends upon yourself; we differ greatly from one another in that vital regard. But to return to the self: we can know it primarily through our own solitude, or we can know representatives of it, most vividly in Shakespeare, or we can know God in it, but only when indeed it is our own self. Perhaps the greatest mystics, poets, and lovers have been able to know God in another self, but I am skeptical as to whether that possibility still holds at this late time, with the Millennium rushing upon us.

 

Even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self. At sixty-five, I find myself uncertain just when my self was born. I cannot locate it in my earliest memories of childhood, and yet I recall its presence in certain memories of reading, particularly of the poets William Blake and Hart Crane, when I was about nine or ten. In my instance at least, the self came to its belated birth (or second birth) by reading visionary poetry, a reading that implicitly was an act of knowing something previously unknown within me. Only later could that self-revelation become explicit; Blake and Hart Crane, like some other great poets, have the power to awaken their readers to an implicit answering power, to a previously unfelt sense of possibilities for the self. You can call it a sense of “possible sublimity,” of “something evermore about to be,” as the poet William Wordsworth named it. Emerson, advocating self-trust, asked: “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” His answer was a primal power, or “deep force,” that we discover within ourselves. In the eloquence of certain sermons, Emerson found his deep force; for me it came out of exalted passages in Blake and Crane that haunt me still:

 

God appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.

 

– WILLIAM BLAKE,

“Auguries of Innocence”

 

And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love,

its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither

hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

 

– HART CRANE,

“The Broken Tower”

 

These days, in our America, so many go about proclaiming “empowerment,” by which actually they mean “resentment,” or “catering to resentment.” To be empowered by eloquence and vision is what Emerson meant by self-reliance, and is the start of what I mean by “mere Gnosticism,” where “mere” takes its original meaning of “pure” or “unmixed.” To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self ’s potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self ’s potential as power involves the self ’s immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born. It is a curious sensation when a young person realizes that she or he is not altogether the child of that person’s natural parents. Freud reduced such a sensation to “the changeling fantasy,” in which you imagine you are a faery child, plucked away by adoptive parents who then masquerade as a natural mother and father. But is it only a fantasy to locate, in the self, a magical or occult element, older than any other component of the self? Deep reading in childhood was once the norm for many among us; visual and auditory overstimulation now makes such reading very rare, and I suspect that changeling fantasies are vanishing together with the experience of early, authentic reading. At more than half a century away from the deep force of first reading and loving poetry, I no longer remember precisely what I then felt, and yet can recall how it felt. It was an elevation, a mounting high on no intoxicants except incantatory language, but of a rather different sort than contemporary hip-hop. The language of Blake and Hart Crane, of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, transcended its rush of glory, its high, excited verbal music, and gave the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one’s outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown…

 

We live now, more than ever, in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it, which is a peculiar irony…  

 

I recall that the ancient Gnostics denied both matter and energy, and opted instead for information above all else. Gnostic information has two primary awarenesses: first, the estrangement, even the alienation of God, who has abandoned this cosmos, and second, the location of a residuum of divinity in the Gnostic’s own inmost self. That deepest self is no part of nature, or of history: it is devoid of matter or energy, and so is not part of the Creation-Fall, which for a Gnostic constitutes one and the same event. . .

 

Our current angel worship in America is another debased parody of Gnosticism…

 

Gnosticism… in my judgment rises as a protest against apocalyptic faith, even when it rises within such a faith, as it did successively within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Prophetic religion becomes apocalyptic when prophecy fails, and apocalyptic religion becomes Gnosticism when apocalypse fails, as fortunately it always has and, as we must hope, will fail again. Gnosticism does not fail; it cannot fail, because its God is at once deep within the self and also estranged, infinitely far off, beyond our cosmos. Historically, Gnosticism has always been obliterated by persecution, ranging from the relatively benign rejections of normative Judaism through the horrible violence of Roman Catholicism against the Christian Gnostics throughout the ages, wherever and whenever the Church has been near allied to repressive secular authorities. The final organized Western Gnosticism was destroyed in the so-called Albigensian Crusades, which devastated southern France in the thirteenth century, exterminating not only the Cathar Gnostic heretics but also the Provençal language and its troubador culture, which has survived only in the prevalent Western myth and ideal of romantic love. It is yet another irony that our erotic lives, with their self-destructive reliance upon the psychic disease called “falling–or being–in love,” should be a final, unknowing heritage of the last organized Gnosticism to date…

 

Our rampantly flourishing industries of angel worship, “near-death experiences,” and astrology–dream divination networks–are the mass versions of an adulterated or travestied Gnosticism. I sometimes allow myself the fantasy of Saint Paul redescending upon a contemporary America where he still commands extraordinary honor, among religions as diverse as Roman Catholicism and Southern Baptism. He would be bewildered, not by change, but by sameness, and would believe he was back at Corinth and Colossae, confronted again by Gnostic myths of the angels who made this world. If you read Saint Paul, you discover that he was no friend of the angels.

 

There is his cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels,” which I suspect goes back to the Book of Enoch’s accounts of angelic lust for earthly women. In the Letter to the Colossians, the distinction between angels and demons seems to be voided, and Christians are warned against “worship of angels,” an admonition that the churches, at the moment, seem afraid to restate. The “near-death experience” is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being “embraced by the light,” by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as “the astral body,” “the Resurrection Body,” or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a “near-death experience,” it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and of out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream divination.

 

As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.

 

The anarchistic Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century, like the Provençal Cathars in the twelfth, join the Manichaeans as the three large instances of Gnostic movements that transcended an esoteric religion of the intellectuals. Ancient Gnosticism, like Romantic and modern varieties, was a religion of the elite only, almost a literary religion. A purified Gnosticism, then and now, is truly for a relative handful only, and perhaps is as much an aesthetic as it is a spiritual discipline.

 

—from Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection (1996), pp 13 – 33