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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

credos: proust, eliot, blake, mccarthy

 

the method: t.s. eliot, “these fragments I have shored against my ruins . . .”  

 

One must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself.

— Marcel Proust, Selected Letters

  

  

 

the motive: william blake, “the marriage of heaven and hell”  

 

The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees. 

 

Whatever exists, he said. Whateverin creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. 

 

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth. 

 

What’s a suzerain?

 

A keeper. A keeper or overlord.

 

Why not say keeper then?

 

Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.

 

Toadvine spat.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I don’t see what that has to do with catchin birds.

 

The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.

 

That would be a hell of a zoo.

 

The judge smiled. Yes, he said. Even so.

 

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West

 

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