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Patriarchs among the poets: Harold Bloom's case for the Bible as high literature

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 12:49 a.m. MDT

Professor Harold Bloom speaks to an audience gathered along with Denmark's Royal couple, seated in the front row, after Crown Prince Frederik presented Bloom with the Odense city Hans Christian Andersen Award for 2005, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005, at the New York Pulbic Library.

Associated Press

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The title of Harold Bloom's new book, "The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible," could easily describe Bloom himself.

Now 81, he is by all accounts a great rock among literary critics.

His immense shadow spans over 50 years and includes 40 some-odd books translated into nearly the same amount of languages.

Though wildly successful, his career hasn't been easy — indeed, Bloom's expansiveness never quite fit inside the ivy walls of the academy.

As a Yale professor he spent many lonely years defending the western canon, worshiping William Shakespeare and even praising Joseph Smith, albeit in his own gnostic-judeo-bardolic way. He still calls the prophet of the Mormons a "religious genius" and says matter-of-factly, "Had I been a nineteenth-century American and not Jewish I would probably have become a Mormon . . . "

Amidst the typically-secular world of the academy, where few outside divinity schools defend the merits of the Bible (let alone Joseph Smith), Bloom's new book says the King James Bible is an "inexplicable wonder," standing atop the "sublime summit of literature in English," only shared by the works of William Shakespeare.

A prophet of Bloom

"For more than 40 years I have been playing the prophet Jeremiah," Bloom says, sitting comfortably in his parlor, surrounded by books. "That's a horrible task, I don't even like Jeremiah."

Like a voice crying in the wind, Bloom has become a self-described literary prophet of doom — a transition made shortly after publishing his seminal text on literary theory, "The Anxiety of Influence" (1973).

"I made a vow from 1976 on that I would never write for the academy again and I haven't. I have pitched myself to the widest possible general audience," he says, lifting a thin index finger to emphasize his point. "I've warned them that if one studies garbage based on ethnicity, skin pigmentation, sexual orientation, politics rather than shear cognitive and aesthetic value you destroy the subject and today they have indeed destroyed the subject. All over the world now people don't want to study literature because of it."

Whether the relationship is causal is hard to say, but statistics show that the amount of liberal arts colleges has dropped substantially from 212 in 1990 to 136 in 2009, according to research by Roger Baldwin, an education professor at Michigan State University.

Additionally, over the past three decades the portion of university students majoring in fields like English, philosophy and history has fallen by 13 percent, according to the U.S Department of Education.

For Bloom, it's another sign of the academy's decline.

Yet, those who disagree have replied in kind, accusing him of "racism," "sexism" and "bardolatry" (the worship of Shakespeare).

Despite the academy's critics, Bloom has produced best-seller upon best-seller; "The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages" and "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" are his most noted texts, defending the aesthetic and cognitive importance of the western canon — a canon which is overshadowed by contemporary reading lists filled with "the Harry Potter tripe," and the Stephen King "swinishness."

Implicitly, Bloom's new book once again hints at the fact that "Great Books," especially the Bible, are not read as much as they used to be.

"What can an education be in the Western world if it doesn't include Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy" and, of course "the Bible?" he asks.

"These are the constituents of our mind and spirit."

His book, "The Shadow of a Great Rock," tries to show the permanent aesthetic import and value of the King James Bible and how the text informs the entire tradition of literature in England and America.

Bloom's own appreciation for the King James and the Hebrew Bible began as a young orthodox Jew and has stuck with him ever since.

Adolescence and career

Born on July 11, 1930, in the old east Bronx, Bloom's family spoke only Yiddish — his father was born in Odessa, Russia, and his mother in a little village on the Russia-Poland border.

The youngest of five, Harold read and memorized the Hebrew Bible and taught himself English through reading, among other things, the King James Bible.

By the time of his bar mitzvah, Bloom was far from orthodox. Quibbling with the rabbis surrounding him, he felt like a natural-born "gnostic heretic."

An omnifarious reader with an incredible memory, Bloom went to Cornell at age 16 to study the classics, learn Greek, Latin and the Romance languages.

"He was a prodigy, beyond anything I'd ever seen — and there was never anyone since who came close," said Bloom's adviser at Cornell, M. H. Abrams, according to a New York Times profile. "We insisted that he go to another university for graduate school. We couldn't teach him anything more."

After a stint at the University of Cambridge in England, Bloom went to Yale where he found his future-wife Jeanne — four months of dating and they were married.

"I have increasingly come to understand that nothing else finally matters except for marriage," says Bloom, "that's what has sustained me all these years."

Of course, professionally speaking, his incredible memory, Yale doctorate and unique genius propelled him to the lofty echelons of the academy's literary cabal; a place where he all-too-frequently had to play the gadfly.

Nonetheless, the very skills that helped him rise to prominence, began as a boy reading the Bible — the same book he has returned to as an old man in "The Shadow of a Great Rock."

New book on old book

It's a book Bloom has been writing his whole life, he says.

"Even as a child in the Hebrew, I heard the beating cadence in my ears, and when I first read the King James I responded to that as much as to anything."

Much of the text is taken up in comparing the relative aesthetic merits of the King James against its predecessors, including the Tyndale translation, the Geneva Bible and the Hebrew Tanakh. Yet, the greatest strength of Bloom's volume comes in helping the reader navigate to, and through, the finest literary passages of the Bible; explaining how the ancient verses have influenced the past four centuries of Western literature.

While Bloom insists that the book is not theological in nature — it's mostly meant to help nonbelievers appreciate the literary value of the Bible — the text nonetheless subtly reveals Bloom's own theological idiosyncrasies.

All of which fit uniquely into his own form of Jewish Gnosticism: a non-dogmatic flux of beliefs, integrating a love of Shakespeare, the works of various religious mystics, philosophers, poets and surprisingly, 19th-century Mormons.

On the Mormons

"Joseph Smith was a great religious genius and perhaps the only one this country has ever produced," he says. "Not even Jonathan Edwards, not even my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson has had such an original and prophetic a discourse as (Joseph Smith's) King Follett Sermon. An amazing person; I always feel that if we had gotten to know each other we would have gotten along splendidly— Joseph Smith hovers in me. There cannot be too many Mormons who are as imbued with him as I am in my own odd way."

Bloom also praises the "fascinating" Parley P. Pratt (a 19th-century LDS apostle) and the "heroic" John Taylor (the third president of LDS Church); stating quite firmly, "the great affinity between Judaism and 19th-century Mormonism is that each is the phenomenon not of a people becoming a religion but of a religion becoming a people."

He praises Joseph Smith's "fierce insistence upon education," calling him "a furious autodidact who read everything and absorbed it." Of course, once again, Bloom could be describing himself.

"I translate the Hebrew brucha (the blessing) to mean more life and indeed more life on into a time without boundaries — I think Joseph Smith found that blessing for himself; and it's an astonishing breakthrough on his part."

A breakthrough that Bloom finds equally throughout the Bible, 19th-century Mormonism and in places as disparate as Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," a poem he feels is one of the many literary works basking in the shadow of a great rock.

In his very next breath he turns to me and bellows out Whitman's Bible-infused cadence as a strong defense for the Bible's prominent place within the canon:

"Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers and the women my sisters ...

And that a kelson of the creation is love."

EMAIL: hboyd@desnews.com

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