A review of Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, by Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom's latest tome is, as to be expected, a bold work, and perhaps because of that, marked by melancholy. This is not only because he affects the septuagenarian, or because the volume's compilation occurs in the wake of September 11, but mainly because the great ideals of literary permanence, even the value of literary study and the validity of the literary imagination, seem threatened by a rising cultural sludge. There is even a certain forlornness as he laments the waning reputations of Goethe, Freud, and Mann, among many others. Way back when, in his stunning work,The Anxiety of Influence (1973), he had the New Left in his sights. Now his roll call of enemies to the recognition of genius seems to have multiplied and coalesced. The university itself seems to have become a "sub-branch" of the media, giving rise to his new coinage, "the media-university." Three paragraphs into the work Bloom issues his first blast: "Groupthink is the blight of our Age of Information, and it is most pernicious in our obsolete academic institutions, whose long suicide since 1967 continues." Genius is an entity "unknown to all our current explainers in the intellectually forlorn universities and in the media's dark Satanic mills."

His second complaint is that literature itself, the kind that he admires and wants to preserve, seems now to be measured by its adherence to some "-ism" (which in Josef Brodsky's delicious quip, soon becomes a "was'm"). Bloom writes, somewhat plangently, "I was a sweeter person before our universities yielded to social benignity, and chose texts for reading largely on the basis of the racial origin, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic affiliations of the new authors, past or present, whether or not they could write their way out of a paper bag"—a phrase that itself might need some tending. Some of his antagonisms come under the label "contraFoucault": "Old style theatricalists and our current rabblement of directorial and academic advocates of a French Shakespeare (the plays as Foucault would have written them) have obscured the complexities of the major plays." He can boldly assert, "There is no death of the author, contra the egregious Foucault." Naturally he tries to save Huckleberry Finn(with a notable assist from Ralph Ellison) from racialist criticism, which, pulling no punches, he calls "that literal-minded mindlessness that is now prevalent in the English-speaking world." He works to redeem D.H. Lawrence from a "feminist Puritanism." But beyond these—perhaps they are to be taken more seriously than mere bugaboos—there looms a more insidious and pervasive opponent. If the Age of Foucault, with its reductive historicism, now seems to have passed, the World Wide Web "will be no friendlier to the works of genius. In that great ocean of texts, how many will be able to discern a work of transcendent eminence? Will Nietzsche become only another forlorn, rather belated representative of a Western high culture that may seem like a vast period piece?"

Through 100 instances of what he calls a "mosaic of exemplary creative minds," Bloom illustrates and defines the elusive quality of genius, defending it in unpropitious times. He reminds the reader of something transcendent and extraordinary that can still, if fitfully, be attained and admired. His hope is that by writing about genius "he can activate the genius of appreciation." So, one of the first attributes of genius is what it instills in the reader, inducing a sense of awed admiration. "It is not necessary that we aspire after genius ourselves, and yet, in our recesses, we remember that we have, or had, genius. Our desire for the transcendental and the extraordinary seems part of our common heritage and abandons us slowly and never completely." "Our genius is thus our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or imaginative power." Genius is that residual part of the self–with which term it is used sometimes interchangeably but also in a contending sense as a kind of alter-ego–and it is to this part of the self, that innermost part, that literature at its mightiest speaks. Thus genius is an attribute of the giver and of the receiver, an acknowledged transmission of force, recognition and insight. In his earlier The Anxiety of Influence, he claimed that strong poets always experience some anxiety in encountering their greatest precursors; but now he reassures us that when admiring works of genius any attendant anxiety is dissolved or transcended. Referring to his own acknowledged master predecessor, Emerson, Bloom explains that genius is the God within, not constituted by history, by society, by language. It is altogether aboriginal, yet canonical in that it comes to agreeable terms with its predecessors. An augmented consciousness conveying wisdom is what constitutes the transactions of genius.

So as in his earlier works, this is a study of the great exchanges that occur when poet confronts poet, or when a poem reads or is read by another poem; even what occurs when a poet "over-hears" himself, that is, has his future ways determined by what he has "heard" coming from himself, what he has come upon. Thus the discovery of Falstaff has helped Shakespeare to create Hamlet. All of this sounds great, and is great; it raises a valuable and affirmative banner, however shot-through. The genius of literature is our best path for reaching wisdom, by way of an augmented consciousness, so that we do not only achieve insight, we are uplifted by it. As Dante proclaims to his own creative forbear, his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, "Voi me levate si ch'i' son piu ch'io." ("You raise me so that I am more than I.")

Bloom's Genius suffers, unfortunately, from an uncongenial and highly artificial structure. Trying to avoid the vulgarism of a "top 100" list, Bloom distributes his authors along a Kabbalistic grid, called Sefirot, with 10 sub-headings, such as Keter, Homah, and Binah. Each of the 10 subsumes five "lustres," or shinings, with two authors bumping shoulders in each lustre, thus totaling 100. As always, one wonders why Bloom needs to reach for such trumped-up categories.

For all his aversion to the alliance between the university and the media, this volume smacks of a media event, which the bogus structure tries to conceal. Like other such exercises, its point is to lure the reader into agreeing or disagreeing, but always arguing about the names on the list, with inclusions or exclusions. Why not Luther? Why not Rousseau? Indeed, I ask, why not?

Such questions aside, this is a highly readable book in which one engages in quality conversation with a gifted critic. This is not a book to be read seriatim. You must pick and choose. One of its many virtues is that it entices the reader to return to classic authors, to read them again through Bloom's strictures or praise. One should consult this book as one would his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999), forgetting the preposterous thesis conveyed in the subtitle, and perusing at random in order to see "what Bloom has to say." (Read for instance his comments on Coriolanus and one can understand why it is inferior Shakespeare.) Amidst the critical confusions of the past 30 years, he responds to insanity not with banality but rather with fiercer insight and greater intensity. And in so doing, he challenges the reader to enlarge and liberate his own style, to elevate his own field of vision.

Beyond its jabs at current and passing critical fads, Bloom's Genius responds to a far more serious charge against democratic culture itself. Helmut Schoeck, in his Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, argues that envy is at the root of democratic egalitarianism, and is for this reason either sanitized or unacknowledged. Whatever validity Schoeck's thesis might have, and one does fear that in our culture a tide of leveling resentment seems to be on the rise, Bloom's work is a singular exception to it. Not only is the book a lavish praise of genius, but one of its purposes is to induce awe in the presence of genius. Moreover, this work does not stand alone but depends upon (a fact readily acknowledged) his great predecessor, Emerson, particularly his Representative Men. Together they provide testimony that a failure to appreciate genius is not endemic to American democratic society. Pushing the argument a bit farther, of the 100 authors Bloom credits with genius, 19 are American. Thus if we patch together the writers from their separate categories, we can say that Bloom's serious attention to the genius of American writing puts his work into a living continuity with D.H. Lawrence'sStudies in Classic American Literature and with the sadly neglected The Territory Ahead by that superior novelist, Wright Morris.

It is in the individual sections of Genius that Bloom's capacity for critical judgment shines. His pages on Freud, for example, are masterly, particularly at a time when that great "quester" is being rebuked for not being a scientist. No, Bloom fires back, Freud is a mythographer, who has provided us with the many metaphors of our day—creating what Auden called "a climate of opinion." "The permanent Freud is a great moral essayist, a writer comparable to Montaigne." This is a judgment with which it is hard to disagree, nor do I find the comparison all that unlikely.

Other small essays with admirable insights (e.g., "Vergil,") are there for the picking, but Shakespeare, as might be expected, is the first star in this firmament. Bloom waffles a bit on that inexplicable formulation that Shakespeare invented the human, conceding now some role to Chaucer (whom he insists on placing ahead of Milton in the game of ranking that only blockheads refuse to play). His trouble comes with Dante, concerning whom he makes some strange errors and dubious judgments—deriving from two false premises. The first is that in the Commedia "Dante's personality is so large that it allows room for no one else." The second and complementary proposition is that where a last judgment has been passed upon a person, there is no room for personality. That is, he concentrates on the story of the Commedia, which he construes as the journey of Dante to Beatrice (and it is not even that), rather than the "stories" that the poem's other-worldly structure permits. Recruiting only from the Inferno what characters stride off the pages: Francesca, Farinata, Brunetto Latini, Ulysses, Ugolino. Not only did they enter into the mythology of their day (witness Chaucer's indebtedness), but they continue to be figures that haunt the imagination. As Harry Levin was wont to say about Shakespeare, so we can say about Dante: he made significant contributions to the myths of the modern world, creating the figures in and through which we continue to understand ourselves. Dante's Inferno is a highly dramatic poem in which he records his encounter with the gods that failed, the anti-myths of his culture, from whose hold he needs to liberate himself if he is to attain his true goal of a genuine freedom. Bloom rightly values the Purgatorio as Dante's unacknowledged masterpiece, but forgets the meetings with Nino Visconti and Forese Donati, particularly the latter's heart-rending account of his family's tragically separated destinies, with Piccarda in Paradise and Corso Donati (Dante's own alter-ego) being madly dragged down to Hellsgate. In the Paradiso, Cunizza speaks with an amorous force from her transformed courtisan past that should reverberate with Bloom's own quite present erotic imagination. And when we think of the Cacciaguida episode and his account of the vast historical changes that have overtaken Dante's city, surely the melancholy that pervades Bloom's own Lives of the Poets should have engendered greater sympathy with Dante's bitter sadness at the passing of the people and the places he had loved so fervently. To say that they are stuck in eternal judgment is far from sympathetic, far from genial.

Here one could begin to take issue with Bloom's gnosticism, what he calls the "religion of literature" that "has been indistinguishable from imaginative genius." Gnosis "is a knowledge that frees the creative mind from theology, from historicizing, and from any divinity that is totally distinct from what is most imaginative in the self." But we all know that gnosticism was absorbed and defeated by early Christianity, and for several reasons. First, was the difficulty in divining what it is. It is dualistic, opposing the material causes and effects of the world; it may be ascetic (disfavoring sexual union, except as in the strange ways Bloom describes), and it seems to assume for itself a kind of moral freedom, the idea that once we possess gnosis we always possess it, leading to a sense of impunity, a spiritual pride of inviolability. And these of course must be the consequences of a consciousness alert only to the growth of its own insights and interests. By the means, then, of profound alienation and an adherence to the growth of consciousness, gnosticism seems to have regained a hold on the modern imagination. Bloom pushes this even farther through Milton, Blake , Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and others, urging the breakthrough of the spirit, the endorsement of Blake's "Real Man Imagination." 

As I trudge wearily through the heavily laden theological readings of Dante's poem, I yield to Bloom: somebody needs to be making these fiery affirmations of spirit and high insight. Yet Bloom shows little interest in ethics and history. Surely the greatness of Dante and Shakespeare lies not merely in Ulysses' brilliant speech or Falstaff's ebullient towering wit but also in their prevailing sense that they are witness to a passing. Like Shakespeare, Dante was fervently attached to a culture, to a time and place, and while he was compelled to purify those attachments, he never fully relinquished them, and they formed the substance of his consciousness. Shakespearean tragedy finds its purest springs of motivation and appeal in this sense of the passing of something that was great and bound up with the author and his ways. Ethics and history—not what Bloom rightly calls the "creeping plague" of political correctness—appeal to the keenest literary imaginations, whose highest task is to describe them in all their fullness. As Richard Wilbur was able to attest, "Love calls us to the things of this world."

On another front, Bloom thinks we can have consciousness shorn of faith or belief. I imagine that such a consciousness is possible, but also that it must come under enormous strain and finally not reach the highest levels of creative genius. He adores the radical Protestant tradition of Milton, Blake, and Lawrence, their freedom in following the Inner Light. But can such liberation ever be separated from what he calls the "creedal"? People nowadays boast that they are not part of any "institutionalized religion"—as if there could be any other. Yet could we have had the perpetuation and cultivation of this Inner Light, without those who went before, like Martin Luther who in the 16th century fought out the doctrinal battles and invented the churchly forms that served to validate the Holy Spirit for his followers?

Bloom is a critic of great capaciousness and confidence, willing to recognize and praise genius even where there might exist reason to abhor it. He is able to relegate the anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot to the junk-pile it deserves, while nevertheless acknowledging the clear aspects of their genius. This means that within his broad critical range he has the rare capacity for recognizing proportionate value. And in our time that is the kind of critic who beckons to us. Like the late Leslie Fiedler, another critic to be savored, Bloom is "a '50s Jewish intellectual who claimed this country as his own." As a confident member of a progressive, pluralistic society, as a life-long member of one of our great universities, Bloom can claim Western literature (and even a bit beyond) as his own.