Bloom’s Gnovel

Marilyn Butler

  • The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy by Harold Bloom
    Faber, 240 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 374 15644 1

Harold Bloom of Yale has become strangely hard to avoid. Eloquent, prolific, charismatic, he is unmistakably one of the leading living mandarins of literary criticism. His manner of writing has not endeared him to the professional Establishment – his hyperboles, as he once remarked, have been unacceptable to the scholars of poetic tradition. On the other hand, there has been something in his matter which has made it difficult for non-hyperbolic scholars either to catch him out or to shake him off.

One reason has been his splendid timing. Over the last twenty years a series of books which on the face of it dealt with esoteric topics proved, on inspection, to chime with the intellectual fashion. He rose to stardom by writing on Romanticism, and especially with The Visionary Company (1961), an introduction to the six great English Romantic poets which interpreted them all as introverted figures with transcendental aspirations. The Visionary Company was never merely fashionable; it had much more vigour and warmth than almost all rival surveys of its field. But it did manage to keep company with a whole American generation’s outpouring on English Romanticism, most of it profoundly respectable. Bloom, to be sure, in 1970 wrote a new introduction to The Visionary Company which implied that it broke with the past. Eliot, Bloom declared, divided English poets into two traditions, of which the better line of inheritance was the religious (although, Bloom commented, the favoured poets were in practice merely the Anglo-Catholics). Using this yardstick, Eliot came near to omitting Romantic poetry from his canon. Was Bloom’s a move, then, to re-admit a body of poetry that was politically radical, secular, or otherwisenon-conforming with High American altruism? Not so. ‘Though it is a displaced Protestantism,’ Bloom concedes, ‘or a Protestantism astonishingly transformed by different kinds of humanism or naturalism, the poetry of the English Romantics is a kind of religious poetry, and the religion is in the Protestant line.’ This is a bit like Milton’s handling of Satan’s rebellion: it begins with the challenge, and ends with the Almighty firmly in the judgment seat.

Bloom’s religiousness has probably been the element in his thinking which has done most to confuse his friends and foes alike. From the start he has peppered his books with esoteric references to the Jewish Kabbalah, the body of doctrine or theosophy which is latent both in Judaism and in Christianity; it emphasises not external authority, the law, the Prophets, the Church, but inward experience and meditation. The religiously orthodox, and with them Eliot’s New England literary Establishment, have no doubt tended to think that Kabbalism encourages superstition, emotionalism and self-indulgence. Much the same could be said of the flower people of the 1960s, who were also hankering after forms of religion with a dash of oriental extravagance about them. It was a suspect strain in Bloom, that his Kabbalism met the emotionalism of the day. And yet he avoided making exaggerated claims for the movement, of the sort other scholars might have enjoyed themselves refuting; his learning was, in fact, also compatible with the highly scholastic accounts of Renaissance neo-Platonism which were pouring out of the academies at the same time.

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