The cars of the elect will be driverless

Frank Kermode

  • Omens of the Millennium by Harold Bloom
    Fourth Estate, 256 pp, £15.99, October 1996, ISBN 1 85702 555 5

Towards the end of this rather bewildering book Harold Bloom explains that he doesn’t really expect the year 2000 to be catastrophic; we shall experience neither ‘rupture nor rapture’. The only danger he can see is that some people, maddened by the deferral of the end-time on which they had counted (or, in Bloomspeak, disappointed in their ‘expectation of release from the burdens of a society that is weary with its sense of belatedness, or “aftering” ’) might cut up rough when the year passes without apocalyptic incident. We know from previous studies of such sects that such an outcome is unlikely. Members of the sect either rework their calculations or just slip away. But the sceptical view – that the end always misses the appointment – is the one one would expect the learned Bloom to hold. He knows very well the long tradition of disappointed apocalypse, and he is aware that 2000 AD or CE is a date with no more intrinsic significance than any other.

On the other hand, Bloom, not by nature a sceptic, cannot help wanting the millennium to be very significant indeed, and in that mood utters many dark sayings about it. Sometimes it is ‘rushing upon us’, sometimes ‘we drift on towards Millennium’; but whatever the speed and direction of the movement, he seems, at least some of the time, sure that something pretty spectacular is in the offing. So he will ‘seek to read some of our signs at the end of an age’.

Such facing both ways is only one of several reasons why this is a puzzling book. Bloom’s millennial speculations have to be distinguished from the numerous vulgar chiliasms to be found in modern America; and these must in turn be distinguished from the real religion of America, which is a kind of unconscious Gnosticism with a strong apocalyptic element. Bloom’s personal religion is also Gnostic but not at all unconscious. He calls Joseph Smith of the Mormons a religious genius, and hopes there will be more like him – for a mad moment one suspects he may have himself in mind for the part – but doesn’t want his own beliefs to be mistaken for any others that may be on offer. He is the sole modern expositor of a faith recovered from antiquity, and he urges all persons of goodwill to wake from their dogmatic slumbers and join it.

Making all these tricky distinctions, and at the same time offering a kerygma (or proclamation of faith) calls for all Bloom’s energy and erudition, and the reader at times feels alternately endangered by volleys of recondite information and charmed by the profligate provision of gorgeous nonsense, which isn’t an insult, since gorgeous nonsense is what Coleridge once accused Plato of writing, perhaps with the Timaeus in mind.

The prevalence and variety of apocalyptic thought in modern America is well illustrated in Paul Boyer’s book, When Time Shall Be No More (1992), which is specially interesting on the phenomenon known as the Rapture. This is the word used by millions of people (in a sense not specifically recognised by the OED to refer to a prophecy in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which states that in the end-time the elect will be ‘caught up ... in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air’. Though splendid for the elect, this development inevitably means trouble for everybody else: airliners, their born-again captains raptured, will hurtle about the sky and then crash; on the freeways the cars of the elect will be driverless, to the great confusion of the wicked. A man may be contentedly mowing his lawn while his wife, unknown to him, is disappearing over the rooftops, propelled upwards, to borrow Joyce’s expression, like a shot off a shovel. Not all believers expect larks on this scale, but it seems from the polls that 100 million Americans regard the Second Coming of Jesus as imminent. How such literal dependence on prophecy is consistent with Bloom’s assertion that American religion, unlike most European varieties, is ‘experiential and pragmatic’ I do not know. He uses that phrase in the course of his demonstration that Americans, unlike Europeans, have a passion for angels.

The omens mentioned in the title of the book are, broadly, three. As the end approaches, people are growing more and more fascinated by angels. Secondly, they are also interested in telepathic and prophetic dreams; and, finally, they have developed a passion for information about near-death experiences. Although all three interests descend, in the very long run, from original Gnostic sources, they are easily confounded with and contaminated by all the New Age and other trash – ‘diffuse religiosity’ – that circulates in what Bloom despairingly calls the Age of Gingrich. He occasionally turns aside to speak disparagingly of the Speaker and of some other eminent representatives of modern decadence, such as Ms Huffington, but the main business of the book is to explain the prevalence of angels, meaningful dreaming and near-death reports as pre-apocalyptic phenomena, always allowing that although the end is in some sense nigh in some other sense it isn’t.

No major religious tradition fails to provide angels, but there seems to be no society that now takes them more seriously than modern America. By way of explaining this asymmetry Bloom provides a dazzling chapter on the history of angels. They had only a small place in early Judaism, though they had come into their own by the time of the Kabbala. The Christian tradition has lots of angels and many different opinions about them: Paul didn’t much care for them; Aquinas thought them purely spiritual beings; Milton boldly made them material, allowing them to eat with appetite and make ecstatic love to one another. They were arranged in hierarchies, as specified by the Pseudo-Dionysius. Swedenborg saw lots of them, ‘banal as your neighbours’. Bloom himself, a syncretist if ever there was one, is visited by them in dreams. He concludes that ‘there is a human longing for angels, perpetual and unappeasable.’ As you would expect, they are particularly active in these Last Days.

They started life in Zoroastrianism, also the primal source of millennialist ideas. The Zoroastrian angels survive most purely among the Shi’ite Sufis, most abundantly but alas, less purely, in modern America. Another poll claims that 69 per cent of Americans believe in angels and 32 per cent have direct experience of them. But, to Bloom’s regret, America has domesticated angels, humanised them, made them ‘insipid’. In Tony Kushner’s very long and (to the un-American spectator) tedious play, Angels in America, it is the role of the angel to wander about the stage chatting not very usefully to the sick gay hero, and it seems that the main task of angels nowadays is ‘to reassure Americans’.

How have things come to this pass? The American angel is not in its true nature insipid. It has a grand ancestry. The prophet Enoch was taken up by God and made into the angel Metatron, with whom Joseph Smith later identified himself. Metatron is the name of the great American angel, ‘the Archangel of our moment as we approach millennium’. Whether we are doing that or not, the angel Metatron-Enoch-Smith has an important though still obscure function in modern American Gnosticism, which vulgar angelology will misconceive and possibly frustrate.

Bloom believes that the attitude of angels towards us, far from being simply protective, is ‘profoundly ambivalent’. At the outset they were upset because newly created Adam seemed superior to them, and so they never really took to humanity. When Enoch arrived in Heaven they could smell him parasangs off, because he was born of woman. And we do well to remember that angels can be really bad: that is why many of them fell, no fewer than 133,306,668, according to one authority. Bad angels, it seems, also originated in Persia, products of Zoroastrian dualism. What all this seems to say about ‘our current national obsession with angels’ is that it is not a good idea to domesticate them.

There is a lot more about angels, their history and their peculiar relation to America as the millennium rushes towards it, but that will have to do. Bloom’s chapter on dreams stresses the need to get rid of Freud before we can benefit from the superior dream theories provided by early Christian Gnosticism, Sufism and the Kabbala. Indeed, he has more to say about why Freud was hopelessly wrong than he does about modern American prophetic dreaming. His own experience of psychoanalysis has not been entirely happy, but his main complaint is that Freud refused to see dreams as having a prophetic function, even when it took an extraordinary degree of stubbornness to do so – for example, in the dream of the dead child who comes to tell his father that he is burning. We conclude that Bloom, along with modern America, though less vulgarly, is rejecting Freud in favour of prophetic and telepathic dreams, regarding them as omens of the end.

Near-death experiences have been vulgarised like everything else. Bloom, having had such an experience, knows that they occur, but is sure that popular theories about their eschatological significance won’t do. They are ‘our contemporary half-hearted evasion of Gnosis and its vision of resurrection, or not dying, the vision of the Being of Light that connects Christian Gnosticism, Sufism and the Kabbala, vital traditions of visionary experience and its interpretation’. The real thing is akin to the trance journeys of shamanism, of which popular near-death experiences are mere parodies, another sign that we have lost the gift of ‘spiritual ecstasy’.

If Bloom has recovered that gift it must be because his own Gnosticism derives from original pure doctrine, not easy to detect in adulterated modern survivals. He preaches a kind of Gnostic Reformation. America, as he has argued in earlier books, does have a distinctive religion, of which the Southern Baptist Church and Mormonism are prominent institutional features. He sees virtue in this arrangement but still needs to distinguish his own religion from others, the tolerable as well as the base (‘the dark crankeries’). Like his Protestant predecessors he does so by looking back behind modern corruption to a pristine state before corruption began. In its early Christian-Judaistic manifestation his religion may have been the religion of James the brother of Jesus, behind which he conjectures a lost, early Jewish Gnosticism. Perhaps the Essenes were Gnostics; certainly the Cathars were. And at every stage ecclesiastical authority exerted itself to crush genuine Gnosticism, which for the most part survives only in debased forms. Surrounded by such travesties, he now offers it in the pure version he has worked out for himself.

His book ends with a sermon setting forth the true doctrine. Gnosis ‘makes us free’. It is the right way of knowing God, and it depends on having within one a spark that has always been God’s. Gnosis knows what we were before we fell from our original divine state. For ages the property of an élite, Gnosticism is an alternative religion now available to ‘Christians, Jews, Muslims and secular humanists’. There will be some sacrifices: for instance, we’ll have to give up angels, but it will be worth it. ‘Time has become hastier ... the interval narrows,’ and Gnosis will make you free of time and also of death. But it must be the real distinguished thing, unadulterated by substitutes and by angels, who were, after all, responsible for the creation of the world, with all its unfortunate consequences. Gnosticism can take you back ‘to a breath or spark that long precedes this Creation’.

Bloom has long assumed the authority to make dogmatic pronouncements about the whole of literature, Biblical and secular, and from his earliest writings there have always been moments when the tone grew prophetic and others when authority modulated into chutzpah. Cynthia Ozick, in a prescient essay written 17 years ago, emphasised the Gnostic-Kabbalistic element already manifest in his work, and set against it her version of a good mainstream Judaism that had no time for ‘belatedness’ nor indeed for any of the variations on the idea of tradition that Bloom has always played. Already it was looking as if he had the makings of a heresiarch.[*] Here, however, he goes further and presents himself as the founder of a religion, preaching Gnosticism in its original purity to a society that thrives on a terribly debased version of it. The undertone of self-irony sometimes audible in his earlier work seems largely absent from this book.

That is hardly surprising if one considers Bloom’s predecessors, the people who have sought to recover ancient religions that might either supplement or replace the ones we already have. They were often comprehensively erudite but were not noted for self-irony or humour of any kind. To say nothing of all the attempts to recover a primitive Christianity, there was a prolonged search in the Renaissance for ancient Orphic, Hermetic and Neoplatonic mysteries, and the occult tradition thereafter is continuous. A recurring feature is the appearance of new religious leaders with access to primeval secrets, some of them influential, some fraudulent, and some both, like Mme Blavatsky and Gurdjieff; D.H. Lawrence also has a place in this tradition. It has strongly affected literature, perhaps French literature more than English, and has sometimes turned literature into prophecy, but it has touched literary criticism very rarely. Criticism is Bloom’s basic trade, and he has given it a new prophetic dimension. He is probably the first writer to find in literary theory the ground of a new religion. To do that you might well have to be the first American religious genius since Joseph Smith. No wonder he has cut down on self-irony.

[*] Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (Pimlico, 329 pp., £12.50, 3 September 1994, 0 7126 7484 5). There are also exceptionally good essays on Sholem Aleichem, George Steiner, Isaac Babel, Cyril Connolly, Trollope, Henry James and other matters.