For­get the width, feel the qual­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Luke Slat­tery

JUST as Co­leridge was the great talker of his age, Harold Bloom is the great mono­lin­guist of ours. And

, an il­lus­trated med­i­ta­tion the satanic and the an­gelic in the West­ern tra­di­tion, Bloom bur­bles away in a con­ge­nial, if typ­i­cally di­gres­sive, man­ner.

The great Yale poly­math is such a gar­ru­lous writer on his big themes — and this sub­ject in par­tic­u­lar dis­tils his en­thu­si­asm for the JudeoChris­tian lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, as well as the Gnos­tics, Shake­speare and the Ro­man­tics — that of­ten­times he seems not to be writ­ing at all. I came to think of , in the short time it took to read, as Bloom’s dream. For the many read­ers familiar with Bloom from high­brow block­busters such as

, and the few who re­call his as­ton­ish­ing lit­er­ary study of in­tra- po­etic re­la­tion­ships’’, , this kind of synap­tic fir­ing will bring back fond mem­o­ries:

Ge­orge Gor­don, Lord By­ron, was and is the Fallen An­gel proper. His var­i­ous im­i­ta­tors, rang­ing from Os­car Wilde to Ernest Hem­ing­way and Edna St Vin­cent Mil­lay, have never been able to displace him. The Bronte sis­ters, fiercely in love with the im­age of By­ron, pro­vided bet­ter im­i­ta­tions of him in Emily’s Heathcliff and Char­lotte’s Rochester.’’

The Judeo- Chris­tian mo­tifs of the an­gel and the devil — the lat­ter an an­gel cast out of the empyrean — en­joy a pow­er­ful sec­u­lar af­ter­life in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. Bloom starts his ac­count by cat­a­logu­ing all those in­stances of what he calls the an­gel craze’’, in film and fiction, on T- shirts and in cal­en­dars.

It’s not a great start; in fact it’s lit­tle bet­ter than cul­tural jour­nal­ism. But he is quickly into his work as he finds his high cul­tural reg­is­ter:

Demons be­long to all ages and all cul­tures, but fallen an­gels and devils es­sen­tially emerge from a quasi- con­tin­u­ous se­ries of re­li­gious tra­di­tions that com­mence with Zoroas­tri­an­ism, the dom­i­nant world re­li­gion dur­ing the Per­sian em­pires, and pass from it to Ex­ilic and post- Ex­ilic Ju­daism.’’

The ge­neal­ogy of the satanic leads Bloom to his core idea: that we are all fallen an­gels, blessed be­ings driven from heaven. We are all fall­ing. And it is his prob­ing of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the divine and the hu­man that brings him even­tu­ally to Shake­speare’s and his uni­ver­sal mes­sage — the an­gelic and the hu­man are vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal’’. But so too is the hu­man and the satanic. What does man do with this self- knowl­edge? It’s at this point that the reader wants more of Bloom, and there is ab­so­lutely no doubt he could oblige. But the dream, in no time at all, is over.

It seems churl­ish to lament the ab­sence, in an es­say of this scope, of Donne’s fallen an­gel as an agent of sex­ual love: Twice or thrice had I loved thee, / Be­fore I knew thy face or name; / So in a voice, so in a / shape­less flame / An­gels af­fect us oft, and / wor­shipp’d be.’’ But Bloom, a self- con­fessed Gnos­tic, is more in­ter­ested in the life of the soul and the po­et­ics of bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive.

Ever since the Prince­ton philoso­pher Harry Frank­furt vaulted into the best­seller lists with his short es­say, On Bull­shit, fol­lowed by the much less ap­peal­ing coda, On Truth, th­ese sorts of slen­der high­brow med­i­ta­tions have be­come quite re­spectable. Per­haps it’s a re­sponse to a fea­ture of our cut- and- paste age, for in both Bloom and Frank­furt one feels the pres­ence of a co­her­ent in­tel­lec­tual per­son­al­ity, the work­ings of a mind.

Of course, 5000 densely packed words from Bloom is the equiv­a­lent of 50,000 from a writer with­out his range. And this slen­der tract is any­thing but light­weight. The devil, as al­ways, is in the de­tail.

An­gels

West­ern Canon

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In Fallen

The Anx­i­ety of In­flu­ence

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Fallen An­gels

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on

Ham­let

The

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