Forget the width, feel the quality
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.
The Anxiety of Influence