The Misreader

by James Wood | May 1, 2006

Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine By Harold Bloom (Riverhead Books, 256 pp., $24.95) I.

 

There are certain writers, such as Garry Wills and John Updike, who seem to aspire to a state of continuous publication, as if their readership were constantly reviewing them for tenure. Harold Bloom has been among their number since 1990, when he aimed The Book of J at a general readership. It is admirable to want to write criticism for someone other than one's colleagues and graduate students, and Bloom's intelligence, erudition, and charm have made him America's best-known man of letters. Some of that recent work has earned its favor: The Western Canon and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human are rich works of popular criticism.

But the cost of belonging to that army for whom the pen is mightier than the wrist (to adapt Housman) has been large, too. There have been twelve books since 1990, which means a book roughly every sixteen months. (Updike is well ahead, at twenty books since 1990, which corresponds to a book about every nine months or so.) The only way to conduct this kind of permanent revolution of print is to have the word factories ablaze all day and night, and to relish the inevitable duplication and mass production. Thus Updike repackages his writing by collecting his early stories, or by squeezing every last emission of his journalistic work into hardcovers, or by writing fiction that, figuratively speaking, repeats itself. (Villages, which appeared two years ago, is at times almost indistinguishable from at least four or five earlier fictions.)

Bloom's way is to repeat himself by variation, rather like the custom, in traditional societies, of adding another floor to the house when the family grows. Thus his Shakespeare book essentially repeats and expands on the Shakespeare chapter in The Western Canon, while How to Read and Why also borrows heavily from The Western Canon. An introduction to Edith Grossman's new translation of Don Quixote just rephrases the Cervantes chapter from The Western Canon, and so on. Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds was little more than an anthology of the rather left-handed introductions Bloom has been writing over the years for his Chelsea House collections--books of essays about canonical authors, assembled by diligent research assistants, and topped by Bloom's princely prefaces, which have the air of a fatherly sendoff and pat on the head, the affection of the pat depending on Bloom's decision about exactly how "strong" is the author under consideration.

As Bloom has settled into this second career, so his old virtues have gradually fallen from him. An extraordinary amount of the work of the last decade is luxurious with padding and superfluity; there is hardly a book of his that would not have been better off as an essay. He is not a critic anymore, but a populist appreciator; the close readings of poems, sometimes thrilling in their originality, that characterized books such as The Anxiety of Influence and Agon have been replaced by a peculiar combination of character-psychologizing and canonical divination, producing that familiar Bloomian sentence, which is always adding superfluous codas to itself, and in which three or four favored authors are tossed around in an approving oil and coated with the substance of their creations: "Only Don Quixote can rival the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, and even Emerson at his strongest--stronger, here, even than his belated rival, Nietzsche--is not quite a match for his ultimate precursor, J's Yahweh, though I concede that the greatest Jewish genius after Jesus, Sigmund Freud, would not have agreed with my heretical opinion." (That is a parody, but I can provide excellent originals.)

Above all, for Bloom, writers must be ranked, and the greatness of the very greatest asserted again and again. Moreover, all great writers are essentially alike. Bloom is indubitably a fine Shakespearean critic, but he has strayed very far from Kent's threat in King Lear: "I'll teach you differences." Instead, he teaches us samenesses. For him, literature has become an enormous family tree, in which genetically similar generations quarrel and make up and die, and hand on their majestic and generally Oedipal DNA to their offspring.

Vatic, repetitious, imprecisely reverential, though never without a peculiar charm of his own--a kind of campiness, in fact--Bloom as a literary critic in the last few years has been largely unimportant. But in one area he has remained interesting: on the question of religion, and American religion in particular. The Book of J--which argues that the most lively and grand narrative strand of the Pentateuch, the one by the so-called J writer, centrally concerned with the representation of Yahweh, was probably written by a woman--was not taken seriously by biblical scholars or by ancient historians, but it is vivid nonetheless. Borrowing from the burgeoning study of biblical texts as literary texts, it treats Yahweh as a literary creation, the greatest canonical character in literature. It clearly influenced Jack Miles's intriguing God: A Biography, a book that has, in turn, made an impact on Bloom's recent religious writing.

The American Religion, which appeared in 1992, was a more significant and unexpected work. In it, Bloom argues that American Christianity is neither very biblical nor very theological. He focuses particularly on Mormonism and on the Southern Baptists, though he also discusses Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism and Christian Scientism. He finds that American Christians emphasize what he calls "a Gnostic knowing of Jesus through direct acquaintance," and that they characterize the self that gets to know Jesus thus as essentially solitary. Like most extreme off-shoots of Protestantism, the American sects and churches have shucked off Yahweh as a theological and literary inconvenience (too Jewish, too unpleasant and disobliging, too absent), and have rapturously taken possession of a now strangely Fatherless Jesus Christ, best approached through the Holy Spirit, and most emblematically seen as the Risen Christ. This solitary "knowing" of Jesus--through conversion, salvation, and prayer--is combined, so Bloom argues, with a characteristic American self-love, a belief that the human self possesses elements of the divine.

To Bloom, all this sounds very much like Emerson (he is right) and very much like Gnosticism (he is partly right). Bloom, as he never tires of telling his readers, is a "Gnostic Jew." He uses the adjective with casual elasticity: often it signifies for him any esoteric approach to metaphysical knowledge (gnosis is the Greek term for knowledge); at other times, it seems little more than an honorific, bestowed on an approved author who seems to have achieved the necessary "religious" sublimity. Gnosticism is an immensely complex theological and cosmological system, Greek, Jewish, and Christian, that has its roots in an attempt to reconcile God and the existence of evil. To simplify an enormous and very diverse body of writings: Gnosticism deals with the problem of evil by asserting that since matter is evil, God cannot have created the world. There is a true God somewhere beyond the cosmos, but it was a false God, a Demiurge, who created fallen man and the world, either blunderingly or malevolently. This Demiurge is often associated with the Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible. Yet unbeknown to the Demiurge, Sophia infused man's soul with her essence, and so we botched creatures contain within ourselves a divine spark, a pneuma.

It is this divine spark that seems most to interest Bloom, though he conveniently ignores those Gnostics who believed that most humans had none of this spark and would therefore pass into oblivion. (The recently translated gospel of Judas espouses just such a belief.) For Bloom, this is nothing less than a picture of the almost-divinity of the self--"God and man differ only in degree, not in kind," as he puts it. In Mormonism, he finds a belief system that does indeed look Gnostic. For the Mormons believe that God was a man of flesh and blood who became God, and that humans must progress upward in the same way. The Mormon God can organize the world but cannot create. As Bloom rightly remarks, this disposes of the problem of evil, since God is not culpable for our fallenness. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was much taken with the figure of Enoch, who "walked with God," and who, in some Gnostic accounts, is figured as an angel or even a lesser Yahweh. "The revelation of Enoch," says Bloom, "was made to the Prophet Joseph precisely as it was made to the Kabbalists, to grant unto us a more human God and a more divine man."

The reverence of Bloom's language here can hardly go unnoticed. The American Religion is indeed a hymn of praise to Mormonism, and above all to Joseph Smith, "an authentic prophet," one of the great unheralded Americans. Swept up by the sublimity of Smith's gnosis, Bloom ignores much of the nonsense and fraudulence of Mormonism. Or rather, he approves of the nonsense and fraudulence that he can call Gnostic: "I am wholly sympathetic to the achievement of Joseph Smith," he writes. "He was anything but a great writer, but he was a great reader, or creative misreader, of the Bible. Mormonism is a wonderfully strong misprision, or creative misreading, of the early history of the Jews." The God of Joseph Smith, he alleges, "is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the true religion of Yahweh or Jehovah. If Smith was mistaken, then so were they, but I hardly know just what it could mean to say that the Kabbalists or Joseph Smith were mistaken."

The man has got panegyrics, as Mark Twain once said. Gnosticism and Mormonism function, for Bloom, as engines of afflatus, systems of figurative and pictorial hypothesis that boldly voyage beyond the verifiable, the theological, the arguable, even the believable (no back-and-forth about the cultural contexts of Leviticus or earnest legalisms about whether the Resurrection can be proved to have "actually happened"), and which can then enter the magically limitless world of the fictional: that is to say, Gnosticism and Mormonism attain the status of that highest medium, literature, beyond which there can be no higher gnosis. Credulity opens its gates and simply moans in submission, as it surges beyond credibility itself.

To be fair, Bloom is surely right about the Gnostic and esoteric elements of Mormonism. He is much less convincing when discussing orthodox, if charismatic, branches of Protestantism such as Baptism and Pentecostalism. He over-asserts the extent to which these forms of Christianity have removed Yahweh from their idea of Christ. (I was tortured, in my evangelical childhood, with a song whose vilely mnemonic refrain was "Your way, not my way, Yahweh.") And though he tries very hard, he is unpersuasive when arguing that the Southern Baptists believe that humans have a piece of Jesus already within them and are thus Gnostic. Despite his lengthy discussion of the Baptist idea of "soul competency," he marshals absolutely no evidence for the Gnosticism of the Baptists (soul competency sounds like little more than soul preparation) and proceeds instead by crafty elision:

The Baptist experience of knowing Jesus, in a solitary and renewable encounter, takes priority over public worship doctrine, or acts of charity. And since what can know Jesus, in some way already is akin to Jesus, then the saved Baptist participates now in the Resurrection and the Life…. Creator and creature are indistinguishable, and the dualism of body and soul is abrogated, so that the Baptist mystic already knows what it is to have been resurrected.

"And since what can know Jesus, in some way already is akin to Jesus": that "in some way" is having to do a great deal of work in Bloom's sentence. He surely knows that there is an enormous difference, in Christian charismatic or mystic encounter, between participating in the experience of God (or Jesus) and becoming God or Jesus. It could hardly be a precondition for one's salvation by Christ that one already is Christ. Then there would be no need for Christ himself.

II.

Which may be Bloom's hope. His new book is, among other things, a powerful complaint against the New Testament, and against the version of Christ that the church has detached from the revolutionary Jewish teacher who roams through the canonical Gospel accounts. In a quieter key, it launches a similar complaint against the Yahweh of rabbinic tradition, which, in Bloom's eyes, has similarly detached Yahweh from the impossible, near-human, endlessly complex, Lear-like figure of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus and Yahweh is thus a variation on The American Religion, and it reverts to the same texts and obsessions. Like that book, it is finally far more at home with Gnostic pictures than with the orthodox theology of tradition, or indeed with theology at all.

Bloom argues that there are three separate figures, who cannot be theologically melded: there is the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible, "a human-all-too-human God"; and there is the historical figure Yeshua of Nazareth, a Jew who never broke with the Covenant; and there is the theological Jesus Christ of Christianity, who has been leached of Jewishness and personality, and who proclaims the good news of a New Covenant. It is impossible, says Bloom, to see how this Yeshua of Nazareth, or in particular this last figure, Jesus Christ, can be the son of Yahweh, the figure he called Abba, or Father, since Jesus and Yahweh have so little in common.

It is not simply that the Incarnation is profoundly un-Jewish; it is that, in a literary sense, Yahweh cannot have changed so utterly that the man worshiped by millions of Christians can also be Yahweh. Either Jesus represents a complete break with the Hebrew Bible, or Yahweh committed suicide on the cross. In one of the most suggestive moments in the book, Bloom reflects on the Yahweh who speaks face-to-face with Moses, and contrasts that deity with the Yahweh, or Abba, who is so peculiarly absent in the New Testament: "Why is it that not once, even according to the Christian Testament, was there any face-to-face confrontation between Yahweh and his Son?… And if Yahweh thus ceases to be Yahweh, what is to be made, then, of a Yahweh Incarnate?"

Theology is to blame. Reacting against the flagrant humanity of both Yahweh and Jesus, it sought to bleed these figures of their (admittedly very different) personalities. The J writer, that great Shakespeare of the Bible, conjured forth a Yahweh too complex and human and messy for theology's narrowness. The J writer "manifested an irreverence that sparked the defensive rise of theology, which is always an effort to explain away the human aspects of God (or of Jesus)." The culprits are Philo of Alexandria and Paul. Philo, a Greek-speaking Jew, Hellenized Christianity, so that Plato's or Plotinus's bodiless God replaces the interventionist warrior of the Torah. Both Philo and Paul wrenched the Hebrew Bible into new spiritual and allegorical configurations. Paul, the most famous Christian Jew after Jesus himself, centers the faith almost obsessively on the spirit--on Christ's resurrection, and on the promise of the spiritual New Covenant, which will conquer death. (Though paradoxically, Paul is also the most Jewish of apostles, keen at every turn--even to the point of violent misreading of the Hebrew Bible--to ground the arrival of the Messiah in what he sees as prophetic Judaism.) Bloom comments, not without justice, that Paul's Yahweh "shrinks to God the Father, and pragmatically has little function except in relation to the Son…. Neither God nor Christ requires personality for Paul, who possesses so much of that quality that he scarcely needed to seek it outside of himself."

It is a pity that Jesus and Yahweh is not a dense thirty-page essay. For in order to make a book--the condition of those addicted to continuous publication--Bloom must fatten his thesis. But he has only air for provender. Since he has no interest in the tradition of Jewish or Christian theology, he never quotes from it. Since he disdains much of the New Testament, he would rather confess his bewilderment than examine its sources. He gestures constantly toward the majesty and vividness of J's portrait of Yahweh, but he rarely quotes from it, referring us instead to The Book of J. His chapter on Paul, who is supposedly Bloom's arch-antagonist, runs barely to two thousand words, and maunders amid idle speculation: 

Paul is famously eloquent, though more in the English Bible than in the original. Yet he is an obsessed crank, who confuses anyone attempting a dispassionate stance toward him. And he is not truly an innovator or a reformer, but primarily a polemicist who defends a faith to which he has been converted. Neither a villain nor an exemplar, he is a singularly strange genius of synthesis who conceals something evasive in his deepest self. One shrugs off speculations as to his psychosexuality: why does that matter? … Paul's delusion (what else could you call it?) is that he lives in the End Time. Myself a Gnostic Jew, I cannot pretend to understand Paul, almost two millennia later. Yet who can understand him? … We know too much about Paul, and I am left baffled by him. He could be a Shakespearean character, as enigmatic as Hamlet or Iago.

Bloom, in his late pomp, only orates, and so his critical writing now has the flavor of perpetual conclusion, as if each sentence were the slightly unnecessary, slightly rhetorically inflated terminus of its successor. And yet, dispiritingly, this convoy of eternal conclusions stretches out over desert pages! The result is a painful repetitiousness, in which Bloom confronts us again and again with a thesis that might have been compactly handled in ten thousand words:

Jesus Christ and his putative father, Yahweh, do not seem to be two persons of one substance, but of very different substances indeed.

When I argue, throughout this book, that the theological God, the Jesus-the-Christ of the Gospel of John and subsequent Catholic theology, is clearly irreconcilable with Yahweh …

I myself, speaking now only as a literary critic, am not persuaded that the Jesus of Matthew or of Luke is truly the Son of God.

A Messiah who is God Incarnate, and dies on the Cross as an Atonement for all human Sin and error, is irreconcilable with the Hebrew Bible.

And if Yahweh thus ceases to be Yahweh, what is to be made, then, of a Yahweh Incarnate?

The paradox of Christianity always will be its conviction that Yahweh, most unsettling of all entities, whether actual or fictive, could in any sense have fathered Jesus of Nazareth, who might have been profoundly disturbed by what latecomers have reworked as his role.

Imagining J's Yahweh as the father of Mark's Jesus baffles my experience of pondering high literature, where fathers and sons diverge but do not exist in different spheres of being.

Judaism is not Christianity's parent. Rather, Judaism and Christianity are enemy brothers …

III.

The difficulty with Bloom's book, quite apart from its repetitiveness, is that it seems to make theological arguments while being only invested in literary ones. For Bloom, Yahweh is a magnificent literary character, a man-God, a divine human being, the only strong precursor to Shakespeare's Lear and Cervantes's Quixote. (I fear that leaves Prince Myshkin as Jesus's rival.) Since Bloom has no interest in theology, he decides it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Theology is a Greek import; the Bible is sheer literary presence (and dispiriting absence): "I am incapable of understanding what so many Christian scholars go on calling 'the theology of the Old Testament.' The Tanakh has no theology, and Yahweh, to keep repeating the obvious, is not at all a theological God. Theology was invented in Alexandria by the Hellenized Jew Philo, who interpreted the Septuagint as Plotinus construed Plato." This wild overemphasis explains why Bloom does not discuss the Prophets, especially Isaiah; skimps the Psalms; and can only hurl tinny insults at Paul and John: to do any differently would be to admit that there is indeed plenty of theology--ideas and concepts, and not only words and images--in both the Old and New Testaments, and that the biblical story is not merely a great work of literature, a sublime narrative of a character's presence and absence.

But Bloom's real area of interest is the literary, and here he is enormously shadowed--something he concedes-- by Jack Miles's two books, God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. Miles explicitly reads the Old and New Testament as literary narratives, and his books are, in essence, Feuerbachian adventures: what does the God we have created look like as a massive human being, as a literary character? How heroic, how kind, how punitive, how solitary does he seem? Miles is often subtle and provocative, noting, for instance, that God does not speak his own words in the Hebrew Bible after Job, and that he effects a steady withdrawal in the last books. (He reads the Hebrew Bible not as a historical artifact, but as a completed literary text; thus the books after Job are "formally" but not chronologically later.)

Inevitably, Miles sees Jesus's advent as "a crisis in the life of God." Viewed as a single narrative, the Bible is indeed a puzzling tale of self-rescue, a rescue by God from a catastrophe of his own making. "The world is a great crime, and someone must be made to pay for it," Miles writes. "Mythologically read, the New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it … in its broadest outlines, the story of the Bible is the story of how God first turned his blessings of fertility and dominion into curses and then after an epic voyage lasting thousands of years, turned his curses back into blessings."

Like Bloom, Miles presses on the notion of Incarnation so that it begins to seem even more peculiar than it already does: "If we grant that Jesus is God incarnate, then we must grant as well that he has the right to announce a deep change in God--which is to say, in himself--without quite calling the change by that name and without otherwise troubling to explain it." The reason for this deep change, argues Miles, is that God had failed to protect Jerusalem from the Romans. But to admit this is impossible: "Instead of baldly declaring that he is unable to defeat his enemies, God may declare that he has no enemies." The deep change, then, by which God changes from being a chosen people's possession into being a universal deity, and from an interventionist warrior into the Holy Spirit of all peoples, "entails an expansion of membership in his covenant."

The great advantage of Miles's work is that it is explicitly a literary experiment, and that he treats the Old and New Testaments as a biographer or a historian of literary characterization, without aesthetic (or philosophical) evaluation. Unlike Bloom, he is not concerned with literary quality as such. But Bloom's book, which is overwhelmed by its need to displace the belated importance of the New Testament, and thus of Christianity, is in fact a theologico-aesthetic reading in which literary argument is always getting confused with the theological, and in which these two elements are further combined with an almost reflexive Jewish distaste for Christianity. Bloom's book is perhaps at its most interesting, if wrongheaded, when it is most angry, and most defensively Jewish. It as if throughout this book Bloom is constantly muttering, like the Emperor Julian, "Thou has conquered, O Galilean!"

It clearly irritates Bloom that Christianity became so important, for it is obvious that the New Testament, as a literary text, is not as great as its precursor, the Hebrew Bible. Reading between the lines, there are also at least two other sources of irritation: for a Jew, Christianity's pragmatic success, and its often shameful means of "overpowering" Judaism, are rightly appalling--the forced readings of the Hebrew Bible evident in the New Testament, along with the centuries of political oppression and public and private anti-Semitism. The third goad is the one that Bloom cannot really admit to: that the "success" of the New Testament threatens the theory of reading for which Bloom is best known. The anxiety of influence, too, died on the cross.

In Bloom's system, poets struggle oedipally with the great poets who precede them. Younger poets both love and seek to displace their predecessors. Coming after a great poet--as Milton comes after Shakespeare, or Arnold after Wordsworth--is a source of anxiety, and the strong poet will deal with this anxiety by "strongly misreading" his powerful precursor, so as to deflect some of the pressure of his massive influence. The weak misreader is the poet who succumbs to that anxiety of influence, and produces work that has not swerved powerfully enough away from its influences. All poets "misread" their predecessors, because the reading they do is over-determined by the pressure of their creative needs and anxieties. There can never be any simple, disinterested "reading" of one's poetic ancestors--or not of those with whom one is fated to struggle. We might say, for instance, that Bloom, in his second career, is a strong misreader of Clifton Fadiman, but only a weak misreader of Samuel Johnson.

But there was always something unexplained in Bloom's theory. It is "strength." In Freudian or merely pragmatic, terms, strength would mean merely one's ability to wrestle down the father figure and establish an un-neurotic identity, free of over-determination. And Bloom does indeed use the word in this sense. But "strength" in Bloom's usage overwhelmingly means something else: aesthetic power, the ability to triumph aesthetically. In The Anxiety of Influence, when he discusses Tennyson, Arnold, Hopkins, and Rossetti as misreaders of Keats, he decides that only Tennyson has strength: "That Tennyson triumphed in his long, hidden contest with Keats, no one can assert absolutely, but his clear superiority over Arnold, Hopkins and Rossetti is due to his relative victory or at least holding of his own in contrast to their partial defeats. Arnold's elegiac poetry uneasily blends Keatsian style with anti-Romantic sentiment, while Hopkins' strained intensities and convolutions of diction and Rossetti's densely inlaid art are also at variance with the burdens they seek to alleviate in their own poetic selves."

Note here that Bloom is simply asserting that Tennyson is a better poet than the others, while not admitting that he is doing this. At the moment the language is about to become openly evaluative, it becomes Freudian and biographical: "at variance with the burdens they seek to alleviate in their own poetic selves." Bloom cannot admit to it, for if he were just choosing one poet over another for purely aesthetic reasons, then he would have no need of his Freudian system of anxiety and repression. If Tennyson is a better poet than Arnold only because he is less feebly influenced by Keats than Arnold, then how, exactly, is this a new or especially Freudian theory of reading poetry? Poets have always known that the establishment of a voice involves a complex struggle with favored ancestors.

So "strength," in Bloom's vision, has always gone necessarily undefined, the more so as it has become his favorite approbation. Does it mean pragmatic success or aesthetic success? The Bible forces this question acutely on Bloom, and he ducks it. On the one hand, in pragmatic terms, the New Testament is the greatest "strong" misreading of a precursor text ever committed. On the other, it seems to Bloom a work palpably inferior to the Hebrew Bible. How, if this is the case, can it have been so successful? What can it mean to call it a "strong" misreading? Isn't this the equivalent of Arnold displacing Keats in the canon?

The proper solution to this conundrum would be to admit that the Bible confounds the explanatory power of Bloom's theory because aesthetics cede again and again to theology. Whatever reasons people over the centuries have had for worshipping Jesus rather than Yahweh, they have not been primarily aesthetic. Or more precisely, whatever the reasons the early Christians had for persevering with their Jewish heresy, they were not primarily aesthetic. "Strength" will have to mean a hundred things, few of them aesthetic. But this is what Bloom will not confess, because he sees the Bible, and especially Yahweh, only in aesthetic terms, as a great literary creation. So he blusters and throws insults instead. The New Testament may read quite well here and there, but "the power of Christian translators, particularly Jerome and Tyndale, has obscured the relative weakness--aesthetic and cognitive--of the Greek New Testament in its agon with Tanakh." One wonders, here, at the quality of Bloom's New Testament Greek. Can he show us exactly where Jerome and Tyndale applied a little stylistic rouge? Tyndale's favorite New Testament book was Paul's magnificent epistle to the Romans; presumably, when he thus favored it, he was not merely praising his own work.

But just in case this argument does not fly, there are others at hand. In addition, the New Testament is not as … well, not as real as the Old: "Even if Mark were as powerful a writer as the Yahwist, there could be no contest, since Torah (like the Qur'an) is God, whereas the entire argument of the Belated Testament is that a man has replaced Scripture." Again, the necessary wobble in that word "contest," which must mean a contest of strength. But of what kind? A theological contest perhaps, except what could that mean, since Christianity is of course premised on such a contest, on a supersession of the old covenant? Yet if this is not a theological contest but only an aesthetic one--in which the belated man-God, Jesus, is not as "strong" a literary character, not as round a figure as the great creation, Yahweh; in which the writers of these books have simply not mustered enough creative power--then Bloom undoes his argument by mentioning the Qur'an, a book which may "be God," but which, as Bloom himself elsewhere admits, has little of the literary or narratological verve of the Hebrew Bible.

This being Bloom, everything must be worn three or four times at a stretch, like a waif's underwear, so these arguments are repeated and repeated: "John, and Paul before him, took on an impossible precursor and rival, and their apparent victory is merely an illusion. The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible, and of the Yahwist in particular as its uncanny original, is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament as a literary achievement." And if this fails, there is always a combination of simple assertion and camp charm: "In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest, and if you think otherwise, then bless you."

What a strange parochialism, that imagines everywhere only a literary mode of being! (And what strange literary taste, that gets itself so much more excited by the Book of Mormon than the New Testament.) Why is Bloom so sure that the "warfare" between the two books is aesthetic and not theological? Might not the literary differences between the two Testaments have to do with the conviction of the Gospel writers that they were bearing witness, that they were reporting a historical occurrence, so that creation should give place to report; whereas we know that much of the Pentateuch is a blend of Mesopotamian mythology and Semitic history, "something imagined not recalled," as Lowell has it, much of that history closer to epic narrative than to historical record, and bearing the traces of its long hybridity? Does Bloom really think that Paul and John sat down to write thinking to themselves, "Well, it is time to take on that immense literary rival, the Yahwist"? The curious effect of Bloom's theological blindness is that his book reduces theology to aesthetics and simultaneously inflates aesthetics to theology: there is no greater religion here than the religion of art, and in the warfare of the religion of art Yahweh is just "greater."

But of course theology has not altogether disappeared. There is a covert, unconfessed theology behind Bloom's theology of aesthetics. For there is indeed a sense in which he simply does not believe in Christ as he believes in Yahweh. He would murmur that he does not believe in Christ "as a literary creation"; that his disbelief has not been suspended by the Gospels as Genesis and Exodus suspends it. But I suspect that this is not just a literary belief. How is it different, really, from the beliefs of thousands of quite un-Bloomian Jews? Like them, Bloom rightly prefers Yahweh to Christ. For him, Yahweh is God and Jesus is only a man pretending to be God: standard fare. What else can it mean to say that the New Testament is not as successful as the Torah because the Torah "is God" whereas the New Testament merely argues that "a man has replaced Scripture"? Isn't this just a way of saying that Jesus is not the Messiah?

Bloom will not admit to this kind of actually theological belief, because he is wedded to the sole theology of art, to pondering the Bible only as what he calls "high literature." A theological belief would need theological argument, but Bloom prefers a belief beyond argument, a belief about which one cannot ever say that so-and-so is "mistaken" to hold it: "If Smith was mistaken, then so were they, but I hardly know just what it could mean to say that the Kabbalists or Joseph Smith were mistaken." Instead, Bloom prefers the pictures and branching hypotheses of Gnosticism, a system he never seems to think of as theological, doubtless because it seems to him so boldly fictive or poetic.

Yet the most powerful part of Jesus and Yahweh, the moment when the book really comes alive, is when, ironically enough, Bloom is being theological. Near the end, he gives a brief summary of his cherished Gnostic and Kabbalistic beliefs, and then launches a series of anguished laments. Generally, Bloom's Gnosticism has been inert, theologically speaking--he seems to have so little interest in its fundamental raison d'être, which is to explain the large questions of theodicy; but at the end of his book Bloom gives voice to a kind of plangent Gnostic complaint, whereby he asks Yahweh, in effect, why he has abandoned us--and more particularly, why he has abandoned the Jews. Where did God go? Bloom wonders if Yahweh is off in space, nursing his lovelessness. Or perhaps, following Jack Miles, God has deserted us because he has withdrawn into the contradictions of his own character?

In general, Bloom has never shown much awareness that, philosophically speaking, Gnosticism solves nothing--that the positing of a false God or Demiurge is quite obviously not a "solution" to the problem of evil, but merely a dualism that does no more than move the problem, so to speak, somewhere else on the board. But in his closing pages, he seems to face up to the awful pessimism at the heart of Gnosticism. "Does Torah love us?" asks Bloom. "I shrug off Yahweh when, for some moment or other, he affirms his love for the Jewish people. Palpably he doesn't, and not because we killed Christ; he did, using the Romans and a few Jewish Quislings as his agents." Perhaps indeed Yahweh has deserted us:

 

 

Rabbi Abba bar Mimel, one of the earliest Amoriam, quotes Yahweh as saying, 'I am named according to my acts.' What were these acts during the twenty ostensibly Christian centuries? Where can we see these acts today? A God who hides himself is one matter, but a Yahweh who dwindles down into an occasional burst of radiance no longer merits the name of Yahweh, which after all primarily must mean being present.

This kind of writing, a blasphemous ambling, will not appeal to all tastes; and there is something comically appropriate in the prospect of a critic who disdains theology and the theological Yahweh of the rabbis so palpably possessed by a kind of ardent blasphemy, which is itself a variety of theology.

In The American Religion, Bloom says that as a religious critic he has tried to follow something uttered by his secular deity, William Blake, that "Everything Possible to be Believed is an Image of Truth." One would need such an aphorism to avoid breaking out into derision at the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, and the fundamentalists. It looks like one of Blake's sillier lines, itself an image of untruth; unless, of course, Blake actually meant that everything possible to be doubted is an image of truth--that every doubtful thought contains a truth. Harold Bloom, aloft on his sublime religion of art, has never been much enamored of doubt. The hint of it at the end of his book gives his writing a new, and decidedly belated, energy.

 

This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.

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