The audacity of Harold Bloom

What is it about Harold Bloom that gets people all worked up? Well, for one, there is almost no way to remain indifferent to a man who writes, “If Yahweh is a man of war, Allah is a suicide bomber.” One would like to think Bloom is being provocative with this phrase, despite his repeated admonitions. In the opening pages of his book “Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine” he clearly states for anyone interested that his intention is neither to ironize nor give offense.

Who was this book written for? One answer is that the book was penned by Harold Bloom for an audience of one. From the book’s title onward he manages to alienate almost every potential reader. Religious “believers” will have perhaps little interest in a purely literary reading of scripture that tends to undermine every principle of the sacred. Secularists will be offended by Bloom’s unequivocal refutation of the supposed Judeo-Christian tradition, which he terms a “farce.”

Atheists like Sam Harris, whose book “The End of Faith” is discussed in the closing chapter, will likely feel betrayed by Bloom’s insistence that reason alone cannot dislodge Yahweh, who contains us, not we him. Who is left? Lay readers, most of whom no doubt will find themselves ill-prepared for the onslaught of scholarship that awaits them. If you are not well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament, Mishnah, gnosticism, Talmud, Kabbalah, and the work of Freud, Kafka and Walt Whitman (and the myriad commentaries on all of the above) you may not get past page three. But how else could such a book have been written?

The book’s main thesis—if indeed it has only one—is the supposed incompatibility of Judaism with Christianity. Bloom quotes the scholar Jacob Neusner: “different people talking about different things to different people”, hardly a consoling phrase for anyone who believes in interreligious dialogue. Bloom, however, does not set out to console.

Almost every page of this book fascinates in its audacity. Bloom knows what his readers expect of him and he throws no curve balls. He cannot reconcile the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, with the Christian Old Testament. They are two different books with two wildly different agendas. Jesus Christ bears little in common with Yeshua ben Josef (or what little we can surmise about him). The Christian God the Father has almost nothing to do with Yahweh. Christianity, triumphant in the West, has taken the Tanakh (and ancient Judaism) captive like a prize. The Jews, thanks to their tenacity, have somehow survived despite all this. The Judeo-Christian tradition is, in Bloom’s mind, political doublespeak, pure wind.

Not to suggest that these musings have no merit. There is a lot of keen observation in Bloom’s willingness to offend. When he calls Freud “the prime incarnation of Jewish genius since Jesus himself” he is repeating one of his many obsessive shibboleths. One may wonder how Whitman or King Lear fit in to all this, but Bloom makes room for them, too. The key to all this is—what else?—Lurianic Kabbalah, which makes room for just about everything in the universe.

Marc Alan Coen – also in THE NEWYORKERS column of this blog. 


9 thoughts on “The audacity of Harold Bloom

  1. I come from a very religious evangelical family and although I am an atheist I still feel sympathetic towards religious sentiment. I remember first coming across Harold Bloom, not surprisingly, when I was a college freshman browsing through our local library’s small collection of literary criticism. I was not alienated then and have not been since. If anything I find in Bloom a deeply personal and passionate voice arguing, I feel exceptionally convincingly, for a more powerful interpretation of literature then we commonly receive. His comparison of Yahweh to Lear and Jesus to Hamlet/ Whitman is if nothing interesting. Perhaps he is better summarized in Wallace Steven’s words as the severe ever harassing master.

  2. Don,

    Thanks for your perceptive comment. Of course I don’t find Bloom nearly so alienating as some people do, and it was with them that I was primarily concerned. I, too, am fascinated by his chutzpah and his seemingly endless intellect. More than anything, reading Bloom makes me want to read more. But I imagine there are many who, quite justifiably, may not get past the first pages of the book. They may not have the necessary tools. At least not yet.

  3. Marc,

    I get nervous when I read your review of Bloom’s latest book. As I professor, I see the daily decline in human intellect that plagues our society. You mention that he “alienates” potential readers; however, what readers are you talking about? I am always a potential reader of Bloom, and I never feel alienated. What I find interesting in your review is the direct relation your words have to what Harold Bloom has been arguing for years. Namely, that our society is hell-bent on avoiding difficult pleasures (such as reading scholarly material), in order to pursue less difficult pleasures (such as Hollywood movies or J. K. Rowling books). Your words do more to enforce the importance of Bloom’s contributions rather than diminish them.

  4. Timothy,

    I never intended to attempt to diminish Bloom’s contributions! I read the book (and wrote about it) because I am rather a devotee of Bloom. But somewhere along the line I realized–perhaps after talking to others who picked it up and put it down ten pages later–that people are not reading him. Everyone has an opinion of him, however. Bloom, I feel, is aware of his stature among the reading and semi-reading public. He is provocative (which I appreciate), perhaps to spur the potential reader onward. But how many serious readers are familiar with rabbinic literature when most people aren’t even familiar with the Book of Genesis (such is my impression)? Bloom has written an exceedingly bold and interesting book for a limited readership. He is the prophet of our poorly literate culture. More power to him.

  5. Marc,

    Thank you for your comments. I like your comment that Bloom is a “prophet of our poorly literate culture.” I spent three hours in his poetry class at Yale this past March, and it is truly remarkable the mental capacity that this man has. I read somewhere that his mind is the equivalent of a GOOGLE search engine, and I think this is a very apt description. I fell in love with Bloom’s work as an undergraduate, and I suffered for it when I was a graduate student. I actually had professors–who I considered to be well-rounded–that refused to let me write papers using Bloom as a source!?!?!? This type of censorship from professors astounded and disheartened me. I hope more and more people will see the valuable contributions Bloom has made. Even in his late 70’s he is still a force to be reckoned with!

  6. Timothy,

    Why were they reluctant to let you use Bloom as a source when writing papers? I know he is widely contested in academic circles, but how does that translate into his being banned as a source? What was the root of this prejudice?

  7. I was not reluctant. I was told by my professors that Bloom would not be accepted as a valid source. So, I was told not to use him.

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