For Harold Bloom, genius is above all

October 06, 2002|By Merle Rubin | By Merle Rubin,Special to the Sun

Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, by Harold Bloom. Warner Books. 832 pages, illustrated. $35.95.

Spanning more than four decades, Harold Bloom's career as a scholar-critic of literature is a story in itself. Even at the outset, with his first three books -- Shelley's Mythmaking, Blake's Apocalypse and The Visionary Company -- he was a force to be reckoned with.

Along with Northrop Frye, M.H. Abrams, W.J. Bate and Geoffrey Hartman, he was part of that critical mass of academicians who helped restore the Romantics to the esteem they had lost under the onslaught of Modernists like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. (Bloom's later studies of Yeats and Wallace Stevens also emphasized their Romanticism.) Although none of these works was what might be called an easy read, they were the kind of books to which an eager young poetry lover might -- and often did -- turn for enlightenment.

In the 1970s, Bloom produced a set of books that gained him fame and, in some quarters, notoriety: meditations on the mysteries of literary influence. His strange and original synthesis of terms and concepts from classical rhetoric, Freudian theory and cabala baffled many of his fellow academics, and certainly may have puzzled the hypothetical young reader fresh from The Visionary Company.

Then, having been viewed as one of the more arcane and difficult literary critics, Bloom became even more famous when he turned to writing, not for academics, but for the wider audience of the common reader in books like The Western Canon, Shakespeare, How to Read and Why and now Genius.

Yet a consistent vision informs all his literary criticism: an abiding love of literature, a profound delight in its endlessly various riches, and a strong sense of personal engagement with specific works and authors.

The style of Bloom's later books is refreshingly free of academic jargon: forceful, direct, highly personal and expressive, yet attuned to the infinite complexities of his subjects. What can be plainer than the opening of Genius? "Why these one hundred? At one point I planned many more, but one hundred came to seem sufficient. Aside from those who could not be omitted -- Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Homer, Virgil, Plato, and their peers -- my choice is wholly arbitrary and idiosyncratic. These are certainly not 'the top one hundred,' in anyone's judgment, my own included. I wanted to write about these."

Bloom describes Genius as a "mosaic": an elaborate arrangement of small, distinct pieces, in this case, brief essays, each on the particular "genius" of a given writer. Bloom's central conviction: that genius is always individual, always above rather than merely of its age, leads him to eschew strict chronology for a more imaginative ordering. The hundred geniuses are grouped in 10 sets named after 10 cabalistic "sefirot," i.e., emanations or attributes of divinity, genius being in Bloom's judgment something that "invokes the transcendental and extraordinary." Each of the "sefirot" is subdivided into two "lustres" of five, a "lustre" being Bloom's way of looking at a group of writers who seem to reflect or shed light on one another.

Dr. Johnson, his biographer Boswell, Goethe, Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are grouped together as moralists; Donne, Pope, Swift, Jane Austen and Lady Murasaki, as ironists; Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Proust and Beckett as visionaries of "exacerbated spirituality."

The groupings are meant to be implicative rather than definitive: Bloom's method is not a formula, but a kind of higher playfulness, inviting us to take pleasure in the contrasts and confluences. The book is full of charmingly outrageous apercus that, on reflection, ring true, e.g.: "The sexual drive, which we associate with D.H. Lawrence, is closer to the center of Charlotte Bronte's cosmos."

Genius is a work of appreciation rather than analysis. Grand in conception, it is nonetheless remarkable for its genuine lack of pretentiousness. Bloom is not shy about offering his opinions, but he never tries to disguise his subjective reactions as ontological certitudes. His passionate intelligence is tempered by wit and self-deflationary humor.

Although genius is -- and should be -- hard to define, Bloom offers several suggestions that point in the right direction: "Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read in search of more life, and only genius can make that available."

"Consciousness is what defines genius: Shakespeare, like his Hamlet, exceeds us in consciousness, goes beyond the highest order of consciousness that we are capable of knowing without him."

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