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In his Preface, author Harold Bloom, one time Harvard professor, currently Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and Berg Professor of English at New York University, and arguably the foremost American literary critic, circumscribes his title. His book includes no Mozart, Einstein, or other people almost universally acknowledged as geniuses. Bloom stresses that his background is primarily literary, hence this book deals with literary geniuses. Further, as he admits, his "choice is wholly arbitrary and idiosyncratic." Although he has picked the round number of one hundred subjects for his essays, he tells us that they are not necessarily what he would judge the top one hundred.
But I can't find much fault with an academic who writes, "Groupthink is the blight of our Age of Information, and is most pernicious in our obsolete academic institutions, whose long suicide since 1967 continues. The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity."
He calls his arrangement of the one hundred subjects cabbalistic, which implies a hidden meaning, and since it is too hidden for me I won't discuss it much. However, some mention should be made. He has ten seferiot, each divided into two groups of five each. An example will help: His first group of five is headed by Shakespeare, "the first in the crown of literature," and includes Cervantes, "the first novelist"; Montaigne, "the first personal essayist"; Milton, "the reinventor of epic poetry"; and Tolstoy, "who fused epic and novel." Bloom stresses that rearrangements are possible in his conception, but he needs some sequence when putting the names in print. The next five in this grouping of "firsts" are Lucretius, Vergil, Saint Augustine, Dante, and Chaucer. To illustrate a little more of the pattern, the second bundling of ten is named for "wisdom," and treats of "wisdom literature," as personified by the Yahwist, Socrates, Plato, Saint Paul,
Muhammad, Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Goethe, Freud, and Thomas Mann.
Another aspect of Bloom's selections is Gnosticism, what he defines as "a knowledge that frees the creative mind from theology and historicizing, and from any divinity that is totally distinct from what is most imaginative in the self." He refers to Hans Jonas's expression of the "intoxication of unprecedentedness."
Bloom asks "What is the relationship of fresh genius to founded authority?" And he answers, at this time there is no relationship. "Our confusion about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries." Bloom quotes Emerson "words might be said that would make [people] stagger and reel like a drunken man ... Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? ... Were not the words that made ... you tremble or delighted you ... as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before?" Bloom says the words still burn in him. And these words brought home to me a genius of whom I had only second-hand knowledge. Maggie Papandreou, wife of the later Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, once said to me of the time she and her husband were working on the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson (some of whose speeches I can appreciate by having heard them on tape), "We died for him!" "Literary genius," states Bloom, "difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification ... Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life." And, "Because of Shakespeare [Bloom's first choice for genius] we see what otherwise we could not see, since we are made different." That is, we know something, but we need genius to understand what we know. Again Bloom quotes Emerson as slyly observing, "Only an inventor knows how to borrow," and Isaac D'Israeli, "many men of genius must arise before a particular man of genius can appear." And I recall how freely Mozart borrowed from earlier and contemporary composers. "Genius is no longer a term much favored by scholars, so many of whom have become cultural levelers quite immune from awe." It's refreshing to me to see how much Bloom refers to people of the Victorian era for words of wisdom: Carlyle "a Victorian Scottish genius now out of fashion," Pater, another Victorian genius, D'Israeli, and in the U.S. Emerson. Oscar Wilde is one subject in the book, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville are there, as are the Charlotte and Emily Bronte. More English Victorians: George Eliot, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson; Swinburne, Yeats, Lewis Carroll, Browning, Dickens, Dante Rossetti, Christina Rosseti. And Victorians elsewhere: Hugo, Stendhal, Whitman, Mark Twain, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.
I was disappointed not to see the name of Anthony Trollope among his distinguished peers in a pantheon to which he truly belongs. But this is Bloom's list, not mine. He naturally covers people from a number of other eras, back to Homer, and forward to Pirandello, Ibsen, Proust, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Ellison, Hemingway, Garcia Lorca, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald, Iris Murdoch, Machado de Assis and others -- I haven't included all the one hundred here, but this gives a good idea of Bloom's coverage.
Nor have I read every one of the one hundred essays. I doubt that many reviewers would. But I've read enough to see that Bloom gives me new insights into those that I know the best, and he introduces me to some that I don't really know at all, but now that I have learned something about them I would gladly know more. As a few examples: Stendhal's THE CHARTERHOUSE AT PARMA and THE RED AND THE BLACK have been among my favorites for years, but I never thought of Stendhal as having an "excessive concern" with "eros." But when Bloom's summarizes, "Mosca loves Gina, who loves Fabrizio who loves Clelia who loves Fabrizio," it makes me wonder. Bloom says "Since everyone involved is both madly honorable and honorably lustful, all this passion is admirably enthralling. It makes me want to read CHARTERHOUSE again. On another novel, Bloom quotes Robert M. Adams, "Whether you like Julien Sorel, and for what parts of his behavior, depends then, on who you think you are and what conspiracies or complicities your imagination allows you to join." I read RED AND BLACK in my late teens and I know where I was coming from. I loved the first three-quarters of the book and then thought that Standhal blew it with the ending. Julien was a scoundrel, but I didn't think so when I was an ambitious young man, and I empathized with him. Bloom lets me see that I empathized with Julien so much precisely BECAUSE I was an ambitious young man. I'm sure today I'd read the book in a different light. And yet, I note that Bloom himself feels that in both novels Stendhal is poor at endings. Bloom puts in words what I felt, and says, "Perhaps I simply like both novels so much that I resent Stendhal's own apparent loss in interest when he nears the end."
I was required to read some of William Faulkner in college, and perhaps the pieces chosen for me were not appropriate. I've not cared for Faulkner ever since. The pieces I read seemed to have no periods, the sentences going on endlessly (since then I've written a few endless sentences myself). They also seemed to be downers, the writer drowning in his own unhappiness, not looking for rescue from the reader, but trying to drag the reader in with him. Today when I read Bloom's statement that "We have no American Dickens: an amalgam of Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Faulkner -- sublimely absurd conglomerate -- would come closest," I think to myself, I still don't like Faulkner (but I do like Twain and James), and perhaps the Faulkner part is exactly the part of Dickens that I don't like. Bloom confirms me in my belief that Faulkner is rather morbid, and I don't like morbid reading. Several times in the relatively recent past I thought I might want to try Faulkner again. Now I know that I don't. Life is too short, and I have other places to go and other promises to keep. I had never heard of Isaac Babel, but Bloom calls him one of the seminal Jewish writers of the twentieth century. His writing was cut off prematurely when he was executed by Stalin in 1940. Bloom gives some excerpts from Babel's writings to show him as a master of irony. He has a Cossack general in one story saying, "Then I trampled on Nikitinsky, my [former] master. I trampled on him for an hour or more than an hour, and during that time I got to know him and his life. Shooting -- in my opinion --is just a way of getting rid of a fellow, to shoot him is to pardon him ... With shooting you don't get to a man's soul ... But usually I don't spare myself, usually I trample on my enemy for an hour or more than an hour, I want to find out about the life, what's it like with us." Powerful stuff. There's more in the book. Bloom repeats a sentence as Babel's credo, "No iron can enter the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time." I want to read more of Babel, I can learn something from that man.
In the course of time I will read every word in Bloom's GENIUS, sometimes using it as a reference when I want to know more about this or that author. Sometimes just for the enjoyment of it. And at other times I will use it as I mentioned with Babel, reading about a particular genius to learn to write better. There's a gold mine in Bloom's magnificent volume.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, February 2003
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