All Flesh is Grass (Classics of Literary Criticism Revisited)

On March 17, 2018 by admin

Classics of Literary Criticism Revisited

 

All Flesh is Grass

Harold Bloom: The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of King James Bible [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011]

kjv, bloom

 

How does an engaged work transcend skepticism and faith alike? There is only one way—by immersing itself in the eloquence and beauty of the subject. Literary appreciation is foremost this act of immersion, especially if you value discrimination and judgment. The King James Bible (henceforth, KJB) is an adroitly woven revisionist tapestry and Harold Bloom has taken it upon himself to probe into a blessing called literature by digging into its innards, which might also be a way of confronting the fullness of our lives. Originally the culmination of one strand of Renaissance English culture, the KJB is a fundamental source for Whitman and Melville, Emily Dickinson, Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, Milton, William Blake, Henry James, Joyce and Atwood among others. It is important to state right at the outset that a literary appreciation of the Bible does not seek faith and revelation. For the faithful, a literary appreciation is redundant. But a literary scholar enters the terrain of the Bible as a pilgrim, seeking to unearth sublime fiction.  But even as we begin to appreciate the narrative tropes, the rhetorical strategies, the lyrical ardour, the fiery prophecies and the pungent proverbs in the text, the problem of its spiritual codes lurks and abides. Literary criticism cannot be made into religion and yet all of Shakespeare and Dante constitute Bloom’s guiding set of Gnostic scriptures. The belief lies in the resurrectionist powers of the arts.

Historically speaking, the KJB (also called the Authorized Version) is an English Protestant disputation against contemporary Catholic and Jew alike.It is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.The KJB includes the 39 books of the Old Testament, an intertestamental section containing 14 books of the Apocrypha and the 27 books of the New Testament. King James had expressly instructed the translators that the new version ought to conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the Episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. This instructed piety recedes as we immerse ourselves in the narrative and the poetry within. The translation was done by 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England. Bloom has delved into those which have the strongest literary possibilities. Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and KJB are for Bloom rival aesthetic eminences, even as he constantly compares and contrasts the language and individual thrusts of four other versions: the Greek New Testament, the Tyndale, the Geneva and the Myles Coverdale translation. The breathtaking erudition of Bloom apart, much of the charm for the readers is to share with him the realization that KJB was a culmination of two millennia of collective work done by writers, composers, redactors and editors, and yet the result has been surprisingly aesthetic, and its power original.

Blessing is an eloquent concept in the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament, from Genesis through Deuteronomy. There are at least four voices in the Torah: the Yahvist who tells us remarkable stories of a wondering people—the Jews, as they try to become Hebrews through their journey towards the Promised Land. The Priestly voice, on the other hand is about wisdom, restraint and genealogy. The other two are the Elohist and the Deuteronomist. The idea of the blessing for the Priestly writer is “be fruitful and multiply.” In the Yahvist writer—blessing is “more life into a time without boundaries.”  Your name will not be scattered if you have blessing.

To this end Bloom nominates Jacob to be the symbol of Jewish consciousness proper, more than Moses or David, archetype of Freud, Kafka and Einstein. Jacob is a survivor who becomes Israel—both a nation and a people of survivors. In Thomas Mann’s narrative tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, written between 1926 and 1942, Bloom discovers the best interpretation, the reincarnated spirit of the Yahvist writer. Terror and comedy mingle in Jacob, who passed on the blessing both to his fourth son, Judah, and in a literary sense to Paul. Mann’s Jacob, increasingly as he ages, ponders his own stories, seeking to gain power over their elucidation. In both Mann and the Yahvist, ironies flourish, usurpations are rampant and cunning rather than sanctity is the pragmatic qualification for election: “If Israel is the alternative name of the nameless angel, then Jacob has usurped the identity of what, following Wallace Stevens and Freud, could be called the angel of reality,” says Bloom. The Blessing means survival—though Jacob shall limp for the rest of his life after a fatal embrace with Yahweh. Does Yahweh play the role of the Angel of Death? Perhaps Jacob has made allies of what Freud regarded as reality-testing.

This brings us to the second serious question that the book probes: what might luck be? Oscar Wilde nominated Jesus as the Supreme aesthete and Bloom assigns Yahweh the role of the notorious narcissist playing favourites—the creator-by-catastrophe. Much of Exodus, and all of Numbers after it, is a recurrent juxtaposition between revelation and wilderness. Bloom ponders: “Since my long-ago childhood, I have wondered at a forty years’ wandering back and forth in the Sinai, between the symbolic extremes of Egypt and Canaan. The outrageousness of what Yahweh imposes upon his wretched chosen people somehow has escaped commentary, ancient and modern, rabbinical and scholarly. Who can journey forty years in the waste lands without anguish and discontent? Is that part of the Blessing?”

For a book that is supposed to be garnering wisdom and poise, the KJB iterates that we are far from dealing in exemplary characters. But we are witnessing the journey of people who are confronting the fullness of life and its many shades. Deceit and shrewdness, jealousy and back-stabbing, revenge and lust continuously make this a supremely human tale. And circumscribing ritual markers leading to the formation of a commune—painstakingly, is also a way of confronting our inmost selves in their full entanglements. The sweetness of love, if and when it arrives, is collocated by invoking terrifying passions. The figure of David, for instance, of all the figures in Tanakh, seems to Bloom to be the most Shakespearean, inward and many-selved. David cannot be thought through, since there is always more to be considered, as with the meditative and contradictory—Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Edgar and Cleopatra.David’s charismatic duplicities charm Yahweh and beguile Saul’s children, Michal and Jonathan. And yet he provides us with a magnificent Lament (2 Samuel 1), one of the KJB’s glories, and contrasts superbly with its strong forerunners in Tyndale and Geneva.

“…Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.”

Like Hamlet, David arouses our love yet does not return it. Is he a sublime opportunist?  Actually, David incarnates the whole truth of our contrary existences. James Joyce said that Homer’s Odysseus was the most complete man represented in literature, but Bloom ventures that “David rivals the wily, metamorphic protagonist of the Odyssey…David gratuitously receives the Blessing, masters his own fortunes, makes his own luck through opportunism, and cannot lose Yahweh’s love whether he merits it or not.”

Ruth’s seduction of the willing Boaz rehearses in a keener tone Tamar’s shrewdly deceiving seduction of the heedless Judah. The psychology of the most formidable of women in KJB is godly and lethal, virtuous and malignant. Deborah inspires Israel to battle, while Jael extirpates Sisera. Esther exhibits her ferocity by requesting an additional day for slaughtering the enemies of the Jews. And Judith is a sort of saintly avenger, remarkably akin to Jezebel, except that she is Yahweh’s instrument and not his enemy, as was Jezebel. Judith’s gory story, of her beheading of Holofernes, is aesthetically arresting like that of the Icelandic sagas.

Bloom’s simultaneous attraction to, and distancing from, the mode and genre of prophecy in KJB take us to the heart of the literary nature of the enterprise. Some of the sublime poetry comes from the Prophets in the Bible—Elijah and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Amos and Daniel. The lives and pronouncements of the prophets show that to be Yahweh’s man is a fearsome fate, to be continually mired in exuberant pathos. This enthusiastic strain in prophecy is something that deters Bloom and yet he is at his best when he described the spirited poetry involved. Further, the prophets pronounced their spirit through an auditory medium closely related to music. The genre is close to speech-melody or chant—effecting in us modes of revelation, prognostication, identity shaping and morale building. Yet much of prophecy is suffused with melancholia and wrath—elemental emotions from which prophecy draws its poetic power. So, Isaiah 32: 1-8:

“And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”

Salvation is not the sequel to suffering but implicit within it: this realization is the essence of Hebraic prophetic proclamation. Hence Bloom; “Each navi cries: “The Yahweh-word is to me!” The Hebrew davar is at once word, thing, and act, and it drives forward something held back in the self. Isaiah and his disciples can be allegorized by the Freudian drives of love and death, simultaneously caught up in a struggle.” And so ‘all flesh is grass’ reverberates throughout poetic tradition. Handel could feel the grandeur and vulnerability of the blades. So could Whitman:

“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.”

But in such preternatural eloquence Bloom also detects the proclivity to make calamity yet more unmitigated by expressing it hyperbolically. This urgency, he himself exaggeratedly calls bipolar mania. This tendency to carve out catastrophe— to seek and find ‘terror everywhere’—he also detects in Richard II. Bloom’s intense engagement with the Hebrew universe often makes him bracket off the spirit of the prophecies from the literary aspects of poetry. From Ezekiel and Jeremiah through Daniel up to the Book of Revelation, the strain of apocalypse is constant: “…the trope of splintering always afflicts me: text, prophet, Jerusalem, God. Everything breaks apart.” He finds little blessing here. That is the way Bloom detaches himself from the founts of pessimism in revolutionary-heresy, which is embedded within prophecy. If he is to seek social justice at all, he would rather champion Amos, who demanded justice and righteousness for the poor and the exploited, and Micah who identified with the wronged. This distinction between terror and blessing Bloom makes possible since he is firmly ensconced within the Gnostic tradition of reading the scriptures numinously (but not mutinously), which leads eventually to the idea of triumph, not despair: Dante’s Triumphal Chariot of the Church, Petrarch’s Triumphs, Milton’s Chariot of Paternal Divinity, Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, Blake’s The Four Zoas, where the Enthroned Man is unfallen Albion. Epiphany without the stormy theophany is his literary bridging of sorts. Therefore, back to the Tanakh for aesthetic splendour. Again. And yet again:

“As a Jew who does not trust in the Covenant, and who has strong Gnostic tendencies, I nevertheless am overwhelmed by this epiphany of Yahweh. As a literary critic, I yield to its rhetorical authority, and to the great traditions it fostered (Dante, Milton, Blake, Shelley, and Kabbalah). If you want an authentic view of God, this dynamic whirlwind is where Tanakh wants you to turn. Turn it and turn it, for everything of Yahweh is in it.”

But even as he reads the Prophets Bloom also discovers the single largest literary failure of the KJB: the tonal uniformity its baroque style imposes upon very different writers.

The triadic relationship between argument, irony and rhetoric is a constant concern for Bloom as he digs deep into the Psalms, Proverbs and Aphorisms. Where and how can liturgy turn literary? When are we naked to humiliation and how does thanksgiving and gratitude and halleluiah still reign in the Psalter? In this context, Bloom recalls how the dying Sir John Falstaff, as reported by Mistress Quickly in Henry V, evidently sang the Twenty-third Psalm, though she garbles the text when she gives it as “a table of green fields,” fusing together “green pastures” and “Thou preparest a table before me.” Bloom keeps on delving into contrary possibilities: What could the compilers of the book of Proverbs have made of Blake’s antithetical wisdom (the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction)? In Job, God’s sadistic sarcasm merits a Melvillean response, particularly to the plain foulness of “Will he make a covenant with thee?” The poet of Job is as formidable an ironist as the God he depicts. Bloom gives the last word on Job to Kierkegaard in his Edifying Discourses:

“And yet there is no hiding place in the wide world where troubles may not find you, and there has never lived a man who was able to say more than you can say, that you do not know when sorrow will visit your house. So be sincere with yourself, fix your eyes upon Job; even though he terrifies you, it is not this he wishes, if you yourself do not wish it.”

And love? Solomon’s Song, by certain early exegetes, is celebrated as Yahweh in love. In Kabbalah the object of Yahweh’s love is within him, the Shekhinah, what Walt Whitman called his Fancy, the Real Me or Me Myself. This, Wallace Stevens celebrated as the Interior Paramour. Whether one reads the Song of Songs as a dramatic lyric celebrating the erotic ecstasy of a woman and a man or as a visionary canticle of Yahweh’s own sexual fulfillment, one encounters a unique instance of ancient Hebrew poetry having much more in common with its literary descendants than with other biblical poetry. The Song of Songs fostered parts of the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria through Renaissance erotic lyricists on to Walt Whitman, Coventry Patmore, and Hart Crane. Saint John of the Cross, Luis de León, Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” all manifest the Song’s influence. In the nineteenth century, atheistic poets—Shelley, Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti—carried this tradition on. W. B. Yeats, Theodore Roethke, and Dylan Thomas a century later seem to have rounded off the tradition. And so, a miraculous epiphany of KJB:

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.”

The deepest significance of the Song of Songs is that it knowingly celebrates a love so dangerously intense that it can cost not less than everything.

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Such resplendence appears to turn very different as Bloom reaches the KJB New Testament—which he calls the Belated Testament. He is hardly charitable to this part of the KJB. One gets a feeling that he is simply not into the Gospels and Pauline Epistles. For two reasons. First, he feels that the NT has hatred at its core in spite of its doctrine of love. Two, a large part of it lacks the grandeur of literary merit. Such scathing judgments will testify to the distinction that he is making: “The Yahvist is a great writer, comparable to Homer and Tolstoy, while Mark reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, a bad stylist who yet fascinates. Both dream universal nightmares.” Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, in their edition of the KJB, allows for “flashes of literary merit and fascinating passages of writing in the parables of Jesus, some of Paul’s writing, the Epistle to the Hebrews, Second Peter, and the Apocalypse.” Except for the parables, that seems to Bloom to be special pleading.

His reading of the KJB New Testament is consequently tired, farmed out and sharply distrustful. And yet there are flashes of original insight. Bloom had to face a lot of flak from the believers when in 2005 he had pronounced in his book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine that “Almost all New Testament scholars, and other believing Christians, think they are delighted and grateful insiders. Are they? Does their sainthood transcend that of the disciples? I hardly think we as yet have absorbed the discomfort that only what is demonic in us can accurately perceive the identity of Christ Jesus.” The Gospel of Mark, for instance, Bloom reads alongside Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy (1979) as a dark, riddling, and severe narrative. Salvation is hardly the dominant theme in Mark; demonic possession is: “I find it puzzling that the Marcan Jesus is simultaneously both rushed and secretive. Weirdly, he seems persuaded of his own return from death in the lifetime of his disciples, who are portrayed as slow-witted witted when confronted by the radical newness of their master…Demoniacs and unclean spirits recognize Jesus (as did John the Baptist), perhaps because he does not want to be recognized. His own family cannot, and his own disciples seem equally imperceptive. The Gospel of Mark is a very strange text, and I am not persuaded that most theological exegetes have understood it. Something in its recalcitrance cries out for a literary response if its difficult Jesus is to emerge into focus at all.”

If the demonic is the spirit that he detects in Mark, John’s gospel seems to be all about doxa,which Bloom reads as divine glory, the ultimate quality of God the Father and his only begotten Son. What repels Bloom, one feels, is this very idea of superiority in the name of surpassing love which is imbued within John. Our basic humanness with its limitations and many-sidedness are being elided. Paul tells us that faith, hope, and love (caritas) abide but that the greatest of these three is the Father’s and the Son’s love for us, in the Greek sense of agape, the love of a superior for an inferior. “No Christian theologian would agree with me, but I take (Frank) Kermode’s hint as to what is definitive for John: divine glory” proclaims Bloom.

In Paul, Bloom marks a kind of obsessive egotism. This strain can take a devastating shape if one is simultaneously a strong poet and spiritual renovator, which Paul is. Such a spirit must usurp and misread the whole of the Torah in order to justify the ways of faith. His ambition is to replace Moses. Does Paul suffer an anxiety of influence with regard to the Hebrew Bible? Or must he remain obligated to willfully misread the Mosaic law and the Hebraic berith, which is essentially a partnership involving mutual obligations? “Hence the Pauline theology of law and justification begins with the fateful misunderstanding in consequence of which he tears asunder covenant and law, and then represents Christ as the end of the law.” Even as he reads Romans, Corinthians, Hebrews, and Titus, Bloom tries to trail Paul’s personality—rugged, mercurial, egomaniacal: “His vainglory is near allied to what I think must be called his shamanism, a propensity for out-of-the-body experiences.” Pauline works remind Bloom of the various characters in Charles Dickens. Created by Dickens, Paul could consort with the Reverend Chadband in Bleak House and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. His “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) is sublimely Dickensian. It is only the saving pathos and a poignant wistfulness in the Hebrews that Bloom cherishes.

Piety must disturb any literary critic true to his worth. Anyone who wishes to immerse in life’s variegated splendor and brazen flamboyance must shun all admonition to vaingloriousness. And in that majestic but all too human spirit Bloom keeps himself outside of Paul’s perspective. As a Jew with Gnostic tendencies who neither trusts in the Covenant nor shares Christian faith in the Resurrection, Bloom celebrates life’s many encounters with a grace and full-bloodedness that cannot merely come from erudition. He is in love with literature. And with living. In the true Gnostic spirit Bloom holds that the Fall and the Creation were one and the same event and a spark or pneuma remains in each of us. And it is no part of Creation. The creator god is a mere demiurge, and the true God is a stranger, alien to our cosmos.It is the same manner in which William Blake described religion as choosing forms of worship from poetic tales, and who can refute him?

Harold Bloom is 87 now and this book was completed in 2011. But it is quite obvious that Bloom has been writing this book all his life. He is trying a literary appreciation of the Bible at the highest possible level at least since 1989, knowing full well that he cannot change the viewpoint of the devout by delving deep into our imaginative side, which is part and parcel of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. KJB gives that spirit a unique flavor. It is in that same spirit of sharing a blessing called literature that Bloom utters these glorious lines:

“I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses, as my fingers tremble, my legs bow themselves, my teeth cease, my eyes darken, my ears shut, bird-song grows fainter, heights increase my fear of falling, and even walking finds fears in the way. Spring will begin again (in Jerusalem) with the flowering of the almond tree, but the burgeoning grass will bring no seasonal renewal to desire, because the “long home” (a KJB trope for the eternal grave) is prefigured by my generation’s mourners.”

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