Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2
Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds
New York: Warner, 2002 / First Paperback Edition, 2003
The rationale for teaching literature has long included a belief in the integrity and viability of a literary canon, a collection of superior works that constitute the core products and values of civilization. Harold Bloom is arguably one of the most widely consumed and influential advocates for Literature still living today. His early efforts to demonstrate continuity between Romanticism and Modernism in Yeats (1970) and The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (1971) established credibility, reputation, and an audience. Bloom has not stopped publishing since. This latest work, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, almost exactly echoes preoccupations from previous writing ranging from The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and The Poetics of Influence (1988) to Kabbalah and Criticism (1975) and The Western Canon (1994). In fact, little about this study can be called original. Only the packaging is different.
In terms of structure, Bloom's one hundred find themselves encapsulated, contained even, in the framework of Kabbalah. There are ten sections of genius, each divided into two separate sub-sections, or Lustres. He writes, "My ten headings are the commonest names for the Sefirot. Kabbalah is a body of speculation, relying upon a highly figurative language. Chief among its figurations or metaphors are the Sefirot, attributes at once of God and of Adam Kadmon or Divine Man, God's Image." Each figure is characterized by a single attribute, but Bloom is quick to point out that, "[his] placement of the hundred geniuses is hardly one that fixes them in place, since all the Sefirot are images constantly in motion, and any creative spirit must move through all of them, in many labyrinths of transformation." Refusing fixity may suggest a lesson learned from Yeats, who was attacked on that basis for his not altogether dissimilar work, A Vision (1925). That most strange product of "the automatic script," which Bloom knows well, organized key figures from human civilization into various "phases of the moon" on the basis of something like genius. In many respects, for both Bloom and Yeats, the reactive assertion of motion is a function of influence. Bloom's followers will remember that he has written exhaustively on this subject in The Anxiety of Influence and The Poetics of Influence. Not only is the idea of influence revisited here, but also the very manifestations of it. Just as Bloom conceived of Shakespeare as the center of the literary canon in Western Canon and as the inventor of the human being in Shakespeare (1998), for example, so does the Bard figure here in the peak Sefirah: Keter. Not surprisingly, he rubs shoulders with the likes of Dante, Chaucer, and Cervantes. These figures have already been contemplated in light of one another in the context of a canon, and the only difference here is that the language is less that of literary criticism and more consistent with Jewish mysticism.
The constitution of genius in this book is not at all unlike the criteria Bloom devised for the purpose of his western canon: originality, strangeness, influence, timelessness, and consciousness. "Consciousness," he writes, "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." As in The Western Canon, however, Bloom is interested in a particular brand of consciousness, a particular brand of literary genius. There are only twelve women included in these hundred figures ranging twenty-five centuries. No doubt thinking of Shakespeare again, Bloom suggests in his conclusion that, "Time, which destroys us, reduces what is not genius to rubbish." While much of Bloom's criticism will no doubt continue to influence, it will be interesting to see what Time does to this book as a means to understanding genius.
Clay Armstrong teaches English at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, British Columbia. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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