Review - Harold Bloom's Genius, A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (Warner Books, Inc., New York, 2002)

    Reviewed by Anna Sidak

If, for example, you've read The Charterhouse of Parma with the feeling the party was down the block—or worse yet, last night—this book may let you into the ballroom with music and dancers.

And if, like me, you value a good read above much else, you'll be delighted by Harold Bloom's Genius, A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, which I'd every intention of reviewing at face value.

"Harold Bloom, the eminent Yale professor, literary critic, and foe of deconstruction," I'd have written, "in an engaging blend of biographical and literary detail defines the accomplishments of the one hundred writers he has selected as possessing and—more often than not—possessed by genius."

I soon recognized the one hundred and first exemplary creative mind, Bloom's own. His genius, in several senses of the word, holds the mosaic of the title in place while making no attempt to be conclusive, merely:

    . . . 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. (from the Preface)

More than a collection of brief biographies, it is in tracing compatibilities and influences that he excells. A scholar and teacher opposed to the idea that genius is merely a product of its time and preoccupied with the transcendental value of literature, both sacred and secular, Bloom's choices enthusiastically demonstrate the breakout character of genius and its presiding genius, or spirit.

In a display of esoteric knowledge—as well as a window into his categorizing mind—the book's ten chapters are named for aspects of the Kabbalistic Sefirot, in Bloom's definition:

    . . . the Sefirot chart the process of creation: they are the names of God as he works at creating. The Sefirot are metaphors so large that they become poems in themselves, or even poets. . . . One can think of the Sefirot as lights, texts, or phases of creativity.
Each chapter is divided into two sets of five essays to illuminate connections between writers and define into which of the Sefirot's aspects their work falls, although all must necessarily pass through all its phases. As in a game of Musical Chairs, they are captured wherever they happen to be in Bloom's freeze frames.

In the following grouping:

    Honore de Balzac, Lewis Carroll, Henry James, Robert Browning, William Butler Yeats
Lewis Carroll is included on the basis of originality—or literary fantasy—for the Sefirot aspect known as Malkut honors ". . . the presence of God in the world . . ." and who would argue that this is not divine:
    He thought he saw an Argument
      That proved he was the Pope;
    He looked again, and found it was
    A Bar of Mottled Soap.
    "A fact so dread," he faintly said,
      "Extinguishes all hope!"
      —"The Mad Gardener's Song"

Ralph Ellison is given proximity to Fyodor Dostoevsky in the second part, or aspect, of the Malkut chapter (we're knee-deep in classification here). This phase is characterized as ". . . the swarming cities of descent: Dickens's London, Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg, Issac Babel's Jewish Odessa." These ghettos become cramped in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and its sequel, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, but the connections are clear.

However, despite the explanatory notes for these selections, I'd have settled for an index when trying to relocate a particular political comment (". . . the idiot, George Bush,") after having skipped about in the book. There are several remarks of like nature to delight some, dismay others, and surprise nearly everyone by appearing "out of the blue" (a cliché so right it must be used. Even Bloom succumbs; see "write their way out of a paper bag," below). Bloom's opinions, whether political or otherwise, are clearly stated, nor is there a shortage of locatable profundity:

    I was a sweeter person before our universities yielded to [political correctness] the New Authors, past and present, whether or not they could write their way out of a paper bag. (John Milton - p 50)

    The ghostly element that divides lovers cannot be abrogated; whatever value we have, as individuals, renders us estranged from one another. Kafka's genius was for isolation. He taught us that we have nothing in common with ourselves, let alone with one another. (Franz Kafka - p 204)

    As an amateur student of American religion, I adore Tartuffe, who would adorn the already refulgent United States Senate, or else achieve fame and wealth as a new kind of televangelist. (Moliere - p 230)

    Christian moralist critics are as irrelevant as our Frenchified cultural studies rabblement; . . . (Herman Melville - p 309)

    If you think of genius in regard to a novelist writing in English, you begin and end with Dickens. In our Information Age, he joins Shakespeare and Jane Austen as the only writers evidently able to survive the dominance of the new media. (Charles Dickens - p 778)

Despite lack of an index (or bibliography, which would require an additional volume), the book includes a frontispiece for most of the chosen writers along with a brief quotation and an introductory note. Always meticulous and passionate—a rare combination—Bloom's one hundred writers of genius are recognizable as writers one means to read and/or reread alertly. Among those of whom I'd scarcely heard but am happy to know: J, or the Yahwist, (responsible for crucial portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers 3,000 years ago; perhaps a woman), the Redactor (writer-editor of Genesis to Kings 500 years later), Vergil, Gerard de Nerval, Luis Vaz de Camoes, Fernando Pessoa, Luis Cernuda; all enlisted in the service of Bloom's proclamation:

    I base this book, Genius, upon my belief that appreciation is a better mode for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals. (Introduction - p 5)

Anna Sidak's short stories have appeared in various on-line and print journals.


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