Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Bloomin' Wisdom

I started reading Harold Bloom's Where Shall Wisdom Be Found last night. I have never read anything by Bloom, always thinking him too much of a pompous know-it-all to bother. I thought maybe I was just prejudiced, so I began reading, attempting to keep an open mind. Well, after about 40 pages I feel confident in saying that Bloom really is a pompous know-it-all. He's definitely a brilliant man and in spite of his opinions, is not a pontificator. Or maybe he is and I am just finding it so darn amusing that I don't care. So I thought I'd give you some examples for you to judge for yourselves. In his introduction he writes:

I have only three criteria for what I go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom. Societal pressures and journalistic fashions may obscure these standards for a time, but mere Period Pieces never endure. The mind always returns to its needs for beauty, truth, and insight.
I love how he moves so effortlessly from the three standards being his personal criteria to making them universal criteria. Chapter one is about Job and Ecclesiastes. He discusses Job first and, while a great piece of poetry, finds is ultimately unsatisfactory. Ecclesiastes in the other hand
is my personal favorite among all the works of the Bible, I will comment upon it rather fully. My ideal literary critic, Samuel Johnson, was profoundly affected by it. Besides, a book on wisdom and literature must brood upon Koheleth [Hebrew for Ecclesiastes], for it comes first to mind whenever wisdom literature is mentioned.
This gave me giggles because Samuel Johnson has nothing to do with the discussion and not only does he manage to slip him in, but he also gets to give critics everywhere a jab by claiming Johnson as the ideal. And then he has to follow it up with a naturally anyone who thinks about wisdom lit thinks first about Ecclesiastes. Naturally. I do. Don't you? Further on in the chapter he brings in Shakespeare who he feels was greatly influences by Ecclesiastes. Bloom first quotes from the final chapter of Ecclesiastes which ends "Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher; all is vanity." The he lays this out there: "These eight verses deserve repetition until you possess them by memory, as you should much of Shakespeare." My giggles progressed to a guffaw. I'm sure having most of Shakespeare by heart would be wonderful, but where would I get the time? The second chapter is on Homer and Plato. Bloom doesn't like Plato much since Plato banned poets from the ideal republic. Bloom is so bothered by this that he insists Plato must surely have been joking and we modern readers are just not clued in to the rampant irony in Plato's works. In spite of his dislike of Plato, Bloom rereads the Republic regularly
to receive a wisdom that chastens my fury against all ideology. What Andrew Ford calls "the sound of ideology" rises up from the Republic, ultimate ancestor of all current commissars of Resentment who throng our academies, and who zealously continue the destruction of literary study. "The aesthetics of song," Ford writes, is in the Republic "always discussed in terms of a social psychology and in relations to political goals." I have returned to teaching after a year spent recovering from ill health, and I have resumed my practice of advising any potential student to vote with her or his feet (grand American idiom!) if they expect to discuss cultural politics in my classroom. It is a long way down and out from Plato to our contemporary lemmings, but the Republic inaugurates their Puritanism.
Wow. "Commissars of Resentment." "Contemporary lemmings." No one can accuse Bloom of being wishy-washy and having no opinions! I'm looking forward to reading more of this book to see what other zingers Bloom tosses out.