Review of “Genius”–a literary mega-criticism

I have finished Harold Bloom’s Genius for the most part.  I skipped the Spanish writers (except for Cervantes), and a select few others whom I have little interest in.  It is not the kind of book that once “finished” I will put it away for good.  I have found myself already re-reading certain parts and will always find it useful as a resource. As for omitting the Spanish writers, I generally had little interest in non-Anglophone writers, except for the French.  That is my bias of course, since I read French; however I do see a linguistic and literary closeness between English and French that is unique.  As for including other languages, I think Bloom deviates from his core notion—that there exists an objectively valuable literary canon in which one writer influences not only his or her generation but creates a literary progeny–because I don’t see so much the impact of Spanish (Russian or other non-English) writers on the canonical English writers (again, with the exception of a very few, like Dante). Bloom even acknowledges the breakdown in shared influences between literatures in different languages when he points out that Wordsworth never made it big in France, but Poe was an author who achieved more success through translation into French than he otherwise would have known or deserved.

As for whom he included and did not, the largeness of the number calls into question whether many are great writers, really good writers, worthy of a lasting reputation, etc… instead of geniuses.  I felt at times that the term was devalued.  I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a really good book, and it merits a place in the literary canon as it has withstood the test of time; but to me a great book does not make the writer a genius.  I don’t think Fitzgerald was a genius and I am certain that I would not put Hemingway in that category.  He bolstered his position on Hemingway to a degree by noting how the man himself achieved a certain mythic status.  If that is a factor, then Byron should have been included; even if that were not a criterion, I would have included Byron way before many others.  The Brontes simply would not have been who they were or written what they wrote without the influence of Byron; plus if anyone ever had a more engaging way with words, rhymes, meter and poignant ideas, I don’t know him or her. Bloom drops several hints that he dislikes Byron as a person (although personal animosity did not stop him from including T.S Eliot).

I liked the poetic organizing principle of a mosaic.  However, the whole Kabbalah thing was of no interest at all to me.  As I was reading along at some point I was annoyed that I was not getting any meaning from his Kabbalistic references so I went back to the opening passages to pay more attention to the explanation about his structure.  Without reproducing it all here, I offer from page xi the following passage beginning like this: “Kabbalah is a body of speculation, relying upon a highly figurative language.  Chief among its figuration or metaphors are Sefirot, attributes at once of God and of the Adam Kadmon of Divine Man God’s Image.” Good ol’ materialistic me has no truck with speculative bodies that can only be known through metaphor, thank you very much!  I also grew very weary of his use of the word “daemon”.  I did not find it expressive of the many or precise meanings that he attributes to that word and would have preferred another one from time to time.

To note a few high points, I knew nothing about Swinburne, although I had heard his name throughout my life and had seen his books around the house.  His poem about God was quite the surprise.  And for any authors whom I know well, I read his treatments of them with interest and enjoyment, admiring the particular insight that he chose and developed for each one.

As for Bloom, himself, his talent is impressive and he might stand alone; I wonder how many others could have produced such an exhaustive work.  I did feel at times that he was showing off, but he can’t help it if he’s brilliant.  He breaks his own code in a way though; he believes that geniuses need the approbation of a certain audience, in particular one that extends far into the future, yet he admits that some of his geniuses have fallen by the way side in our degraded day and age.  He blames the current sad state of affairs on universities that value a curriculum based on race, nationality, or gender rather than on “true greatness” (I am among the converted on that score).  Yet, if genius does fade, at some point the question creeps in how much is greatness objective or subjective.  Maybe that’s where the Kabbalah fits to explain how there are absolutes, albeit knowable only through cagey metaphors.

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