Few American literary intellectuals command more awe in the academy than Harold Bloom, the Yale English professor and scholar whose 1973 book, The Anxiety of Influence, traced the ways writers continually struggle against their literary fathers and mothers.
That book succeeded in enriching the literary lexicon not only with its title phrase but also with some of the ancillary terms Bloom introduced-“misreading,” “belatedness”-to focus the agonized, Oedipal back-and-forth between any powerful new literary text and its equally powerful forebears. Bloom’s cause as a critic has been to defend the aesthetic autonomy of literary art. His oeuvre apotheosizes the common experience of losing track of time when lost in the internal calendar of a novel or a concerto, or when frozen before an image, like Keats before his Grecian urn. Though perfectly capable of conventional historical criticism, Bloom privileges criticism written from inside the time that loses track of time. Positioned there (ensconced, if you will, or enthroned), he makes pronouncements that baffle if read as historical report, but enlighten if read as aesthetic engagement. When writing about Scripture, in The Book of J (1991) and now in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, Bloom speaks, outrageously, of Shakespeare as if he were God and of God as if he were King Lear, but would anything less outrageous suffice to hoist the mighty Bible from the solitude of the Reformation lectern and transport it to the company of the other classics on modernity’s bookshelf?
Jesus and Yahweh arises from a characterological conundrum that becomes more pressing when the Bible is engaged as one literary classic among many rather than as literally incomparable revelation. Any reader granting on merely literary grounds the Christian premise of identity between God in the Old Testament and God Incarnate in the New must regard the stunning difference of personality between the two as somehow a provoked change-and then ask critically after the provocation. The genesis of this stunning difference is, in literary terms, the central critical puzzle of the anthology as a whole. The question to be answered is not just why God became Man (cur deus homo, in Anselm’s famous formulation), but also why Yahweh, given his character, became Jesus, a man so different in character, when so many other human types were available. Posing the question using the two proper names changes much. As the wordplay in Bloom’s subtitle suggests, the names divine: they conjure, they divulge.
The difference between Yahweh and Jesus has much to do, obviously, with the difference between Judaism and Christianity, a subject I set out to explore a decade ago in God: A Biography. Hoping to offer a literary appropriation of God to which Jews and Christians alike might respond, I sought initially to engage first the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures in the Jewish order (the “Law and Prophets” order in which Jesus himself knew them), and then the Greek Scriptures of the New Testament. To my surprise and initial dismay, this project was defeated by the aesthetic power of the Tanakh. Read in the Jewish order, the Hebrew Scriptures came to a conclusion that, however poignant, simply could not be denied, or so it seemed to me: God evolves from a voluble bully to a mute, abashed at what he has done to mankind or to Israel or at the very least to Job. But so to conclude was, necessarily, to conclude that the West reads its Scriptures in two autonomous editions, the Jewish and the Christian. God: A Biography had to be published without any Christian epilogue. To complete my initial project, I had to write a second book (Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God) about the protagonist of a second, Christian edition, in which the Hebrew Scriptures-rearranged as the Old Testament-serve as prologue.
I have never met Harold Bloom, but he was willing to contribute a sly blurb to God: A Biography, calling me, on the jacket, “Yahweh’s Boswell.” I had gambled that he might lend his name to a stranger’s venture because I was crossing the same line that he had crossed in “The Psychology of Yahweh,” a chapter of The Book of J, and for the identical reason. Though I had expressed, in print, severe reservations about other aspects of that book (see “The Book of B,” Commonweal, November 9, 1990), I admired how “The Psychology of Yahweh” broke with the central inhibition of the then-demure genre, “Bible as Literature.” This genre has been around in various forms since the Enlightenment, and revivals of its bienpensant, Phi-Beta-Kappa-ish biblical humanism have been as frequent as outright religious revivals. (The most recent is The Bible and Its Influence, published by the Biblical Literacy Project.) Its decorum long dictated abstaining from any literary discussion of the divine protagonist. Almighty God was not a fit subject for mere aesthetic appreciation. Other gods, yes; he, no-until Bloom.
Given Bloom’s avid critical temperament, I wondered, as I read The Book of J, why he had not taken the boldly tendentious Christian arrangement of the canon as grist for his mill. I wondered further whether the author of The Anxiety of Influence might not someday address the anxiety of canon, and whether he would not have to concede that the New Testament was what he would term a “strong misreading” of the Tanakh. In a footnote to Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, I asked whether, to be precise, the New Testament did not fall into Bloom’s second category of strong misreading: “Tessera, which is completion and antithesis.”
Jesus and Yahweh, the book I was then hoping for, is in equal measure critical and personal. Muffling none of his Jewish anger (“If the New Testament triumphed in the Roman mode,” he writes, “then the captive led in process was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testament”), Bloom nonetheless calls the New Testament “the strongest and most successful creative misreading in all of textual history.” In different moods, he lingers over Paul, John, and-most appreciatively-Mark, while Matthew and Luke do not interest him. Jesus himself Bloom credits with “the seizure...of Yahweh’s demonic, fathering force, the sublime of Jewish genius.” Though Jesus was not a writer, Bloom sees him as, in effect, authoring rather than merely authorizing himself. Though this has the ring of a historical claim, no such claim is intended. Indeed, the historical Jesus, artfully reworked as he is in our only testimonials to him, is for Bloom only slightly less an oxymoron than the historical Yahweh. Yahweh will slay Yeshua on the cross, but by then Yeshua-Joshua of Nazareth-will already have undermined Yahweh by his demonic word, revising his very character. What could be more Yahwistic than that, or less susceptible to historical analysis?
Never let it be said that Harold Bloom takes no hostages. On the contrary, as a scriptural critic he takes everyone hostage-the originals and the commentators alike-and then paces from cage to cage, interrogating his inmates and comparing one with another in an unsparing, epigrammatic, and endlessly instructive fashion. For all its mellow interludes, Yahweh and Jesus is a roaring outburst of a book-but, for this reader, a rewarding outburst. Bloom has a reputation for irascibility, but he is rollicking company on the page. From the darkest depths, there comes ever a cackle. Thus, for him, Yahweh resembles Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, both of them exemplars of “someone who neither can accept love nor return it, though she or he perhaps demands it anyway, if only as worship or tribute.” Yahweh as an African Queen! The brilliance may be fetched from afar, but brilliance it is, and with a shot of mischief. Bloom tosses off some such aperçu on every other page.
Of all the characters caged and questioned in these pages, only Yahweh himself, finally, escapes Bloom’s custody. Yahweh as the Infinite (Ein Sof) of Kabbalah turns the tables on Bloom, taking the great warden hostage as Jesus never could or will. “I very much want to dismiss Yahweh as the ancient Gnostics did,” Bloom writes,
finding in him a mere demiurge who had botched the Creation so that it was simultaneously a Fall. But I wake up these days, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., because of nightmares in which Yahweh sardonically appears as various beings, ranging from a Havana-smoking, Edwardian-attired Dr. Sigmund Freud to the Book of Daniel’s silently reproachful Ancient of Days. I trudge downstairs gloomily and silently, lest I wake my wife, and breakfast on tea and dark bread while rereading yet once more in the Tanakh, wide swatches of Mishnah and Talmud, and those disquieting texts the New Testament and Augustine’s City of God. At times, in writing this book, I defend myself only by murmuring Oscar Wilde’s apothegm that life is too important to be taken seriously. Yahweh, I ruefully would add, is much too important to be taken ironically, even if irony can seem as much his own mode as it is Prince Hamlet’s.
Jesus and Yahweh, in my view, does not offer the last word on the complex subject of what is all too casually called “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Regarding the historical process that over several centuries of theological and organizational maneuver catalyzed Judaism and Christianity as we know them, Bloom’s book must yield to Daniel Boyarin’s more daring, more original, still undernoticed Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (see “What If...”, October 21, 2005). But on the agon between Yahweh and Yeshua as fought out in the timeless Scriptures, no one roils water or boils blood better than Harold Bloom. His insomnia, to our edification, is highly contagious.