Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?
Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books, New York, New York (USA), 2004 (2004)
284 pages

It is not easy for a literary critic to become well known beyond the world of academia these days (was it ever easy though?), but Harold Bloom definitely has achieved a significant degree of recognition for someone who, after all, just writes about books. He has written essays about Percy Shelley, Blake, Yeats, the Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and a myriad other issues. However, it was The Western Canon that without any doubt catapulted him to international fame. Published in 1994, right in the middle of the offensive of the politically correct movement, Bloom clearly asserts the need for a literary canon that helps us distinguish between the good and the mediocre, and since his particular canon is dominated by what other people might prefer to call dead white men, Bloom ran into a considerable opposition in some quarters that accused him of ultraconservatism. I simply do not see the connection between his firm belief in a canon and any form of ultraconservative ideology, but since we are not discussing The Western Canon here I suppose we should leave that discussion for another day. Suffice to say though that one will find enough quotes in this book to clarify Bloom's opinions of today's palladins of deconstruction:

As the editor of the four-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (final volume published in 1986), Burchfield gave nearly thirty years to his Johnsonian task, and emerged from it with a Johnsonian literary humanism enhanced. He is a historical philologist, which is to be a dissident in an era dominated by descriptive linguistics. A critic who takes (as I do) a historical view of rhetoric, as opposed to the theory of Paul de Man, is bound to be attracted by Burchfield's principles. What vanishes in deconstructive criticism is the pragmatic distinction between denotation, or naming, and connotation, or association, upon which poetry depends. Saussure sets a bar between signifier and signified, but then cannot tell us on which side of the bar connotation is to be discovered. Without a sense of connotation, the reader would be tone-deaf, and all figurative language would become a form of irony, as it does in de Man's formulations.

(pp. 160-161)

In any case, whatever one thinks about Bloom and his ideas, there is little doubt he prizes consistency and has spent quite a few years now telling his story and defending his views. Back in 2000, Bloom published How to Read and Why, whose preface starts with the following lines:

There is no single way to read well, though there is a prime reason why we should read. Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found? If you are fortunate, you encounter a particular teacher who can help, yet finally you are alone, going on without further mediation. Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviate loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.

(p. 19)

Apparently, it took him four more years to go back to those words and write about where is it that we can find wisdom in the books, but not without first having a near brush with death that made him return to life with a renewed sense of urgency. This is the consequence of that rush to study again some of the greatest thinkers and writers of the Western world in search of meaning. As he clarifies in the first page:

All of the world's cultures —Asian, African, Middle Eastern, European/Western Hemisphere— have fostered wisdom writing. For more than a half-century I have studied and taught the literature that emerged from monotheism and its later secularizations. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? rises out of personal need, reflecting a quest for sagacity that might solace and clarify the traumas of aging, recovery from grave illness, and of grief for the loss of beloved friends.

(p. 1)

The impressive list of authors and works that Blooms writes about in this book includes The Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, Plato, Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Emerson, Nietzche, Freud, Proust, The Gospel of Thomas and St. Augustine.

Distinction between wisdom literature and philosophy:

If Falstaff and Hamlet, Iago and Cleopatra, Lear and Macbeth are only roles for performances, then what are we? Wisdom is there to be found, in Job and Koheleth, in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Thomas, in Cervantes and in Shakespeare. If your quest is for wisdom within the bounds of reason, rather than of wonder, then go back to Plato and his progeny, down through David Hume to Wittgenstein. Plato, I think, would have approved the reservations concerning Shakespeare expressed by Hume and by Wittgenstein. But even a long life is too short to receive everything Shakespeare is capable of giving you.

(p. 57)

On the Book of Job:

The translator Stephen Mitchell, in his interesting version of Job (1986), poignantly remarks that Job truly loves God without ever expecting Him to love us in return, a ver un-American sentiment, since the Gallup poll every second year tells us that eighty-nine-percent of Americans believe that God loves them on a personal and individual basis. The American God, like the American Jesus, is surprisingly nonbiblical, but then Americans are not very Jobean.

(p. 21)

On Homer:

The poet of the Iliad seems to me to have only one ancient rival, the prime and original author of much of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, known as the Yahwist or J writer to scholars. Homer and J have absolutely nothing in common except their uncanny sublimity, and they are sublime in very different modes. In a profound sense, they are antagonists, though neither ever heard of the other, or listened to the other's texts. They compete for consciousness of Western nations, and their belated strife may be the largest single factor that makes for a divided sensibility in the literature and life of the West. For what marks the West is its troubled sense that its cognition goes one way and it spiritual life goes in quite another. We have no ways of thinking that are not Greek, and yet our morality and religion —outer and inner— find their ultimate source in the Hebrew Bible.

(p. 68)

It can be argued that the speactatorship of the gods gives Homer an immense aesthetic advantage over the writers of the Hebrew Bible. The sense of a divine audience constantly in attendance both provides a fascinating interplay with Homer's human auditors and guarantees that Achilles and Hector will perform in front of a sublimity greater even than their own. To have the gods as one's audience enhances and honors the heroes who are Homer's prime actors. Yahweh frequently hides Himself, and will not be there when you cry out for Him, or He may call out your name unexpectedly, to which you can only respond, "Here I am". Zeus is capricious and is finally limited by fate. Yahweh surprises you, and has no limitation. He will not lend you dignity by serving as your audience, and yet He is anything but indifferent to you. He fashioned you out of the moistened red clay, and then blew his own breath into your nostrils, so as to make you a living being. You grieve Him or you please Him, but fundamentally He is your longing for the father, as Freud insisted. Zeus is not your longing for anyone, and he will not save you even if you are Heracles, his own son.

(pp. 73-74)

On Homer and Plato:

Together, Homer and Plato are so strong that their only rival before Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare is the Yahwist, who composed the earliest and most crucial stratum of Torah (in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, with many later insertions by the Redactor, in the Babilonian exile) sometime between 980 and 900 B.C.E., before Homer lived and died. The ultimate agon has to be that between the Yahwist's Moses, enigmatic hero of the Torah, and Socrates, captured forever by Plato, despite hte genius of Aristophanes in his great farce The Clouds (424 B.C.E.), and the devoted candor of the pragmatic Xenophon, heroic chronicler of Anabasis, or The Persian Expedition, in which Xenophon leads an army of Greek freebooters, and marches them back to safety after their patron, Cyrus the Younger, is killed in battle by the forces of his enemy brother, the Persian king.

(p. 32)

Plato, better than any now alive, perceived the aesthetic supremacy of Homer, but regarded Socrates as the truer guide to wisdom both moral and religious. Whether the epic tragedy of Achilles and the epic comedy of Odysseus possess less truth than the discourses of Plato's Socrates is a highly disputable contention, yet I am alogos, averse to philosophy, since first I fell in love with the poetry of William Blake and Hart Crane. I do not read Hume and Wittgenstein except as a searcher for arresting aphorisms, and I turn incessantly back to Shakespeare in quest for truth, power, beauty, and for persons, above all else.

(pp. 35-36)

Our civilization is still split between a Hellenic cognition and aesthetic and a Hebraic morality and religion. One might say that the hand of Western (indeed of much Eastern also) civilization has five ill-assorted fiingers: Moses, Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare, Freud. Plato's culture is entirely Socratic, by design, yet also Homeric, unwillingly. Between the Republic and ourselves come Moses, Jesus, Shakespeare, Freud, and though we cannot abandon Athens, still less could we avoid our tongues' cleaving to the roofs of our mouths if we do not prefer Jerusalem to Athens.

(pp. 36-37)

Manifestly, the attack on Homer will not satisfy any reader who rightly values the Iliad as one of the crowns of imaginative literature, and yet the issue of wisdom here is religious, though certainly not in any Hebraic sense. Plato's Socrates wants the gods to be devoid of personality: free of lust, envy, and everything else that interests us in Homer's Zeus, much of the time. Like the Christian Platonists who were to follow him, the divine Plato is obsessed with salvation, hardly a Homeric notion. Unlike the biblical Hebrews, who had no theology, Plato most certainly did, though it is difficult to summarize. Something in me does not altogether ascribe Plato's resentment of Homer to the philosopher's spirituality, but doubtless it intensified Plato's agon with the teacher of all Hellas.

(pp. 42-43)

Let us set aside the Timaeus and the Laws. Will the common reader, now as always, absorb more wisdom from the Republic and the Symposium than from the Iliad and the Odyssey? Do Hume and Wittgenstein make us wiser than Hamlet and King Lear? In search of wisdom, ought I to reread (most reluctantly) Foucault on power and sadomasochism, or Proust's In Search of Lost Time? The questions are absurd: competing with Homer, Shakespeare, and Proust is hopeless unless you are Aeschylus, Cervantes, and Joyce. Plato is unique among philosophers because, as Emerson said, "he has clapped copyright upon the world". Yet Homer is the world, and could not be coyprighted.

(p. 54)

On Cervantes and Shakespeare:

Mark Van Doren, in a very useful study, Don Quixote's Profession, is haunted by the analogues between the Knight and Hamlet, which to me seem inevitable. Here are the two characters, beyond all others, who seem always to know what they are doing, though they baffle us whenever we try to share their knowledge. It is a knowledge unlike that of Sir John Falstaff and Sancho Panza, who are so delighted at being themselves that they bid knowledge to go aside and pass them by. I would rather be Falstaff or Sancho than a version of Hamlet or Don Quixote, because growing old and ill teaches me that being matters more than knowing. The Knight and Hamlet are reckless beyond belief; Falstaff and Sancho have some awareness of discretion in matters of valor.

(pp. 97-98)

Goethe remarked of Shakespeare that each of his plays "revolves around an invisible point which no philosopher has discovered or defined and where the characteristic quality of our being, our presumed free will, collides with the inevitable course of the whole". Later, in his ultimate tribute, "No End to Shakespeare", Goethe distinguishes between ancient and modern literature. In ancient literature, the conflict is between moral obligation and its fulfillment, while in modern literature the agon is between desire and fulfillment. In Goethe's judgment, Shakespeare is unique in that he fuses ancient and modern with surpassing exuberance: "In his plays, obligation and desire clearly try to counterbalance each other".

(p. 113)

On Montaigne:

The personal essay is Montaigne's, as the drama is Shakespeare's, the epic is Homer's, and the novel forever Cervantes's. That the first of essayists remains much the best has less to do with his formal originality (though that is considerable) than with the overwhelming directness of his wisdom. He asks us implictly and incessantly: Are your thoughts of any value if they stay within you? His answer, in clear anticipation of Nietzsche, is no. Thoughts are events. Montaigne's pleasures for the reader are ultimately difficult, but immediately available, like Shakespeare's. He asks you to be a vigorous reader, and his modesty is a mask.

(p. 119)

The wisdom of Montaigne, as we saw earlier in this chapter, has everything to do with how we ought to live: self-knowledge leads to self-acceptance, accurate self-expectations, and goodness toward the self and others. There, I essentially followed Donald Frame, Montaigne's definitive translator.

(p. 148)

On Goethe:

There is rather little in common between Ecclesiastes, a somber and fierce vision of reality, and Goethe's serene contemplations of our condition. Montaigne's full acceptance of the common life differs in temper from Goethe's ideal of Bildung, the self-development of the elite individual. Bildung, once a prime educational motive both on the Continent and in the America of Emerson, seems now to be an obsolete project. Its last major literary proponent was Goethe's disciple Thomas Mann, whose The Magic Mountain charted the ironic Bildung of Hans Castorp, caught between two opposed mentors, the Italian liberal Humanist Settembrini, and the Jesuit Jewish Naphta, permanently reactionary. Mann ironically keeps stressing how ordinary Castorp is, but the youthful hero of The Magic Mountain would be remarkable in any group at any time.

(pp. 176-177)

Goethe is one of the best antidotes I know for our current ideologies of Resentment, which have now pretty well destroyed aesthetic education in the English-speaking world. I am not suggesting a reununciatory criticism to match his poetics of renunciation. The disturbances of 1967-1970 were not exactly on the scale of the French Revolution, and yet they have made a culture of Bildung impossible. Goethe does not find me as Dr. Johnson does, and yet both of them are wisdom teachers for the current age. The Christian Johnson and the pagan Goethe come together in their appreciation of Shakespeare, who wrote neither the poetry of desire nor the poetry of renunciation. Call Shakespeare's the poetry of all climes and climates, and of all seasons of the soul.

(p. 189)

On Nietzsche:

An admirable study by Alexander Nehamas, Niezsche: Life as Literature (1983), argues that Friedrich Nietzsche views life as a literary text, human beings as literary characters, and knowledge as literary criticism. Were Nehamas preciely right, then Nietzsche could not be judged to be a wisdom writer, akin to Emerson. Clearly, as Nehamas intimates, Nietzsche understood his limitations, and made his work available to be interpreted other than philosophically. Wisdom writers are rarely philosophers: Montaigne and Bacon, Johnson and Goethe, Emerson and Nietzsche, Freud and Proust, are not Descartes and Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz, Hume and Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein. The ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy can never end, and wisdom writing is more poetic than philosophical.

(p. 208)

To give suffering a meaning is not so much to relieve suffering as it is to enable meaning to get started, rather than merely repeated. What Nietzsche shares more deeply with the Hebrew Bible and with Freud is the drive to find sense in everything, to interpret everything, but here Nietzsche is at his most dialectical, since he knows (and cannot accept) the consequences of everything having a meaning. There could never be anything new, since everything would have happened already; that is the Hebrew Bible's loyalty to Yahweh, its trust in the Covenant, and finally that is Freud's faith in the efficacy of interpretation. And that is Nietzsche's most profound argument with the Hebrew Bible.

(p. 215)

What the poet means is hurtful, Nietzsche tells us, nor can we tell the hurt from the meaning. What are the pragmatic consequences for wisdom of Nietzsche's poetcis of pain? To ask that is to ask also what I am convinced is the determining question of the canonical: what makes one poem more memorable than another? The Nietzschean answer must be that the memorable poem, the poem that has more meaning, or starts more meaning going, is the poem that gives (or commemorates) more pain.

(p. 219)

On Freud:

In search of wisdom literature in the twentieth century, I initially found it odd that the two figures who seemed to me incontrovertible should have been the founder of psychoanalysis and the major novelist of the age. Sigmund Freud insisted that he had developed a science that would make a vital contribution to biology, but in that regard he was self-deceived. He became not the Darwin but the Montaigne of his era, a superb moral essayist rather than a revolutionist who overturned our sense of humankind's place in nature. Marcel Proust disputes with James Joyce the eminence of the greatest literary artist of their age, yet Proust is the wisest of story-tellers, while Joyce's project was to alter and complete Western literary tradition, and wisdom was secondary to other concern in Joyce's writing.

(p. 221)

Our inability to characterize Freud without revising him is a true sign of his varied strength. His central ideas —the drives, the defenses, the psychic agencies, the dynamic unconscious— are all frontier concepts, making ghostlier the demarcations between mind and body. Freud's science, psychoanalysis, is neither primarily speculative/poetic nor empirical/therapeutic but is on the border between all prior disciplines. So his concept of negation is a frontier idea also, breaking down the distinction between inwardness and outwardness. In Freudian negation, as in normative Jewish memory, a previously repressed thought, desire, or feeling achieves formulation only by being disowned, so that it is cognitively accepted but still effectively denied. Thinking is freed from its sexual past, even as thinking is desexualized also in the rituals of normative Judaism.

(p. 228)

On the Gospel of Thomas:

The popularity of the Gospel of Thomas among Americans is another indication that, as I have argued elsewhere, there is indeed "the American religion": creedless, Orphic, enthusiastic, protognostic, post-Christian. Unlike the canonical gospels, that of Judas Thomas the Twin spares us the Crucifixion, makes the Resurrection unnecessary, and does not present us with a God named Jesus. No dogmas could be founded uppon this sequence (if it is a sequence) of apothegms. If you turn to the Gospel of Thomas, you encounter a Jesus who is unsponsored and free. No one could be burned or even scorned in the name of this Jesus, and no one has been hurt in any way, except perhaps for those bigots, high church or low, who may have glanced at so permanently surprising a work. (...) The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas calls us to knowledge and not to belief, for faith need not lead to wisdom; and this Jesus is a wisdom teacher, gnomic and wandering, rather than a proclaimer of finalities. You cannot be a minister of this gospel, nor found a church upon it. The Jesus who urges his followers to be passersby is a remarkably Whitmanian Jesus, and there is little in the Gospel of Thomas that would not have been accepted by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.

(pp. 259-260)

On Saint Augustine:

Aside from his vast contributions to theology, Augustine invented reading as we have known it for sixteen centuries. I am not unique in my elegiac sadness at watching reading die, in the era that celebrates Stephen King and J. K. Rowling rather than Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. Augustine was essentially the first theorist and defender of reading, though as an ethical interpreter he would have repudiated a stance like my own, which seeks a secular wisdom fused with a purely aesthetic experience at once freely hedonistic and cognitively strong. (...) We think because we learn to remember our reading the best that can be read —for Augustine the Bible and Vergil, Cicero and the Neoplatonists, to which we have added for ourselves Plato, Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, with Jouce and Proust in the century just past. But always we remain the progeny of Augustine, who first told us that the book alone could nourish thought, memory, and their intricate interplay in the life of the mind. Reading alone will not save us or make us wise, but without it we will lapse into the death-in-life of the dumbing down in which America now leads the world, as in all other matters.

(pp. 277-278)

Final words:

A Jobean wisdom is scarcely American; our national epics are Moby-Dick, which defies Job's God, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass, an inextricable mingling of hope an torment. Neither work is Christian. Is the wisdom of the Greeks and Hebrews, or of the great moral essayists, still as available to us as is the dark comedy of Cervantes or the sublimity of Shakesperean tragedy? This book has summoned these up, in conjunction with the enigmas of a Jesus varied enough to encompass the Gospel of Thomas, Saint Augustine, and Kierkegaard's indirect communication of the difficulty of becoming a Christian in a supposedly Christian society that actually worships Nemesis despite arguing for hope. As Davide Stimilli suggests, Nemesis is not a moral power: she is the goddess of retribution, Homeric and Freudian, and not Christian or Platonic. Goethe and Emerson, themselves not Christian, try to teach us that there is a god in us who can, for a time anyway, hold out against Nemesis. Pragmatically, that became William James's benign insight that wisdom had to become a capacity to overlook what cannot be surmounted. Is that our only answer now to the query of where shall wisdom be found? At least it does constitute a difference that helps get us through the hard or unlucky days.

I personally hope that wisdom literature, as surveyed in this book, can offer us more than that. Western monotheism —Judaic, Christian, Islamic&mdhas; is perhaps not so much opposed as it is complemented by the reliance of Goethe, Emerson, and Freud on individual genius, or daemonic Eros. Secular wisdom tradition and monotheistic hope may not finally be reconcilable, at least not wholly, but the greatest of writers ancient and modern —Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare— contrive balances (however precarious) that allow prudential wisdom and some intimations of hope to coexist. We read and reflect because we hunger and thirst after wisdom. Truth, according to the poet William Butler Yeats, could not be known but could be embodied. Of wisdom, I personally would affirm the reverse: We cannot embody it, yet we can be taught how to know wisdom, whether or not it can be identified with the Truth that might make us free.

(pp. 283-284)

Entrevista con Harold Bloom

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