A fresh installment in Bloom’s Adleresque campaign to dust off the Western Civ 101 syllabus for a generation of readers led astray by the “impostors” running the academy.
“Genius,” Bloom (How to Read and Why, 2000, etc.) allows, is a slippery term: it is “a mystery of the capacious consciousness”; it is “idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone”; it is revealed in, well, works of genius of the sort that the contemporary university seems to have little room for—in, say, the poems of Eliot, the dramas of Shakespeare, the sermons of Donne. Never mind the apparent circularity of the argument, for here Bloom collects deeply learned remarks, critical and biographical, on a cluster of a hundred shapers and makers of the Western mind as, he suggests, it ought to be. Only a few of them are non-Western: the sole representative of Asia is Lady Murasaki, author of the medieval Tale of Genji; Muhammad represents the Arab world; Africa goes entirely unrepresented. But Bloom is inclusive, at least in his own way; grouping his hundred authors by a complex—and certainly idiosyncratic—classificatory system of perceived affinities, one that derives from the Kabbalah and certain Gnostic texts, he finds room for moderns such as Tennessee Williams and Wallace Stevens, for Hispanic writers such as Octavio Paz and Alejo Carpentier, for women such as Christina Rossetti and Flannery O’Connor alongside the usual dead white males of the European canon. Bloom’s system will likely be more meaningful to Bloom than his readers, but it’s refreshing all the same to see Herman Melville cast alongside Virginia Woolf, Robert Browning alongside Lewis Carroll, Homer alongside James Joyce by virtue of their writerly interests. Bloom’s biographical sketches are satisfyingly offbeat, if sometimes so allusive as to assume wide background reading: “The sage of Vienna, who intended to become no less than a new Moses, replacing Judaism by psychoanalysis, became instead a new Prospero, but one who would not break his staff or drown his book.”
Still, readers suitably prepared for Bloom, and of a hell-in-a-handbasket cast of mind with respect to the current culture, will find this a rewarding excursion.