The Consolation of Philosophy?

There's an interesting interview with Harold Bloom now available from the archives of NPR. He doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said by many others of his ilk. He talks in a general and superficial way about the texts of the Old and New Testament and the ways in which modernist textual criticism has demythologized the stories of Jesus and Yahweh. He paraphrases Nietzsche several times during the course of the interview with a curious use of the phrase "human, all too human", and indeed his reading of the biblical texts appears to have been influenced by some of the same intellectual impulses that motivated Nietzsche. So there's not much in the interview that will be very surprising or informative to anyone interested in a new take on the scriptural texts.

What is fascinating about the interview, however, and what makes it far and away very much worth listening to, is the strange sense of despair and abandonment that runs throughout the interview. At the very beginning of the piece, and then again in the closing moments, we hear a Bloom that we don't often get to hear--a real, live, personal Bloom. Unless he is being ironic (always a possibility with a mind like Bloom's) these parts of the interview reveal a great deal about the rest of the interview. If we take what he says at face value, then it becomes clear that Harold Bloom is not a happy man, and that his unhappiness is due primarily to his inability to believe in--to trust in, in his words--the God of the Old Testament. Forget questions about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus (in fact he trusts only Mark, when it comes to that): for Bloom the worry is that the God of Moses has never been available in the Covenant with his People. He chastises Israel again and again for abandoning Him, but He has abandoned Israel utterly. This makes him untrustworthy.

Now, it's easy to hear something like that and think to yourself, well here's one more instance of someone falling victim to the so-called Problem of Evil. But it isn't that simple--Bloom's despondency sounds to me as though it goes much deeper than that, though certainly the Problem of Evil is playing a role here. But in some ways the gloom of Bloom sounds much more personal, as though he has done his best to make sense of his religion (he is a nominal Jew) in a spirit of genuine enquiry, and has found it impossible to get out of it what he seems to think somebody, somewhere, is expecting him to get out of it. And he is unhappy about that. I can't tell whether he is angry about it, but he is clearly unhappy, if we are to take his words seriously--he complains at the end of the interview that (I paraphrase him here, but it is virtually a quotation) Yahweh will not "leave him alone", Yahweh comes to him in dreams and wakes him up at night.

For the life of me I cannot make light of that, even though I don't believe for a minute that Yahweh is coming to him in his dreams and waking him up. This is a very sad man, and as much as I find his sort of textual exegesis execrable, I listened to this interview with a profound sense of sadness--sadness for all those like Bloom, who are unhappy about God, the very thing that ought to make a person happy if he understands Him correctly.

And therein lies an irony. Bloom's sort of exegesis is very scholarly, of course, and he approaches the biblical texts the way many scholars would approach any other literary text. For him this is the only way to approach a text--as a scholar. For him, as, I suspect, for many scholars like him, it is simply not possible to approach a written source in any other way. Folks who work professionally on Plato have first hand experience of the tension that can sometimes exist between a text and what the text is "about", because Plato's philosophical writings are almost all (there are one or two exceptions) in the form of literary dialogues, where it is impossible to extricate the philosophical arguments from the philological entanglements. Anyone who wants to work on Plato will have to be able to engage in textual criticism as well as logical analysis. This is not true in quite the same way for an author like Aristotle, for instance, or Aquinas. Aquinas holds, at the very outset of his Summa theologiae, that philosophy cannot give you what revelation can, that is, infallible truths about God--so naturally Bloom will not find any comfort in scholarship alone. But sadly for him that is the only path he knows. He is like the reductive materialist, who cuts himself off from the real truths of nature by adopting, a priori a method and a view of nature that is as incapable of discovering the truth about nature as a blind man is of discovering the difference between blue and red.

Boethius, famously, wrote that philosophy is supposed to be a consolation. But in the testimony of Harold Bloom we see that it cannot be so, at least not always, not with any sort of guarantee. Together with revelation, philosophy can be a comfort, as Aquinas also held in the first Article of the Summa. But human understanding, all on its own, cannot see what is hidden from it. Indeed, as many of Bloom's remarks in the interview show, human understanding is easily mislead by its own proclivities. It is not at all hard to see why Bloom is so sad, nor is it at all hard to feel great compassion for him. One can only hope that he finds some kind of peace eventually.


Kevin Jones said…
"For him, as, I suspect, for many scholars like him, it is simply not possible to approach a written source in any other way."

I'm wondering if a reemphasis of the spoken word could help this.

I myself prefer to hear scripture read, because otherwise I receive it in that critical spirit which is certainly no way to receive a gift.

I can't think of too many scriptural recommendations to read, but to hear and to listen and to speak are perpetually commended.

Of course, "word" connotes something very different in a hyperliterate culture than in an oral one. In the former it seems static and fixed, while in the latter even an ordinary word can easily reverberate through time and space and meaning--especially with good acoustics and a good lector.
Scott Carson said…

That's a good insight, and one that hadn't occurred to me.

In searching my mind for examples of recommendations to read, the first one to pop into my head--not a scriptural one: like you, I can't think of many of those--was Augustine's "tolle, lege", "take up and read", from his Confessions. Of course in that passage Augustine is having a spiritual crisis. Maybe the source of his crisis, which we are told had its origins in his own hyperintellectual Platonism, was not very different from Bloom's.
LBowman said…
I think this touches something I have noticed about academic life. There is no place in it, in my experience, for an admission of faith; because being an academic seems to explicitly rule out exactly what faith requires. We depend, for our work, on every source of knowledge except revelation; or so we believe, and say. In fact of course inspiration is essential to the work we do, without it we can never do more than produce catalogs and lexica, but we don't talk about that. And if we did we certainly wouldn't allow our discussion to stray to the possibility of an external-to-our-own-subconscious source of inspiration.

There is a great deal of intellectual snobbery associated with being an academic, again in my experience, and one effect of this seems to be a commonly-held and never-examined assumption that only stupid or under-educated or (at best) wildly self-indulgent people can possibly seriously entertain religious belief. Bloom, to let go of his narrow approach to scripture, would also have to let go of his real faith, which is, that only a stupid person would do that, and he would rather die than be stupid. At least, I'm guessing here; but I'm guessing on the basis of the academic culture in which we both participate, and in which he's a very big fish indeed. He'd have to examine his assumptions, and he has a lot of intellectual and social status riding on those assumptions; or so his assumptions tell him.

Not sure I've been clear here. I'll try to think of a better way to put it later.

I will say, though, that I know there are several believers working where I work, but not one of them has ever said so to me AT WORK. We're all in the closet. Bloom, frankly, helped build the closet. It would be even harder for him to open the door.
MrsDarwin said…
Pope John Paul II, in his days as an actor, was a great proponent of a style of theater which consisted mainly of the spoken word being transmitted from actor to audience. For him, there was a great power in the "living word": words elevated by serving pure idea, and human action elevated by service of ideas through the gift of the spoken word that conveys those ideas. It's a very cerebral form of theater from a very cerebral man, but his early days as an actor and his early writings on theater and the word are reflected in many of his later writings on the objective character of human actions.

Not entirely on topic, I know, but Kevin's comment that "an ordinary word can easily reverberate through time and space and meaning" is almost exactly how Karol Wojtyla described the role of the spoken word in his writings on theater.

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