Harold Bloom: Jesus and Yahweh

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[Sue Mingus]

Help us out, seriously. In the light of President Bush’s conversations with God about the Middle East, these may be urgent questions:

What is your name for God? Do you have a notion of His personality? Can you say where you learned it? Is your God a comforter, or a warrior? A healer? A business counselor? Does He wear the sandals of Jesus of Nazareth, or the halo of Jesus the Christ? These are the everyday lay versions of an inquiry that we’ll pursue on Tuesday with, intellectually speaking, a higher authority.

Harold Bloom’s new book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine is way out there, “beyond category,” a sort of holy romp across the peaks of theology and literature. Do we know anybody else who would undertake confidently to explain that the God of the Hebrew Bible is to Jesus of Mark’s Gospel what King Lear is to Hamlet? Who else would opine that St. Mark, like Edgar Alan Poe, is “both a bad writer and a great one”?

The Yale legend dubs himself Professor Bloomstaff–after his favorite playwright’s grandest clown. I think of him as The Man Who Reads Too Much and, dammit, remembers every word. This is a man who can recite all of Paradise Lost from memory, and vast swaths of Emerson, Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Hart Crane and many others close to his heart as well as his mind.

Bloom is writing now, in his mid-seventies, in a hurry to distill some essential questions of a lifetime and a few answers. He writes about the names of God not as a mere textual detective, and not just as a drama critic observing the Hebrews’ God-like-a-man and the Christian man-like-a-God as characters on a stage–characters that he might say don’t belong in the same theater. Bloom is absorbed (furiously, it seems) in the reduction of the “impish mischief and moral terror” of Yahweh to the almost supernumerary God the Father of the Christian Trinity… alongside the transformation of the enigmatic, ambiguous Jesus of Nazareth into the exalted Jesus the Christ.

Bloom is trying, with a minimum of irony, to help us understand the American religion:

Jesus, to most Americans, of whatever origin or denomination, is both unique and universal. Has he taken the place once held by God the Father? If so, then the American Religion would evade Freud’s reduction of all religion to the longing for the father. For a while now I have rejected Marx’s notion that religion was the opiate of the people. In the United States it is rather the people’s poetry, both bad and good…”

But he is also working out some of his own puzzles, toward the conclusion that “The human being Jesus and the all-too-human God Yahweh are more compatible (to me) than either is with Jesus the Christ and God the Father.” He has composed, he says, an “elegy for Yahweh.”

I wake up these days, sometime between midnight and two 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 glooomily 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.

Bloom is our teacher of teachers — scornful lately of our “mediaversity” educations and information technology, perhaps because he’s always carried his own Google search engine and an infinite system of references in his own fertile head. But for me he is one of rare mystical humanists — still moved by William Blake’s line “For everything that lives is holy” — with trustworthy answers to the question in the title of his last book: Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?

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