Jesus and Yahweh
by Evan Willner
[ bookreviews ]
It is impossible to evaluate a literate person’s struggle with God’s angel. One can approve of his technique and wits, but, however agile or dull, he’ll never pin the angel, throw it or walk away: one lesson Harold Bloom has learned from Joyce and Stevens is that the lapsed believer is a myth. The more you protest, the more you punch and kick, the more engaged you are. And the news gets worse: Huysmans illustrates that the gap between Satanist and orthodox zealot is barely a fissure, and even the agnostic is stuck playing with God’s deck. According to the authors Bloom quietly reworks in Jesus and Yahweh, there is no avoiding God’s service. (Atheists do exist, Virginia, but they fall outside the tradition Bloom has tapped into here, so for once they can rest easy.) Literate religious talk begins, then, when one recognizes that, while we’re stuck in God’s game, the moves we make are left up to us.
Bloom’s gambit is to attack God at its weakest point: history. The first half of his book argues that the historical Yeshua is lost to us, scribbled over by partisan and rhetorically-awkward accounts, and what we have inherited as Jesus Christ is an amalgamation, not even a coherent golem, of Paul’s and the gospel authors’ theologico-political ideals and crises. He is “a remarkably mixed metaphor,” something like the multitudinous and self-contradictory Whitman The American that Whitman the author invents. The effect of Yeshua’s transformation into Jesus is powerful advertising: if Marx had crafted such a prophet for and embodiment of communism, history might have moved in a radically different direction.
Distinguishing between the historical Yeshua, the varieties of Jesus found in the Gospels, and the Trinitarian Christ provides Bloom with a segue between Jesus and God, as he finds the cloudy Christian God-The-Father incompatible with Yahweh, the all-too-human jealous thug who has absconded, leaving Jews in prayer to nobodaddy. It is this God Bloom would like to sue for breach of contract. As a reviewer and interested party, can I say Bloom mischaracterizes Jesus or misunderestimates Yahweh? There’s no sense in theological objections, for three reasons: a) as far as the current state of biblical scholarship is concerned, not much of what Bloom says is new or heterodox; b) the tradition that produced Bloom has shibboleths but no catechism: Bloom’s psycho-kabbalitic understanding of Yahweh and his historical understanding of Yeshua read like one more text in the long history of creative Jewish gnosis. Despite his claim to secularity (like Joyce’s and Kafka’s), Bloom struggles like a Jew; c) finally, while Bloom’s conclusions are the living flesh of this book, to focus attention on them, whether to condemn or to celebrate, is to miss the value of this genre: literati chewing openly at their fleas.
First, the character of Bloom needs clarification: the Bloom Bloom invents in Jesus and Yahweh is both obscure kabbalist and bigger-than-Jesus public mind. As usual, he is magisterial in his love for giving opinions, even intriguing ones (Emily Dickinson is “a radical Protestant sect of one”; “Our vital prophets, Emerson and Walt Whitman, were post-Christian, and so is their nation, since the American Jesus can be described without any recourse to theology”) without explaining or illustrating them. This rhetorical approach can easily work against Bloom: either one agrees or one doesn’t, but agreement is based on one’s already having reached the same conclusion, on one’s ability to justify Bloom’s conclusion on her own, or on one’s confidence in or awe of his reputation. Trust is demanded, verification forbidden. This kind of borrowing against one’s own good name is dangerous: it leads to shortcuts of the I-am-the-great-Bloom:-how-can-my-intuition-be-wrong-when-I’ve-gotten-this-far variety, which run the risk of sapping reputation’s capital. It also can’t convert the unconverted, who are probably living happily in ignorance of Bloom’s greatness. Though a literary scholar may wrestle with angels, he should keep in mind his place in the cosmos: Bloom’s good name and $1.75 can get him on a bus in Chicago, if he can keep his mouth shut.
I dwell on what I believe to be Bloom’s rhetorical obnoxiousness not only because I can neither celebrate nor fault his book’s content - though there is an unexplained contradiction in its logic, which begins by arguing that textual revision has made Yeshua unknowable and ends by arguing that the Yahweh one gets in the J-text is not only knowable, but is as human and subject to psychoanalysis as Lear. What I fault is Bloom’s sloth: he wallows on the throne, discharging Big Pronouncements when his ideas, put in reasonable terms and adequately supported, could receive the genuine consideration and public discussion they merit. The US is packed with people who, taking the Gospels for historical gospel, will not be reached by magisterial flourishes and aphorisms (at least not on Bloom’s part) and it is their dangerous, illiterate literalism that needs to be challenged for political and social reasons that Bloom himself recognizes. Compare for instance Stephen Jay Gould: in his books written for a lay audience, his method is explained and each source documented. Not one anti-scientistic pre-modern can stand up to the hard breath of his clear and evidenced reasoning. Bloom on the other hand masticates our food so that we can’t be certain if what is inserted into our mouths is healthy, or even where he got it from. He gives us neither the tools nor the techniques to learn to hunt on our own.
Bloom’s rhetorical failure aside, Jesus and Yahweh is well worth the read. The frustrating fact of Bloom’s career is that he is often right, and even in this work’s less successful moments Bloom’s approach is another living argument against the constant assertion of Christian neo-Platonism that it is the only logic available to us, our only truth-gathering apparatus. Instead, Bloom presents us with modern Talmud, infused with historicism and an anachronistically-applied 20th century conception of psychology. And it is as a man of the Book, a man “tumbled from books,” that Bloom engages with God: in a specifically Jewish relationship with Yahweh that has been traditional since Abraham haggled God down to ten honest men in exchange for Sodom’s preservation, Bloom negotiates with God and holds it to its side of the Covenant. Moses cajoled Yahweh to keep its promise to the Israelites by descending to the ark and traversing the desert with its newly-freed people by insinuating that to remain sulkily aloof would make it a promise breaker; Bloom accuses Yahweh of breach of covenant while the Jews have worked in good faith through history to keep up their part of the bargain. And there is merit in his complaint: history supplies more than enough evidence of God’s sleeping on the job. This Jewish thought running through Jesus and Yahweh is one of its two virtues: it makes the book a moving example of how their approach to the world may survive, maybe beyond the Jews themselves. If Bloom is not a rabbi, it is only because he is a miserable rhetor - less teacher than Romantic aphorist.
The other value of Jesus and Yahweh is not in Bloom’s ideas, all of which can be found elsewhere in his sizeable oeuvre. It is the picture he draws of a man nearing the end of his life, laying out the things he has made for a final reconsideration: does his work cohere? Will it last? Has he made a foundational blunder in his career? These are the questions a reader grapples with as Bloom tests his ideas and methods one last time against the touchstone of God, who is finally “reality itself.” This is the book of an old man, in the best and worst way.