Monday, January 13, 2014

A Criticism of Harlod Bloom's Literary Criticism

A criticism of Harold Bloom’s literary criticism, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found:

This past summer, a Scout Leader gave me a copy of Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found.  I am reading it cover to cover, but I can’t wait to “put in my two bits worth” on his chapter 2, “The Greeks: Plato’s Contest with Homer.”

I checked out the Harold Bloom.   Very impressive.  A Professor at Yale with 20+ books published and engaged in arguments with a lot of people.   The quote from the "New York Times Book Review" on the back cover of my 2005 paperback edition of Where Shall Wisdom Be Found ends: “. . . the best thing about Harold Bloom is that he would be disappointed if we did not resist.”  Well, I don’t want to disappoint him. 

I will not challenge his other chapters; which continue comparing and contrasting “great” writers of history.  But Ancient Greece and Rome are my special interest, Plato my “task at hand” [I am reading  Plato, Complete Works cover to cover.], and Homer my passion.  In this small corner of Professor Bloom’s opinionating, I will resist.

I will begin by taking exception with Bloom’s claim that the Torah is older that the Iliad.  Perhaps the scribes that final put down the first five books and “many later insertions during the Babylonian exile” did their work before “Homer lived and died.” p33, but Bloom’s error is to assume that the epics these hard to identify and date transcribers of oral tradition contrived predate the oral version of the Iliad.  There is little doubt that the story of Achilles had its first telling sometime shortly after, perhaps even during, the Trojan War in the 1200’s BC, a time at which the Children of Israel were wandering and dying in the wilderness. 

Some things about Bloom’s book annoy me that don’t directly relate to his critique of Homer and Plato. 

1. Bloom’s use of BCE rather than BC in his book is a painful example of a political agenda superseding scholarship. 

2. He capitalizes the word God when referring to the Hebrew version but not the Greek. 

3. He invents a female identity as the writer of several books in the Old Testament even though no one knows what captive Hebrew set down these oral traditions in the libraries of Babylon.  The most plausible explanation for Bloom’s biased assumption that is was a woman is the undeniable fact that all the other authors considered throughout his book are men.  

I am annoyed at Bloom’s habit of cherry picking material from Homer and Plato to further his agenda; completely abandoning context that would negate his positions.

1. Bloom claims that Plato is somehow at odds with Homer even though he admits that, “Plato is so subtle an ironist that we cannot know when the prince [Hamlet or, in other words, Shakespeare] and the philosopher [Plato] speak what they mean, or quite mean what is said.”  Pg. 32 The problem I have is that Bloom, time and time again, claims he knows exactly what Plato means.

2. Although Bloom will contradict himself later in his book where he references other dialogues of Plato that celebrate Homer, in this section – obsessively on Plato’s relationship with Homer – Bloom almost exclusively references The Republic.  The Republic is not all of Plato or of Socrates. 

3. Although the Chapter is titled “Plato’s conflict with Homer”, Bloom drags in other contenders in his phony war.  He turns to Shakespeare in an attack on Greek Drama, claiming that, “only Shakespeare has men and women who are both comic and tragic” and he asserts that “in Athens there was no such playwright.”  p. 40.  This is a perfect example of how Blooms personal agenda overwhelms the truth.  I often observe this in teachers and professors who have read about things and had classes on things but have no firsthand knowledge in the things they present to their students.  As a big fan of Sophocles Antigone, I take exception to Bloom’s diminishing of Greek drama – to which Shakespeare was heir.  What of the “common man” in Sophocles’ tragic masterpiece?  A wonderful comedian!  And this is only the most obvious contradiction to Blooms assertion. 

Bloom claims that Socrates wants to, “exile Homer and Hesiod” from his life.  p. 41  Bloom can only declare this by the pickiest cherry picking of bits of the Republic.  The truth is that Socrates quotes Homer all the time, and finds in Achilles the inspiration for the sacrifice of his own life in service to his fellow citizens of Athens.    Here I quote at length from The Apology:

“Some will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, upon your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis [Achilles] above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when he was so eager to slay Hector, his goddess mother said to him, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself – ‘Fate,’ she said, in these or the like words, ‘waits for you next after Hector’; he, receiving this warning, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonor and not to avenge his friend. ‘Let me die forthwith,’ he replies, ‘and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a laughing-stock and a burden of the earth.’ Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.

Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me, like any other man, facing death – if now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death, fancying that I was wise when I was not wise."

Bloom claims that Socrates, like Hamlet, lacks love.   “Rather dazzlingly, Vlastos [a scholar of ancient philosophy, and author of several works on Plato and Socrates.] indicts Socrates for a failure to love, which startles me [Bloom] into the analogy of Hamlet’s lack of love for everyone, himself included.” p. 41  Here Bloom and Vlastos are really stretching. Consider, as just evidenced above, that  Socrates so loved the men of Athens that he laid down his life for them, his friends.  And even Bloom should admit that Hamlet loved his father.

Bloom’s machinations on Homer and Plato are dominated by a pervasive misunderstanding held by modern monotheists: the seemingly intentional misapprehension held by Jews, Christians, and Muslims concerning Religions that predates their theology.  The comprehension of the immutable powers of the universe, which is the foundation of the Greek pantheon, is an elegant, reasonable, and human way of attempting to comprehend deity.  There are powers everywhere evident that are beyond man’s comprehension and power, indeed they dominate and control him.  Consider the majesty of a mighty storm, the awesome power of a great beast, the force of an earth quake.  The sea and the sky fill us with wonder.  Our souls are conquered, often against our will, by love and hate.  We recognize justice and beauty and understand that we have no power over them; we cannot even determine what they are; just recognize and adore.

In this chapter on the Greeks, examples of Bloom’s misapprehension of the “Gods” of ancient Greece are everywhere evident:

1. Bloom quotes Andrew Ford’s  [a scholar of ancient philosophy, and author of several works on Plato and Socrates.], The Origin of Criticism which, in turn, quotes Xenophon‘s criticism of the epics.   “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods every kind of behavior that among men is the object of reproach: stealing, adultery, and cheating each other.” p. 35  Here is my resistance.  Men are driven to excesses and saved from them by forces outside themselves.  Why should it matter whether these powers are called lust and wisdom or Aphrodite and Athena.  It is odd enough to find Xenophon chastising the behavior of all of the Greek Gods, but it is silly for Ford, and hence Bloom, to do so in light of the malfeasance of the Hebrew God which Bloom’s Torah and Ford’s Bible reveal as far more delinquent.  Not only is He, by His own admission, angry and jealous but consider how He: 1) drowned the entire population of the earth save one family and a boat load of paired animals, 2) dumped fire and brimstone on the children of Sodom and Gomorrah, and 3) slaughters the first born of every creature in Egypt after a dust up with the “God Pharaoh”.  In a more universal sense: if the existence of evil is the will of God then He too must be a God of stealing, adultery, and cheating.  That He is a killer, no one can deny. 

2.  Bloom presents a Plato in contention with Homer where “Plato’s Socrates wants the gods to be devoid of personality: free of lust, fury, envy, and everything else that interests us in Homer’s Zeus, much of the time.”  p. 44 This is a very narrow reading of Plato.  I recall how Socrates, upon hearing the report of Apollo’s pronouncement that there ‘is no man wiser than Socrates’, accepts it as a challenge from Zeus to a debate, which Socrates inevitably loses, with God himself.  This is hardly the act of a Deity devoid of personality, rather one looking for an argument and eager to give His “child” a chance to learn.  The Aphrodites presented in the Symposium seem a ruckus pair, and even if presented in jest, the passions they portray are hardly devoid of personality.

3. Bloom diminishes the Ancient Gods through an assertion he quotes from a modern American translator of ancient Greek texts   “As Richmond Lattimore observes, Homer’s Olympians are primarily immortal men and women, no better than the rest of us, and only rarely are they paradigms of wisdom.”  P. 46  Not only does this contradict Bloom’s (or Xenophon’s or Ford’s noted in 1 above) claims about the lack of personality of the Greek Deities, it make one wonder which of Homer's writings Lattimore has been translating.  When Zeus weighs the sin sodden soul of His beloved Hector, finds it wanting and mournfully sends forth justice (the Goddess Athena) to enforce morality, He is both wise and transcendent.

4. Bloom’s miss-underestimation of the Greek Gods is nowhere more evident than in his misunderstanding of Athena:  “There are no neutral gods in Homer, where Athena supports the Greeks against the Trojans.”  Justice cannot be neutral – it never is in the face of wrong.  The Trojan cause is unjust.  They support the abduction of Helen in the face of the oaths of the Achaean kings, and when offered terms, the Trojans launch a war as a means to world domination.  Hector is a murder of the worst kind.  He has killed a wounded and unarmed solider in the very act of surrender.  The American justice system would never disregard such perfidy in a warrior even though the perpetrator was in his countries service.   Yet Bloom condemns the “slow grinding wheel of Justice” and the Gods’ lack of neutrality.  I say, thank God!

5. Bloom goes so far as to claim that Plato misunderstands the Goddess Athena.  Quote: “Though she personifies Athens, she wins no approval form Plato. The patroness of Achilles is not what Plato means by a spiritual path to the achievement of wisdom.  In the Republic, Homer is indicted, together with Hesiod and other poets. For composing false stories about the gods warring and plotting against one another, thus destroying Olympian religion.” p. 55 Here we have Bloom’s bias not Plato’s wisdom speaking.  His Plato is out of context.  After all, are not the immutable forces of the universe, the Gods themselves, constantly in opposition?  Gravity and centrifugal force balance the heavens; anger and love temper the hearts of men. 

6. Bloom’s claim that the Gods of the Iliad are not participating in the action is not only stupid; it is contradicted by his own charge against their lack of neutrality discussed above, and by the Iliad itself.  Within ten pages of telling us that Homer’s Gods take sides, Bloom claims, “The Olympians at best are an audience looking at human beings as so many victims playing roles upon a great stage of fools.  W. K. C. Guthrie [Scottish author of six volumes on the history of Greek philosophy], in his The Greeks and Their Gods (1950), emphasizes the authority of Homer for the Greeks, so that “a great deal in later Greek religion is only a development of Homeric ideas.”  One of Guthrie’s sentences haunts me, since it makes clear the strong differences between Homeric and Hebraic religion, and also between Homer and Plato: “What made the gods approach our level was an element of human nature in them, not a hint of the divine in us” (page 120).” ”  pp. 67-68  First, one must remember that the only time the Gods of Homer’s epic are off the battle field, thus appearing  neutral, is when Zeus has ordered their withdrawal.  When this prohibition, symbolic I believe of the loss of direction and motivation suffered by all armies slogging through long conflict, is lifted, they rush back onto the field.  It is not until Apollo is forced to abandon Hector that the Trojan can face justice, not until Hermes bears Zeus's decree to Achilles that the body of Hector can be restored.  If Homer recognized more keenly the link between men and Gods than Bloom or Guthrie, it is not Homer or the Ancient Gods that should be discounted. 

7. Bloom puts forward the God of the exiled Jews as a model of how a God should act.  “Yahweh is the source of the blessing, and Yahweh, thought frequently enigmatic in J, is never an indifferent onlooker.  [He does seem rather indifferent to non-Hebrew humans.] No Hebrew writer could conceive of a Yahweh who is essentially an audience, whether indifferent or engrossed.  Homer’s gods are human—all too human—particularly in their abominable capacity to observe suffering almost as a kind of sport.  The Yahweh of Amos and the prophets after him could not be further from Homer’s Olympian Zeus.”  pp. 77-78  Bloom’s argument is not based on the actual content of the Iliad.  Once again, that the fate of Hector, Achilles, the Trojans, and the Achaeans is the will of Zeus and in the hands of the Gods is obvious to anyone who reads the Iliad without prejudice.  Bloom’s problem is he is a Judeo-Christian centric bigot, who projects his opinion of what God is, a concocted bias rarely challenged in his college classes I am sure, onto all the Gods he encounters in literature.  I have already cited examples of Yahweh’s abominable capacity to observe suffering.  Or did He “hide His face” when opening the fountains of the deep or dumping fire on cities full of innocent children as punishment for the sins of their fathers.   I wonder what Yahweh was thinking as His priests propped up Moses's arms so Israel’s armies could continue thrashing their foes.  There is also the time where He stopped the movement of the heavens so the Israelites could continue slaughtering the armies of the nations they were dispossessing of their homeland.   

Indeed, Bloom is obsessed by the bogus canard that the western ideal is based on some kind of Judeo-Christian ethic:

1. Bloom cuts up the human soul into chunks that can be manipulated by this or that philosophy.  “And yet our cognition—science and technology, as well as philosophy—is Greek, as is our aesthetic, though not altogether.  Religion and morality, despite the long tradition of Christian Platonism, will remain Hebraic-Christian-Islamic, though perhaps increasingly Platonized.”  pp. 50-51  The truth is that Christianity is different from Old Testament Judaism because of the influence of the Greeks.  The New Testament was written in Greek, by Greek thinkers.  Islam is a hodgepodge creed and, like Bloom’s search for wisdom, driven by an antithesis to classical religion based on misinunderstandings.  It is odd to think that cognition has any origin other than humanness and all humans recognize beauty.

2. Bloom claims that, “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. 72  The human way of thinking is reason, the divine power shared by Gods and men.  As for morality, what is Bloom talking about?  What source and what morality?  Where in the west of today do the uniquely biblical commandments dominant?  Does the Constitution of any enlightened Western nation forbid the crafting of images, prohibit giving reverence to Gods other than Yahweh, sensor the abuse of any God's name, or insist on the veneration of Saturday?  Just a quick aside – Saturday is named after a Classical Roman God.  Is Western Morality, human morality, based on a God who favors one person and his decedents over all the rest of mankind?  What morality is based on the God of Abraham who systematically engineers the extermination of seven nations of the Amorites to free up land for His chosen people?  What kind of morality is this?  I prefer a God "whose temple is the whole universe” as Cicero says, and who also, as again pointed out by Cicero, shares His Divine reason with all mankind.  Before I am chastened for reference a Roman rather than a Greek, I will explain that Cicero was a devotee of Homer and Plato; had very little, if anything at all, to do with Hebrew wisdom; and lived and died before there was a single Christian or Muslim born.

3. Bloom is also determined that the God of the Babylonian Captives is somehow superior in majesty to the Gods of the Iliad.  “When Yahweh roars, in the prophets Isaiah and Joel, the effect is very different, [than Athena’s shout in support of Achilles], though He too cries out “like a man of war.”  The difference is in Homer’s magnificent antiphony [hymn] between man and goddess, Achilles and Athena.  Isaiah would not have had the king [David] and Yahweh exchanging battle shouts in mutual support, because of the shocking incommensurateness [not proportionate or on the same level as] that does not apply to Achilles and Athena. ” pp. 80-81 It is incongruent to compare David, a son of Jessie, with Achilles who is a son of a goddess.  A better fit would be to match him with Jesus.  That Bloom diminishes the effect of divine parentage, if the "divine" is a female, is rather chauvinistic.   Achilles does have reportage with Justice on the battle field, even as Jesus speaks poetry in his garden prayer, after which God sends angles to comfort His son.  And as Jesus cries out on the cross the whole world trembles in answer.  Were Bloom to retreat into the defense that he is only speaking of the “God” of a few books put down in Babylon would only diminish them and weaken his argument.  Is the God that debates with Satin and reasons with Moses any more incommensurate to man that the Mind of Zeus, which is Athena, Wisdom and Justice?

Finally, what is most disagreeable in Bloom’s chapter on Homer is his complete misrepresentation of Achilles, the archetypical western hero whose example is the foundation of western culture and the shield of freedom.

Once more, in Bloom, I find a “scholar” who has misread, his Homer.  He speaks of “Achilles’ unwisdom.”  p. 43  I believe that no one is wiser than Achilles, who chooses life and grandchildren as his fate and then gives these up to preserve Justice.  Achilles was the motivation of Socrates's wisdom, as Socrates tells us in his own words in his Apology to the 501 citizens who would decide his mortal fate. 

1. Bloom’s Achilles is a complete fabrication. “What did Plato make of Homer’s Achilles, who destroys men as part of a private war against death itself, even as a child might mangle an already wounded kitten?”  p. 45 Or again: “Achilles is a killing machine because he desires a god’s immortality. . . “ p. 61  How silly these claims seem in the light of the fact that Achilles choice was not fame or immortality.  He choose to pass back to the Father Land he loves and disappear into the love of his grandchildren, and then sacrifices this dream to fight for Justice.

2. Bloom, goes on to demonstrates that  Achilles is a concoction to his miscomprehension.  He says, “Xenophon’s Socrates has most of the Homeric virtues: he is the best of the Greeks, whether in war or in argument, and is a match for Achilles in honor and for Odysseus in precise propriety when encountering difficult occasions.”  P. 61 Why would Xenophon and Bloom match to Socrates a monomaniacal killer of kittens, as he, a few pages earlier, described Achilles.

3. One wonders where Bloom gets the Achilles he describes as he compares Achilles to David.  “But Achilles, sulking in his tent, is palpably a child, with a wavering vision of himself—inevitable, since his vitality, his perception, and his affective life are all divided form one another as Bruno Snell [German Classical Psychologist] demonstrated." p. 75  Anyone who has actually read the Iliad knows that Achilles is in his tent as an act of civil disobedience against the unjust rule of the tyrant Agamemnon.  Achilles knows exactly what he is up to.  He is awaiting Agamemnon’s request for him to rejoin the battle so he can refuse and sail home safe to Grandchildren yet unborn.  Lucius Junius Brutus (Founder of the Roman Republic), George Washington, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King would approve.   The David whom Bloom describes as: “David, even as a child, is a mature and autonomous ego, with his sense of life, his vision of other selves, and his emotional nature all integrated into a new kind of man, the hero whom Yahweh had decided not only to love but also to make immortal through his descendants, who would never lose Yahweh’s favor.” p. 75 This David is also a fabrication, yanked out of context. 

The Biblical David was the murdering wife thief, who had sex with many women, and murdered his king, his best friend, and his son. It was Achilles, not David, who, like Jesus, sacrificed himself for the good of all mankind. 

4. Bloom claims that, “Jesus . . . can only be the descendant of David, and not of Achilles.  Or to put it most simply, Achilles is the son of a goddess, but David is a Son of God.” p. 75 The chauvinism and folly of Bloom is in black and white.  It is indeed Achilles who is the type, if not the ancestor, of Jesus.

5.  Bloom claims that “In Homer, you fight to be the best, to take away the women of the enemy, and to survive as long as possible, short of aging into ignoble decrepitude.  That is not why you fight in the Hebrew Bible.  There you fight the wars of Yahweh . . .” p. 78 And what is the Biblical motivation of the wars of Yahweh?  The God of Battles, who drowns the armies of Pharaoh, commands the conquest of Canaan, the genocide of the Amorites, the slaughter of the Philistines.  The God of Abraham launched a Jihad that continues to this day; giving, through concocted misrepresentation, motivation to all sides in the wars of the 21st century. Saul lost his throne for refusing to kill prisoners of war whose blood was demanded by Yahweh.  Achilles gave his life to avenge just such a murder.  It is this justice that the Old Testament never comprehends but that Homer makes the central theme of his creation. 

6. Bloom does not understand the role of Justice in the Iliad, but he presents it, “Exalted and burning with Athena’s divine fire, the unarmed Achilles is more terrible even that the armed hero would be.  It is his angry shouts that panic the Trojans, yet the answering shout of the goddess adds to their panic, since they realize that they face preternatural powers.”  pp. 80-81 Achilles does speak for justice, he, not David, sings the song of God.  

Bloom’s passion for resistance finds a voice when he quotes Shelly.  Shelly has probably actually read the Iliad and clearly understands Homer better than Bloom.

 “Homer receives accurate tribute: The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization has repose.  Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verse were awakened to an ambition of becoming like Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses: the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to their depths in these immortal creations: the sentiments of the auditors must have been refined and enlarged by a sympathy with such great and lovely impersonations, until from admiring they imitated, and from imitation they identified themselves with the object of their admiration. Nor let it be objected, that these characters are remote from moral perfection, and that they are by no means to be considered as edifying patterns for general imitation.” P. 63

I agree.

Bloom treats his readers the way many professors and teachers treat their classes.  Saying anything they want and then telling their student what they meant by saying it.  Such lectures and such writing have value only when challenged.  I am grateful that Bloom has given us this opportunity.

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