From the Bible to Ralph Ellison, America's most prominent and bestselling literary critic takes an enlightening look at the concept of genius through the ages in a celebration of the greatest creative writers of all time. 50 photos.
In addition, the title is also misleading in the sense that Bloom actually means, "Literary Creative Minds." Nowhere does he talk about Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Monet, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Schubert, Rachmaninoff etc etc etc. He also ignores two very creative literary figures; Dr. Suess and Vladimir Nabokov, two authors whose genius cannot be contested.
It might be taken as arrogance that Bloom has only focused on literary genius, or what he takes to be genius. The implication is that writers, poets and philosophers have sole claim to the title "Genius." Actually, this is just the limitations of Bloom's training as an English Professor, as well as a product of his horrifically inventive and capable mind. Wouldn't one be biased towards literatures if they had spent their whole lives teaching and researching just that?
This book is also produced on the assumption that the author knows exactly what makes a genius a genius. Although when one reads the book, the impression is that Bloom is far more fascinated with the works of the subject rather than the figures themselves, but this is what he does. So if you're searching for very incisive criticism on the lives of some very prominent people in the written history, delve in. If you're a student of music, art or even mathematics, this book is not about you. Bloom caters to the exclusive group of literateurs.
This is precisely what Bloom wants though, exclusivity. He wants to banish what he thinks is mediocrity to the rafters where they can hoot and hollar to the ceiling, and leave us high-minded ones alone to our thoughts. A intriguing thought, yes, but mediocrity exists to give light to genius (didn't "Amadeus" teach us anything?). Genius only exists because the debate of genius continues, and while this book might be seen as such, it is really only a few steps away from it's big brother "Western Canon," a book in which Bloom says that a Canon cannot be defined, and yet in the appendices, attempts just such a Canon. Also with Bloom is the air that he's constantly looking over the tops of his glasses at us, trying to get us to read what he's read, agree with him, and just sit there in agreement. No thank you.
There is some humor and insight but for every insight we get thirty pages of unexplained marginalia like the following: "Negation of seeming realities in an ostensibly Christian society is the essence of Kierkegaard's genius, but this was an anxiety for him, since Kierkegaard had to be post-Hegelian, even as we have to be post-Freudian." This might make a great thesis statement for a long article (or even a book) but Bloom tosses it off like it is a self-evident truth that needs no further elaboration. I suspect it meant something interesting to Bloom, but it is lost on those mortals among us who cannot read his mind (and he complains about the obfuscation of the French!)
I guess if you are as well-established and respected as Harold Bloom then you no longer need to write books, you can merely publish them.
Which authors have genius? Shakespeare, obviously, and all the classical poets whose works have survived for a number of centuries, and Bloom's personal hero of literary criticism, Samuel Johnson, and even T.S. Eliot, towards whom Bloom displays a dichotomous attitude of admiration mixed with hostility. What evidence of genius is offered that elevates these authors above the merely talented? For Renaissance historian and prose stylist extraordinaire Walter Pater, it is his "secularization of the religious epiphany"; for Balzac, it is his mercurial comic criminal Vautrin; for Robert Browning, it is his perfected development of the dramatic monologue.
I regard Bloom's opinions very highly and respect his efforts to rescue the best literature of the ages from forced obsolescence by the authorities of ephemeral ideologies in what he considers to be the intellectually decadent academic institutions, but I'm not blind to his idiosyncrasies as a critic (call them "Bloomisms") for which he surely would not apologize and which anybody approaching his criticism for the first time has to keep in mind. The most notable is his insistence on putting just about everything literary in relation to Shakespeare's major characters: Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago, Macbeth, and Lear. Next is his tendency to make thunderous declarations and magisterial assertions of canonical rank ("Proust is the last of the great novelists") which will hardly persuade an unimpressionable reader who isn't looking for a lecture.
Past this, you will find that Bloom is so enthusiastic about the world's greatest literature and writes so well about his passion that it is immediately infectious. His desire is to motivate his readers to become better readers by demanding the highest standards, and so he isn't reticent about using superlatives to make his points. His dedication to literary quality highlights the book's greatest usefulness, which is to introduce or uncover important authors that are overlooked by or unknown to a large portion of readers; Montaigne, Saint Augustine, Carpentier, and Hart Crane are not widely read today, but Bloom argues cogently that they should be because their work is substantial and still relevant. Also, those authors whose works are of considerable cognitive difficulty are made more accessible to the common reader by Bloom's helpful clarifications of their themes.
"Genius" is indeed bloated, but its bloat is of mostly informative commentary and more than a few entertaining quips. Bloom can be provocative: "Emma Bovary is Gustave Flaubert, and almost all the rest of us as well." Or humorous: "Dante, like the rest of us, suffered a great deal, but many of us would be hesitant before we peopled Hell with our personal enemies," he says about the "Inferno." Or incisive: "Freud, who wanted to be a third with Copernicus and Darwin, became a third with Montaigne and Goethe," he says about Freud's success as a mythmaking essayist despite, or perhaps as a result of, his (failed) aspirations to be a scientific revolutionary. He can also be pedantic and often acrimonious when mentioning his academic opponents; but most importantly he, more than any other current critic, is gracious enough to put up the signposts on the long, winding highway of Western literature, and for that reason I'm willing to take his side. After all, what have the ideological cheerleaders ever done for me?