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Genius by Harold Bloom

Literary criticism, Warner Books (hardcover), 2002, 814 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Harold Bloom, swimming upstream as a hopelessly romantic defender of the Western canon in an era that skeptically views the scribblings of dead white men and frequently enshrines lesser talents in the name of cultural diversity, has struck back.  A few years ago, his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human made the case for the Bard's continuing relevance, and now, Genius analyzes one hundred literary luminaries, divides them into kabbalistic categories, traces their influences, and attempts to demonstrate why they, of all writers, deserve the heady appellation that sets them apart from merely clever or facile pop writers.  Genius could be subtitled "Encounters with the Extraordinary," as it wends its leisurely way from Homer to Hemingway, from Jane Austen to Ralph Ellison.

Bloom believes that thinking is not possible without collective memory, and that memory is carried down from earlier generations by the act of reading.  Reading is not merely the visual tracking of a string of words on the page, but an act of passionate intellectual engagement with the highest expressions of creativity.  In Bloom's opinion, reading is a dying art, and
he laments the fact that few read Dante or Milton, Samuel Johnson or Walter Pater, Emerson or Montaigne, anymore.  The book is an anachronism in the Age of the Screen, and the active struggle of wrestling with the ambiguity of Plato or Borges has given way to the passive drinking in of spectral phosphorescence from a blinking monitor.  Reading sets its own pace, but
face time in front of the home entertainment system is subdivided by the sponsors so as to distract, manipulate desire, and push commodities on a dimly-suspecting world.

Genius is not defined by a sociological category or a faddish preference.  It is too hard-headed to be popular, though some indovodual geniuses (Goethe, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Mark Twain) became more popular than prime ministers or kings.  Others (Emily Dickinson, Kafka, Rimbaud) were barely recognized in their lifetimes.  And others (Swinburne, Dante Gabriel
Rossetti) have fallen out of academic favor.  But all possessed the ability to express the ineffable, to describe shapes and shadows, hopes and fears, that eluded mere mortals.  They were masters of nuance, whether the nuance was Gothic and domestic (the Bronte sisters) or spiritual and universal (St. Augustine and Muhammed).  Their canvas could be nature (Wordsworth - was a poet ever more aptly named?), visionary epiphanies (Blake, Joyce), the supremacy of the ego (Oscar Wilde, Freud), or the rapture of love (Garcia Lorca, Shelley).  Their inspiration could be Christian guilt (Tolstoy),
man's inherent evil (Melville, Dostoyevsky), the absurdity of life (Beckett), or a fascination with lost memory (Proust).  They could be the inventors of literary forms (Cervantes, Swift, Pope, Boswell) or philosophers (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard).  But one thing they could not be, in Bloom's pantheon, is still living.

Bloom's 101 course on extremely gifted writers is neither deep nor complete.  It is, however, dense and gives one enough aphorisms to last a decade, inspiring this reviewer to seek out hitherto unnoticed works (Tolstoy's Hadji Murad, Swinburne's Anactoria, Hofmannsthal's "Letter to Lord Chandos").  It reminded me that geniuses are not always congenial (T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost) nor accessible (Lady Murasaki, Giacomo Leopardi).  It includes writers I would have omitted (D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Iris Murdoch) and omits writers I would have included (Hermann Broch, Kahlil Gibran, Rabindinrath Tagore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin, Italo Svevo, George Bernard Shaw).  It even includes one individual who left not one published manuscript (Socrates) and another (the Yahwist, the writer of the Old Testament) whose authenticity is questionable.  But all in all, it is a delightful survey of the great minds, one I would not recommend to novice readers or young readers just starting to work their way through the seminal thoughts of the human race.  Written by a 71-year-old, it assumes too much prior exposure to be meaningful unless the person who approaches it has a fairly wide background in poetry, the novel, drama, criticism, and moral philosophy.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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