“From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.”
I’ve known about Harold Bloom since I first read The American Religion (1992, 2013) in 2015, but about two months ago I discovered for the first time what may be called (despite Bloom’s own wishes) the spiritual successor to that previous book: Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (1997). In reading Omens, I was captivated afresh with a topic that I had known about since I was a teenager, but which Bloom himself seemed to capture and articulate in ways I never could: namely, the ancient spiritual traditions collectively known as Gnosticism. Instantly intrigued, I devoured Omens, reread American Religion, and set out for more books by Bloom (I’ve attached a list of suggested reading to the end of this post, in fact).
I was driven to read so much of his work in so short a time for two reasons: the first was, as I said, that Bloom’s take on Gnostic thought fascinated me; and secondly, I couldn’t help but notice how opaque and obtuse his writing on Gnosticism often seemed. As much as I’ve come to adore Bloom’s work, and perhaps this simply reflects poorly on me, I found it immensely difficult to understand him when it came to Gnostic thought; it didn’t help that outside of Omens and American Religion, I had to dig deep into interviews, articles, podcasts, and prefaces to other works to get a better grasp of things.
To ensure there’s no misunderstanding, Bloom is neither a lightweight nor what we might call a “cafeteria gnostic” (if there is such a thing). Bloom is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, and he has a long and distinguished pedigree of academic positions and publishing, having taught at a number of top universities and written and edited more works than one could possibly consume in a lifetime. Furthermore, Bloom is a self-described “gnostic” (notice the little-g), and a Jewish one at that, and has been virtually all his life. All of this is to say that he knows the material, and he knows how to express himself. But this dawned on me only recently, when I realized the reason Bloom’s take on Gnostic thought was so difficult for me to understand: Bloom was not merely regurgitating ancient ideas into his books, but in fact joining in the long and venerable line of creative thinkers who defined Gnosticism throughout the centuries.
I wasn’t reading about the various Gnosticisms of the ancient world. Bloom was instead sharing with me his own gnosticism.
During my research, I drafted a couple versions of this post, the earliest of which were in essence attempts to simply explain Gnosticism in itself. However, and with much greater success, I’ve decided instead to share my best attempt at a systematized catechism of sorts on the gnosticism of Harold Bloom.
A History of Gnosticism
Before proceeding, it may be appropriate to first define “Gnosticism,” and how it differs from Bloom’s gnosticism. What follows is by no means an exhaustive history or analysis, though hopefully it will be a sufficient introduction.
Gnosticism’s origins are murky and contested, and Bloom seems to care little for the historical minutiae behind the scenes, but we can draw a general history with what cursory details are available (for more information, I recommend the section of books on Gnosticism in my suggested reading list below). The general outline goes like this:
Gnosticism (using this term broadly, of course) begins among Jewish populations after their exile in Babylon, sometime following the sixth century BCE. The occasion seemed to be that the world was seen as so rife with suffering and mayhem that some people began to doubt that God could be both omnipotent and benevolent; a God who allows the crisis the Jewish world had only freshly undergone must be either one or the other, not both. In more modern terms, Bloom denies a God who could allow the Holocaust and schizophrenia and yet still be considered all powerful and all good. The solution for these particular Jews, rather than become what we may traditionally refer to today as atheists, instead addressed their problems through a theological innovation: borrowing from the legacy of Plato and his students, they instead envisioned the world as created by the Demiurge (or “craftsman,” a god who creates from pre-existing materials on his own wits and intuitions), yet far from being the God of covenantal love and care, this craftsman deity was at best a bumbling fool and at worst a malevolent menace. This god, in the Gnostic view, had fashioned a shoddy world littered with errors and defects (the numerous traumas and tragedies of life) and trapped every human being inside. Salvation from this dilemma would not come through getting on the Demiurge’s good side, either by action, faith, or fidelity—but by gnosis, Greek for knowledge. For Gnostics, the road to deliverance was to realize that one had been entrapped in this material world by a nefarious power, and that the way out of suffering was to seek for that which was higher than the world’s craftsman—an even higher God, estranged from this world, yet who created the Demiurge and out of whom the Demiurge created human beings. Each human being possessed within themselves a splinter of this higher God, which they must come to know themselves (a Greek virtue if there ever was one) in order to escape the evil Demiurge and return to their heavenly home.
A somewhat complex system at first blush, and it didn’t catch the approval of normative Judaism either. Perhaps it was because the Gnostic Jews equated their vicious Demiurge with the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible—maybe. In any case, this form of Gnosticism remained an esoteric, hidden tradition, considered elitist for its emphasis on occulted wisdom not just anyone could readily access.
By the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries CE, this Jewish form of Gnosticism branched into two more forms: Christian Gnosticism (in its numerous forms) and Hermetism. There’s been a good deal of difficulty in defining what makes a Gnostic; David Brakke’s The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity begins with an introduction explaining this difficulty, but for a shorter explanation, check out Religion for Breakfast’s quick video on what Christian Gnostics believed.
As I said, Bloom himself isn’t overly concerned with the historical details here, though not at the expense of history, of course. Suffice it to say, we can segment Gnostics of the first few centuries of the Common Era, at least in Bloomian gnosticism, into the following groups: Jewish Gnosticism, usually in the form of Sethianism; Christian Gnosticism in the form of Valentinianism (named after the second-century theologian Valentinus), as well as some other peripheral texts; and Hermetism (as opposed to Hermeticism, a similar movement in Renaissance Europe).
Christian Gnosticism was very much akin to its Jewish predecessor, but whereas Jewish Gnosticism considered figures such as Seth (third son of Adam and Eve) as their revealer of gnosis, the Christian Gnostics considered Jesus to be their revealer. For these Christian Gnostics, in one way or another, salvation did not come by the death and resurrection of Jesus as messiah, but from the secret knowledge he revealed to his most intimate students, which he charged them to share with the rest of the world before himself being executed for his teachings. Also featuring a Demiurge, Christian Gnostics, like Jewish Gnosticism, equated this craftsman deity with the God of the Old Testament. As you might imagine, this form of Gnosticism was not well received by normative Christianity and was thus decidedly rejected by what would become the proto-orthodox Christian strain that later became Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.
Roughly contemporary to Christian Gnosticism was another small group in Egypt who believed themselves to be maintaining the writings of their own teacher, Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice-greatest”). The Hermetic Corpus, their canon of scripture, is significantly different from Jewish and Christian Gnosticism. It’s difficult to determine how Hermetism and Jewish/Christian Gnosticism are related, and to what degree, but the former figures as readily as the latter into Bloomian gnosticism. In short, Hermetism describes the world as beginning in the form of a Primordial Man, the Anthropos. Containing male and female, masculine and feminine—all things in our world, including what we experience as opposites—the Anthropos is perhaps one of the more well used images in Bloom’s gnosticism: that of a larger-than-life, entirely whole Person who contains the cosmos itself. The Hermetic story goes that the Anthropos, desiring to create, ends up fragmenting in the process; where there was once balance, complementarity, and wholeness, there is fracture and division. In line with Jewish and Christian Gnosticism, the themes of a primordial wholeness and describing human being as division and estrangement are common threads which unite Hermetism to its Abrahamic contemporaries.
Though not at all irrelevant, a minor strain within Bloomian gnosticism can be found in the third-century Gnostic tradition, Manichaeism, an Iranian-born tradition of the prophet Mani. A synthesis of numerous older Gnostic and normative religious elements, Manichaeism is strongly dualistic, conceiving the world as a combat between an absolute Good and Evil. Among other Mesopotamian traditions, Mani drew in part upon the teachings of an even more ancient prophet, Zarathustra (Greek, Zoroaster), founder of Zoroastrianism, another tradition to figure prominently in Bloomian gnosticism without itself being explicitly Gnostic. Zarathustra, active in approximately the second millennium BCE, taught that there were twin Gods at the base of reality, one good, the other evil, and that the former would one day overcome the latter. Significantly for Bloom, Zarathustra was in fact also the inventor of the idea of angels, which would not be imported into Judaism until Israel’s captivity in Babylon. Among other variations, Zoroastrianism evolved into Zurvanism, which believed that the twin gods at the base of reality were fathered by one Zurvan (Avestan, “time”), which meshed well with Jewish monotheistic sensibilities, allowing for the importation of angels into Judaism.
Further, beginning approximately after the birth of Islam in the seventh century CE, two more strands of Gnosticism emerged: Kabbalah, a more well-developed form of Jewish mysticism than its explicitly Gnostic predecessor; and Sufism, a form of mysticism within Shi’ite Islam. Both Kabbalah and Sufism are somewhat similar, in that they both consider the world to have begun as a unified, homogenous whole which then fragmented and budded into the multiplicity and variety we now experience. Both traditions taught their adherents to realize their own deep connection to this primordial oneness using images reminiscent of Hermetism: that of the Primordial Man, a human being entirely connected to the cosmos. Kabbalah features rather heavily in Bloom’s gnosticism, by way of his faithfully (though secular) Jewish heritage, while Sufism is also utilized to a somewhat lesser degree.
Finally, Gnosticism was revived in southern Europe from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries in a movement called Catharism. Though Christian in character, this particular form of Gnosticism is different from its second-century predecessor; rather than equating the Demiurge with the God of the Old Testament, Cathars instead equated the craftsman of their material prison with Satan. Other than this, largely many of the same themes—estrangement, a wholly-transcendent higher God, sacred knowledge—still persist. Due to numerous theological controversies and acts of violence against the Catholic Church, the Cathars were virtually wiped out in the Albigensian Crusade in the thirteenth century.
Though surviving mostly through extant text (tracts by early Christian heresiologists, as well as the Nag Hammadi codices discovered in Egypt in the early-twentieth century, for Christian and Jewish Gnosticism; the Hermetic Corpus for Hermetism; the Zohar, composed in thirteenth-century Spain, for Kabbalah; and the Mother of Books for Sufism), Gnosticism is largely dead in its explicit forms, having been bastardized into what Bloom considers tawdry travesties of former glory in the form of popularized and commercialized obsessions with angels, dream visions, near-death experiences, and apocalyptic inklings (especially before the year 2000). But gnosticism as Bloom sees it still largely persists, in no small part because gnosticism is not so much a set of beliefs, but an attempt to articulate an experience or mode of consciousness. Gnosis in this sense may best be described as experiential knowledge, rather than simply information; similar to more contemplative strains of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, Gnosticism begins with a certain experience, an altered state of consciousness as it were, which one then attempts to explain in (pre-scientific) terminology, stories, and ritual practices. Wherever it may have appeared, Gnosticism would utilize the dominant narratives of its local society in order to explain what it believed to be a deeper perspective, not readily accessible yet possible for every person to experience.
Numerous themes unite these apparently disparate movements, which Bloom draws together into his own gnosticism. However, each movement, in Bloom’s view, shares a particular methodology, which Bloom himself takes up: that of deep reading. In other words, these various forms of Gnosticism are united by a common love of literary criticism. Gnostics would creatively reread the texts and traditions of their cultures to express what they believed to be a universal truth. This is what separates Bloom’s gnosticism from any particular instance of historical Gnosticism: rather than a literalistic adoption of any particular Gnostic system, Bloom attempts to carefully and deeply read Gnostic literature and to contemplate its thought in the same way he would read and contemplate any great work of the Western canon. From this careful though passionate reading emerges Bloom’s own gnosticism, a set of metaphors which Bloom utilizes to make sense of literature and, more broadly, life.
In the following sections we’ll explore the overarching themes of Bloomian gnosticism. In the spirit of Bloom’s own use of comparative literature, I would also like to leverage where appropriate my own understanding of Eastern thought to help clarify and perhaps critique Bloom’s own gnosticism.
With this preliminary material out of the way, let’s explore the gnosticism of Harold Bloom.
Created, Thus Fallen
In line with each form of Gnosticism, Bloomian gnosticism contemplates our sense of being strangers in a strange land, even in our own lives. I’ve written rather extensively in other posts about the psychological distance one may experience between reality itself and one’s understanding of that reality, and I suspect this alienation may be at least akin to the estrangement described in Bloom’s gnosticism and its constituents.
In The Gnostic Religion, Hans Jonas compares Gnosticism in its various forms with more modern European existentialism, specifically a concept from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger: that of geworfenheit, or a sense of “having been thrown” into a situation one never opted into or saw coming. For the Gnostic, there’s a sense in which they are like a child mistakenly left at a train station alone, having lost their parents.
In the epigraph to his Omens of Millennium, Bloom quotes from Lawrence Durrell’s novel Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness to capture this Heideggerian/Gnostic notion of “thrownness”:
“Man is in a trap . . . and goodness avails him nothing in the new dispensation. There is nobody now to care one way or the other. Good and evil, pessimism and optimism—are a question of blood group, not angelic disposition. Whoever it was that used to heed us and care for us, who had concern for our fate and the world's, has been replaced by another who glories in our servitude to matter, and to the basest part of our own natures.”
The plight of every human being is thus having been captured, as it were, held captive (whether in the Platonic view of the material world, or “the basest part of our own natures”). Much like the Existentialist, the Gnostic considers themselves a somewhat helpless ship battered by ferocious waves upon a sea not of their choosing, having arrived there by no fault or volition of their own. However, there is one instructive difference between Existentialism and Gnosticism. Jonas explains that “Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti-divine and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit.” Putting a finer point on this separation, Marvin Meyer explains in his introduction to The Gnostic Bible, “Ancient gnostics and modern existentialists may both be nihilistic, but we modern folks, in our post-Christian world, face the more profound abyss: the uncaring abyss. For gnostics, there is light in the darkness and hope in the abyss.” Both philosophies see an error of backwards incompatibility—our very being and consciousness seem to grind harshly with the rest of nature—yet where existentialism seems a plain disconnection, Gnosticism insists that we have forgotten or overlooked a connection which is always already present.
Bloomian gnosticism is fairly amenable to this perspective, yet perhaps this is where my first potential critique may arise. Not only in myself but even in Bloom I sense a hesitation to condemn the material world itself. Traditionally, Gnosticism is quite dualistic, dividing the world in half, one being the evil and entrapping world of matter, the other being the underlying and liberating world of the spirit. While I can’t quite speak for Bloom here, I sense in his preference for Western literature, far from a distaste for materiality or physicality, something like a shared sorrow for the mayhem and confusion of typical human existence. One needn’t reject matter wholesale on any metaphysical principle in order to acknowledge the suffering intrinsic to life as a finite, conscious being. Thus it seems to me the themes which Bloomian gnosticism recapitulates are an acknowledgment of the potentially profound suffering of existence, and an insistence that that suffering (or at least the painful way in which we experience it) is to be blamed on a deep sort of separation from a crucial foundation—a lost transcendence to contain us. In a word, we feel much like a child being chased through the woods, carrying vague memories of having been instead an unborn infant safely held in its mother’s womb.
Jewish and Christian Gnosticism especially insist that this world in which we live is in fact merely a poor simulacrum of a deeper, spiritual world. This world is not simply other than the spiritual world, but grows out of it, in much the same way a branch grows from the trunk of a tree. Our predicament is expressed well when the Gnostics put a twist on Yahweh’s words in the Hebrew Bible: God’s claim that there is no god above him becomes the Demiurge’s mistaken presumption that he comes from nothing; while the normative Jewish view is that God is a self-existing and eternal first cause, the Demiurge was in fact created by something prior to and greater than himself, but he is ignorant of this. The Gnostic considers human beings to be under a similar ignorance, seeing ourselves as beings who exist in and of themselves, when in fact we are nested in something greater than and prior to ourselves—we are contingent and thus reliant upon something we have neglected or forgotten.
This “something” is referred to in various traditions by the Greek term pleroma, meaning “fullness.” We may in fact compare it to the Buddhist concept of “the Nothing.” For various Buddhist traditions, at the base of ever-changing existence is the foundation called Nothing, not a vacuum of absolute emptiness, but “nothing-in-particular” because this foundation contains all things and thus cannot itself be a thing. Similarly, the pleroma is the ground and soil from which all things grow; and it is “the Nothing” in that it is no particular thing but that which contains all things in the same way that an acorn implicitly contains an oak tree. The pleroma is the container, ground, and source of all things—including human beings. The Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and Sufi image of the Anthropos symbolize a human being’s rootedness in this pleroma. In his Coda to Omens, Bloom quotes the Hermetic Corpus of the Gnostics in Alexandria to emphasize this point:
“. . . the true Man is above even the gods, or at least fully their equal. After all, none of the celestial gods will leave the heavenly frontiers and descend to earth; yet Man . . . establishes himself on high without even leaving the earth, so far does his power extend. We must presume then to say that earthly Man is a mortal god, and that the celestial God is an immortal man.”
Salvation for the Gnostic is found in this realization of one’s rootedness in the pleroma. Yet, quite obviously, few if any people spend their day-to-day lives in any way feeling “one with the universe.” Here, again, we may benefit from further comparisons, this time with Advaita Vedanta, a philosophical school of thought within Hinduism; and fitness landscapes, used in modeling the evolution of systems.
Vedanta has a similar notion to the Buddhist Nothing or the Gnostic pleroma, referred to as Brahman—the totality and source of all things. Like a ball of clay, Brahman molds itself into progressively more complex and intricate patterns, each of those patterns—including human beings—remaining rooted in the overall mass that is Brahman by what is called “Atman,” similar to the Anthropos, which resides in every living being. In Vedanta, the path to liberation can be realized in this life, but only when one realizes that their own personal Atman and the universal Brahman are in fact one and the same, indivisible from one another—the Sanskrit advaita vedanta meaning “not two.” The universal Brahman, in something like a game of cosmic hide-and-seek (Sanskrit: lila), begins to forget itself. The Sanskrit term maya in fact at various points describes not only Brahman’s creative actions, but the illusion of division which one must breakthrough to realize their oneness with Brahman. Using the same term for both creative act and the illusion of separation is very Gnostic indeed, Gnosticism (Bloomian gnosticism included) seeing Creation and Fall not as separate events but synonyms for the same thing. For Brahman to create, for the pleroma to emanate, is for all their creations to be fallen.
In evolutionary theory, there is a model called a fitness landscape, a graph which resembles a 3D depiction of a mountain range. The graph’s X axis represents the complexity of the organisms of a given environment, while the Y axis represents the stages of their evolutionary process. At the base of the Y axis, representing the first organisms of an evolutionary crane, the graph has the greatest surface area; simple organism are more numerous than complex organisms because they are easier to generate and sustain than their more complex successors. As these simpler organisms grow more complex, rising up the Y axis, the surface area thins, valleys and flatland becoming progressively narrowing mountains, terminating in peaks. This change represents the fact that the more complex an organism grows, the more ways in which it can go extinct, unable to sustain its own complexity or any further development. Thus complex organisms are less numerous than simple organisms. Because of the decreasing probability of successfully accumulating further complexity, biologist Richard Dawkins refers to this climb as “mount improbable.”
Needless to say, human beings are exceptionally complex. Nearly any child may know the mischievous pinch they get when they or someone else remarks that human beings are no more than tiny amoebas on a pale blue dot floating through an unimaginably immense and indifferent universe. The logic of “bigger is better” certainly sounds compelling on a playground, but it neglects the mature reality that the human brain still contains more possible neuro-synaptic connections than there are stars in the observable universe. We are small, indeed, but we’re the most complex structures we know of in the universe. We’re exceptionally high up our own “mount improbable”—and thus we encounter our problem. This far up mount improbable, it’s easy to forget where our evolutionary crane originated; having combatted one selector after another, we may be tempted to experience ourselves as existing in contrast to a hostile Nature, rather than as parts thereof. Like lofty mountain peaks, we fail to see the valleys and earth from which we first emerged, our vision obscured by a thick fog.
Maya, creation, is thus the illusion of being fallen from our primordial grace. Bloom in fact, in his book by the same title, uses the image of fallen angels to describe our situation:
“… Even as an imaginative idea, angels matter only if we matter, and we are (or were) Adam. Lest feminists disagree, I remind all of us that Talmud and Kabbalah alike argue that Adam originally was androgynous, as was his prototype, God. …
“… Certain Gnostics spoke of the Angel Christ as being the restored Adam, a vision that opposes Saint Paul, since the Angel Christ is not a Second Adam but the true form of the First Adam. Again, I am less concerned here with the angel Adam than with his fallen status. We can be fallen angels without being demons or devils, and I therefore want to see what light we can gain by recognizing this. Angels—unfallen or fallen—make sense to me only if they represent something that was ours and that we have the potential to become again. … Otherness is the essence of the angels; but then it is our essence also. That does not mean that the angels are our otherness, or that we are theirs. Rather, they manifest an otherness or potential akin to our own, neither better nor worse but only gradated to a different scale. The Vatican Museum collects angels; piety and self-interest join in that concern. What the Vatican and the American Religion alike would not accept is my increasing conviction that all angels, by now, necessarily are fallen angels, from the perspective of the human, which is the Shakespearean perspective. Every angel is terrifying, wrote the poet Rilke, who had not confronted a screen upon which John Travolta cavorted as an angel.
“What can it mean to contend that no distinction is still possible between unfallen and fallen angels? We are fallen Adam (or fallen Eve and Adam, if you prefer), but we no longer are fallen in the Augustinian or traditional Christian sense. As Kafka prophesied, our one authentic sin is impatience: that is why we are forgetting how to read. Impatience increasingly is a visual obsession; we want to see a thing instantly and then forget it. Deep reading is not like that; reading requires patience and remembering. A visual culture cannot distinguish between fallen and unfallen angels, since we cannot see either and are forgetting how to read ourselves, which means that we can see images of others, but cannot really see either others or ourselves.”
In a manner of speaking, as fallen angels, “forgetting how to read” because of our own “impatience,” we are sent tumbling through ephemerality and transience, thus vulnerable to suffering and death. Lost in Time, we are always passing away. The peak of the aforementioned fitness landscape, the very edge of Brahman’s maya, and the creative emanations of the pleroma are the realm of impermanence, and thus finitude, decay, and ultimacy. But if we are fallen angels, it is not for having been cast out, but for having forgotten whence we come. That which we identify with—our shifting circumstances and experiences, our aging bodies, our passing thoughts and feelings—are all the passing peak of a “mount improbable” still rising from the earth, but they are not who we are most fundamentally. They are but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
Gnosis, in this way, is experiential knowledge of that divine spark—that ever-present root that ties us to Brahman, that anchors us in the pleroma—which brings salvation from what only appears to be death.
By Yourself, Without Ambassador
One of the strongest points of conflict between Gnosticism and the normative traditions they inhabited was that much of Western religion is strongly institutional, historical, and dogmatic. That is to say that there are often ecclesiastical authorities responsible for overseeing the community and to whom members of that community may often defer; often rooted in purported historical events, whether a people fleeing slavery in Egypt, a man rising from the dead into immortality, or a merchant receiving dictations from God via an angel; and they are also often systematized into lists of readily definable teachings, usually arranged in manuals or catechisms for ease of proselytizing and education. The Gnostic has almost universally insisted, however, that they (and implicitly every human being) is open to an entirely unmediated connection to God in the here and now, one which every individual must of necessity seek for themselves. This roughly collides with authority figures one must seek for salvation, events in the past which one must contemplate with no hope that they will occur again, or lists of doctrines prepared by others with whom one must either agree or fall short of glory.
According to Elaine Pagels, in The Gnostic Gospels, Gnostic Christians often utilized their model of a lower Demiurge and a higher God of whom the craftsman is unaware as an analogy for the bishops of their age; the bishops believed they worshiped the Most High, yet they only knew the Demiurge and attempted to rule like him, while the Gnostics broke away from the herd and knew the higher God within themselves. While this tension is certainly not universal, one easily sees how it may arise: the Gnostic unapologetically insists (not believes, but knows) that the individual encounters God within themselves, not by way of outside assistance.
By way of articulation, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Bloom considers to be the quintessential gnostic sage of the American Religion, once wrote in his notebook, “It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you.” Again, God here is comparable to what I’ve described above as pleroma and Brahman—the root and ground of all being, and thus the eternal self which cannot be wiped out by Time. Emerson sharpens his point thus:
“Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you, did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.”
In this gnostic bent, then, what Emerson describes as learning is something more akin to the Platonic notion of anamnesis, of remembering the complete body of Truth to which one had access before they were born in the flesh. We may again be reminded of the Primordial Man of Hermetic myth, comparable to Kabbalah’s Adam-Kadmon and Sufism’s Man of Light. Again, from Fallen Angels, Bloom states:
“Love and death, according to the Hermetic revelation, came into being together when the androgynous Divine Man first created something for herself or himself. What she created was a reflection of herself, seen in the mirror of nature. In that moment of creation/reflection we divided into men and women, and also we first fell asleep. Sleep and love thus were born together, and love engendered death. This Hermetic myth is more than a touch disconcerting, but for me it explains our fall far more adroitly than Saint Augustine did.”
This creation-as-fall, at least in Bloomian gnosticism, is not at all malignant or regrettable. Similar to several normative traditions, including within Eastern thought, creation is a fall in the sense of felix culpa—a fortunate mistake. No matter how horrible or deathly existence may seem, it’s merely the edge of creativity, of a generative act on the part of Nature itself—that which we most fundamentally are. Bloom, in fact, continues:
“Our most creative impulses thrust us further into a confrontation with the mirror of nature, where we behold our own image, fall in love with it, and soon enough fall into the consciousness of death. Though I call such angelicism ‘fallen,’ it is the inevitable condition whenever we seek to create anything of our own, whether it be a book, a marriage, a family, a life's work. I cannot urge you, or myself, to celebrate an angelicism that so profoundly contemplates the paradox that love engenders death. And yet, that is the painful glory, or glorious pain, of our existence as fallen angels. Call it Yeziat, ‘get thee out,’ Abraham from Ur, Moses from Egypt, or Jacob into Israel, Yahweh's Promised Land.”
Our “descent” from our source and ground is thus not a fall in the negative sense, but an ascent into greater creativity. Like any evolutionary system, our accumulation of complexity is neither happenstance nor mistake, but the very mode of becoming which sits at the bottom and center of existence itself. And any suffering at the tips of Nature’s various mount improbables is simply her creative engagement with various selectors to bring forth something truly beautiful. Gnosis is certainty through firsthand experience of being not a disconnected piece of this cosmic process, but the process itself.
The extra-biblical Gospel of Thomas, thought to originate as early as the second century and not a little bit Gnostic in spirit, is comprised of a number of sayings attributed to Jesus, the first being, “Whoever discovers what these sayings mean will not taste death.” In the third saying, however, he warns that “if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.” But saying 19 may contain one of the clearest descriptions of what it means to achieve such a death-defying gnosis: “Blessings on you who came into being before coming into being” (trans. Marvin Meyer). To know oneself in such a way that they evade death is to recognize that one’s self—their deepest, most fundamental self; their true self, as it were—never came into being and thus can never cease to be. It is the self which existed eternally before our ephemeral self, with which we usually most strongly identify, was born and came into being. Additionally, in a fragmentary though explicitly Gnostic text, the Valentinian Gospel of Philip, Jesus is depicted as saying similarly: “Blessings on you who were before you came into being. Whoever is, was, and will be” (trans. Willis Barnstone).
Hermetists, Kabbalists, and Sufis used their respective images of the Primordial Man, or adaptations thereof, to symbolize the person who had come to this fullest realization, as the authors of Thomas and Philip utilized Jesus. In the case of Kabbalah, the biblical character Enoch took center stage. The canonical text of Genesis says little of Enoch—“and Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (5:28, KJV)—which led to numerous imaginative speculations. The primary speculation of Kabbalah was that Enoch did not die, but because of his exceptional closeness to God, in fact was deified into the super-angelic figure named Metatron (a name of debated origin and meaning). As Metatron, he had the unique honor of being the only other being in heaven, besides Yahweh himself, who could sit upon a throne. Some texts even referred to him as “the little Yahweh.” If angels were later turned into an imposition, Emersonian ambassadors between divinity and humanity, the Kabbalistic view of Metatron mends this separation with the adage “Enoch is Metatron.”
Bloom derives great meaning from this particular verbiage: “Enoch is Metatron,” as opposed to “Enoch became Metatron” or “Enoch will become Metatron.” To state that Enoch is presently Metatron, rather than that he became or may become this super-angelic being, is, according to Bloom, to say that Enoch always has been Metatron. The ascension of earthly Enoch all the way to the status of “the little Yahweh” is not a change into a new state but a realization of what he has always already been. Metatron, the little Yahweh, is an extension of God as a wave is an extension of the sea—and Enoch is Metatron.
In his own gnosticism, so far as Bloom is concerned, Enoch and Metatron are no more distant characters than Adam but instead analogs for ourselves. Once more from Fallen Angels:
“Adam, Enoch, Metatron, and God may be the same figure, a formulation that seems purely Mormon or Gnostic Kabbalistic but that Moshe ldel convincingly traces back to very early speculations, perhaps to an archaic Judaism itself, before even the J writer, or Yahwist [the writer of the earliest textual sources of the Torah], retold the story of Adam and Eve more or less as we have it since. The apotheosis of Enoch into Metatron is a return of Adam, interpreted by Kabbalah as the original God-Man, a fusion beyond the limits of our imaginations.”
The Daemon Knows
One of the numerous criticisms leveled against Gnosticism has been that of a narcissistic worship of oneself, another tacky and selfish attempt at “self-love.” The Orthodox Christian theologian G.K. Chesterton expressed this concern eloquently, concerned “that Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones." Though I can’t speak for ancient Gnosticism, Bloom’s own gnosticism circumvents this critique quite masterfully, and in doing so, arrives at last at how his adaptation of these ancient spiritualties can help us to more deeply understand literature.
As fallen angels, proverbially speaking, our condition is one of estrangement from our deepest, divine self. Were Gnosticism, or at least Bloomian gnosticism, simply a thinly-veiled narcissism, then there would be no need for experiential knowledge—for a change in one’s understanding and thus very way of being. Gnosis is the process of uncovering a subterranean depth beneath the ego, the transient self with which we usually identify and which Chesterton and others rightly declare as unworthy of worship. Gnosticism is an excavation, a search for a hidden layer beneath the surface level, to which we do not readily have access.
As an example, Bloom cites Socrates and his claim that his wisdom came to him from a separate, invisible being: his daimon (Greek; daemon in Latin). Apuleius, a second-century Neo-Platonic philosopher, in his essay “On the God of Socrates,” elaborated on this oddity by asserting that every person, like Socrates, has a daimon. Daimons are physical beings, and can thus speak to those over whom they are given charge, but they are invisible—overall, they function as messengers from the divine. Despite the ostensibly supernatural elements of the daimon, however, one needn’t look too hard to see the parallels with what we have thus far explored: the daimon, personalized yet invisible, functions as a personification of one’s tenuous connection to their deeper, perhaps wiser self. According to Apuleius and others, it was from his daimon that Socrates derived his humble wisdom.
This ancient image may become more familiar when compared to more modern models of the psyche. Thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively of the unreachable depths of oneself, but Sigmund Freud turned this intimation into a clinical practice. The psychological fields have grown a great deal since Freud, but they seem to thrive on the same sentiment as Socrates’ daimon: the (re-)integration of unconscious, unknown strata of the mind into the conscious self.
Perhaps only a few layers down, psychotherapy names the process of acquainting oneself with the mental and behavioral patterns one developed in early childhood as means of responding to their particular environment, whatever those conditions may have been, patterns which they have unknowingly brought with them into adulthood. Even further down still, evolutionary psychology seeks to articulate the unconscious patterns crafted by natural selection and handed down to us by our distantly-ancient ancestors, patterns which helped them to survive in their own environments. Gnosis proceeds deeper still to a proposed flashpoint where the ephemeral self transmutes into the very soil of the cosmos, into that which is eternal. It is in this sense that Harold Bloom sees the act of writing and the creation of literature as an exploration and articulation of what the daemon knows.
Literature, poetry included, becomes the very human means of attempting to express through language the realities within ourselves, and perhaps the common realities we as human beings share with one another. Bloom is something of a post-modernist, though only lightly, it seems; he believes that all readings of texts are at some level a “misreading,” that one cannot reach the author’s original intent in its purity. Yet he also sees a difference between what he calls a strong misreading (that which comes closest to the original) and a weak misreading (that which is farthest removed). Weak misreadings are possible because, despite the common root at the base of reality, the primordial fullness still fragments into separate selves. For Bloom, there is a level of irreducible solitude between selves that can never be bridged. Thus those writers who remain most faithful to themselves—such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson or William Blake—do so by faithfully conveying the essence of their own individual spirit.
However, literary criticism, in Bloom’s view, may in fact function as a bridge between what can be considered common and shared between individuals—a peer review, of sorts, of the accounts of each individual’s reality in an effort to construct what we can of our shared reality. Bloomian gnosticism is unapologetically individualistic, celebrating the self as such, but there is still an element of unity it seems. Bloom may find it most clearly in the works of Shakespeare, whom he sees as providing our very notion of humanity, found especially in the common theme of a human being becoming their own worst enemy—from Hamlet to Falstaff, we are divided against ourselves, and Shakespeare’s characters express that most faithfully and clearly, so far as Bloom is concerned. For Bloom, Shakespeare himself seems to embody the possibility of speaking a universal truth in the midst of a near-absolute individualism. In a manner of speaking, Shakespeare is Bloom’s Adam-Kadmon, his Anthropos: the image of the whole person who contains within his goliathan self the very cosmos.
Walt Whitman, another beloved of Bloom’s, might as well have been singing of the Primordial Man or even of Shakespeare in the Bloomian gnostic sense, in the 1892 version of his poem “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. …
Walt Whitman, a kosmos …
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. …
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
The American Religion
Perhaps Bloom’s most notorious claim to fame, at least in the eyes of the general public who know of him, and another quintessential distillation of his own idiosyncratic gnosticism, is his work on what he dubs the American Religion. In his book by the same name, he describes spiritual traditions founded by Americans and within American culture as a mix of three different strains of older thought: European “Enthusiasm,” Gnosticism, and Orphism. “Enthusiasm” (not a compliment in Europe) was used to describe ecstatic religious gatherings, which emphasized spirituality as an experience, rather than a theology or a ritual complex. Gnosticism, of course, encapsulates the sense of being separated from a divine source and ground. And Orphism, an ancient Greek mystery religion centered on the figure Orpheus, contains a highly optimistic outlook on the infinite potential of human beings to become ever-progressively more divine gods themselves. These three spiritual strains, in Bloom’s view, come together in America into various traditions, such as Mormonism and Southern Baptism (especially in their earlier iterations). Emblematic of American Gnosticism, Bloom sees these and other quintessentially American religious traditions as altogether quite different from what European Christianity had handed down. Oddly, for Bloom, despite the apparent death of Gnosticism’s surface characteristics, gnosticism in spirit still thrives in America—even when Americans themselves do not know it.
As an illustration, in chapter 15 of The American Religion, “African-American Religion as Paradigm,” Bloom describes the Dogon people of west Africa, their spirituality, and the influence they exerted on American culture after their enslavement and forced relocation to antebellum America. Using both Geoffrey Parrinder’s West African Religion (1961) and Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (1965), Bloom describes what he sees as an exceptionally Gnostic spirituality among the Dogon, which he and others believe has influenced American Christian traditions in subtle yet significant ways.
“… Parrinder describes a mythology (as we might want to call it) in which every person and every object has a double or twin, its spirit, or true self. According to Parrinder: ‘The African might say that “in each thing is another thing” and “in every man there is a little man.” ‘ The ‘little man’ was not born and does not die, and so is no part of nature. …
“The Dogon ‘true me’ or ‘real me,’ what ancient Gnostics called the ‘spark’ or pneuma, became indistinguishable from the Spirit in which St. Paul had been caught up and transported to the heavenly regions. … the reality of the ‘little man’ within, which was transformed into the saving presence of an interior Jesus.
“Dogon mythology, as expounded to Marcel Griaule by the elder Ogotemmeli, is as complex a Gnostic creation-fall as that elaborated by the second-century disciples of Valentinus ... Amma is the ultimate God but is nearly as withdrawn as the Valentinian ‘alien God’ or ‘stranger God.’ The God of most African religions was either detached or alienated from many aspects of daily existence. In the Dogon faith, Amma makes love to the earth, which first brings forth a jackal, who in turn indulges in an improper relationship with the earth, out of which mismatch all evil proceeds. But after the jackal, Amma begets a sequence of Nommos, the words of God’s spirit, doubles and twins of his father. The seventh Nommo reorganizes the fallen universe by sacrificing himself. Such a seventh and final, demiurgical Adam was easily assimilated by the African-American Baptists to the Pauline Christ. … The early African-American Baptists may have declined to distinguish between the little man or woman within each one of them and the figure of the resurrected Jesus. Out of this emerged the particular African-American Baptist rhetoric of Jesus as friend, a rhetoric without which white Southern Baptist religion would not have been possible.”
In Bloom’s view, Dogon spirituality provided the necessary impetus to produce literature such as African spirituals, songs of an immediately-accessible black Jesus who knew all their pains intimately, even in the midst of the trauma of slavery. This sensibility leant itself well to the ecstasy of Pentecostalism, as well, wherein an encounter with God is not when the person is ostensibly taken to heaven, but when God emerges within the soul of the person themselves. The phenomenon of the divine “little me” inside the overall self is what Bloom sees as the quintessentially American, and more broadly gnostic trait of not only our religious traditions, but our literature as well.
Subtlest of all ideas, Bloom is undaunted by the fact that numerous American Christians would emphatically deny that they are at all comparable to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism—yet the American Religion, despite its denial of terms, still insists that each person is, in one way or another, a splinter of the infinite Deity. Hidden in plain sight, this spiritual tendency, in Bloom’s view, has the power to either save or destroy American culture; our so-called gnosis may cause us to recede into ourselves and disregard the world around us, or it may emerge like the Israelite high priest on the Day of Atonement, embodying the divine presence as he cleanses the temple and its inhabitants from the inside out.
In The American Religion, Bloom predicted that by about this point in time Southern Baptists and Mormons would account for a significantly greater portion of the voting populace of the US than they now do—a future which, like our uniquely American gnosis in general, could be either our salvation or our undoing. Despite the inaccuracy of Bloom’s prophecy, one can’t help but see the uniquely American gnosticism in our constant political and social combat between authoritarianism and libertarianism, our insistence on the infinite value of vulnerable or suffering individuals for the sheer fact of their existence, or even in phrases such as “speak or live your truth” or other self-affirming rhetoric. We may even see it in early, uniquely-American political literature. In the Declaration of Independence, “Nature’s God” imputes “inalienable rights” to every person under the descriptor of “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness”—perhaps in more modern terms, the rights to existence, autonomy, and self-determination. Or James Madison in The Federalist Papers #51, stating that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” with the clear implication that government should exist in the United States to protect individuals insofar as they do not directly impinge upon the equal rights of other individuals. Despite the numerous ways in which American society has fallen short of these ideals after their articulation, there seems to be at least a tinge of gnosticism present, even if only in the desire to live up to these values.
Though not at all dependent upon it, Bloomian gnosticism seems to see itself most strongly in what it dubs the American Religion.
Not By Faith, Nor By the Angels
If nothing else, Harold Bloom approaches literary criticism in much the way a theologian might approach their own religious tradition. Far from apparently religious, however, Bloom simply acknowledges the tremendous power of metaphor. Understandably, many take umbrage with describing religious ideas as “merely” metaphorical, but for Bloom, there is nothing “merely” about metaphor.
The construction of a metaphor is not to tell us what we already know, but to reveal to us what may be hiding even in plain sight. There are some things in our lived experience which seem not to yield to our capacity for language—some things must be experienced, not explained. But a metaphor is a comparison which, without words, teases out that which we may not have seen in our own situation before. When lining up two images, the one literary and the other based in reality, we ask ourselves to subtract the disparities between the two and thus to focus in on what the two hold in common. A well-crafted metaphor helps us to speak of those levels of depth of which we must otherwise be silent for lack of terms or capacity to speak.
For Bloom, it seems, Gnosticism in general provides a constructive set of metaphors by which he may speak meaningfully of his own life, and of life in general. And therein lies the essence of Bloom’s gnosticism.
In that spirit, then, what would a modern gnosticism sound like? Perhaps it is already all prevalent, as Bloom sees the American Religion—a tendency which may in fact be quite larger than the US, reaching to various reaches and regions, cultures and communities, and perhaps it is the very music of the soul of every human being—coming from their knowing daemon.
Perhaps as an appropriate conclusion, I’ll offer a tentative suggestion for a modern gnosticism:
The deepest suffering and profoundest lack of meaning stem from cognitive estrangement from the meta-process of deep time (the cosmic process of billions of years), evolutionary development (the biological process of millions of years), history (the anthropological/cultural process of thousands of years), and personal being (the psychological process of individual and family, of decades and centuries) which produce us and upon/out of which we will build anything that lasts.
We are nested in the very peak of a cumulative process of escalating complexity beginning from maximal simplicity, creating all variants of itself out of every given state and at every given scale, stabilizing what can last, then building on top of that. The further the process goes, the more complex its products, the more its variants will not be able to sustain themselves to be built upon---but the more options and variations that open up, too, it seems. And with no logically necessary ceiling to how high this can go.
There are two organizing principles at every scale, then, whether cosmic, atomic, chemical, biological, historical, cultural, personal: create all variants of oneself in all directions, and separate the lasting from the ephemeral---then repeat, building atop and from the previous state. In a word, selective self-improvement permeates existence, world without end.
All these processes are rooted in the same singular point of origin, and thus that same point of origin is itself all processes it gives rise to, and vice versa. Everything—protons, pencils, puppies, people, planets—belongs to this One, united within it. It seems a noble spirituality to learn to love the One and all its emanations; to do so is to learn to love oneself, others, and the cosmic Self which contains and constitutes them all. To fall in love with existence, this One, is to embrace what it brings forth in oneself and to seek to help it bring forth its myriad other processes.
Or something like that, anyway.
Books by Harold Bloom
- The American Religion (1992, 2013)
- Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (Riverhead Books, 1997)
- Fallen Angels, illust. Mark Podwal (Yale University Press, 2007)
- Kabbalah and Criticism (Continuum, 2005)
- The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, trans. Marvin Meyer, commentary Harold Bloom (HarperOne, 2004)
- The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)
- Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (Warner, 2003)
- The Book of J, with trans. David Rosenberg (Grove Press, 2004)
- Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (Riverhead, 2005)
Books on Gnosticism
- David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Harvard University Press, Reprint edition; 2012)
- Karen L. King, The Secret Revelation of John (Harvard University Press; 2009)
- Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (originally published 1958)
- The Gnostic Bible: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Willis Barnstone, Marvin Meyer (Shambhala, 2009)
- The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume, ed. Marvin Meyer, Elaine Pagels, et al. (HarperOne, 2009)
- Eric D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (State University of New York Press, 2008)
- Marcel Griaule, Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (1965)
- Swami Prabhavananda, The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta (Vedanta Press & Bookshop; 1964)
- Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (1951, 1979, 2011)
- Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (Chatto & Windus, London; 1947)
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (originally 1902)
Additionally, I owe a special thanks to the people behind gnosis.org, who have provided a tremendous archive for all things Gnostic. For free access to ancient Gnostic texts, as well as lectures (audio and text) by people such as Stephan Hoeller—Bishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica, a modern Gnostic revivalist movement—I highly recommend visiting their website.