Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?

A review of Harold Bloom's new book of the same title.

Where shall wisdom be found? Harold Bloom finds it in the same place as the question -- the Book of Job -- as well as in Ecclesiastes and the writings of Plato, Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Bacon, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud, Proust, St. Augustine and in the Gospel of Thomas. Bloom's new book, which compares and contrasts what he calls the "wisdom writing" in these varied works, "rises out of personal need, reflecting a quest for sagacity that might solace and clarify the traumas of aging, of recovery from grave illness, and of grief for the loss of beloved friends." He tells us, "Since childhood, I have been comforted by Talmudic wisdom," and he cites wisdom writing that helped him rally when he "was ill, depressed, or weary." He also says, "We most of us know that wisdom immediately goes out the door when we are in crisis" and that he has "not found that wisdom literature is a comfort."

These claims may seem inconsistent, but inconsistency does not trouble him. His section on Emerson approvingly quotes that writer's "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" and alludes to Whitman's "I am large, I contain multitudes." Such familiar sayings contrast with a central delight of Bloom's book -- its inclusion of wonderful aphorisms likely to be new to many readers. One of my favorites is the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus's "Psychoanalysis is itself that disease of which it purports to be the cure," although my delight had dimmed by the time I encountered Bloom's third repetition of this remark.

As the foregoing suggests, Bloom's book is inconsistent (or multitudinous) in quality as well as in attitude. Often his fervent discussion yields shimmering insights. Consider his treatment of what he calls the "Nietzschean" position that what makes one poem more memorable than another "must be that the memorable poem, the poem that has more meaning, or starts more meaning going, is the poem that gives (or commemorates) more pain." Bloom comments, "Strong poetry is difficult, and its memorability is the consequence of a difficult pleasure, and a difficult enough pleasure is a kind of pain."

I've just finished writing elsewhere that the Church - and by this I refer to all of the ancient religious traditions - is the only place (aside from university history and classics departments) still deeply in touch with the distant human past. I believe these enduring writings are an important repository of human experience - of the life of the human being qua human being on earth - and will become more and more important as the world goes more and more techno. It will be necessary to have a baseline of experience from which to draw conclusions about the essence of human nature - or at least about the manner in which human nature evolves, if it does (and I believe it does, in fact).

Also, the Church is one of the few places still thinking (hopefully, but definitely not in every case) about "the spiritual life," and about "meaning" in those particular terms. It's always been my opinion that writers and artists also deal primiarly in the spiritual, but you don't seem to see, in art, these days, a drawing together of the various threads of experience and meaning into a large coherent whole; instead, the focus seems to be on shining light on the particular, and almost for its own sake, now that the "universal" is out of favor. Religion still insists, in its seeking of God, that human experience is universal - for if not, how could religious principles be applied?

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