The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2011)
Anniversaries generate memories and also books. The Dickens industry is already in production for the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s birth (1812), and Professor Harold Bloom’s The Shadow of a Great Rock is among the notable celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the 1611 publication of the King James translation of the Bible. Since the Reformation in England (once a Catholic country) made Bible reading essential for Christians, it was important to translate the Hebrew and Greek originals into English. William Tyndale had begun his translation in 1523, but his project was aborted by martyrdom. In 1535 Miles Coverdale published (in Switzerland) the first complete English Bible. Then came the Geneva bible of 1560, a stridently Protestant work . King James, dissatisfied with the Geneva version (which he deemed unsympathetic to monarchy) authorized a group of translators to make a new version. Bloom evaluates not only the relation of King James (KJB for short) to its Hebrew and Greek originals but also to Tyndale, Coverdale, and Geneva. His title, which in Isaiah refers to a shelter from the hot summer sun and is “a great poem in itself,” refers to the sheltering nourishment that the Bible provides to Western literature and civilization.
Speaking of anniversaries—those of us who boast (or lament) having passed “our Biblical three score and ten” pay unwitting tribute to what Bloom calls KJB’s tendency to “brilliantly mistranslate” the Hebrew original. A glance at Psalm 90 reveals that Tanach gives only the bare “shiv’im” for our allotted seventy years. Similarly, Ecclesiastes’ “vanity” deliberately mistranslates the Hebrew (hevel) for breath. Bloom celebrates King James not for anything so pedestrian as “accuracy” but for what he himself has championed during his long and distinguished career as a literary critic: creative misreading. Not that Bloom confers his blessing on all “strong misreading”: he considers the religion of Akiba, “our normative [rabbinic] Judaism,” a distortion of the Covenant code of Exodus, and the Christian New Testament a far more egregious and tendentious misreading of the Hebrew Bible (as well as its literary inferior).
This is not Bloom’s first excursion into the genre he reluctantly calls “the Bible as literature.” In 1990 he published The Book of J, which posited three authors of the Pentateuch, most prominently (perhaps to epater les Juifs) the “J” (or Jehovistic) narrative composed by a witty female intellectual resident of the court of David and Solomon. Bloom rehearses this scenario, which determines much of his interpretation and endows him with the ineffable charm of an octogenarian enfant terrible, in the introduction to Shadow of a Great Rock. Yahweh, far from being creator of the universe, is himself the creation of “one of the universe’s greatest writers,” and contains within himself “Falstaff’s vitalism, Hamlet’s ontological denials, Iago’s destructiveness, and Lear’s jealous furies and shattering madness. The Bible matters most because the Yahwist imagined a totally uncanny god, human-all-too-human and exuberant beyond all bindings.” This clever gal would, Bloom imagines, be amused and amazed to learn that her ironic invention, with all his “violent, excessive, ill-tempered, unfathomable, and horribly dangerous” passions, would enjoy a second life as the revered, wise, merciful and just object of worship for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Declaring the Yahwist to be of the female persuasion is part of Bloom’s campaign to give women what he deems their just deserts in the Hebrew Bible. Deborah’s “magnificent War Song” is its most venerable poem, equaled only by Miriam’s “great song of triumph.” Ruth is the Bible’s “most beautiful work.” Even the murderous Judith and Yael are “godly and lethal, virtuous and deadly.” The Book of Esther is “splendidly secular”–high praise indeed from Bloom, who says that “the commandments, whatever their moral value, need not be considered in an artistic appreciation.” (This is probably why he finds Leviticus, alone among the Five Books of Moses, “unreadable”—a rare instance in which he acquiesces in conventional prejudices.)
Bloom’s introduction deals with “the Bible as literature,” a phrase he finds lame and foolish, yet necessary to protect critical inquiry from religious incursions. He correctly credits the Victorian poet-critic Matthew Arnold with both the phrase and its idea. Yet he fails to grasp the problem Arnold faced in the 1870s, when humanistic education was under assault by science. Arnold’s literary approach to the Bible offended religious men (like Cardinal Newman) as blasphemy, and scientists (like Huxley) as obscurantism. Arnold contrasted Darwin’s description of our original ancestor as “a hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits,” with KJB’s account of creation: “God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.” After publication of The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin’s version seemed validated in the fossils and rocks, but not in our own experience; it was objectively true, but subjectively false. Genesis seemed subjectively true, but objectively false, validated by experience, but not the fossils and rocks. Arnold therefore urged that the Bible be read not as exploded science, but as poetry, because in poetry the idea is everything, and there are no facts to be exploded. Besides, added Arnold (and Bloom concurs), the poetry of the Hebrew prophets equals Homer and exceeds Shakespeare and Milton in literary power.
Bloom’s book is seriously flawed, yet illuminating. It is often allusive when it should be expository. We get many long quotations –useful when showing how KJB “fully matches the splendor of the Hebrew,” less so when from other translations or Thomas Mann, Victor Hugo, and the omnipresent Herbert Marks, with little accompanying analysis. Nevertheless, Bloom’s fleeting apercus nearly always strike one as both new and natural. Examples: “The outrageousness of what Yahweh imposes upon his wretched chosen people somehow has escaped commentary, ancient and modern, rabbinical and scholarly. Who can journey forty years in the waste lands without anguish and discontent? Is that part of the Blessing?” King David is “the first portrait of an artist who is also a national leader…[He] anticipates Hamlet as a masterpiece of contraries…[he] incarnates the whole truth of our contrary existence.”
Bloom’s “divine Oscar Wilde” said that “The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” This book illustrates both extremes. It is often quirky, self-indulgent, and dogmatic. But it is also wonderful in its self-revelation. An early chapter provides a glimpse of the child who is father of the man and can “ still remember my childhood awe at the wineglass set aside for Eliyahu hanavi at every Passover seder, with my sleepy fantasies that indeed he had come by to drain it!” The Ecclesiastes chapter, following Jewish tradition, identifies the author of “this strikingly heretical meditation upon wisdom” as “the eighty-year-old Solomon,” confirming its verses on vanity through personal experience: “This is one of the KGB’s miracles. I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses, as my fingers tremble, my legs bow themselves, my teeth cease, my eyes darken, my ears shut, birdsong grows fainter, heights increase my fear of falling, and even walking finds fears in the way. Spring will begin again (in Jerusalem) with the flowering of the almond tree, but …will bring no seasonal renewal to desire, because the ‘long home’ …is prefigured by my generation’s mourners.” The heretic of the Bible and the heretic of New Haven become one: “I feel odd finishing this book because I have been writing it all my long life and I am eighty.” Literary criticism may ultimately be no more than character.
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is THE STATE OF THE JEWS: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL (Transaction Publishers, 2012).