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October 1996

The millennium mill

by Marc M. Arkin

Ever since St. John the Divine, people have had a tendency to think that the Almighty works in thousand-year increments. Just before the end of the first millennium, they had plenty to confirm their suspicions. In the year 993, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. And, Burgundian monk Raoul Glaber related, “at that time, nearly all the cities of Gaul and Italy were devastated by fire”; “in Italy and Gaul were seen to die all the most eminent prelates, dukes and counts.” By 997, “an enormous dragon, coming out of the North and reaching the South, throwing off sparks” appeared in the skies, and “a severe famine which lasted for five years, covered all the Roman world” so that “it was feared almost the whole human race would be eliminated.” Men believed, with the fifth-century St. Eucherius of Lyons, that “as old men are borne down with ills, so we see the world pullulating with misery: famine, pestilence, war, ruin and terror … The last day, not only of our lives, but of the world, is upon us.”

But, from his vantage point safely in the eleventh century, Glaber chattily continued, “by the coming of the third year after the year 1000, churches and buildings everywhere were again being rebuilt … It was as if the very world was shaking itself rid of its decrepitude and everywhere put on a white mantle of churches.” So much for the end of the world.

As we approach the next millennium, the likes of Shirley MacLaine recount their past lives on television talk shows, while books detailing prophecies, encounters with angels, and “near death experiences” routinely top the bestseller lists. Works with such titles as “Sexing the Millennium,” “A Psychology for the Third Millennium,” and “Managing Toward the Millennium” daily appear on bookstore shelves. Meanwhile, the news media tell us that the year 2000 will witness a uniquely modern apocalypse, when the date-functions on all our computers fail and, willy-nilly, return us to the year 1900.

In his most recent book about religion, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection, Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and Berg Professor of English at New York University, ponders these phenomena and thereby makes his early entry into the year-2000 publishing sweepstakes. Professor Bloom’s interest in religion is a longstanding one: he has written about the Hebrew Bible (The Book of J, claiming that one strand of the Old Testament was written by a female member of the Davidic court); Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah and Criticism); and ancient hermetic traditions (The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy). In his last foray into the subject, The American Religion, Professor Bloom brought together these concerns and took to himself the role of “religious critic,” an enterprise he portrayed as “a mode of description, analysis, and judgment that seeks to bring us closer to the workings of the religious imagination.”

Omens of Millennium seeks to fulfill the promise of that role. Professor Bloom’s view, repeated frequently, is that the New Age fascination with supernatural beings, dreams, and portents of immortality is a harbinger of the end of our age. It is a sign of spiritual malaise, which the popular imagination links to the upcoming year 2000. In his study of these phenomena, however, Professor Bloom has taken an important new step. No longer content with mere criticism, he has assumed the mantle of prophet. Not to put too fine a point on it, Harold Bloom has become a Gnostic adept.

Let me explain. In the introductory chapters, Professor Bloom tells us that the book weaves together cultural commentary (including a comparative study of mystical traditions) and spiritual autobiography. Indeed, Omens is only nominally a work of historical and cultural analysis; in fact, it is Professor Bloom’s own prolonged credo. It even ends with a sermon. Professor Bloom not only tells us about the fatuity of popular near-death accounts, he tells us about his near-death experience, which, he assures us, was quite dull. (Instead of being drawn into the comforting light—the formula de rigueur for this literary genre—he says he experienced the light, but, actually, found it rather annoying.)

This makes Omens a very difficult book to review. Due to Professor Bloom’s privileged epistemological status with regard to these matters, a reviewer cannot greet his report of nearly encountering the grave with a straightforward “no, you didn’t.” And, in the present state of society, it would be extremely impolite to suggest that someone else’s deepest spiritual experiences, are, shall we say, in the words of Hamlet’s Ophelia, evidence of a noble mind overthrown. Instead, I will simply pass on the gist of the book and let you, gentle reader, draw your own conclusions.

The facts of Professor Bloom’s spiritual autobiography provide the starting point. He tells us that his spiritual quest began with his youthful experience of “deep reading” (an immediate relationship between a reader and the imagination of a great poet) and with his rejection of a personal god as a result of the Holocaust. He then immersed himself in mystical literature, only to discover a series of recurring images. Rejecting Jung’s solution of a collective unconscious, Bloom concluded that these archetypal images reflect human experience of a genuine spiritual realm. As he moved further into that realm, Professor Bloom reached the conviction that if we truly knew ourselves, we would recognize that our deepest part contains the spark of an uncreated being, one who is not of this present creation but, instead, is obscured by the forces of this flawed and mutable world. But, I get ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that the end of Professor Bloom’s journey was to find God—in himself.

The first two-thirds of the book contrast the modern debasement of these archetypal images with their authentic expression in older esoteric traditions. In the process, Professor Bloom offers some trenchant commentary on the commercial boom in quasi-religious phenomena. (And, yes, there is some irony here, since a cynic might suggest that there is little relationship between Omens and the upcoming millennium other than the commercial value of a catchy title.) Professor Bloom also takes on forces that he believes have robbed contemporary life of its spirituality, with a specially heartfelt nod to Sigmund Freud. By turning dreams into mere avatars of wish fulfillment, Bloom argues, Freud has deprived them of their previous role as windows onto the spiritual world. Freud tied dreams to the past—or, as Bloom says, the overdetermined present— and thus impoverished both present and future.

As to angels, Bloom dourly remarks that the kindly little guardian angels that have sprouted on so many lapels these days bear scant resemblance to the awesome agents of God that inhabit Middle Eastern tradition. After all, he points out, when the Prophet Mohammed glimpsed the Angel Gabriel, he was so awestruck that he fainted dead away; in Genesis, cherubs were set to guard the entrance to Eden against Adam and Eve’s return, not exactly typecasting for today’s chubby little putti. Instead, Bloom dwells at length on the elaborate taxonomy of angels in Jewish and medieval Christian thought and, with great relish, on the terrifying angelic entities that figure in the associated hermetic traditions.

Despite providing us with his own near-death experience, Bloom also has a mordant take on the entire near-death industry. As he notes, there is a big difference between “near-death” and “dead”; the former state, often a misdiagnosis of clinical death, is not likely to tell us very much about the latter. But, he suggests, popular accounts of such experiences might reflect encounters with the “astral body” of shamanistic religion. He then uses this insight as a springboard to consider various traditions regarding the afterlife and the resurrection. (My personal favorite—not fully explored in this context —is the view of Origen of Cesarea, who believed that in the resurrection we would all be given perfect bodies, and so would spend eternity bouncing around as spheres.) Throughout, Bloom puzzles, Why is it these days that transcendent experience seems confined to the believers in “dank quackeries”?

Well, yes, we live in debased times. Mass culture has eviscerated religion. The Age of Prophecy is closed and there is a grandeur passed from this earth. So what else is new?

For Bloom, it is the possibility of reviving the ancient esoteric traditions, particularly in America, which, he continues to argue, is, unbeknownst to itself, a nation of Gnostics. Bloom has read extensively in the Jewish mystical literature known as Kabbalah, especially the Zohar, a sixteenth-century text written by the sage Joseph Caro, as well as in the similar works of the Sufi branch of Islam, and, of course, in the Gnostic texts of the Hellenized ancient world. Nevertheless, many of the scholarly claims advanced in his discussion of these traditions are by no means uncontroversial. I will not attempt here to evaluate them for factual accuracy or consistency, since this seems to me to be beside the point in a book primarily concerned with what Professor Bloom himself believes.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, such as Norman Cohn and Moshe Idel, Bloom asserts that this esoteric tradition begins with the most archaic layers of ancient Jewish myths. About a century before the birth of Jesus, the Hellenistic Jews of Alexandrian Egypt and Syria-Palestine revived these already ancient traditions in an effort to restore a form of Judaism obscured by the temple cult. By then, this esoteric learning had absorbed a number of other elements, including Babylonian myths regarding angels and Zoroastrian visions of heaven, hell, and millennial judgment, as well as the neo-Platonism of the Hellenistic world. Out of this heady mix came Jewish Gnosticism, which led to Christian Gnosticism, and influenced Islamic Gnosticism.

This is where Professor Bloom the spiritual seeker and guide makes his formal entrance. In his final “Gnostic Sermon,” he tells us that the most important of these ancient myths concerned the Primordial Adam, the Anthropos,  

a being at once Adam and God whose enormous body took up the entire cosmos, but who actually transcended the cosmos. Our world, even before it fell (or shrank into Creation of Genesis I), was contained inside the frame of Adam, Anthopos, Man, who was indistinguishable from God. Hence the Gnosis, in which a single act of personal knowledge at once comprises man knowing God and God knowing man.
Our existing world is “the kenoma, or cosmological emptiness … a world of repetitive time, meaningless reproduction, futurelessness” ruled over by hostile angels called archons. Only the act of Gnostic self-recognition can break through this barrier of anomie.

Among the claims Bloom makes—which he admits might offend traditional religionists—are that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas records a more historically accurate Jesus, depicting him as a Gnostic sage who imparted his wisdom to his disciples during the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension; that the world we inhabit is not only evil and fallen, but governed by a limited deity who, in his malevolence, obscures the true nature of our divine being. Or that the Angel Metatron, traditionally identified by Jewish sources with the man Enoch who was taken up by God in Genesis, is actually God himself. And, according to Bloom, this account of Metatron masks older understandings of the aspects of God, so that Metatron might actually be the divine phallus as it appears when God is seated on his throne.

As a descriptive account of the hermetic tradition, this is as accessible an introduction as a reader is likely to find. And, if you have ever tried to slog through, say, one of the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg or Madame Blavatsky (all of which are routinely stocked in the New Age section of your bookstore), you will recognize this as no mean feat. However, it is Professor Bloom’s call to return “to a perfect knowledge at once experiential and intellectual” that may actually offend or, more likely, bewilder the ordinary reader.

Having found spiritual solace himself in the ancient Gnostic lore, Professor Bloom seeks to share his gifts with others. Thus, he suggests that the reader adopt the ancient myth of Anthropos as a way of experiencing the world and of achieving the mystic self-knowledge that Professor Bloom appears to have reached. Or, rather, Professor Bloom believes that many like-minded “lucid and spiritually mature” seekers will resonate to his call, and, on hearing his truth instantly will accept his invitation to become a “mortal god.” As he says, quoting that crypto-Gnostic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? … It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.”

There isn’t much else to say, except, if this book is truly an omen of what the millennium has in store for us, then, in the words of the rabbinic sage regarding the Messiah, “Let him come, but may I not see him!”

Notes
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    Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection, by Harold Bloom; Riverhead Books, 272 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 October 1996, on page 59
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