Quinney, "An Interview with Harold Bloom"

Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom:
Two Interviews

An Interview with Harold Bloom1

Laura Quinney, Brandeis University

  1. Laura Quinney: Ok, so it's November 27th, in New Haven. We're at Harold's house, and my name is Laura Quinney. This is an interview with Harold Bloom about his latest book Jesus and Yahweh. Tell me what the epigraph was to have been.

  2. Harold Bloom: Well there was originally a double epigraph. One is still there because it explains the subtitle, The Names Divine, and that is the second of the two quatrains of the concluding "To the Accuser who is the God of this World" of the final version of Blake's little emblem book "For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise," that is to say:

    Though thou art Worshipd by the Names Divine
    Of Jesus and Jehovah thou art still
    The Son of Morn in weary Nights decline
    The lost Travellers Dream under the Hill—

    but originally I had wanted to have with it a very great sentence, spoken by an actual governor of Texas back I think in the early 1930s who rejoiced in the name of Ma Ferguson. And when this lady was inaugurated as governor of Texas, she announced that so long as she was governor, no state-supported school, from junior high up through the University of Texas at Austin would be allowed to teach any foreign language whatsoever, and her reason for this she expressed in one very great sentence: "If English was good enough for Jesus then I suppose it should be good enough for us."

  3. LQ: [Laughs.] Thank you. I wanted to ask you in particular about what it means to be a Jewish Gnostic.

  4. HB: Ah.

  5. LQ: In your book, in the opening paragraphs on "The Jewish Sages on God," you write: "The God of the Gnostics is called the Stranger or Alien God, and has exiled himself from our cosmos, perhaps forever. I do not regard Yahweh in that way" [p. 193, Quinney's emphasis]. And yet you describe yourself as a Gnostic.

  6. HB: Well, I am partly relying upon my great mentor Gerhard or Gershom Scholem, who in many conversations with me, primarily in Jerusalem, but also in Boston, New York City, and here at this table in New Haven, would frequently say to me that the great disaster of Kabbalah was its Neoplatonic scheme or myth of emanation—the sephirot—and that he greatly preferred what he called the Gnostic kabbalah of the early Merkavah mystics, which he thought had been renewed by Moses Cordovero, who was the teacher of Isaac Luria, and then by Isaac Luria in which Ein Soph, the Kabbalistic name of the infinite one, or Yahweh—whose name you're not supposed to use, but I am now—Ein Soph creates the universe by contracting and withdrawing inside himself, or as I say, going back to the original Hebrew of the Zimzum, which means to sharply draw in or take in your breath—it is that act which at once creates and ruins worlds, according to Cordovero and Luria, and those who came after them. But Gnosticism: Scholem was convinced and Moshe Idel, to whom I am much closer in every way—he is a close personal friend—Moshe Idel on this agrees with Scholem though frequently they don't: Idel says that fundamentally he thinks that what someone like Hans Jonas and other scholars after him have called Gnosticism is actually a kind of parody or echo of a kind of archaic Judaism which we don't have any more, though you can find curious versions of it in the different books of Enoch and other apocryphal literature. Even when I was a little boy, the Talmudic rabbi who fascinated me was the one denounced by all the others in the Pirke Abboth or Sayings of the Fathers, the rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah, whom the others called Akah, meaning the stranger or the alien, and who is reported to have ascended into heaven in a mystical trance and there beheld not one God but two gods, sitting on thrones facing each other, one being Yahweh, and the other being Metatron, the angel of the divine presence who simply was the transmogrified human being Enoch after he is carried off by Yahweh to the heavens without the necessity of first dying. There are all kinds of complex traditions, some of them going back a long, long way, even though we have no texts of what could be called an original Jewish Gnosis. As I understand Gnosticism,—and it seems to me in this I am highly consonant with my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson, as I am with Valentinus of Alexandria or Basilides of Alexandria, or with Luria or Cordovero, let alone that splendid fellow Nathan of Gaza, who wrote the treatise on the dragons and was the spokesperson or prophet for the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi,—Gnosticism essentially comes down to a few convictions. One is that the best and oldest part of every one of us, even if we don't have immediate access to it, or easy access to it, is part and parcel of God. (I want a very small sliver, dear.) Another is that the creation and the fall are not two separate events, but one and the same event with all of the unfortunate (that's fine dear) the unfortunate pragmatic (thank you dear)—pragmatic consequences of this (mmm . . . it's full of liquor; mmm, it's yummy . . . ).

  7. LQ: [To the tape recorder.] A whisky cake is being consumed.

  8. JB: [Laughs.]

  9. HB: Willie, come and have some whisky cake. A very Yahwistic whisky cake.

  10. Daniel Flesch: Is this yours, Mom?

  11. William Flesch: Shhh . . .

  12. HB: I suppose the remaining basic conviction of Gnosticism is that there is, besides the divinity to which it is so hard to have access, it is very deep in the rock of the self. There is also an exiled component of the true God, who is not Yahweh but presumably the Anthropos, the original man/God of the hermeticists. Except, who knows? Akiba—Akiba who was after all the normative rabbi, the founder of what we call normative Judaism in the second century of the common era, Akiba specifically said that his favorite name for God was ish, which is man. So—in any case I suppose the final tenet of Gnosticism is that there is an exiled component of the Godhead, but it's not in this world, which is governed by the archons and governed by Blake's Nobodaddy as it were, and that far off beyond our solar system, in the cosmological outer spaces there is the—aren't you going to give Willy some of that?

  13. WF: I had some.

  14. HB: Well put it back in there: you don't want it to go to waste.

  15. WF: But I might want more.

  16. JB: Stop talking in the microphone.

  17. HB: Pussycat? Oh, I'm sorry.

  18. LQ: It's ok, it's ok. It can be edited. Or not.

  19. HB: It doesn't matter.

  20. LQ: But your Yahweh is not Blake's Nobodaddy.

  21. HB: No. No no no no no. He is—he was for me the surprise of my book. As I say at one point he usurped this book. Indeed he wasn't supposed to be there at all in the first place. Originally the title of the book was Jesus and Christ, since I regard the two of them as totally separate figures, but I found that as I got into it, it didn't make any sense to me unless I really talked about Yahweh, and I think the really original part of the book is the second half, on Yahweh, which actually goes so far as to apply Lurianic Kabbalah to the whole question of the origin of Yahweh. You will remember that in Kierkegaard Nebuchadnezzar, after he had been changed back from a beast in the field to a man, says of Yahweh, "Nobody knows who his father was, or who taught him the secret of his strength" [quoted from Quidam in Stages on Life's Way] and I speculate in a perfectly Kabbalistic way, I say—I speculate that a perfectly—aren't you going to eat it—?

  22. LQ: Yes I'm going to try it.

  23. HB: In a perfectly, I think, Kabbalistic way that Yahweh may have come into existence by this act of Zimzum, this act of contraction or withdrawal, which means that he diminished himself in order to get started. Which I find fascinatingly parallel to Walt Whitman, in which I again follow Scholem: who used to say in conversations with me, that in a secular world somehow Whitman by some miracle without knowing anything about Kabbalah had in effect reinvented his own Kabbalah, and I think that is true. Whitman throughout Song of Myself and elsewhere is always saying that he is expanding, that he is getting to contain more and more multitudes, that his sense of self is steadily increasing. But in fact he too is always contracting and withdrawing. He is endlessly elusive and evasive, and the worlds that he creates and ruins also seem to come from some process of self-withdrawal.

  24. LQ: This may lead to my next question, which is something that puzzles me about the book. And that is that in some sense I was not sure why you think of the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible as a true description of a Deity, rather than as a . . . ?

  25. HB: Well, there are Yahwehs—just as I say there are seven versions at least of Jesus or Jesus Christ, or Jesus and Jesus Christ, in the Greek New Testament, there are innumerable versions of God in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, but the one who interests me and always has and always will, is the original one, the first Straha, traditionally called J or the Yahwist, probably written as early as the reign of Solomon, 3,000 years ago, in which most certainly he is as I say a stern imp, up to a lot of mischief, something of a trickster God—human all too human: he's always walking around on the ground; he isn't flying up in the air—he's walking around on the ground in order to make personal, you know, sort of on the job inspections of how things are going. He closes the door of the ark—of Noah's ark with his own hands; he even more memorably buries Moses in an unmarked grave, with his own hands; he is very fond of picnics; thus at Mamre he sits beneath the terapim trees because he always likes to be in the shade rather than the sun, thus he walks we are told in Eden in the cool of the day, at Mamre, with two of the Elohim who are his angels he sits beneath the terapim trees, and he has a sumptuous rather full-scale luncheon prepared by Sarah—roast veal and whey and freshly baked sort-of cakes. And how is one to put it—he on Sinai, on the side of Sinai, he sits there and shares a meal with 73 elders of Israel. They stare at him and he stares at them and that's it. He doesn't say a word and they don't say a word, but there he is. And according to Kabbalistic tradition, from the Merkavah thing on, he's enormous, he is I say the King Kong of deities, he is of enormous size.

  26. LQ: What leads you to think of this God as more than an exceptional fiction?

  27. HB: Well, his metaphysical density, his ferocious and vivid personality, his intensely human traits—I gather you're not going to eat that so I'm going to put it back in there—

  28. LQ: One more bite.

  29. HB: Go ahead, go ahead. He is . . . he is a . . . the reason why I keep invoking Shakespearean characters like King Lear, who is I think Shakespeare's version of Yahweh, or Hamlet, who has a very complex relation I think to Mark's Jesus, is that Yahweh, Mark's Jesus, Hamlet, King Lear, Falstaff, Cleopatra, Iago—they are all more real than you are, whoever you are, and yes, they are fictions, but if they're fictions, what are we? Since they are livelier than we are, exceed us in energy and in dynamism, as Yahweh does also. It seems to me that—I mean he may just be not at all an attractive version of what Mr. Stevens wanted to call the supreme fiction, but he is . . . he's quite a fiction, he's very persuasive and as I keep saying in the book I wish he would go away. I don't like him. I don't feel anybody can like him. His famous definition when Moses asks him his name—his famous self-definition is ehyeh asher ehyeh, translated by William Tyndale as "I am that I am" and that's kept in the Authorized Version of the English Bible. The Hebrew "ehyeh asher ehyeh" actually means "I will be, I will be;" "I will be that I will be," or to make it into better English "I will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present," but I say throughout the book that also means "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent." And he is very distinguished by his absences, it seems to me. But if he is just a literary character—well first of all I don't recognize any distinction between literary and human characters; I mean I'm notorious for that, and why not be notorious for that—it seems to me that the sacred Bloomstaff, as I call him, is at least as real as old Bloom—Sir John Falstaff, of course. But not even kidding, I mean what can you say about the Yahweh of the J writer? He is endlessly memorable, he is endlessly unreliable. [Pause.] But he gets inside you. I repeat I would like him to go away, but he doesn't seem to go away.

  30. LQ: Why doesn't he go away?

  31. HB: Well, because I'm pretty sure he is our equivalent—I mean, our equivalent for him now is what our Uncle Siggy Freud called "reality testing" and the Reality Principle. Freud says that reality testing means that you have to "make friends with the necessity of dying."

  32. LQ: So he's the name of everything that opposes our will.

  33. HB: Yeah, he is . . . [Pause.] I think I remark somewhere in the book, with a certain amiable—I wouldn't say irony, but a kind of zest, that God had breathing trouble and this trouble created the world. And I think I remark something like, "Try to hold in your breath for as long as possible, and then just before you can't stand it any more, try to think something into creation, try to will or think something, and see what happens." Which always makes me think of Kafka's very grand remark to Max Brod, where he says, "We are one of God's thoughts when he was having a bad day." It seems to me he has mostly bad days. But since I don't think there's any distinction whatsoever between sacred and secular texts, there's only great writing and bad writing (or good writing in between I suppose or fair writing) then it's natural to speak of—in fact, remember what Blake says; he says religion is just choosing forms of worship from poetic tales, and then he adds—this is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — "Thus men forgot that all Deities reside in the human breast." But that doesn't mean that they don't reside there. And of course, this is now a very tricky business, because I'm not sure anybody—you're not supposed to believe in Yahweh anyway if you are a normative Jew, you're supposed to have Emunah, you are supposed to trust in the covenant with him, but he's never kept the Covenant himself, and I get awfully weary of the Hebrew prophets who are always denouncing the people of Israel for violating their covenant with Yahweh when Yahweh hadn't kept his for a moment, and always seems to be hard at work destroying his chosen people. He seems to resent sometimes, precisely because he had such trouble bringing them into existence I suppose and they are after all according to that story the original people that he brought into existence—

  34. LQ: The title of Frank Kermode's review is "Angry at God." Do you think anger is the correct word?

  35. HB: "Angry at God" is not what Sir Frank says. That's on the front cover of The New York Review of Books. If you look inside, Sir Frank's review is "Arguing with God," and I think that's what this book is, and an old Jewish tradition is an argument with God.

  36. LQ: What adjective would you use to describe your feelings about . . .

  37. HB: Yahweh?

  38. LQ: . . . God?

  39. HB: I don't like him. I repeat I wish he would go away. But somehow he doesn't. I don't think I have any nostalgia for him. I wouldn't dream of praying to him, but then I'm an Emersonian, and Emerson in "Self-Reliance" says quite wonderfully, "As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect." Now Christianity has creeds; Judaism doesn't. Islam has creeds; Judaism doesn't. There are now one and a half billion so-called Christians in the world and one and a half billion so-called Moslems in the world—those who have submitted: which is what it means, Islam means "submission." There are perhaps fourteen million Jews still left, so obviously it's a thousand to one. The fight got settled a long time ago, but on the other hand there are even more Hindus. Nobody knows how many people there are in India—they don't practice birth control there, unlike the Chinese who so rigorously try to keep their population from getting completely out of hand; there may well be more Indians now than there are Chinese—in any case, if you add up all the Indians, excluding the Pakistanis or the Moslem Kashmiris, if you add up all the Hindus and other modes of religion in India which are not Moslem or Christian, and you add in all the Taoists, Buddhists, and Confuciusts, not only of China but of the rest of Asia, and the Buddhists and Shintoists of Japan, there are more non . . . what are we to call them? Ultimately at the moment it seems to me that with great crusader Bush leading us there is a kind of religious war being fought between the Moslem world and the Christian world, just as there is obviously a religious war being fought between the state of Israel and the Moslem world, which is why Israel is sitting on top of that vast mound of atomic and hydrogen bombs in Dimona, but in the long run I suppose the religious future may well lie with the East.

  40. LQ: Um hm. Would you think the word "disappointed" would be a fair characterization? Would you say that you are disappointed . . .

  41. HB: . . .with Yahweh?

  42. LQ: Yes.

  43. HB: No. I wouldn't have dreamed of trusting him in the first place. So what is there to be disappointed with? He is, he's bad news, he has always been bad news. No, I'm not disappointed; I find him very fascinating, very interesting. As I say, he's even more interesting than King Lear, and to some extent at least—well, Mark's Jesus and Hamlet run almost neck and neck in interest. Each of them has incredible mood swings, as Sir Frank points out, following me in that part of his review. No I'm... [Pause.] Look, I've been teaching how to read for 51 years now. I've been writing and publishing criticism for 51 years. It seems to me that what I've written in this book is really just an extension of the book The Anxiety of Influence, which in its first form was written back in the summer of 1967 when I was 37, and actually contained a rather savage chapter on the Gospel of John, which I detached and later published separately, and now in revised form have put it into this book, so it's a pretty direct line from one to the other. I was rather amused, though, to see my old student Jonathan Rosen, in the review that appeared in today's Sunday Times Book Review, saying that: Well after all what difference does it make that Wallace Stevens strongly misread Shelley in order to produce characteristic Stevens, what matters is religious truth, and, you know, it is the truth or falsehood in regard to one another of, say, Christianity and Judaism or of Islam that matters. That may be Jonathan Rosen, but that isn't me, and that isn't in the book that he's reviewing. Not that I'm ungrateful for his review, which you know certainly shows a warm heart, and reminds me of a wonderful pun I once—quoting from the Hebrew—of an almost Lewis Carrollian or Joyceyan dimension, that I threw into an outrageous public lecture here on the relation between the so-called two covenants or two testaments. I also liked the joke, which I'd seen before but hadn't seen for a long time. It's an old Yiddish remark, that the Christians stole our watch 2,000 years ago, and are still telling us what time it is. I like that. It's almost as good as my favorite Yiddish proverb, as I translate it: "Sleep faster, we need the pillows."

  44. LQ: [Laughs.] I'm still fascinated by the question of your relation to Yahweh, as you can see.

  45. HB: Well, it seems to me no more or no less vital or of concern to you as my close friend or to me, as my relation to King Lear. I would have great difficulty in saying what my relation to King Lear is. I agree with Charles Lamb: you shouldn't even go and see somebody try and act the part, because it's unactable. What can you do with a figure who actually stares up at the sky and cries out, "You heavens, you should take my side because you too are old." That's so marvelous and I can't imagine an actor enunciate it. And I've never seen a Lear that worked. I think that trying to play Lear would be rather like having a drama in which somebody played Yahweh. Inconceivable.

  46. LQ: You do use one phrase here which struck me very much. I was fascinated by it. I'm not sure I can imagine you using it about Lear. You speak of your "waning skepticism" about Yahweh.

  47. HB: Well, I have waning skepticism about Lear also. I mean the difference is that I get fonder and fonder of Lear, irascible old creature as he is. Waning skepticism.

  48. LQ: Yes, that's interesting. It's a good surprising phrase. You expect the reverse.

  49. HB: I drag it in at the end of the book because I got very bored by Sam Harris. You know pragmatically there's no difference between Sam Harris urging an end to faith; I would say fine, Judaism isn't faith anyway. That's Pauline Pistis, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. No, the only question is whether you trust Yahweh or you don't, and obviously you shouldn't and can't and couldn't and won't, because he's bad news, as I keep saying. He's as good an explanation for why everything goes wrong all the time as we could want. And he's had a terrible effect upon the world. Because in a somewhat altered and perhaps even more aggressive form, he is the Allah, which is a variant in Arabic on Elohim, of the Koran, of the Recitation, and he utterly disappears in Christianity, where God the father is just kind of an unfortunate, weak imitation of Yahweh. [Pause.] Surely it comes back to Leibniz, doesn't it? Which is then picked up by the horrible Heidegger. Why should anything be, anyway, rather than not be? Since Yahweh puns on ehyeh, which is the ancient Hebrew verb for being. I don't know. In the end I suppose if I have to vote and go with any one, I go with Hamlet, who is a nihilist as I read him. I think Shakespeare's ultimately is nihilistic, not Christian, not even Hermetist, just nihilistic, but I don't know that pragmatically there's any difference between Yahwism and nihilism. You know: is this a difference that makes a difference? to invoke William James's, you know, quite Emersonian definition of American pragmatism. It doesn't seem to me that it is a difference that makes a difference.

  50. LQ: I see. So the phrase "waning skepticism" doesn't mean "increasing faith"?

  51. HB: No, there's no faith to be had anyway. Certainly, the only issue is whether or not you trust him. I don't trust him. He's not worthy of trust. He is very bad . He is . . . .

  52. LQ: You speak often of the Holocaust as—I take it that that for you is emblematic.

  53. HB: Oh sure. Oh sure, I mean Yeshua, if he was crucified, was one of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were being crucified by the Romans in those days. And the biggest single holocaust of Jews took place after Rabbi Akiba proclaimed Simon bar Kosba, Simon bar Kochba or son of the star and said he was the Messiah, ben Joseph, that is to say, not the Messiah ben David but the Messiah ben Joseph, the warrior who comes first. And that led all of the Jews in the world into a terrific rebellion against Hadrian, and millions of Jews were eventually slaughtered and Akiba tortured to death at the age of 95; Bar Kochba went down heroically, taking legions of Romans with him. At one point in the book I have a sentence that Jeanne, my wife, reading it, said "Harold, it shouldn't be there; it will get you into trouble." But I'm glad it's there, because you know the great phrase about Yahweh in the Psalms and elsewhere is that Yahweh is a man of war, and I think his most memorable single appearance, and I talk about it, in the Bible, in Tanakh, is in the Book of Joshua, where at one point Joshua—you know it is after the death of Moses and Joshua is in command of the Israelites and they conquered Canaan, and before a crucial battle near Jericho he notices an armed warrior. He doesn't recognize him, and he boldly goes up to him, and he says, "Are you one of us or one of them." And the fellow replies, "The ground upon which you stand is holy. Take off your sandals." At which Joshua takes off his sandals and abases himself because he recognizes that it is Yahweh a man of war come to fight in the battle of Jericho, which he does, as he also fights, you know, with the tribes that came to the battle in the first Hebrew poem that we have, the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5. So I have this sentence in the book: "If Yahweh is a man of war, then Allah is a suicide bomber." I think they are all bad news, Judaism and Christianity and Islam. But I wanted to make clear in the book that there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian tradition. That is absolutely ridiculous. And fascinatingly enough there are two things that I've said throughout my life when I've addressed Jewish audiences, say at the Jewish Theological Seminary or such places, and they always get furious at me. But they're both true. One is that nowhere in the whole of the Tanakh does it say that a whole people can make themselves holy through study of texts. That's a purely Platonic idea, and comes out of Plato's Laws. That simply shows how thoroughly Platonized the rabbis of the second century were. The other one, which I say in this book and it has already given some offense, is that in fact not only is Judaism, which is a product of the second century of the common era—and it's worked out by people like you know Akiba and his friends and opponents like Ishmael and Tarphon and the others, is a younger religion than Christianity is. Christianity in some form exists in the first century of the common era. What we now call Judaism comes along in the second century of the common era. Christianity is actually the older religion, though it infuriates Jews when you say that to them.

  54. LQ: I wanted to go back to your comment . . .

  55. HB: I think my book is good clean fun.

  56. LQ: Well I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted to go back to your comment. . .

  57. HB: But I don't think it's irreverent.

  58. LQ: No.

  59. HB: Because I think the category—you know any time you want to say that some text is more sacred than another then you've made a political statement, and I don't like political statements. It is utterly insane that by vote of the United States Congress, the Church of Scientology has a tax exempt status. That means that Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard, which I challenge anybody to try to read, is a sacred text, by vote of Congress. And of course what it is is very ninth rate science fiction. Though it now has distinguished believers like, I believe, Tom Cruise and—isn't John Travolta also a Scientologist?

  60. LQ: To go back to your comment about Yahwism and nihilism: What is—I don't know how to put this question exactly—but what is—why do you describe yourself as a Gnostic rather than an atheist or an agnostic?

  61. HB: Ah, that's what my wife always wants to know. She regards herself as an atheist. [Pause.] I don't think I am.

  62. JB: [Whispers.]

  63. HB: Bad wife.

  64. LQ: Sorry, what did you say, Jeanne?

  65. JB: I regard him as an atheist.

  66. LQ: I see. That was "I regard him as an atheist."

  67. HB: No, no I'm not an atheist. It's no fun being an atheist.

  68. JB: True! But what alternative is there?

  69. HB: Well, the alternative is to entertain all of these fictions. Remembering what Uncle Wallace taught us, which is that the final belief he says is to believe in a fiction, with the nicer aspects of belief, that knowing that what you believe in is not true. It's just imaginatively much more interesting to be a Gnostic rather than an agnostic, to be fascinated by Yahweh rather than indifferent to him. Walt Whitman liked to say that the United States are in themselves the greatest poem. Alas they're not, but it's a nice idea. Yahweh is a great poem. [Pause.] I don't think Jesus Christ is a great poem. [Pause.] I never quite make up my mind about Allah, though I'm fascinated by the fact that the Koran is the only book I've ever read in which every single phrase is spoken by God himself. It is the voice of Allah that you hear from the beginning to the end, supposedly by mediation of the angel Gabriel, being dictated to Mohammed, who however doesn't write it down because supposedly he's an illiterate, which baffles me, because he's a successful merchant, and how could you have been a successful merchant if you were illiterate, and couldn't read or write? But supposedly he memorizes it and then he dictates it—a very suspicious process of course, but then no more suspicious than the formation of Tanakh or the Greek New Testament. I don't say it in this book, because I had said it in the book just before, called Where Shall Wisdom be Found, in the chapter there that reprints with a few modifications a commentary that I'd written on the Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic Gospel of Thomas,—I ask every New Testament theologian I've known in this life the same question; I've asked the great Pelikan this question, at which he had just shrugged his shoulders and walked off smiling amiably: How is it that we don't have an Aramaic Gospel? Why is there no Nazarene Gospel? Even though we know that no one who wrote anything that is now in the New Testament had ever seen the historical Jesus, had ever heard him say a word, nevertheless, for any of this to make even an iota of sense, that person did not go around speaking Koiné, speaking demotic Greek. He went around speaking Aramaic. Aramaic and demotic Greek are totally different languages. The nuances of thought, expression and spirituality of one are not readily translatable into the other. How could you believe that you were hearing the ipsa verba, the actual words of the incarnate God, and not write them down and preserve them? And what makes me even more suspicious is, you will notice, as though they throw it in to show the authenticity of this inauthentic schmaltz, all through the Gospels suddenly you're thrown a phrase or two in Aramaic, including, you know, the last words spoken from the Cross. Why? And where's the rest of it?

  70. LQ: You say in the book when you come to the question of why Christianity has been appealing, I believe you say, it's the promise of the resurrection.

  71. HB: Well, even more simply now though: I was on Charlie Rose some weeks ago, and Charlie, I suppose playing straight man—a hard role for Charlie to play—said: To what do you attribute the fact that you've just spoken of, Harold, that there are a billion and a half Moslems in the world and a billion and a half Christians and only fourteen million Jews, how do you explain the enormous appeal of these religions? I said: Well on the one hand, in both Islam and Christianity, you're getting a great deal in exchange for very little. All you have to do in Christianity is say, "I accept that Jesus of Nazareth was also Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the anointed one or Messiah," and as a result you have life eternal. And all you have to do in Islam, as they say, which is what it means, is submit just to the statement that Mohammed, who is certainly not divine and doesn't pretend to be divine is nevertheless the seal of the prophets, the final kind of a prophet and all you have to do is submit to the will of Allah, and in return you get Paradise. And of course there's also the fact, as I said on Charlie Rose, that Christianity triumphed not just because of that but because Constantine the Great looked over what was available to him, including Mithraism and so on, and said, "The right way to hold the Empire together, the right state religion is Christianity." So he swung the sword of Constantine, and out went all the heretical versions of Christianity also, including the Gnostics and we got the Church, the Roman Catholic Church indeed. And then Mohammed, as the Koran makes clear, and all the texts after it—Mohammed is definitely a man of war and kept defeating the Arabian Jews and he defeated the various Arabian pagans, and after his death his Califs went on and on and on magnificently (ah yes, beautiful wife) magnificently went on conquering. So both Islam and Christianity triumphed by the sword, and of course then started engaging with one another—in the Crusades, in Spain, in North Africa, and at the moment, whether we like it or not, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and God knows where next.

  72. LQ: I take it that you find the Hebrew Bible not only aesthetically deeper than the New Testament, but also that you find it—how shall I say it—spiritually deeper?

  73. HB: The only thing in the New Testament that seems to me spiritually valuable is the general epistle of James, undoubtedly written by a disciple of James, that is to say Jacob the brother of Jesus, by tradition anyway the brother. And that is precisely what Martin Luther wanted thrown out of the Bible—he called it an "epistle of straw"—because it said specifically that faith is not enough, that only works matter, and it ferociously, like the prophet Amos and the first Isaiah, cries out against those who oppress the poor. I'm not sure how much spirituality really interests me in the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark—and a couple of early reviewers, in places like Kirkus and (what's that other one?) Publisher's Weekly, got very angry with me about this—and they both picked this up and a couple of reviewers I've seen since—where I say that in many ways the author of the Gospel of Mark reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, in that he writes very very badly on a sentence by sentence basis, and yet he's got a spooky kind of universalizing imagination. You know, he dreams universal nightmares, and it's very hard to get them out of your head.

  74. LQ: Like Dreiser, or Mary Shelley. Both bad writers on the sentence level.

  75. HB: Yeah. Oh yeah. Dreiser is endlessly fascinating in that regard. Sister Carrie breaks my heart, and An American Tragedy hurts so much I hate rereading it. But on a sentence by sentence basis they're impossibly drab and dreadful. And it's quite true, Frankenstein and The Last Man, as prose are very badly written, but they work, they work. And the Gospel of Mark I think is very badly written, by an amateur writer, evidently a Jew in Rome, writing at about the time, you know, word is reaching him that the temple is being destroyed and the city is being burned, and—it is very compelling. And then of course I hate the Gospel of John because as I say candidly in the book it hates me so I hate it. It keeps saying that the Jews are all the children of Satan. Now that's very interesting, in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, except for one brief, rather muted reference, I think in the prophet Zachariah, who's late, the only place where Satan enters is not as a fellow named Satan, a personage named Satan, but as the ha-Satana, the accuser, the prosecuting attorney, at the beginning of the Book of Job. But in the Greek New Testament, the only character who matters besides Jesus Christ is Satan, who is onstage almost non-stop. It's a Satan-haunted piece of work.

  76. LQ: Oh, speaking of being haunted, there's a beautiful passage at the end of the book, where you say "I very much want to dismiss Yahweh as the ancient Gnostics did, finding in him a mere demiurge who had botched the creation . . . . But I wake up these days, sometime between midnight and two A.M., because of nightmares [of] Yahweh" (p. 236).

  77. HB: Oh, yeah.

  78. LQ: And so . . .

  79. HB: He frequently looks like Uncle Siggy, in a three piece Edwardian suit, with a beautifully groomed beard and hair, and flashing a cigar at me. But Uncle Siggy—If asked what Yahweh looks like, I wouldn't think of Blake's Nobodaddy, I would think of Uncle Siggy.

  80. LQ: Ah. It's a figure of authority.

  81. HB: Yes.

  82. LQ: But . . .

  83. HB: Uncle Siggy is obviously a kinder and more humane personage than Yahweh.

  84. LQ: I think I understand...

  85. HB: All this is just confirming my wife's view that I am an atheist. But I'm not, I'm not. [Laughs.] How uninteresting it is to be an atheist. I mean, you can't make literature out of that.

  86. LQ: Are you being diplomatic when you say that? Do you think atheism is possible?

  87. HB: Diplomatic?

  88. LQ: Well, I thought when I read the book: I've always described myself as an atheist, but maybe it's dishonest, maybe I should say I'm a Gnostic. I'm angry with God. Perhaps that's Gnosticism.

  89. HB: Yeah, I think if you argue with God, or you're angry at God, if you have a grudge against him, then that's much more fun than just saying he's not there at all.

  90. LQ: Do you think genuine indifference is possible?

  91. HB: Well, remember we live in the United States of America, under the reign of W. the Great, who is on record as saying that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, and is sitting there in Camp David at this moment, telling his intimates that he's on a mission from God to install democracy in Iraq, and will not cease, you know, till he either leaves office or has done it. And I believe him, I think he is that crazy. He is an authentic crusader, unlike his Papa, who knew when to come home. And this is Jesus Christ CEO, you know this is the American Jesus of the Christian right. It's very interesting. There is no Yahweh in the United States. I mean God the Father is just about gone. There is of course the BVM, or as I like to call her, thinking of her manifestation in the Houston Astrodome, visiting the refugees there, the BBB, the Blessed Barbara Bush. That's our deity, or one of our deities. My wife is particularly fond of the Blessed Barbara Bush. I guess I like her too. She is very good value. It's fascinating that we have an American Jesus, and he's always been an American, not a Jew at all, but the Christian right has now so compromised him, that when Hispanics come pouring into this country from south of the border or the Caribbean or further down, like so many African-Americans and like so many increasingly poor whites in the South or even in the Midwest, they're turning to Pentecostalism, which is the fastest growing religious movement in the United States, which has nothing to do with Jesus really, or Jesus Christ. It's all about the Holy Spirit, which is pouring down upon them and they're all shouting and jumping with him. I'm not so sure that in the end this will not be a Pentecostal nation. In which case it's true pre-Scripture will turn out to have been The Crying of Lot 49.

  92. LQ: Where does the idea of the Holy Spirit come from?

  93. HB: Ah. On the basis of almost no New Testament evidence—a dove or two—Christian theology manufactured, needing a third person for the trinity, along with God the father, to finish Yahweh and Jesus Christ the theological God—they needed another entity, so they gave us the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. But he never really took root in European or Middle-Eastern Christianity, or in East European and Russian Christianity. It's here in the United States that Pentecostalism really took off, and it's burgeoning, you know, every day. The largest single Pentecostal unit is the Assemblies of God, and they just sort of surge on in number all the time. There are independent Pentecostal groups all over the country. I've got some former students in Atlanta, who shall be nameless—charming people—who are literary critics, teachers of literature by profession, and they are ferocious Pentecostalists. They—I attended one such service in Atlanta, and there they were all whooping it up and shouting when the Spirit hits them indeed and crying out in strange tongues and defying the laws of gravity, and it's all wonderful stuff. I'm not being ironic. So it was his mother.

  94. LQ: The kids are getting restless, so just one more question.

  95. HB: I know you must go home, because it's going to be 10:30 before you get those pussycats in bed.

  96. LQ: Ok, one last question then. To come back to this passage about wanting to dismiss Yahweh . . .

  97. HB: Yes. Who wouldn't want to dismiss him?

  98. LQ: . . . and being haunted. Now the question is, why do you think you're—what is it that—why are you haunted, what keeps bringing you back?

  99. HB: I read the Hebrew Bible. I brood about it. It's a very strong text. Whether you read it in the original, or you read William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, who between them write about eighty-five to ninety percent of what you find in the authorized version, and who are, with Shakespeare and Chaucer the four great writers of the English language as far as I can tell. Tyndale writes prose, Coverdale does Psalms and battle hymns and so on. Both terrific writers. And as I say, with Shakespeare and Chaucer, the most powerful writers.

  100. LQ: But you read the texts because you're already haunted.

  101. HB; Well, Laura, you reread King Lear and Hamlet because you are already haunted, and then you get more haunted by reading them. They are infinite. They go on forever, in the same way the war song of Deborah and Barak or the great chant in the Second Isaiah about the suffering servant, palpably meant to be the people of Israel, which becomes however in the Christian interpretation the suffering Christ—

  102. LQ: Yes. I just wondered if you wanted to pinpoint what it is—what it was—

  103. HB: Remember you have to get your pussycats home.

  104. LQ: Ok.

  105. HB: But go on—one last thing.

  106. LQ; One last thing—just if you wanted to pinpoint a little what it is that prevents you from dismissing Yahweh.

  107. HB: [Pause.] I think it's an aesthetic matter.

  108. LQ: I see.

  109. HB: But you know, how do we know what an aesthetic matter is? Its dimensions are endless.


1This interview was conducted on November 27, 2005 after dinner. Present are Harold Bloom, Laura Quinney, Jeanne Bloom, Daniel Bloom, William Flesch, Daniel Flesch (9), and Julian Flesch (5). The interview was transcribed by William Flesch.