lieve the J writer’s contribution should be BOOKS combined with other sources and read as a single, compound author. Perhaps even more maddening to both scholars and traditionalists is Bloom’s claim HAROLD BLOOM’S IRONIC, FEMALE, that most of the modifications of the J text were for the worse. The J writer, says Bloom, was an author of the stature of Homer, CO-AUTHOR OF THE BIBLE Shakespeare, or Tolstoy, and most of the changes were made to suppress the J writer’s vision of an anthropomorphic, "all-too- THE BOOK OF J human" --a god who bears little resemblance to the all-powerful, all-know- By Harold Bloom ing, completely transcendent God of the clas- Translated by Rosenberg sical Judeo/Christian tradition. Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, 340 pages, $21.95 "The real scandal was one issue only, which is that the as represented by the first major biblical writer is simply not the Yahweh of the rest of the five books of Moses or Torah or Pentateuch, and therefore not the Yahweh of the normative Jews and the traditional Catholics and Protestants and Muslims," Bloom said in a recent interview. Interestingly, Bloom believes a more human God would not be a scandal to many Bj Brett DelPorto Utahns. In fact, he argues, the God of the J writer is very similar to the God of . Bloom expounded on that theme during BEFORE A PLANT of the field was in Generally, that is. When it comes to de- a recent lecture in Salt Lake City--a lecture earth, before a grain of the field tails, scholars fight like alley cats in a gunny he characterized as "a very sincere tribute to sprouted--Yahweh had not spilled rain on the sack. the astonishing religious inventiveness of Jo- earth, nor was there man to work the land--yet And while this not-so-holy war has usu- seph Smith"--in which he read a chapter from the day Yahweh made earth and sky, a mist ally been fought by stuffy academicians gath- from an upcoming book on American reli- from within would rise to moisten the surface. ered at obscure big-city seminars, the newest gion. Yahweh shaped an ear&ling from clay of this round of debate is playing out much more "The achievement that astonishes me is earth, blew into its nostrils the wind ofllife. Now publicly in the pages of national magazines that I think he [Smith] had found his way look: man becomes a creature of flesh. like Time, Newsweel~ and U.S. News and World back, either by inspiration or by imagina- A pretty good opening paragraph--won- Report. tion-depending on whether you are a be- derful language, high drama. Some brilliant And the man most likely to blame for lieving Latter-day Saint or not--he had imagery. But, well, it needs something-- blowing the dust off these musty academic found his way back to certain elements in maybe a little better focus, perhaps a more disputes is Yale literary critic Harold Bloom. archaic Judaism that normative Judaism and reverential tone. Let’s see... How about: In In The Book of J, Bloom proposes that the orthodox have abandoned," the beginning, God created the heaven and the Bible as it exists today results from several Bloom said in the interview. "And that moves earth... Yeah. That’s the ticket. centuries of additions to and revisions of an me very much and makes me feel some affin- It may seem odd--perhaps even sacrile- original text--a text written by a single writer ity with him." gious-to imagine an ancient editor ponder- known to scholars as J or the Yahwist. When Bloom talks of the "real" scandal of ing the scriptures, crossing out this passage, By itself, this is nothing new. It’s been at the J text, he’s attempting to turn attention tinkering with that phrase, adding a word least a century since scholars first identified from his claim that the: J writer was actually a here, or maybe even rearranging entire the Yahwist text, so-called because the writer woman, perhaps a princess in the court of sections. of those sections referred to God as Yahweh King , who likely wrote in the tenth But scholars agree--generally--that a (sometimes rendered "Jahweh," which ac- century B.C.E. Those contentions, now final edit, somewhere around the fifth cen- counts for the "J" designation), while other deemed largely irrelevant by Bloom, are eas- tury B.C.E., brought several sources together sections call God by the name Elohim. ily the most talked about aspects of the book; to form what exists today as the first five What is controversial about Bloom’s com- in fact, they are probably what accounts for books of the Bible, also known as the Pen- mentary and ’s translation of its brisk sales. tateuch or Torah. the J text is their insistence on lifting the "I regard the question of the gender, the writings from the surrounding material to social rank, the geographical location, even stand alone. This outrages traditionalists, to some extent the historical circumstances BRETT DELPORTO is a reporter for the who believe the Pentateuch was written by of the writer, as being a very minor aspect of . Moses, as well as biblical scholars, who be- my book," Bloom said with some impatience.

APRIL 1991 PAGE 56 "If I had the book back in my hands, I don’t Moses is the author." In reading the J text, can see, with very rare exceptions, is just a mind telling you or anyone else, since it’s Bloom is, in his own words, "imagining an very bad literary critic." become such a red herring in the discussion author"--the process through which a rea- But it is true that Bloom’s career in Higher of the book, that I would suppress that [the der, perhaps only half consciously, constructs Criticism--the academic discipline of Bible claim that J was a woman] completely. It is a an author who speaks to the reader in a interpretation--is of recent origin. And he book about God and about the representa- personal way. might also admit that his subjective ap- tion of God and about the scandal of the J "Wordsworth said literature is a man or, proach, however well-grounded in deep text, which I’m trying to bring forward." we might add, a woman in this case or in reading, contains a few biases. One such bias That’s not to say Bloom recants the claim many cases, speaking to a man or a woman. was stated succinctly in his 1989 book Ruin that J was female. In fact, he says he’s more One listens for a voice... I do not see how the .Sacred Truths: confident than ever, on "The scandal is the stubb- "aesthetic or psychological" orn resistance of imaginative grounds, that the J writer literature to the categories of was a woman. For exam- sacred and secular. If you ple, he points out that al- wish, you can insist that all most all of the major female Joseph Smith found his way back, high literature is secular, or, characters--from Eve should you desire it so, then through Sarai and Tamar-- either by inspiration or by imagination, all strong is sacred. are stronger and more vivid What I find incoherent is the than the men. And Eve, he to certain elements in archaic Judaism judgment that some authen- notes, was created after tic literary art is more sacred , and "surelyJ’s ironic that normative Judaism and orthodox or more secular than some point is that the second other." time around, Yahweh has Christianity have abandoned. For Bloom, sacred texts learned better how the job can, and perhaps should, be ought to be done." read as literature. This is so, Those are strong and, he says, because the reasons for many, outrageous a certain text becomes sacred claims. One may wonder have nothing to do with lit- how Bloom can speak with such confidence anyone, from the time they are a child on, erary value. Such non-literary considerations about the gender of a writer who, if he/she can read a book without imagining an au- came into play in the canonization of the Old existed at all, lived and died 3,000 years ago. thor." and New Testaments. And, Bloom believes, it Indeed, one may wonder how Bloom or That may sound hopelessly subjective, also happened with sacred writings of the other biblical scholars can be so sure that but subjectivity is another charge Bloom is LDS church. there was a J text. For we must remember glad to accept. In fact, Bloom argues that a "I think [the sacred/secular distinction] is that the J text was not, like the Dead Sea subjective approach yields a much richer in- based upon a political, social, and economic Scrolls or the Gnostic Gospels, literally un- terpretation than any attempt at objectivity. decision. The Pearl of Great Price, you know, earthed and restored after being lost for For Bloom, objectivity is nothing more than of Joseph Smith has been canonized as a thousands of years. In fact, the J text is a a "fetish or an idol" of scholars who are Latter-day Saints scripture. The King Follett reconstruction based on the sense of Bloom, looking for the "lowest common Discourse by Joseph Smith has not been can- Rosenberg, and other scholars that there is a denominator"--something so obvious and onized. Both of them have, I think, some single, identifiable voice underlying the Pen- bland that no one could disagree with it. literary value, quite possibly more than the tateuch. "What is really hard to achieve is authen- Book of Mormon does. Obviously, it was a The notion that the Bible is composed of tic subjectivity," Bloom said. "It comes from a political or social decision on the part of the various documents--the so-called Docu- lifetime of deep reading and deep reflection. Mormon church to say that the King Follett mentary Hypothesis--dates back to the And, obviously, I ground my work on the Discourse is not canonical and the Pearl of nineteenth century when scholars identified only thing I can ground it on: my own au- Great Price is. But it does not make either one several different biblical voices. Besides the J thority as a literary critic and an interpreter of them more or less a work of literature." text, scholars have also isolated at least three of texts." In The Book of J, Bloom pushes a similar additional sources: the Elohist, or E, whch is As one might expect, not everyone is will- line. In fact, he takes it a step further, claim- identified by portions of the Pentateuch ing to concede Bloom’s authority, especially ing not only that the J text can be read as where God is referred to as Elohim; the not when it comes to the Bible. Some Bible literature, but that its author intended it as Priestly author, or P, who is believed to have scholars fault Rosenbergg translation as such. "Of all the extraordinary ironies con- written the first part of Genesis; the rough, cumbersome, and sometimes just cerning J, the most remarkable is that this Deuteronomist, or D, who wrote most of the plain wrong. As for Bloom, some have won- fountainhead of Judaism, Christianity, and Book of Deuteronomy. And, finally, there is dered what right a literary critic has to shoot Islam simply was not a religious writer," the Redactor, or R, who wove the various off his mouth about the Bible. Bloom writes. sources together in about 4-00 B.C.E. "Bible scholars ... have announced, ’Aha. (An interesting aside is that Bloom doesn’t With typical brashness, Bloom admits J is He is not a Bible scholar. He is a mere literary question the intentions of Joseph Smith. "I a fiction, "although I point out that it is no critic.’ To which I would say: What is a Bible would think that I would as soon question more or less a fiction than the fiction that scholar anyway? A Bible scholar, so far as I his sincerity as I would question [that of] St.

APRIL 1991 PAGE 57 Paul. And I’m not being ironic. Who are we And yet, it’s hard not to get the impression focus on Yahweh, the all-too-human God to presume to question the sincerity of fig- that he is, in some highly unusual way, who creates man by breathing life into the ures who devoted their lives to a spiritual deeply religious, or at the very least deeply adamah, the clay. Here, metaphors abound, vision and indeed accepted martyrdom for interested in religion. After all, this is the man and no doubt part of Bloom’s appreciation it?") who was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as for this passage is an admiration for the tech- If J was not a religious writer, then what saying he might have become a Mormon if nique. Still, Bloom hints--and it is no more was he/she up to? According to Bloom, J was he’d lived in the nineteenth century. He’s also than a hint--that the: metaphor is somehow a writer of great sophistication who wrote of said he views himself as a "gnostic," someone more than metaphor, as though the power Yahweh as a character in a narrative. The who, by the standard definition, attains with which Yahweh animates the lifeless Yahweh of The Book of J is jealous, impulsive, knowledge through a direct, intuitive grasp muck still moves within all of us, still fills our and given to random out- lungs in a way that is beyond bursts of anger, as when he our control or understand- almost kills Moses in the ing. It is that kind of a , desert for no apparent rea- one who blows life into our son. Yahweh is also bodies and renews us a portrayed as a prankster thousand times a day, it is who baffled the tongues of What is a Bible scholar anyway? that God, the Yahweh of J-- those constructing the and perhaps even the God of Tower of Babel at least A Bible scholar, so far as I can see, Joseph Smith--in whom partly as a kind of cosmic Harold Bloom would place practical .joke. He’s also a with very rare exception, is just a his trust. god who played favorites, "I’ve said that to ask me to preferring the fierce, cun- very bad literary critic. believe in a gaseous vapor, a ning Jacob to the good- floating spirit somewhere, natured Esau and the does not greatly impress me. inventive, exuberant Jo- I would think that the ques- seph to the reluctant tion of belief or disbelief Moses. rises for me because it’s like What’s more, Bloom asking me to believe or dis- contends that J used a sophisticated, unique of truth, generally religious truth. A gnostic believe in my own breathing, since the form of irony, something vaguely Kafkaesque is also, in the most general sense, "one who Yahweh of the J writer is nearly identified in flavor. Any visitor to the macabre world of knows," in contrast to an agnostic, one who with breathing. That is to say he is the God --a land where men are inexpli- doesn’t know. of vitalism and vitality, and it is very difficult cably transformed into cockroaches and So, if Harold Bloom is a gnostic, what is to deny that." .. ~’ hunger artists fast as a form of entertain- it, then, that he knows? NOTE ment--may find this to be Bloom’s wildest The key to Bloom’s thinking may be his 1. Harold Bloom, The Book of.!, 61. claim. But there is something to it. For what Bloom refers to as irony is not the the usual sense of saying one thing and meaning some- thing else. Rather, it is what Bloom calls the radical "incommensurateness" between hu- manity and God, but an incommensurate- ness that must sometimes yield to the inevitable similarities that result from men and women being made in the image of God. "On the one hand, it’s like the Freudian sense of the uncanny. It seems to be very familiar, something you encounter all the time, the way you encounter another person. Except you look at this person, at this per- sonality, which also happens to be the God of major religions--that’s the shock. That’s the o o O O 0~ irony of this writer. Irony may not be the right word, but I don’t know any other word to use for it." You wouldn’t expect someone who holds such views to be a church-goer, and, in fact, Bloom seems far from any mainstream reli- gion. He describes himself as a "heretical Jew," one who is "irretrievably secular" in his thinking.

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