READING HAROLD Bloom's Omens of Millennium is rather like going to a cocktail party and encountering a well-spoken stranger who tells you solemnly that he believes in fairies. “My own religious experience and conviction is a form of Gnosis,”Bloom writes. Indeed? One smiles, nods, tries to edge away.
In the present circumstances one scans the book. Bloom, after all, is a Yale and New York University professor of literature and the author of well-regarded volumes of criticism—in other words, a big name in intellectual circles. Surely he has something interesting to say?
He doesn't. Unless, that is, one is interested in astral bodies, metatron, “the crisis within the Pleroma,”the Gnostic Anthropos, and the like. Bloom disparages New Age as a kind of no-brain Gnosticism, and undoubtedly he is right. But his own version is pretty brainless, too.
Worse still, he is bent on selling. “Gnosticism [is] the spiritual alternative available right now to Christians, Jews, Muslims, and secular humanists,”he says. The only thing missing from this hucksterism is a 1-800 number.
What do Gnostics believe? Bloom has the irritating habit of calling different things “the heart of Gnostic knowing,” “the center of Gnosis,”and so forth, with the result that it is difficult to say just what he thinks the “heart”and the “center”really are.
By common account, Gnosticism is a dualistic system of obscure Eastern origin. It exalts spirit over matter, viewing the material world and the human body as essentially evil. It posits the existence of a complex hierarchy of supernatural beings and embraces a fantastic mythology concerning the origin of the world. Manichaeanism is an offshoot of Gnosticism. So is medieval Catharism, otherwise known as Albigensianism. Whatever else it may be, Gnosticism is not a Christian heresy.
As a proselytizer, Bloom wishes to present a friendly face to the adherents of other religions. Even so, the mask slips now and then, as when he takes a shot at “the Catholic Church's long history of fraud and violence.”
His particular quarrel with Catholicism, it seems, is the bloody Catholic campaign waged against Cathars in southern France in the 13th century. And he is right— suppressing heresy by killing the heretics is inexcusable. Still, the Cathars are a less than appealing group. The sect was divided into an elite (“the Perfect”) practicing rigorous asceticism and the common mass of adherents (“the Believers”) who, as one author remarks, “lived without fixed rules of morality.”Their doctrine was dismal and life-denying.
Bloom's last—and, as he supposes, most telling— argument against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the problem of evil. “If you can accept a God who coexists with death camps, schizophrenia, and AIDS, yet remains all-powerful and somehow benign, then you have faith,”he says.
The problem of evil surely is that—a problem— which is to say, a mystery, impossible fully to comprehend. Yet, thinkers from Augustine to John Paul II have offered a hint, and sometimes a great deal more, of an explanation. It turns on such things as freedom, sin, the nature of evil as essentially privation (the absence of something positive that should be present), and the idea of co-redemptive suffering in cooperation with Christ.
Does Gnosticism offer anything better? Is twaddle about “the alien, or stranger God, cut off from this world”—who also, it would seem, is somehow or other “the God within the self”—of any real help to anyone? That's difficult to imagine.
In this age of relativist ideology and mindless toleration, when every system of belief, except orthodox Christianity, is culturally welcome, one violates the rules of politically correct secular discourse in saying Omens of Millennium is 255 pages of blatant foolishness. But it is. Early on, Bloom speaks of “aspects of the uncanny that now interest many among us.”I find it uncanny that many—or any—among us should regard this book as interesting.
Russell Shaw is based in Washington, D.C.