- Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection
This latest, intriguing addition to Harold Bloom’s prodigious scholarly output might be described as a book in search of a genre, as the narrative seems to shift constantly from one form of expression to another. First, confirming Bloom’s claim to be “writing spiritual autobiography” (p. 23), there is confessio. “At sixty five,” he is pondering his uncertainty as to “just when [his] self was born” (p. 15). Evidently aware of the dangers of narcissism, he assures us that “Bloom does not wish to worship Bloom” (p. 17). Instead, his “self” figures as only one of his “three separate but closely related quests”: knowing himself, knowing Shakespeare (“that mortal god” [p. 110]), and knowing God (p. 14). This emphasis on “knowing” is what makes Bloom in a very real sense a born-again Gnostic, someone who at thirty-five “got very wretched, and for [End Page 497] almost a year was immersed in acute melancholia” (p. 24) before being led through “a kind of ‘religious’ conversion” and “excursion into a personal literary theory” (p. 25) by his contemplation of Hans Jonas’s classic study The Gnostic Religion (1958). Bloom later offers an account of his own “near-death experience” (p. 133).
In other instances, the narrative shifts into prophetia. Bearing out the augural implication of the first noun in his book’s title, despite a disclaimer about his “not being a prophet” (p. 225), the author succumbs several times to a seemingly irrepressible urge to don the foreteller’s mantle, as when he declares: “It is a dismal prophecy, but 1996–2004 could continue to be the reign of Speaker Gingrich, and thus become a future shock indeed” (p. 33); or “Doubtless, another American religious genius [like Joseph Smith, Jr.] will appear, though we will not know her (at first) when she does” (p. 73); or “The year 2000–2001 will not be a comfortable year in the United States of America, . . . because there are extremist groups among the premillennialists, and their disappointment could lead to violence” (pp. 223–24); or “I myself prophesy that this 1:1000 ratio [of Mormons to Roman Catholics world-wide] will decrease throughout the twenty-first century (p. 224).
In the end Bloom opts for sermo as his preferred mode of speech, closing his book with what he calls “A Gnostic Sermon.” Unlike, say, the compelling yet nevertheless fictional Protestant Christian sermons proffered by the Reverend Thomas Marshfield in John Updike’s novel A Mouth of Sundays (1975), this is the real thing. Opening with a second-century Gnostic credo, Bloom preaches “to the unchurched, to seekers of many kinds, who are too lucid and spiritually mature to play with New Age and Woodstock toys” (p. 234). Peppered with quotations from such favorite Gnostics of Bloom’s as Valentinus, Monoimos, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, and Emerson (who would probably have been surprised to find himself dubbed “founder of our American Gnosis” [p. 243]), Bloom’s message is very much a protest against the acceptance by institutional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam of an omnipotent and benevolent God who “coexists” with all the horrors and miseries of our world. He appeals to those who may be Gnostics already without even knowing it—that is, those who “know” themselves “as having an affinity with the alien, or stranger God, cut off from this world” (p. 252).
In this book, when not serving as prophet, spiritual autobiographer, or preacher, Bloom pursues his primary double vocation as literary and religious critic. His ambitious aim is to show how four increasing concerns in our current culture are necessarily interrelated: angelogy (chap. 1), the quasi-predictive aspect of dreams (chap. 2), the so-called near-death experience (chap. 3), and the approaching Millennium (chap. 5). Finding the first three of these concerns to meet as a “composite image” in the fourth, he proclaims “the most authentic omen of the Millennium” to be “our emergent dream of a guardian angel of...