- "More Life" and MoreHarold Bloom, the J Writer, and the Archaic Judaism of Tony Kushner's Angels in America
Even sick. I want to be alive….
I want more life. I can't help myself. I do.
I've lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but.… You see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live.Tony Kushner, Perestroika [second ellipsis in original]
In Genesis 32, Jacob—son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, and third patriarch—sets out with his wives, his children, and his entourage to meet his estranged brother Esau. On the eve of that reunion, by the shores of the river Jabbok, Jacob grapples with an angel—or more specifically, a mysterious man. Though they wrestle until near dawn, neither bests his opponent. As the sun is about to rise, the angel demands that Jacob release him. Jacob agrees, on one condition: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (32:26). The angel assents, and Jacob receives both his blessing and a new name, Israel.
Prior Walter, the AIDS-stricken hero of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, whom the author explicitly and implicitly likens to Jacob, also wrestles with an angel. And upon being admitted into the angelic council in one of the last scenes of Perestroika, the play's second part, he demands his own blessing: "more life." "More life"—as Kushner acknowledges in his notes to Perestroika (10, 154–55)—is a translation of the Hebrew word for "blessing" [End Page 576] taken from Harold Bloom and expanded upon in The Book of J, Bloom's attempt (with translator David Rosenberg) to tease out and interpret one of the multiple voices that contemporary scholarship suggests constitute the Torah narrative. Though courteous, this nod toward Bloom is enigmatic in its solitude, for it is the only one that the playwright makes, even though the imaginative fabric of Angels features the ideas of many great thinkers, including Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, and Ernst Bloch, to name a few. It is, therefore, downright peculiar that Kushner would mention just the seemingly minor influence of Bloom.1 But a closer look at the text itself proves Bloom's presence to be more significant than the gift of a two-word phrase. It seems that Kushner is indebted to Bloom not only for two crucial words—"more life"—but also for much of the play's religious mythology and, by extension, its portrayal of Judaism.
According to Bloom, The Book of J provides readers with glimpses of what he calls an "archaic Judaism" (Book 14), a freer, more dynamic cultic practice unconstrained by the rite and ritual of the temple-centered Judaism of Solomon, during whose reign the J text was putatively written. In what follows, I will argue that Kushner injects Angels with significant doses of J's (or Bloom's) archaic Jewish myth. Indeed, I will suggest that Bloom's J gives Kushner much of the religiosity of his play. But why Bloom? And why, especially for the self-professed agnostic Kushner, the archaic Judaism of J? The answer has something to do with Kushner's own conflicted relationship with his Jewish heritage. A close reading of the speech that opens the play—Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz's eulogy for Sarah Ironson, the grandmother of Prior's boyfriend Louis—yields some insight: [End Page 577]
She was … (He touches the coffin) not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place...