This brief essay responds to some points made by Harold Bloom in an essay published in the NYT Sunday Review.
Clearly not everything Professor Bloom had written was published. And what was published must be read through two lenses. The essay seems to have been heavily edited, probably by the NYT editor in order to prevent a backlash against Bloom and his critique of corporate Mormonism. That is my reading of some obscure passages, anyway; for the writing seems too disjointed, even for an ill and aged Bloom.
The critique, a basic refrain that 19th and 21st century Mormonisms are little alike, is hardly news. The latter is merely a corporate takeover of a successful but failing ‘brand’, which was then repackaged and sold to the same old customers as if nothing had changed. In reality, of course, we got high fructose corn syrup in place of beet sugar, and fancy packaging to fill in for the stripped out nutrients. Bloom doesn’t seem to be able to explain the transition, but like any serious reader of history and of literature, the transition is obvious. Indeed, he own reading, and misreading in the essay, is the result a certain way of reading that works with literature, but less so with history.
Professor Bloom uses terms from mythology, literary criticism, and Romanticism, in a way cloaking some phrases and descriptions, even as Isaiah seems to have done some centuries before. So when he calls JS a ‘trickster’, he doesn’t mean a ‘juggler’ or ‘fraud’; only something like the ‘trickster’ god, like Proteus, who shape shifts and morphs, now Enoch, then some other deity. Something of a favorite in postmodernism, which term rankles Blooms, but which literary trend he also embraces, the Trickster is a figure which Jesus seems to play upon in the Gospels, as well; most grandly when he describes turning life into death, and death into life, like Dionysus of the Vine. So, when he says “genius,” he’s drawing on an ancient tradition of the Geni, who like a Daemon inspires the ‘genius’ in a way the Muses do the artist or storyteller. Again, dual meanings. For typical readers of the Sunday Review, this sort of name-calling and seemingly begrudging complimenting of JS would offend neither their humanist pretensions nor their generally agnostic posture. But Bloom is no simple mind.
So, Bloom seems to be writing, as usual, two different texts, like any good gnostic-jew-mystic. For those who know, his claims about Joseph as Enoch, or Proteus, or Trickster, are somewhat prophetic; for those without ears to hear, he comes across like Brodie or some old Anti-Mormon. But he is a typical Jewish protester and preacher, not that different from Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Isaiah.
He’s wrong on a few points, and should know better. For one, no serious Mormon would regard the Jews as Gentiles, but rather of the House of Israel. He’s fond of saying how quaint it is to call him a Gentile, but he’s wrong, doctrinally, socially, and it is a feigned slight he could do without. He’s also wrong about the way Mormons depict Gods on separate worlds; again, a reading which may have been ameliorated by scanning what Jesus says about the contrast between Gentile and Christian authority. A god is a servant, not a ruler or tyrant, not part of the oligarchy, but found among the least, as D&C 121 makes absolutely clear. Granted, this may be a rarified reading, but it is demonstrably correct. And he’s wrong in using Orson Pratt to suggest that we are forming a Theocracy, as others understand the term. Professor Bloom unfortunately seems to have forgot his own principle of writing: that a form of a word doesn’t mean the same thing, regardless of context.
In 19th C. Mormonism, to be a god was not to rule over lesser spirits, as a tyrant omnipotent and unaccountable. Orson Pratt was among the most ardent defenders of democracy, the scientific method, and of freedom of speech. Indeed, in the Mormon Kingdom of God, Freedom of religion, and of speech, were the basic principles and reasons for its establishment; and I don’t know many theocracies which give gods a vote, but no more suffrage than that claimed by humans. Why not also quote from Brigham Young, where Freedom of Religion is the first principle of Zion, and a man will be defended in worshipping a dog, if he pleases?
The Bloom essay is typical of some of Bloom’s more popular writings, where the old curmudgeon wanders out too freely, while the scholar and mystic attempts to speak over the former. What is correct in the essay — that Mormonism more recently abandoned nearly everything it once called divine — is dragged down by what is misinterpreted, and misrepresented. Ironically, were Professor Bloom to have taken this chance to educate Americans as well as Mormons about how JS and other Mormons described the gods, and the way to join them, he wouldn’t be as much a participant in the Great Transition he laments by virtue of his misreading of early Mormonism, but may have offered a counter narrative to the new Corporate Mormonism, and to the Right Wing Politics it embraced in an effort to become “Christian”.