Sunday, December 20, 2009

Harold Bloom, R. Crumb, and yet another surreal day in the literary comic book salt mine ...

(Above: Harold Bloom, doing his best to impersonate an R. Crumb-like face and form).

It being Sunday, and a slow day on loon pond - for example, the utterly tedious and predictable Piers Akerman does one of his standard, exhausting, repetitious and unscientific rants about climate science in Message on climate emotive, but a fraud, and managing to sound like a two bob watch stuck in the noonday sun, its mainspring and gears grinding relentlessly away - I thought I might indulge in a joyous bit of loonacy which reached the antipodes by snail mail recently.

You see, someone at the New York Review of Books had the inspired idea of getting Harold Bloom to review R. Crumb's comic book of the bible The Book of Genesis. Sadly this surreal exercise - the rough equivalent of getting Bloom to cope with Salvador Dali, or better still, Dali to cope with Bloom - isn't available online, unless you happen to be a subscriber, though you can get a teaser here.

And what a teaser it is. Here's Bloom's opening par:

Illustrating the Hebrew Bible has been a grand quest for painters, with Michelangelo and Tintoretto perhaps dividing the palm. A cartoon or comic book reduction of Genesis ideally should be the work of an unlikely fusion of Rembrandt and William Blake. That is not a fair criterion to invoke when considering R. Crumb's venture into the Book of Genesis. Staring at the women and men of Crumb's Genesis, I dimly recall someone showing me an issue of Mad magazine. To my untutored view the work of Crumb recalls that publication yet somehow also is touched with what I remember as the doughty proletarian style of Ben Shahn. At the least, Crumb's cartoons have the initial merit of strangeness in their portrayal of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the first book of the Hebrew Bible.

He dimly recalls once seeing a copy of Mad magazine? What a goose, and surely exactly the right person to tackle R. Crumb, so rich and replete is the Bloomster with cultural references, and a nuanced understanding of comics in general and R. Crumb in particular.

"Strangeness", Bloom immediately goes on to explain, is a very rich term and needs narrowing:

The people of Genesis are indeed picturesque but powerfully ugly in Crumb's vision. I do not regret the men but the women from Eve to Rachel, are so dreadful that I am made unhappy. They hardly suffice even if you try to defend Crumb's approach as one of healthy realism. What reply could suggest itself to me if a Crumb admirer asserted : "That is what they really looked like, back then"? There was no "back then". Genesis, like Exodus and Numbers after it, is fabulous tale-telling, and not historical fact. You can call it myth if you want to or whatever you think best fits the tale of the tribe.

Well it goes without saying even a Crumb admirer who'd just dropped a tab, or was experiencing an acid flashback to the days of Fritz the Cat wouldn't try to defend Crumb on the grounds of healthy realism, as if failing to understand that Genesis is a myth. Indeed only a fatuous Harold Bloom type would bother to erect such a flimsy straw man for the cheap and expedient joy of burning it down, but it does boggle the mind to try to explain R. Crumb's oeuvre as one of healthy realism. Finally I get to understand Fritz is just an example of hyper healthy realism.

But do go on:

The sages said that there were "seventy faces to the Torah"; they might as well have said seven hundred and seventy-seven. By "faces" they meant interpretations, but viewing Crumb I literalize their metaphor and wish he had indeed limned seventy faces. I may put it too drably yet I seem to see just two Crumbian countenances in his Genesis, one female and one male. That may be his dark wit, and I will abandon him awhile for the text of Genesis itself, and then for some personal history of reading the most beautiful modern retelling of Genesis, by Thomas Mann in his tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers.

And sure enough, Bloom does. Confronted by a Crumb he doesn't understand in any way, shape or form, so profound is the clash of ignorant cultures by night, Bloom proceeds to rabbit on about Genesis, and Shakespeare and Yahweh, before dropping in another aside on the ostensible subject under review:

Staying with Crumb's representations may not be delightful but his position towards the story is very refreshing. He is free of stale pieties and he properly has no use for the Priestly sentiments preserved in Genesis. The moral insanity of making divine justice an excuse for human suffering is alien to Crumb. Whatever aesthetic unease I feel in regard to his women is more than answered by his healthy wariness of Yahweh, a sanity I attribute to his graphic exuberance.

Hang in there, because Bloom is only just cranking up as the toke of whatever he's taken begins to kick in.

Crumb clearly regards all lingering faith that Genesis is a still-binding Word of God as so much contemporary madness and his drawing works as an art of estrangement. Probably, his illustrated Genesis would have aided me in my 1930s childhood, had it been available. An ardent Blakean when I was ten, I visualized biblical personages in Blake's mode, which had affinities to eighteenth-century parodic caricaturists like Rowlandson and Gillray.

It would have helped him in his 1930s childhood when he was in the grip of Blake? Had it been available? Why he's wittier than Gargantua explain the benefits of the neck of a goose (here).

Having hared off to his childhood, Bloom then seizes the moment to remember other bible comics, which leads him to an extended discussion of Thomas Mann, Yahweh, Shakespeare and even the homoerotic tendencies on view on Death in Venice. Before he comes to his idiosyncratic wrap up of what must be the most bizarre non-review of a work ostensibly on review ever to be published by the New York Review of Books:

I regret not being more gracious to Crumb, who has returned me to Genesis, to meditate again upon Yahweh, who for me is an endless cause of meditation as are Falstaff and Hamlet. Yahweh keeps assuring the Patriarchs that he desires a Covenant with them, and they are eager to trust in his word He may hold the universal and eternal record for untrustworthiness among all gods and examples of godliness. One could wish that Thomas Mann, and not the Yahwist, had been his prime author.

How to tweet this non-review? Bloom hated the comic, loved Shakespeare and Thomas Mann, meditated on Yahweh.

At the end, you're left wondering what bright spark at the NYRB had the bright idea of assigning the job to Bloom. Was it payback on Crumb, was it payback on Bloom, since the man emerges as a pretentious, uncomprehending, insensitive, and dare one say it senile old bean spouting irrelevant portentous claptrap as he diverges from the subject at hand to seek the safe old paths of Mann and Shakespeare.

Or is it part of the bizarre culture wars in New York, since Crumb is a favourite of The New Yorker and handing Bloom the assignment almost guaranteed a surreal culture clash? But Bloom puts in regular appearances in The New Yorker, and in the end you're left with the notion that it was a bright spark that went off too close to a can of hot gas. The verbal explosion of tedious guff that follows is something to read.

Compelled by the literary horror I'd just seen, I wandered around the intertubes to see what others saw of the inferno, now a little aged, but still like a heavily compacted dwarf star, not yet a black hole.

I stumbled on a review by Brad Jones, The Word Made Full-Figured, which rashly attempts to deal directly with R. Crumb and his actual work, and which produced this attached comment:

When I pulled my New York Review of Books (Dec.3,’09) out of the mailbox, certain it would contain a review of “The Book of Genesis” and eger to discover to which great man of letters the task had been assigned, I staggered, crushed by the dead weight of Harold Bloom ...

On reflection I realized that Bloom had seized the moment to commit literary suicide.

Then there was this brief note, under the header Harold Bloom meets R. Crumb:

The review is unintentionally hilarious. Bloom clearly has little idea of who R. Crumb is, and instead spends most of the review praising Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers.

Yep, hilarious is the word. And there were others equally entranced, as at In the Beginning, though I think calling for another magazine for brainy folk is a tad extreme as payback to the NYRB, even if McSweeney's just doesn't cut it.

Still, it shows the benefit of a paywall. Sometimes there are sights and sounds young, impressionable minds should be prevented from seeing, and that's what a paywall can do for you. In fact, it reminds me just how urgently we need Chairman Rupert to institute a paywall so that we don't have to read News Corp loons.

So many loons in so many parts of the world offering up such fun, and so little time to take it all in. One wag said he'd even managed to fall asleep standing up while reading Harold Bloom. Clearly he's yet to attempt to read Piers Akerman.

Ah well, it's Sunday, and true to our Judaic Christian heritage, we've bent the knee to Genesis, and to Yahweh, and Harold Bloom has unveiled his stigmata to the world, and now here's a sample of the female forms that so disturbed him.

Naturally I'm drawn to drawings of the talking snake, with bonus images of hearty incest, just one of the many crimes offered up by the good book as a way of life (click on for larger images):


  1. Seeing those rather cute cartoons reminded me of another incisive site, that being Ethan Persoff's "Comics with Problems" (

    Obviously fellow loons (is that the correct term?) might be aware of such literary, albeit graphic, gems as "#28: Homosexuality: Legitimate alternative DEATHSTYLE! (1986)". But it's best to be sure.

    (if this posted twice, please accept my apologies, I had to beat the 9yo Boy severely to get some bandwidth)

  2. Truthfully, I feel a bit bad for Bloom in this. While certainly a definitive old-stiff, he actually is a very knowledgeable guy in regards to modern/American religious thought.

    It's a bit of an obvious old guard/new guard situation, but, personally, I think the most interesting aspect of this is that the NYRB chose a relatively well-known guy like Bloom, who has no history with comics, to review this. You can call it a negative, but I think it's sort of exciting, regardless of what you think of the review.

  3. This may have backfired rather badly, but look at it this way:

    While comics have an increasingly healthy critical cabal watching over them, their arrival in the pages of literary criticism (why they're still treated critically like novels, I don't quite understand) is always likely to result in this kind of clueless, bunbling review.

    Bloom doesn't read comics. He probably knows next to nothing about the form, or its traditions. And it's obvious that he hasn't encountered Crumb or the 1960s underground comix culture before. So he really had two options - bone up on comics culture, history and form; or wing it.

    He winged it. But bear in mind that this is how most people would approach a comic book, even now. With no frames of reference and only literary and cinematic references to fall back on. Honestly, I'm kind of glad that Bloom has now encountered comics and didn't (seem to) hate it. Maybe now he'll be more inclined to explore the rest.


Comments older than two days are moderated and there will be a delay in publishing them.