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Angels and Demons

June 19, 2008 By:
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When he's not investigating certain arcane wrinkles in the religious mystical tradition, Harold Bloom, that ever-prodigious man of letters, seems determined to corner the market on literary criticism through analyses of every conceivable genre. (He has made no secret of the fact that he's an insomniac, which helps explain the vast array of sizable books he's produced throughout his long career.) Yet now, with the appearance of Fallen Angels, published by Yale University Press, the prolific author appears to be revisiting some of his old terrain, but this time with an eye to cornering -- of all things -- the gift-book market.

In using the term gift book, I don't wish to demean the product, which is quite intriguing. I just can't think how else to describe this little volume, especially considering the way the publishers have packaged it. Its dimensions -- about 5 x 7 inches -- and its small number of pages -- 71 of them, with lots of illustrations, by the equally prolific and gifted Mark Podwal -- give it that sort of sweet, gift-book feel.

The only flies in the gift-book ointment, so to speak, are the subject matter and the amount of erudition that's been squeezed into so small a space. By "fallen angels," Bloom means those who have truly fallen, like the infamous Satan. And the critic has provided readers with an exegesis, albeit brief, as only he can do it, which means something that's subversive in the classic sense, and not gift bookish in any sense whatsoever.

In the end, it's an odd, but nevertheless captivating item, on any number of levels, not the least of which are the Podwal illustrations, the majority of them rendered in blazing colors made even more vivid by the use of a kind of coated stock that Yale usually reserves for its highly polished art books. The book's physical form seems to be at war with the material it contains, but readers can forgive a lot when provided with such insights.

In Bloom's estimation, angels have captivated us for 3,000 years, beginning in ancient Persia, with the fascination then being picked up and expanded upon by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and any number of other religions.

And more recently, as the new millennium approached, the fascination with angels only intensified, according to the critic. In the arts -- in books and movies, particularly -- it resembled a craze; but, as Bloom sees it, these angels were "soft," lovable ones, guardian angels, for example. In this book, he wishes to reintroduce -- to enthrone, in fact -- the satanic, dangerous angels summed up by the term "fallen."

"Demons belong to all ages and all cultures," writes Bloom, "but fallen angels and devils essentially emerge from a quasi-continuous series of religious traditions that commence with Zoroastrianism, the dominant world religion during the Persian empires, and pass from it to Exilic and post-Exilic Judaism. There is a very ambivalent transference of bad angels from later Judaism to early Christianity, and then a quite ambiguous transformation of the three earlier angelic traditions into Islam, difficult to trace precisely because Neoplatonic and Alexandrian systems like Hermetism get into the mix.

"To most of us," he continues (in another passage typical of the book as a whole) "the fallen angel proper is Satan, or the Devil, whose early literary history is very much at variance with his ongoing status as a celebrity. The book of Job, a work of uncertain date, seems to me quite as surprising a presence in the canon of the Hebrew Bible as are Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. Job's book begins when an angel called the satan, who seems to be God's prosecuting attorney, or accuser of sin, enters the divine court and makes a wager with God. The satan is one of the 'sons of God,' in good standing, while the Hebrew word satan means an obstructor, someone who is more a blocking agent or stumbling block than an adversarial force. Neil Forsyth, whose book on Satan, The Old Enemy (1987) remains unsurpassed, points out that 'the Greek for "stumbling block" is skandalon, which gives us not only "scandal" but also "slander." ' This first or Jobean Satan appears to be God's CIA director and becomes very bad news for poor Job. Forsyth traces Satan's downward path through the book of the prophet Zechariah, where Yahweh reprimands Satan for an abuse of power but does not remove him from his office as Accuser."

This is the way the book proceeds, with this kind of expansive scholarship delivered in the clearest, least cumbersome manner, whether Bloom is talking about Elijah, Lilith, the fall from grace or the angel of death. It may be that Bloom, in the hunger of his critical appetites and the awesome range of his learning, has created a new genre completely, instead of cornering one -- the gift book for the intellectual crowd.

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