To Make Is To Break

The second half of Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, his meditation on the figure of Yahweh, has as one of its touchstones Bloom’s insight that the title character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the only character in Western literature that we can believe is capable of writing the work in which he appears. This is a strange, or at least strange-sounding, insight, but some reflection would seem to confirm it. Leopold Bloom, as complete a character as he is, couldn’t write Ulysses, nor could Stephen Dedalus, despite the character’s genesis as James Joyce’s pen name. And though the Don is writing his own adventures in Don Quixote de la Mancha, neither he nor Sancho Panza could have written Cervantes‘s novel. Even Marcel, the narrator of Proust‘s largely autobiographical In Search of Lost Time, doesn’t become capable of writing the 3,500 pages across which he has developed until the last of those pages.

Prince Hamlet, on the other hand, possesses cognitive and imaginative capacities beyond those of any of the play’s other characters, and hints at insights beyond even those of the author. It’s not only that Hamlet rewrites and then has The Mousetrap staged in the third act of Hamlet, thereby determining the action of the last two acts of that play. This does allow Shakespeare a voice within the play to speak on matters of theater craft and the like, but the character he created to speak his thoughts actually knows more than Shakespeare himself does, as emerges at the play’s bloody climax. Stephen Dedalus plays with the idea of Shakespeare as Hamlet in the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter of Ulysses (unintentionally revealing the comparative weakness of Dedalus as Joyce), but it’s Harold Bloom, in Ruin the Sacred Truths, who fully grasps the way in which Hamlet transcends even his author. And it’s that insight, among many others, upon which Bloom bases the “Yahweh” half of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.

Bloom veers between Yahweh as a character created by the first writer of the Jewish Bible (to whom he refers, alternately, as the Yahwist or the J writer) and Yahweh as the author of the creation that contains the Yahwist and of the Torah that contains her work. He vacillates between aesthetic awe of the Yahwist and religious awe of Yahweh. But at neither end of the spectrum of his reactions does he ever entirely abandon either Yahweh’s divinity or his humanity. Yahweh is as powerful, imaginative, and capricious as reality itself, and yet he’s also the basis of our understanding of what it is to be human (which is yet another blow to the claims of Christ’s originality). This can all become a little disorienting for the reader, and the impulse to be reductive can be overwhelming. To his credit, Bloom forestalls all such attempts. He will brook no nonsense about Yahweh being simply an anthropomorphization of the forces of nature or reality, at least in part because Yahweh is compellingly more human than we are. He keeps the discussion from collapsing into simplicity by examining the diminishment inherent in creation (or zimzum in Kabbalistic terms).

To create anything that was not himself, Yahweh had to contract to allow space for his creation. This could be taken spatially to mean the opening of a void or abyss within which the creation described in Genesis (or the creation posited by the Big Bang theory, for that matter) occurred, but it could also be taken metaphysically. With the creation of man, Yahweh became a self in relation to others. Yahweh was no longer the whole of reality–there were now others, endowed with free will and acting against Yahweh’s intentions and without his knowledge (see Genesis 3 for one such instance). This would have been a profound diminishment for him. Elsewhere, following Bloom’s lead, I reductively posited another way in which the product of creation, and writing in particular, is inherently flawed. In his latest book, Bloom, who seems to have difficulty viewing any aspect of his experience as anything but literature, has merely extended that supposition to Yahweh’s authorship of our universe, so that not only is the object of creation flawed, but the creator as subject is harmed as well. Yahweh had to diminish himself to create our very existence, within which we suffer his absence. We are physically, metaphysically, and psychologically outside of Yahweh, divided from him, as he is from us.

Several times in this book, Bloom mentions that Buddhism escapes him, but it seems to me that he’s tantalizingly close to its primary insights. Buddhists often refer to what we think of as our self as “contracted”–the result of an illusory sundering of luminous emptiness into the dualistic perception that is the root of all suffering. The central Lurianic insight that to create is to diminish is, if not Buddhist, then entirely amenable to Buddhism. Contraction into a subject (or author) is necessary to the creation of an object (or character). To create is to diminish, to divide, to sunder–luminosity is obscured by creation. Usually, the creator will place himself on the fuller side of that duality, but great artists, like Shakespeare, the Yahwist, and Yahweh himself, will more fully empty the vessel of the subject into the object. Or, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the great artist, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” But even then, even with the greatest of artists, the art of subjects creating objects, even the most aesthetically accomplished of such art, can do no more than reify duality and renew suffering.

6 Replies to “To Make Is To Break”

  1. I won’t attempt to distinguish between good and bad art. First, any attempt to define good and bad art is too sweeping and subjective to be useful to anyone and would no doubt fail in all of the ways that such attempts have failed in the past. Second, to call something either good or bad is to reinforce duality, so there can’t be “good” art (or at least a notion of “good” art) that doesn’t reify the conceptualization that’s behind all suffering. After all, the concept of good has caused at least as much suffering as the concept of bad. And finally, to speak of art is generally to speak of products, objects, or, if you will, artifacts, as opposed to the process of expression. The product is whatever it is to each person who encounters it, and any such object has the potential both to become an object of attachment and to become a catalyst to awakening (though anything viewed as an object will tend to reinforce the distinction between subject and object). Which of those happens in each case is beyond the process that led to the object’s creation–that happens entirely within the minds of the audience.

    When I spoke imprecisely of art that reifies duality and renews suffering, I was referring to the process rather than the product. The process of creating something as an aesthetic object can do little but split awareness into subject and object. Creation creates suffering not necessarily through its product, but through its process; not necessarily for its audience, but for its subject. If that creation happens to result in sentient objects, then I would guess that they’d suffer as surely as their creator. One of Harold Bloom’s implications is that Yahweh suffers as a result of his creation of the universe, perhaps more even than we as the objects of that creation do.

    But that still leaves what I think is essentially the question you were asking, which–if I may take the liberty of rephrasing it–is can there be an artistic process that doesn’t cause suffering? I don’t know. The Shambhala community claims that there is, but I’m not in a position to verify or refute that claim. I’ve learned a little about it, and I can kind of see how that might work, but it’s not something I’ve really experienced for myself. It is something I plan to explore further, and if I arrive at any insights, I’ll share them.

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  2. Interesting. I have tended towards the opposite view: that creation can be a step on the way out of depression and loneliness.

    I heard a lecture last Friday in which the speaker discussed the (Christian?) view that love and other messages from the divine (grace) are transmitted from God through some human beings to others– they don’t originate in the human being, and therefore do not diminish her. His main point was that the love is always there, even when we fail to notice it, or look away from it– trying to use our own will to satisfy our need for love. We can be the vehicle by which love is delivered to others, or we can receive the love which is transmitted, but our efforts to control the flow (to satisfy our own needs and desires) will generally fail.

    This seems to fit well with the sense that many artists report– the feeling that what they create comes through them but not from them, and that it is a partially unconscious activity to create. I have experienced this in writing. I don’t have the idea and then write it down: rather the ideas seem to be formed in the process of writing, and I have to go back and read what was written in order to discover what I managed to think. I have also written one poem that I can remember which seemed to come from somewhere beyond me. I started with two words which made a slant rhyme, and my memories of two people whom I had met recently, and the poem pretty much spilled onto the page without much effort on my part, and needing very little revision.

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  3. to create is to diminish is, if not Buddhist, then entirely amenable to Buddhism.

    It is also the essence of Gnosticism. Bloom has elsewhere declared himself a Gnostic. I wonder if he touches on the Gnostic Christ (quite different from the orthodox ‘Redeemer’) in this latest book?

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  4. Interesting. I have tended towards the opposite view: that creation can be a step on the way out of depression and loneliness.

    I agree that the experience of suffering seems to be an inspiration for a significant portion of the greatest creative efforts we’ve received. But I don’t have a sense that creative efforts born of suffering tend to actually do much to ameliorate that suffering. The history of artists who suffered from some form of addiction, mood disorder, and other neuroses (a long and rich history indeed) offers no example of which I’m aware of any of those artists’ conditions improving as a result of their creative efforts. It may make their suffering more bearable, it may allow them to articulate their suffering, but I don’t think it actually makes the suffering go away. In fact, Rilke famously refused to undergo psychoanalysis (even with Freud himself) because he believed that his creativity was the product of his neuroses and he wasn’t willing to risk his creativity for the sake of his emotional health. He seemed to believe that the object of his efforts was real and was worth the suffering that he endured.

    I think that the experience of inspiration that you describe may be closer to a type of creative expression that doesn’t reinforce dualism. If the artist is truly open to the present moment and expressing what’s there, it would likely feel to the artist as though it were coming from outside himself or herself. After all, contemplative art wouldn’t be an expression of the artist’s ego (or self), so from the perspective of the artist’s ego, it would feel like it was coming from somewhere or someone else (in dualistic terms), as opposed to being simply what’s there (in non-dual terms).

    When I was on my retreat, we did calligraphy. It was a specific form of practice based on the meditative practice in which we’d already been engaged for five days. I haven’t written or said much about it, because there’s not much about it that I can verbalize. I just remember feeling joyous (there really is no other word) while engaged in the practice, but not in a way that had anything to do with pleasure (I’m sorry if that doesn’t make any sense). As we were doing the calligraphy, we’d throw away our papers before the paint was dry. At first, that bothered me, both because it seemed wasteful and because the figures were beautiful. But then I realized that the joy I experienced came not from the figures, but from the practice, of which the figures were merely an artifact. Saving them wouldn’t preserve the moment in which they were created or the joy inherent in that moment. To end our suffering, we have to experience the joy inherent in every moment, and we can’t do that by seeking to recreate other moments through their products. Or something like that.

    If I seem to be all over the place on this topic, it’s because I’m really working on one of the points of Buddhism to which I feel the most resistance. It’s hard for me to eschew all that I could accomplish to stop suffering. That’s not how I was raised. I was raised both with Rilke’s romantic notion of suffering and creativity and with some descendant of the Protestant work ethic. Not a day goes by where I don’t need to repeat to myself Thich Nhat Hahn’s clever little dictum, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” This just doesn’t come naturally to me.

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  5. Bloom has elsewhere declared himself a Gnostic. I wonder if he touches on the Gnostic Christ (quite different from the orthodox ‘Redeemer’) in this latest book?

    He does. In this entry and the other I wrote about Jesus and Yahweh, I only touched upon a few of the many themes in the book. Bloom declares himself a Jewish Gnostic several times here, I suppose both to separate himself from mainstream Christianity, which seems to genuinely offend him, and to separate himself from mainstream Judaism, which upsets him as well. (It also separates him from Kabbalah for reasons that are less clear.) He does discuss the Gnostic Christ, particularly as revealed in The Gospel of Truth and The Gospel of Thomas.

    If either of these entries or the discussions that have ensued are of any interest to you, you’ll love Jesus and Yahweh. (Think they’ll put that on the cover of the paperback edition?)

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