In an early chapter in this exploration of wisdom, Harold Bloom makes a passing reference to life-threatening “medical ordeals” he has recently survived. Elsewhere he mentions having been at “the gates of death.” Although Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? is not at all an autobiography, it does seem to spring from a very personal source, out of “personal need,” as Bloom himself puts it on the opening page, “reflecting a quest for sagacity that might solace and clarify the traumas of aging, …illness, and …loss.”
The notion of loss seems especially relevant to Bloom; several of the wisdom writers whom he examines in this book, including Samuel Johnson, Marcel Proust, and the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, focus on it and teach acceptance in the face of it.
Acceptance of loss is only one piece of wisdom to be found in this book. In nine chapters focusing on sixteen writers or their works, Bloom identifies several different pieces of wisdom, some of them contradicting each other, some of which he likes better than others. By the end, therefore, the reader is a bit uncertain about what exactly wisdom is for Bloom, and perhaps that is part of Bloom's point: that wisdom is as various and contradictory as life itself.
Bloom begins by examining the biblical Book of Job and finds a harsh, even wicked wisdom in its depiction of the suffering the pious Job is forced to endure so that God can prove a point to Satan. For Bloom, the wisdom that emerges from the Book of Job is that God has the power to inflict suffering and does not care if a good man suffers as a result. The lesson of the book thus seems to be that one should fear God, a lesson Bloom finds difficult to accept.
Bloom much prefers the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, even though it is gloomy in its own way. The Preacher's wisdom in Ecclesiastes is that all is vanity: Everything passes away, dust returns to dust, and the spirit returns to God. This is “the wisdom of annihilation,” Bloom says, and he is drawn to it even though, especially now that he has entered his seventies, he says he cannot read it without feeling a chill.
Moving on from the Bible, Bloom then produces a long, odd chapter devoted to arguing with Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who wanted to ban poets from the Utopia he described in Politeia (c. 388-368 b.c.e.;Republic, 1701). Plato's desire to ban the poets troubles Bloom because Bloom sees much wisdom in Plato (though he never exactly explains what that wisdom might be) and yet he is very much devoted to poetry of the sort with which Plato wants to do away.
For Bloom, there is more wisdom in poets such as Homer and William Shakespeare than in philosophers such as Plato, and he blames Plato for recent developments in the universities, where he sees Plato's heirs, the postmodernist theorists whom he calls the “commissars of Resentment,” attempting to undermine the Western literary tradition.
Bloom is very much devoted to the Western literary tradition and more generally to Western civilization as revealed in its best-known books, from the Bible through the works of Shakespeare, Proust, and Sigmund Freud. It is noteworthy that in this study of wisdom Bloom looks only to books, and only books in the Western tradition. He does not seek wisdom in Nature or in Heaven or in the streets. He also does not seek it from non-Western sources or from the writings of women. Every piece of wisdom writing he examines comes from a male, Western writer.
It is almost as if Bloom is deliberately thumbing his nose at the latest academic fashions, such as feminism, neohistoricism, and cultural and postcolonial studies, casting himself as an old curmudgeon defending old-fashioned views against those who would undermine the Western tradition. He seems committed to ignoring attempts to move beyond the Western tradition. Thus, though he explores the renunciation of desire in the works of Johann von Goethe, he says nothing of the similar sort of renunciation found in Buddhism, nor does he explore any wisdom that might be found in Islam or Hinduism.
For that matter, he devotes very little attention to Christianity. Feeling this lack, he adds a final chapter on Saint Augustine, but it is a very short chapter, and the only wisdom he can find in Augustine is the view that reading is important to spiritual development. This is hardly what one might think of as an essential aspect of Christianity—but it is very much in line with Bloom's devotion to books.
The one other quasi-Christian work Bloom looks at is the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which he sees as an expression less of traditional Christianity than of gnosticism, the ancient mystical philosophy devoted to secret knowledge and transcending...
(The entire section is 1944 words.)