Easter is approaching, and, with it, come thoughts of the Resurrection, and perhaps, for some of us, thoughts of Creation, or Genesis, known in Hebrew as Bereshit.
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of a 40-day period when observant Catholics and other Christians fast and repent.
As I understand it, they do so to replicate and honor the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, where he warded off the temptations of Satan.
Forty, as we all know, is a number that appears quite a bit in the Bible. I have noted before that 40, arbaeem in Hebrew, symbolizes the endurance needed to pass a divine test. For instance, Moses spent 40 days and nights on top of Mt. Sinai, talking to God, while some of the Israelites down below started to worship Baal and other false idols.
Metrics, like the number 40, can have significance in the Bible, but the Zohar, the most authoritative tome of the Kabbalah, teaches us that, for the most part, numbers mean very little on this planet, except insofar as they have a holy or godly resonance, a point that I have made before.
Letters tend to be much more sacred.
There is a view among Jewish mystics that the Torah may have existed 1,000 years before the creation of the heavens and the earth.
And some Kabbalists believe, as per the Zohar, that the letters of the Torah, the Hebrew pictographs that open Genesis, may have created the world.
Of course, those letters or pictographs would not have come forth to create the world, were it not for the fact that God is the one who first uttered them, beginning with Beit and Reish, the Hebrew B and R, in Bereshit, and continuing to the end of the Torah and beyond.
I was thinking about the power of creation, words and letters, when I read recently that J. Hillis Miller, one of the leading advocates of Deconstructionism, had passed away.
I never formally studied Deconstructionism, but I am aware that it has sometimes been deemed a “nihilistic” theory in that it posits, to an extent, that the author of a work of literature is less important than the words within his or her text.
I can recall reading an article, a cover story, if memory serves, in the New York Times Magazine in 1986, when I was a junior at Yale, where J. Hillis Miller was teaching at the time.
The piece was headlined, “The Tyranny of the Yale Critics,” and it came out in February 1986, roughly 35 years ago.
I have not signed up for much online, because I am more than a little technophobic, so I often have trouble getting access to articles even when they are part of the archive of a publication to which I subscribe, like the New York Times.
But I was able to access that story, and I do have a pretty good memory.
That 1986 story in the New York Times Magazine was written by Colin Campbell, which happened to be the name of a student who was one year ahead of me at Yale when I was an undergraduate there. Some people in our dormitory wondered if our colleague was the one who wrote for the New York Times.
I suspect it was a different person, who bore the same name.
That New York Times Magazine cover story included photos of and discussions with many of the Deconstructionists then at Yale, from Jacques Derrida and J. Hillis Miller to Geoffrey Hartman and John Hollander, as well as Harold Bloom, who was not a Deconstructionist.
The cover story in the NYT Magazine even included an example of a Deconstructionist interpretation of a passage from “Paradise Lost,” an exegesis that was penned by J. Hillis Miller.
I have always enjoyed close readings of a text, and I do believe that, unlike numbers, which tend to be fixed and less than holy in meaning, words and even letters can have an infinite and sacred array of interpretations, as I mentioned earlier.
I also know that writers, from time to time, find ourselves to be the victims of irony. Sometimes, of course, irony is intended; sometimes, it is not.
There are times when language does seem to exert its own power over us, a view that would likely hearten Deconstructionists, like the late J. Hillis Miller.
But that power of language, in the view of this Bar Mitzvah boy, originally comes from God.
Many creative writers believe that, when they are writing a novel or a poem, or even imaginative nonfiction, they are channeling God or some deity, as Norman Mailer, among others, suggested.
Mailer was almost always having a good time when he spoke.
He liked being provocative.
As for me, I will stick to the Old Testament God as the one, besides my late wife, Barbara, whom I may be channeling.
Barbara, my goddess and Muse, used to remind me that the New Testament shares this view: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Barbara, of course, was right: God is the Word. And God is also love.
But I would add that God is also justice. God is in fact the highest practitioner of justice. And He wants us to honor Him and to remember Him.
He is the author of our lives, as well as the author of the Bible.
We need only recall that the first words that God officially utters in the Torah are “let there be light.” Only after God issues that command is there light.
And God wants us to remember that He is the one who created the heavens and the earth, that He is the one who brought us out of Egypt.
But as a rabbi once reminded me, the greatest thing that God ever did for us was when He gave us the Torah.
God gave it to Moses, as we know, on the top of Mt. Sinai. And Moses received it and passed it down to Aaron, the original high priest, who passed it down to Joshua, and ultimately to the rest of us, from generation to generation, all the way to the present day.
Every Bar Mitzvah boy and Bat Mitzvah girl is asked to recite, among other prayers, the “V’ahavta,” a prayer of devotion to God.
That prayer from Deuteronomy is often linked to “L’maan T’izkru” from Numbers, in which we recite, as Moses and Aaron did, how we shall remember the words and remember the commandments of God.
Language clearly can have a mystical and divine quality.
It can also have a hateful and deadening quality when it is spoken by those who worship Baal or other false idols. Those people, including demagogues of our own time, constantly flout the Ten Commandments. They live to lie, to cheat and to steal. They seek to divide us and to create chaos in the world.
Lest we forget, chaos reigned in the deep, before God created the heavens and the earth, and before God gave us the Torah.
Even if one does not believe in God, we need to live our lives, as best we can, according to His commandments. God is a merciful and forgiving God, if we are willing to repent and to atone through good deeds over a sustained period of time.
That is why Lent, which begins today, Ash Wednesday, requires 40 days of fasting and penitence, because, as noted earlier, that is the number of days that Jesus spent in the wilderness.
It is also the number of years spent in the desert by Moses and the Israelites.
God likes to “humble” us, as He tells us in the Torah. And we should be grateful that we have a chance to reflect, to atone and to do good deeds on this planet.
Getting back to that 1986 article on the Yale critics, I never did study with J. Hillis Miller, who soon thereafter left Yale for UC Irvine. Nor did I study with any of the Deconstructionists mentioned in that article.
But I did study with Harold Bloom, who again was not a Deconstructionist. Bloom believed deeply in the genius of individual authors, in the idiosyncratic nature of language artists and in their influence on one another.
He also cherished what I have called an “exquisite auditory aesthetic,” or what many might refer to as an ear for language. It is a gift that can only come from love, from years, indeed generations of devotion to God.
The best writers always hear the way language sounds. It is as if God is whispering into our ears. And if we retain the love of that blessing, then we will indeed remember the Torah and the Word, as well as the sublime in our secular literature, including creative nonfiction.
In October 2019, a month after Barbara, my wife, passed away, Bloom, one of my greatest poetic father figures, passed away. I wrote tributes to Barbara and to Professor Bloom, as I did to my own father, Bob, when he passed away in May 2020.
When I wrote of Bloom in 2019 and in previous years, I recalled that a teaching assistant from a Shakespeare class, when I was an undergraduate, had told me that Bloom had once been dubbed a “svelte 300-pounder.”
My T.A. did not tell me who coined that phrase, but it always stayed with me, not unlike the verse or prose of many literary writers, whom I admire.
As I jogged my memory in the past year, since Bloom’s passing, I realized that I still did not know who wrote that phrase, one that is apt, witty and brilliant.
I Googled the phrase recently, but the top listings that popped up seemed to be from pieces that I wrote about Harold Bloom.
I thought that perhaps it was Colin Campbell, who had referred to Bloom in such a clever fashion, in that NYT Magazine cover story from 1986.
But when I was able to access that article a year ago, and more recently, I could not find that phrase in there. Was I losing my ear? Was I going blind?
The Deconstructionists might say that it does not matter who wrote that phrase. But it does matter.
I have never subscribed on a regular basis to any daily paper except the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
But then I remembered that my Shakespeare teaching assistant had said that she thought that the writer who had touted Bloom as a “svelte 300-pounder” was a Princeton graduate.
That memory prompted me to check out the work of a well-known Princeton alumnus, who was writing during that period, David Remnick.
The editor of The New Yorker used to write for the Washington Post in the 1980s. And when I did a Google search, it turned out that Remnick had in fact written a long piece, not on the Deconstructionists so much as a profile specifically on Bloom in the summer of 1985.
Remnick’s piece, “The Critic’s Battlegrounds,” was published in August 1985, not long before my T.A. told me about that memorable phrase concerning Bloom.
The Yale eminence, arguably the world’s foremost reader, at least since Samuel Johnson, had a long, prolific career, dating back to the 1950s, when he focused his literary criticism on the Romantic poets.
By the time that Bloom taught me in a Shakespeare seminar in 1987, he was concentrating more on his theory of “over-hearing,” in which the Bard’s most sublime creations, like Falstaff, Rosalind, Cleopatra and, above all, Hamlet, hear themselves speak and then change their behavior. Bloom would later refer to this level of consciousness in these characters as Shakespeare’s “invention of the human.”
Bloom also wrote quite a bit about religion in more recent decades, including his grand theory that the J writer, the most literary and influential writer from the Hebrew Bible, was a woman living in King Solomon’s court.
Of course, Bloom was most famous for his theory on influence, in which he postulated in the 1970s that great writers creatively misread their literary precursors in an agon for canonical supremacy.
In my tributes to Bloom, I was not unique in writing that the Yale critic, to be somewhat reductive, had mapped the Oedipal complex onto Western literature, when he suggested that the best poets often try to kill or defeat their poetic father figures.
Bloom, a student of Freud, knew that the works of other writers can sometimes seep into one’s consciousness unknowingly.
I might add that sometimes one does not try to kill or defeat a poetic father figure. Sometimes, one builds on the past and transmits or transmutes the art of a precursor, not unlike the way Moses received the Torah from God and passed it down to the rest of us.
Similarly, as I discussed earlier, some novelists or poets sense that they are channeling God when they write their masterpieces.
So, who deserves the credit?
God? The writer? The Muse? Language itself?
When I recently found Remnick’s Washington Post article from August 1985, I had the feeling that my sleuthing would pay off and that I would discover the source of that memorable phrase.
Remnick is, after all, a Princeton graduate, which was the key hint given to me by my T.A. of long ago.
And Remnick did write “The Critic’s Battlegrounds” about Bloom, as I was about to begin my junior year at Yale, when my T.A. told me of the “svelte 300-pounder” description.
Last night, on the eve of Ash Wednesday, “in the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need,” as Bob Dylan once wrote, I read Remnick’s piece about Bloom, a god of literature.
Like Colin Campbell’s cover story in 1986, Remnick’s feature was elegant. And both writers made many wonderful allusions when discussing Bloom.
Both of them, for instance, compared the Yale professor to Zero Mostel.
In my pieces on Bloom over the years, I was well aware that others had made such a comparison. And I too invoked Mostel, specifically Mostel’s portrayal of Max Bialystock in the original film, The Producers, when discussing Professor Bloom.
Like many writers, who have written about Bloom, I also, of course, brought up Falstaff, Bloom’s favorite Shakespearean character, in my tributes to him.
And it would have been short-sighted had I not also noted in my pieces that Bloom could, on occasion, be as cantankerous as Lear or Yahweh, the Old Testament God.
No doubt, when I wrote about the great literary critic, I was influenced consciously by Campbell’s article; subconsciously perhaps by Remnick, who may have directly influenced Campbell; and most notably by Bloom himself and his own writings and performances in class.
But where was the reference to a “svelte 300-pounder”?
Late last night, after reading the pieces by Remnick and Campbell, I then re-read their stories. And I still could not find this description of the Yale critic.
Now, I am somewhat baffled.
I have to assume that I have not lost my ear, and I have certainly not lost my eye sight.
I am not Catholic or Christian, but I often feel guilty, which probably goes back to childhood trauma. Indeed, I often feel that I have to atone and not only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when Jews are supposed to fast.
It would help me if I could learn the name of the person, Princeton graduate or otherwise, who first wrote those words, “svelte 300-pounder.” Was it phrased slightly differently in the original material?
As poor as I am at technology, I tried a Google search isolating each word, rather than combining them into one phrase. I tried different variations on the expression.
But, “alas,” as Harold Bloom would say, I could find no such combination, except in my own writing.
Is it possible that my Shakespeare T.A. from years ago was secretly a Deconstructionist? Was she, in a perverse irony, implying that such words belong to no one? Could she have been a Bloom disciple, who championed aesthetics but who simply did not remember correctly the alma mater of the writer?
Could the author of the now-familiar phrase actually have been an oral storyteller, not unlike God, who passed down those words, which were received by my T.A., who then passed them down to me?
As it turns out, Kabbalah derives from the Hebrew verb, “Kibel,” which means to receive.
I supposed that I have not only received but also passed down the words, “svelte 300-pounder,” which have now been received by others.
In so doing, maybe I have, in a secular way, mirrored the journey of a Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl, who passes down the words of God that He transmitted to Moses, who transmitted them to Aaron, who transmitted them to Joshua and then to all the rest of us, who have read the Torah.
Just as God wants us to remember Him and to remember His commandments, every author want us to remember his or her words and to attribute them to him or her as well.
Of course, it is hard to make such an attribution, when my T.A. never identified this author 35 years ago, never indicated who he or she was. And it is even harder when the creator of that memorable phrase may be an oral storyteller or a journalist writing for a publication that I did not read at the time.
Let the record reflect that, when I have written about Harold Bloom and hailed him by that phrase, I have always put those words in quotes or have stated that he was famously a svelte 300-pounder.
And I always will do this.
But I would like to know who first characterized the eminent literary critic so wittily.
I don’t know for sure what Deconstructionists like J. Hillis Miller or Jacques Derrida would say.
What I will say is this: To whomever wrote those words, whether it was David Remnick, Colin Campbell or his doppelgänger in my dormitory, or some other fine writer or bard, you deserve credit for the glory of your expression, as well as the rest of the body of your work.
Like any author, including God Himself, you created that phrase. You created those words. You may have even written those pictographs.
And we should remember you, just as Christians and all of us should remember Jesus’ 40 days of sacrifice in the desert, and just as Jews and others should remember God and the V’ahavta, as well as L’maan T’izkru.
Whoever you are, you, the author of the “svelte 300-pounder” phrase, have my respect and admiration. And, perhaps, you will reveal yourself to this not-so-svelte, 200-pounder.
I salute you!
Shalom! And col ha-kavod!
Peace and all the respect!