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Omens of Millennium

Excerpts from two reviews of this book are also available.

Omens book cover

Elaborating themes first introduced in Kaballah and Criticism , Agon , and The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation , this "spiritual autobiography" explains Bloom's own religious identity as a Gnostic. The book traces the history of "Gnosis, or knowledge of the God within" from its roots in Zoroaster through its early developments in Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalism, and Muslim Shi'ite Sufism and then into modern expressions in imaginative literature. The books is organized by Bloom's argument that today's popular obsessions with angels, prophetic dreams, and "near-death" transcendence as omens of the millennium are actually debasements of ancient Gnostic images. His discussion of primary Gnostic texts restores these images to their ancient meanings and rescues their original spirituality from both New Age commercialization and orthodox rationalization.


The experience of Gnosis is a varied phenomenon: your knowing may be prompted by a moment of utter solitude, or by the presence of another person. You may be reading or writing, watching an image or a tree, or gazing only inward. Gnosis, though related both to mysticism and to wisdom, is quite distinct from either. Mysticism, though it comes in many kinds, by no means opposes itself to faith; perhaps indeed it is the most intense form of faith. Wisdom, in the biblical sense, is allied with the prophetic reception of a God who dominates our world, which is seen having fallen away his original Creation. Gnosis grants you acquaintance with a God unknown to, and remote from, this world, a God in exile from a false creation that, in itself, constituted a fall. You yourself, in knowing and being known by this alienated God, come to see that originally your deepest self was no part of the Creation-Fall, but goes back to an archaic time before time, when that deepest self was part of a fullness that was God, a more human God than any worshipped since.

Bloom's argument
This short book, Omens of Millennium, has been written in the ancient conviction that "what makes us free is the Gnosis." Spiritual freedom answers an acute yearning at the end of an age, even if one does not believe, as I do not, that particular catastrophes await the nation and the world in the year 2000 or 2001. Our popular obsessions with angels, telepathic and prophetic dreams, alien abductions, and "near-death experiences" all have their commercial and crazed debasements, but more than ever they testify to an expectation of release from the burdens of a society that is weary with its sense of belatedness, or "aftering,' a malaise that hints to us that we somehow have arrived after the event.

Whether we interpret them as God's messengers, or his warriors, or even his administrators, angels are meaningless apart from God, even when they are in rebellion against him. Palpable as this is, we are wise to keep reminding ourselves of it. To an atheist or skeptic, angels can have no reality, and yet the best of modern American poets, the unbelieving Wallace Stevens, invokes what he calls "the angel of reality" in his work. Avicenna, the great Persian physician, mystic, and philosopher of the eleventh century, transfigured Koranic angelology into a highly imaginative doctrine that has curious affinities with twentieth-century secular poets who celebrate angels, Stevens and the German visionary R. M. Rilke, in particular.

It seems initially odd, even to me, that a book about angels, the "near-death experience," and the Millennium should have to deal with the rationalistic and rationalizing Sigmund Freud, but the dream is an inevitable context as an analogue for the realms of angels, astral bodies, and messianic expectations. For me, and I think for most of us, Freud attempted a remarkably successful (though impermanent) usurpation of the dream world, particularly in the West. Ultimately, I prefer Valentius the Gnostic, Ibn 'Arabi the Sufi, and Moses Cordovero the Kabbalist to Freud as an authority upon the interpretation of dreams, but I believe we must go through Freud in order to get back to what he so persuasively rejected, which in the first place was the authority or value of the dream in itself. In some respects, the dream constituted for Freud not so much what he called it, the royal road to the unconscious, but a royal road away from the unconscious, in the older, primal, indeed Gnostic sense of the original Abyss.

The "near-death" experience is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being "embraced by the light," by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as "the astral body," "the Resurrection Body," or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a "near-death experience," it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream divination. As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.

© 1996, Harold Bloom. Omens of Millenium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.


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