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A cherub about the house

OMENS OF MILLENNIUM: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection by Harold Bloom, Fourth Estate pounds 15.99
Angels upon angels, angels everywhere, thronged the atmosphere ... And the most remarkable among them ... made 'mighty promises' as dream interpreters, prophesying the personal future." That, Harold Bloom tells us, was the state of affairs in northern Palestine in the 16th century when the Kabbalistic imagination had its most extravagant flowering. Fourteen hundred years earlier, in the first years of the post-Biblical era, things were much the same. And now, according to this extraordinary survey of modern spirituality, angels, these least ephemeral of images, which never really depart from the human imagination, are back in force, at least on the other side of the Atlantic. Angels are everywhere - on stage, in the movies (generally played by John Travolta), more tentatively in literary fiction. Sixty-five per cent of Americans believe in them; 46 per cent have their own guardian angel and often wear "cherub pins" on their lapels to indicate this.

Whether or not angels throng the atmosphere, they certainly throng the Internet. On a single Net search I made last month, partly because I could hardly credit some of this book's claims, I was offered no less than 100,889 current documents on angels, some of them in fact purporting to be written by Metatron himself - though I couldn't help noticing that this mightiest of archangels has trouble using his space-bar and, like a greengrocer, mostly indicates the plural with an apostrophe before the s. At the time, it seemed purely farcical. But when in San Diego two weeks later, 39 Americans committed suicide together, in the certain belief that they too were angels, shedding their "containers" to be reintegrated in the spume of the Hale-Bopp comet, the somewhat solemn and minatory style of Omens of Millennium began to sound more fitting.

The book's first function is a survey of not only the angels but of a whole range of phenomena which vex the American spirit in the approaches to the millennium - an epidemic of "near-death experiences", predictive dreaming, astrology, and millennial anxiety itself. Bloom is scathing about these obsessions, not because they are delusions but for an opposite reason - in America today they are trivialised, domesticated, commercialised versions of immensely old and puissant spiritual forms. Acquiring a guardian angel today, for instance, has become for many rather like acquiring a household pet, and Bloom compares the cherub which is more or less at its owner's beck and call, there to give him or her unconditional love, with the terrifying grandeur, ambivalent and in some cases dangerous, of the angels of early Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions. The Prophet Mohammed, vouchsafed a glimpse of the angel Gabriel, fainted dead away as a figure rose before him "crowding the horizon" and filling all space.

Despite their present debasement, Bloom is fascinated by the persistence and continuity of the images, whether they be metaphor or reality. His primary purpose, he says, is to "raise up and illuminate these appearances, in order to save them, by returning them to the interpretative wisdom of the Christian Gnostics, Muslim Sufis and Jewish Kabbalists". Otherwise, "we will drown in New Age enthusiasms and wish fulfilments".

The second and more tendentious strand of his argument now emerges: that these modern images are all fragments of earlier Gnostic forms - ie heterodox, "heretical", opposed to the normative religions. In a series of dazzling, sometimes bewildering explorations, he traces back, for example, the experience of predictive dreaming to the "Answering Angel" of the Kabbalah, to Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, Sufism and the Vedas, and on the way delivers a terrific cannonade against Freud, that arch-usurper of the dream's residing power. When he turns to the modern, or even modish, epidemic of "near-death experience" he argues that the figure of light reported by so many people emerging from an operating theatre is the present heir of the "occult self" of shamanism, the "Man of Light" envisioned by the Sufis, the Hermetic "astral body", the "resurrection body" of Origen, and so on.

The most surprising strand of the book's argument is the assertion that, for the last 200 years, American religion, even within the mainstream, has been gnostic in the sense that its belief is based not on faith but on "gnosis" ("knowing"), a private, individualised, elitist, intellectual process in which the self and a hidden, infinitely distant God acknowledge each other. There is also the provisional irony that America does not realise this. It is gnostic without knowing that it knows. The new information technology, far from being opposed to this ancient spirituality, has cross- pollinated with it. Angels, microchips, and the individual American's right to untrammelled liberty now form a powerful new matrix.

To this strangely unaware congregation, Bloom, in the final and most peculiar part of the book, addresses what he candidly admits is a "gnostic sermon". Piece by piece he constructs the essential gnosis for our age. To reduce his argument to its simplest form, as far as I understand it, he states that all the manifestations of the New Age - beings of light, alien spacemen, prophetic dreamers and so on - tended towards one image, in effect an immense, immortal figure, Anthropos, the true self within us, as opposed to the "soul" or psyche which has been foisted on us later. This immense being is androgynous, was never born, is not to die, is co- eternal with God, never suffered the Fall and has no reason to worship the dark demiurge, the false Yahweh, foisted on us by a priestly class and surrounded by angels who almost all, it now turns out, are not our ministers but our prison warders.

There is a magnificent scope to this conception - the spirit of man immortal, free at last, worthy of America. Oddly enough, on closer examination, it doesn't make sense. It is not quite steady, even on its own terms. Bloom explicitly rejects the Creation-Fall of Genesis as a priestly lie, yet states we are living in anguish, in a world of cosmological emptiness and meaningless reproduction, a nightmare of death-in-life. How did we get there? In a clipped aside, he tells us we were thrown there by the psyche, or soul, the "shallow companion to the deeper self". Yet he has already identified the psyche, correctly I think, as an "afterthought". Where did it get its power to dominate us? There is no explanation. And suddenly the immense edifice of the gnostic self, androgynous, equal to God, begins to look shapeless and to rustle with emptiness, like the polythene wrapping round, say, Nelson's Column.

It is strange that Bloom, a Shakespeare scholar for 40 years, should reject the drama of the Fall and the Atonement in favour of a static giant to whom nothing - except inexplicable nightmares - has ever happened. Hubris is the failing of those who do not understand they are in a drama, where things will out: when the Hale-Boppers (several of whom had already been surgically castrated) spooned poison and apple sauce into themselves in their plan to join the Higher Level, their fault was hubristic - not too little devotion to the gnostic self which Bloom espouses, but too much.

In the light of his final sermon, much of Bloom's earlier argument becomes suspect. Should he have glided so easily over the distinction between gnosis and the mysticism of the mainstream tradition? Is gnosis really to be compared only with faith, and not with a mixture of knowledge, wisdom, faith and love? Finally, are the angels, who have flocked through the art and letters of East and West for at least 2,000 years, really just the wardens of a vast prison house?

Jacob wrestled with an angel and emerged with a limp and a brilliant, ambiguous new name. This author has attempted to wrestle with all the angels and to give them a new name, but they have declined the engagement. Bloom remains Professor Bloom, and the sweet, sophisticated smiles on, for example, the West Front of Rheims Cathedral remain in the air, out of reach above him.