Kitty Licks' Review of Harold Bloom's The American Religion

By Kitty Licks

In his analysis The American Religion Harold Bloom describes the American religion as being gnostic in nature which Bloom understands as "experiencing a total inward solitude".

Bloom explains:

The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude. Freedom, in a very special sense, is the preparation without which God will not allow himself to be revealed to the self. And this freedom is in itself double; the spark or spirit must know itself to be free both of other selves and of the created world. In perfect solitude, the American spirit learns again its absolute isolation as a spark of God floating in a sea of space. What is round it has been created by God, but the spirit is as old as God is, and so is no part of God’s creation. God or Jesus will find the spirit, because there is something in the spirit that already is God or Jesus, but the divine shall seek out each spirit only in total isolation. 1

Bloom explains that concepts like “cosmic consciousness” are part of the “New Age” religion, gnostic and uniquely American in its conception. Though this “New Age” religion's origins are blurry, Bloom explains:

Somewhere in the background of the New Age is the lucid and beautiful anthology edited by Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. Huxley’s spiritual authorities were the great seers and mystics of the ages, William Law, Thomas Traherne, the Bhagavad Gita, Meister Eckhart, and Saint Augustine. In the contemplative brilliance of Huxley’s own prose as frame, the profundities of Law and Eckhart acquired fresh reverberation. By recourse you can sometimes construe a New Age passage and hazard some guess as to more or less what some California sage hoped she or he might mean. Otherwise, the student of the New Age must be resigned to that proverbial picnic, to which the authors bring the words (or some of them, anyway) and the readers bring the meanings. 2

Bloom continues:

Elevated consciousness would appear to be the common goal of all New Age Enthusiasts... A God immanent both in outward nature and in consciousness evades the intervening space of incarnation. Christianity therefore is mostly irrelevant to the New Age, except insofar as Christianity already has been modified into the American Religion, of which the New Age is sometimes a charming parody. One might say that the New Age is to the American Religion what Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is to Shakespearean drama: a great shadow’s last embellishment. The Mormon aspiration of mountain to godhead, or the Southern Baptist experience of an uncreated self within one, is replaced by the entertainment of the notion that one’s own consciousness is God (emphasis Kitty Licks'). And the Mormon ambition of populating a planet only with one’s own family, or the Southern Baptist passion for being alone with Jesus, is taken to the lunatic apotheosis that one’s very own spirit guide is built into the ecology of one’s own mind (emphasis Kitty Licks'). American Gnosticism and American Enthusiasm are splendidly parodied by California Orphism, by a metamorphic glamour that dissolves the last empiric constraints which the universe of death exercises against our drive for spirituality.” 3

Perhaps Bloom was unaware the international headquarters of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) has been in Los Angeles since 1920. Among the foundation’s goals:

To disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God;

To teach that the purpose of life is the evolution, through self-effort, of man’s limited mortal consciousness into God Consciousness

To reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.” 4

Bloom traces the Gnostic American religion’s origin to a revival meeting held by Presbyterian minister Barton Stone in Cane Ridge, KY in 1801. As many as 25,000 people, including ministers from other denominations, attended the revival that week, camping, “experiencing the ecstasies of Cane Ridge.” 6

Bloom quotes historian of American religious history Sydney Ahlstrom, “that these were rough people, profane, heavy drinkers, violent, and they had never attended night meetings before. Conversions and lovemaking intermingled.” 7

Bloom cites Stone’s description of the meeting:

There, on the edge of a prairie in Logan county, Kentucky, the multitudes came together, and continued a number of days and nights encamped on the ground; during which time worship was carried on in some part of the encampment. The scene to me was new and passing strange. It baffled description. Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state—sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered. After lying thus for hours, they obtained deliverance. The gloomy cloud, which had covered their faces, seemed gradually and visibly to disappear, and hope in smiles brightened into joy—they would rise shouting deliverance. (pp. 64-64) 8

The bodily agitations or exercises, attending the excitement in the beginning of this century, were various, and called by various names;— as the falling exercise—the jerks—the dancing exercise…The falling exercise was very common among all classes, the saints and sinners of every age and of every grade, from the philosopher to the clown. The subject of this exercise would, generally, with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead…

The jerks cannot be so easily described. Sometimes the subject of the jerks would be affected in some one member of the body, and sometimes in the whole system….When the whole system was affected, I have seen the person stand in one place, and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, their head nearly touching the floor behind and before…I have inquired of those thus affected. They could not account for it; but some have told me that those were among the happiest seasons of their lives.

The dancing exercise…The subject, after jerking awhile, began to dance, and then the jerks would cease. Such dancing was indeed heavenly to the spectators;…Sometimes the motion was quick and sometimes slow. Thus they continued to move forward and backward in the same track or alley till nature seemed exhausted, and they would fall prostrate on the floor or earth, unless caught by those standing by….

The laughing exercise was frequent, confined solely with the religious. It was a loud, hearty laughter, but one sui generis; it excited laughter in none else. The subject appeared rapturously solemn, and his laughter excited solemnity in saints and sinners. It is truly indescribable.

The running exercise was nothing more than, that persons feeling something of these bodily agitations, through fear, attempted to run away, and thus escape from them; but it commonly happened that they ran not far, before they fell, or became so greatly agitated that they could proceed no farther…

I shall close this chapter with the singing exercise. This is more unaccountable than any thing else I ever saw. The subject in a very happy state of mind would sing most melodiously, not from the mouth or nose, but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing thence. Such a music silenced every thing, and attracted the attention of all. 9

Bloom says that he sites Stone’s account “only partly for the fun of it. Barton Stone clearly was persuaded of the sincerity and authenticity of these seizures, and they retain a grotesque power.” 10 Bloom identifies “sadomasochistic sexuality strongly present in these phenomena.” 11 Bloom suggests what was born at Cane Ridge was creedlessness, the doctrine of experience, “as oxymoronic a phrase as I can imagine.” 12


The drunk sexually aroused communicants at Cane Ridge, like their drugged and aroused Woodstockian descendants a century and a half later, participated in a kind of orgiastic individualism, in which all the holy rolling was the outward mark of an inward grace that traumatically put away frontier loneliness and instead put on the doctrine of experience that exalted such loneliness into a being-alone-with-Jesus. 13 He cannot be known in or through a church, but only one on one, and then indeed he is known, with far more immediacy evidently than even heightened sexual experience can provide, more even than frontier violence can provide. American revivalism, with its endless Great Awakenings, is as recurrent a phenomenon as American violence. We don’t have crime waves any more than we have Great Awakenings; violent crime and religious revivalism are constant throughout our history. Crime waves are journalistic fictions, Great Awakenings are scholarly fictions, and both conceal the troubling near identity between the religion of violence and the violence of religion. Cane Ridge set the pattern of addiction in which Americans bear away the Kingdom of Heaven by violence. 14

Bloom spells it out for us: feeling the currents of life pulsing through one’s body as the participants ecstatically did at the Cane Creek revival can only be the expression of a seething sadomasochistic underbelly, an insidious impulse to up the ante of experience beyond the normal combination of sexual gratification and drunken frontier violence characteristic of those rough profane people. But this “doctrine of experience” is something more, something vile and dangerous. Combined with religious zeal this impulse emerges in the collective as a great violent thrust to impregnate the world finally with the seeds of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Harold Bloom tells us the search for elevated experiences of consciousness is the quest of the alienated individual; an attempt to escape the reality of existential emptiness by the narcissistic notion of making oneself God, separate from the rest of creation, disconnected from others. It is a long running gnostic heresy and leads to unintended acts of violence.

Interestingly in the East the search for elevated experience of consciousness is a normal part of everyday spirituality. Holy people living in God consciousness are numerous and revered. In elevated experiences of consciousness one knows himself to be like everyone else: an expression of God, part of all creation. It is a gnostic understanding that leads to practice of ahimsa: non-violence.

Could Harold Bloom's conflation of free-spirited sexuality and sadomasochism be an expression of his own character structure?

From Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism:

    In the case of orgastic impotence, only the psychic forces of defense can come into play, nausea and disgust at genital sensuality. Those defense forces draw their energy from several sources. To begin with, the defensive force is at least as strong as the genital yearning that is being resisted. And the fact that it has not been satisfied has only intensified it, nor does it make the least difference that it is unconscious. In addition the actual brutalization of sexuality in modern man offers some justification for the disgust at sexual intercourse. This brutalized sexuality becomes the prototype of sexuality in general. Thus, compulsive morality produces precisely that to which it later appeals to justify its existence ("sexuality is asocial"). A third emotional source of the defence forces is the sadistic conception of sexuality that the children of all patriarchal cultural circles acquire in early childhood. Since every inhibition of genital gratification intensifies the sadistic impulse, the entire sexual structure becomes sadistic. Since, moreover, genital claims are repaced by anal claims, the reactionary sexual slogan that a woman is degraded by sexual intercourse strikes a chord in the adolescent structure. In short, it is owing to the already existing perversity in the adolescent structure that the slogan can be effective. It is from his own personal experience that the adolescent has developed a sadistic conception of sexual intercourse. Thus, here too we find a confirmation of the fact that man's compulsive moralistic defense forces constitute the basis of political reaction's power. Ever more sharply, the relation between mystical sentiments and sexual "morality" is brought into focus. Regardless of the content of the mystical experience, it is essentially the negation of genital strivings. It is essentially sexual defense, and it takes place with the help of nongenital sexual excitations. The difference between the sexual response and the mystical response is that the latter does not allow the perception of sexual excitation and precludes orgastic release even in cases of so-called religious ecstasy.

    Perception of sexual desire excluded and orgasm precluded, mystical excitation is forced to effect a permanent change in the biopsychic apparatus. The sexual act itself is experienced as something degrading. There is never a complete natural experience. The warding off of orgastic desire forces the ego to form compulsive conceptions of "purity" and "perfection." Healthy sensuousness and the ability to gratity one's desires produces natural self-confidence. The defensive formations in the mystical man result in a pathological self-confidence that is rotten at the core. Just as the self-confidence of the nationalist, the self-confidence of the mystical man is drawn from the defensive attitudes. Even on the surface, however, the self-confidence of the mystical man differs from the self-confidence that derives from natural genital gratification. The former is exaggerated, lacks naturalness in behaviour, and is characterized by feelings of sexual inferiority. This explains why the man who has been inculcated with mystical or nationalistic "ethics" is so accessible to political reactionary catchwords, such as honor, purity, etc. He is continually forced to remind himself to be honorable and pure. The genital character is spontaneously pure and honorable-he does not have to be constantly reminded. 15

Dr. Alexander Lowen was a student of Reich. He could haved helped Bloom. Good thing Dr. Lowen's work continues.

Now I'm gonna enjoy this un-fucking-believable performance.

Whadaya think?

Are the members of Santana drugged? Potentially.

Aroused? Hell yeah.

Demonstrating an alienated disconnect from each other? Hum.


Got God?

1 The American Religion. P. 32.
2 The American Religion. P. 184.
3 The American Religion. P. 184 - 85.
4 Aims and Ideals of Self-Realization Fellowship
6 The American Religion. P.59.
7 The American Religion. P. 61.
8 The American Religion. P. 60
9 The American Religion. P. 61-62.
10 The American Religion. P. 63
11 The American Religion. P. 63
12 The American Religion. P. 63-64
13 The American Religion. P. 63
14 The American Religion. P. 64
15 The Mass Psychology of Fascism. P. 168-169.