More Beast than Genius
Howard Bloom blew my mind when I was younger. It was my dad who sent me a copy of The Lucifer Principle, and I remember devouring it in a state of pleasant consternation. I was hanging on to some old ideas at the time, and Bloom’s book was just the gale-force wind needed to sweep them away for good.
His idea at the time was that the genes we carry are really our masters, and that all life forms are basically like bio-mechanical battlesuits manufactured and deployed by various competitive tribes of DNA, all battling it out in a free-for-all fight for survival. Furthermore, Bloom supposed, the sum of human and animal culture is but a proxy war in the same fight, with opposing memes battling it out for ultimate control.
With this theory, Bloom seemed to be explaining every conflict on Earth, from the Crusades to Rwanda to the Tupac and Biggie feud. He also seemed to be saying that conflict was not only inevitable, but a necessary and even desirable part of existence.
It could be that I was impressionable, or it could be that Bloom was right—I don’t know to this day. One certainly could take his theories in an ugly direction if one were so inclined, and I always knew that. Yet that was also part of the allure. Call it transgressive Darwinism, call it a justification for tribalism, call it The Lucifer Principle, as Bloom did—it doesn’t matter.
It was a fun theory to mess around with, and especially fun to bait my fellow pseudointellectuals while barstool philosophizing. I remember on more than one occasion drunkenly trying to promote Bloom’s ideas, veering from the part about chimpanzee warfare to the part about infanticide to the part where the Christian meme overpowers Rome in a blurry pastiche of half-recalled facts.
Now, after reading Bloom’s latest book, I finally know how crazy I must have sounded. Bloom’s The Genius of the Beast portends to be “A Radical Re-vision of Capitalism”, but really, it’s just a bunch of random observations and reconstituted histories presented in a bafflingly repetitive and disorganized way. There are so many things wrong with the writing and editing of this book, it’s hard to even begin to debate its premise, which, from what I can gather, is that capitalism is good.
It’s hard to form a better synopsis than that because Bloom buries his thesis under a mountain of weird and disconnected stories. He doesn’t even explicitly bring up capitalism until more than 100 pages into the book. Instead, he mentions a couple dozen economic bubbles, always in the context that it was a good thing they popped because they made capitalism stronger, but he never actually describes the system he is supposed to be defending until about chapter 19, which is only two pages long and is actually about the “Big Man Contests” of Papua New Guinea. From there, Bloom draws a caricature of J.P. Morgan’s biography and then moves on to a chapter about William Blake, crayfish, serotonin receptors, Frederick the Great and something called the Bharatanatayam Dance.
Just when you think the book is settling into a jerky groove, Bloom mashes on the clutch and switches gears again, this time telling part of his own life story, which is actually pretty interesting, seeing as he nurtured the careers of several of the biggest pop stars of the ‘80s. According to him, Bloom was in large responsible for the theatrical release of Prince’s Purple Rain, which is awesome and all, but what’s it got to do with re-envisioning capitalism? It seems like Bloom is utterly confused as to the story he wants to tell. In trying to weave together his own life story with those of Prince, Plato and the entirety of life on earth, Bloom gets thoroughly lost along the way, and never emerges from the bramble.
Even with those problems, the book might be salvageable were it not for some irredeemably bad writing and editing, especially in the first quarter of the book. An example:
“Could it have been a pattern built into our biology? A pattern that’s 3.85 billion years old? Or Older? A pattern we can see at work in the early cosmos? Could the cycle of boom and crash be propelled by the pendulum of repurposing? Could it be a manifestation of a search-and-create strategy? The fission-fusion strategy? The cycle of stretch out, explore, then pull back and digest? The cycle of reach out to discover your possibilities, then pull inward to weed out what doesn’t work and to create new strategies to cushion risks? The cycle of insecurity? Could it really be that you and I are part of a search engine of a universe probing her possibilities? Could boom and bust really be turns in the wheel of an evolutionary search engine, a secular genesis machine?”
Why so many questions, Bloom? A whole paragraph full? Will you ever answer them? Will anyone stick around to find out? Did anybody edit this thing at all?
To my eyes, Bloom writes like Timothy Leary trying to imitate Gertrude Stein, which is one of the worst literary styles I can imagine. He spends pages spinning yarns that are supposed to bolster his ideas, but then he presents those ideas as interminable strings of questions that never get directly addressed. It’s a shame too, because Bloom is obviously a smart guy with provocative and interesting things to say, and yet, even with over 600 pages in which to do so, he never gets around to making his point.