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Reflections on "The Anxiety of Influence"


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Posted

A few days ago, I finished reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. I really have no reason to write a finished essay on it, but :davidm: keeps bugging me to post stuff :whatever: , so I thought I’d share some of my notes here (edited so as to be intelligible), and perhaps spark some interesting discussions/digressions/etc.

The book’s full title is The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, and although it doesn’t have the same popularity today as it did 40 years ago, when it was published, it has altered the practice of criticism in America enough to be considered a classic. Bloom’s book proposes a system for interpreting poetry based on a poet’s relation to his or her predecessors—or, in practice, the poem’s relation to earlier poems— in terms of a struggle for dominance analogous to Freudian Oedipal relations. In three words: kill your predecessor, marry the muse.

I don’t get the impression that Bloom’s theory is currently in favor with significant critical schools or poets (for a given value of ‘significant’), but it is quite common to find relationships between poets expressed in genealogical terms. Even if Bloom wasn’t the first to do so, his book has probably influenced this practice, even for people who haven’t read it. At any rate, it has managed to win over a fair number of critics.

As for poets, they seem to either ignore it, since it is incapable of helping anyone write better, or to loathe it for excluding their favorite poets from the Western Canon, accusing their preferred critical theory of resentment, and/or general pomposity. Poets-as-poets are Harold Bloom’s favorite subject, but they are clearly not his target audience. :heh:

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Posted (edited)

Before I start yammering about Harold Bloom's Anxiety, I should preface this by talking about a personal issue with philosophers.

For a long time I wondered why the most original thinkers in history were also the worst scholars - by scholar I mean fair and charitable to the other thinkers before them. I asked a couple of professors why this was the case, why Heidegger "misread" Nietzsche as the Last Metaphysician, and the answers were somewhat dissatisfactory - that he was too original a thinker to not read himself into the previous great, etc.

After Bloom's conception of "misreading," I found a reason to dump the ideal of an objective scholar and go full hog with the artist or poetic view.

According to Bloom, poetic influence was always a misreading of the preceding poet, a creative correction that is little more than a misrepresentation. :cheers:

Meaning is based on contingency, rather than some essential and objective truth. There's no divine self or divine reality, self-knowledge is not a process of discovery - it's a creative process. The strong poet's language is new metaphor, contingent upon the old. Contingency allows for creation, freedom and liberal culture.

In other words - the more accurate your reading of a philosopher or a poet, the less original of a thinker or creative a poet you are yourself. :deal:

Edited by The Heretic
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Posted

:wave::heretic: I was hoping you’d stop by, since I recall your having mentioned the book in passing a while back. I’m especially glad since you seem to be on Bloom’s wavelength, and can perhaps convince me that he isn’t quite as perverse as my first impression has led me to believe. :twisted: (Although Bloom would probably consider that a compliment. :scratch: )

I found Bloom’s assertion that misreading is necessary to be dubious. That something you could call an ‘anxiety of influence’ has existed among poets from the Romantics onward is impossible to deny if you’ve spent time reading them, and it does indeed seem to be an even larger concern for contemporary poets who have that much more history behind them. But I see no reason to consider it necessary.

Bloom writes that it is “the realization that [the poet] has failed to create himself” that leads to anxiety, thus requiring the misreading of those poets who helped to shape him. But to think that it’s possible to be entirely self-created is an error—possibly an error arising out of solipsism, which Bloom also feels to be necessary, and feels so strongly that he never attempts to offer his readers justification. All I can say is that I have never felt this necessity, and that when I first read Goethe’s statement that everything great had already been thought, and that it only remained to think it again, the fact that others felt otherwise ceased to bother me. :lol:

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Posted

The Anxiety of Influence was most interesting to me as an experiment in finding the limits at which poetry and its history cease to make sense as self-contained. Bloom’s hypothesis is the radical one that poetry is entirely self-contained; there is nowhere for poetry to come from except for other poets.

His approach is the opposite of that taken by critical schools that completely reduce poetry to something socioeconomic, cultural, or psychological—but it may be just as reductive. What Bloom’s criticism reduces poetry to is something he calls “the True Subject,” “imaginative identity” or “the poetic self”. He doesn’t actually explain the significance of these terms, and as he is often takes his metaphors from myth without making it clear what they are metaphors for, it ends up sounding rather mystical.

Bloom did clearly state that his study of influence did not involve tracing the use of themes and imagery from one generation to the next, or comparing their use in poets who are or were contemporaries. He even seemed contemptuous of the suggestion, implying that he was studying something deeper and more important. But I would much rather have that sort of criticism, and I don’t see how Bloom could practice his without recourse to those methods. :scratch:

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Posted

Speaking as someone ignorant of poetry, but very cognizant of Philosophy Proper, which is the entire history of Philosophy itself, Bloom's view of Poetry Proper is a very philosophical take.

While it is indeed only fair to avoid from reducing poetry to non-poetic dimensions, I'm not quite sure how much influence poetry has had on the poets, inasmuch philosophy is almost a hermetic discipline that necessarily requires its practitioners to be students of the history of Philosophy.

Even the analytic thinkers of the 20th century in their ahistorical bent were trained in a certain framework that allowed a number of canonical thinkers.

Poetry on the other hand doesn't require such academic backing that conditions the practitioners with a history of poetry. :noidea:

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Posted (edited)

There isn’t any way to learn to write poetry that doesn’t involve exposure to other peoples’ poetry. In the West, this has usually meant exposure to your contemporaries’ poetry, to the verse that was popular and admired, and to ancient Greek and Roman poets. You could only innovate as much as your readers could tolerate, if you wanted them to remain your readers.

That only implies that you have to be a student of poetry, rather than a student of the history of poetry, but the situation is a little more complicated now. There is no poetry that is both contemporary and widely-read, and most people will never encounter ‘literary’ poetry outside of an academic setting. Your readers are going to be critics and other people with degrees in literature, and I’m sure the decisive question for many poets is: do you want to be less educated than your readers?

In this climate, it is even harder to be avant-garde than to be traditional if you aren’t familiar with the history of poetry since the Renaissance. The people who are most likely to read your work tend to see novelty as the first requirement of a good poem (and often the last requirement, too). They will notice every echo of a past poet, and while they value intentional references, only saying what has been said before is different matter. In practice, it is much easier to accidentally approximate a poem you haven’t read than one you have: an education in the history of poetry teaches, among other things, how not to write.

(Of course, there are other reasons to study the history of poetry—such as trying to figure out how the contemporary scene got to be so ridiculous. :doh: )

Bloom would consider all of this perfectly natural, even necessary, for an art with so much history behind it. I think he’s wrong, precisely because of this:

Poetry on the other hand doesn't require such academic backing that conditions the practitioners with a history of poetry. :noidea:

Poetry doesn’t require it, but the subculture surrounding poetry does.

Outside of academia, there are groups of poets who don’t study the history of poetry and just write it, but they also tend consider all criticism anathema. If only there were a way to get good criticism without having to deal with critics. :noidea:

Edited by Tzela Vieed
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Posted

Outside of academia, there are groups of poets who don’t study the history of poetry and just write it, but they also tend consider all criticism anathema. If only there were a way to get good criticism without having to deal with critics. :noidea:

That just might be your Modus Operandi regarding poetry. :cheers:

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Posted

In other words - the more accurate your reading of a philosopher or a poet, the less original of a thinker or creative a poet you are yourself. :deal:

Hopefully this isn't too tangential, but isn't this why Bloom had such a high opinion of Rorty?

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Posted

Nice discussion. This is why we need :tzela: posting more.

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Posted

I am not familiar with Rorty’s work, so I did an internet search. I can see where Bloom might approve of it. Bloom rejects the possibility of an ‘objective’ reading of a poem: not only does he value creative interpretations, but he believes that “There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations.”

(Which leads me to wonder why he chose ‘misinterpretation’ as his default term when he has no other kind of interpretation to contrast it with. When Bloom writes “Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance,” he could just as easily have written: “Poetry is understanding, interpretation, alliance,” and nothing but the sordid connotations would have been lost. :scratch: )

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Posted

Hopefully this isn't too tangential, but isn't this why Bloom had such a high opinion of Rorty?

I'm not sure what Bloom said about Rorty.

as for TZV, misinterpretation is the right term when we rule out the possibility of an authoritative, final and objective reading of a poem from the get-go. If such an objective reading was possible, then there's no room for creativity - just reproduction.

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Posted

as for TZV, misinterpretation is the right term when we rule out the possibility of an authoritative, final and objective reading of a poem from the get-go. If such an objective reading was possible, then there's no room for creativity - just reproduction.

I’m not quite sure what we’re disagreeing over, but I would say exactly the opposite: once you rule out the possibility of an authoritative interpretation, then ‘misinterpretation’ becomes a meaningless term, because all interpretations are fair game. They aren’t correct, but they aren’t incorrect either—and the word ‘misinterpretation’ definitely implies error. :noidea:

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Posted (edited)

TZV :mrgreen:

I concede that there is an element of hyperbole or overstatement in calling such creative interpretations as "misinterpretation," but it is actually consistent with Bloom's overall project.

From my notes, I see Bloom as someone who anticipated Kristeva's Intertextuality, where instead of texts, we have relations between texts, and meaning is the product of these relations. Later, Bloom pushed this notion further with "misreading" and "misprison" (Map of Misreading, 1975) and revisionism (Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1982).

For Bloom, the literary tradition is revisionist, where poets reinterpret and re-envision and re-evaluate and revise the works of their precursors in order to overcome the anxiety of influence and their feeling of belatedness, or some nightmarish vision of missing the party, and trying to pick whatever is left behind after the great writers left the premises. I think the best example of "misprison" is the romantic reading that saw Satan as the true hero of Paradise Lost.

To your point that Bloom would be better off with just "interpretation," that would take him to the field of hermeneutics, the science or the art of interpretation, and I think that takes him too far away from Freudian psychoanalysis of Oedipal relationships between the poets, and towards some sort of objective standard, or some final interpretation.

Edited by The Heretic
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Posted

TZV :mrgreen:

I concede that there is an element of hyperbole or overstatement in calling such creative interpretations as "misinterpretation," but it is actually consistent with Bloom's overall project.

Yes, I know, it’s why I called him perverse up in my original post. :rolleyes:

To your point that Bloom would be better off with just "interpretation," that would take him to the field of hermeneutics, the science or the art of interpretation, and I think that takes him too far away from Freudian psychoanalysis of Oedipal relationships between the poets, and towards some sort of objective standard, or some final interpretation.

So does that make Bloom a mishermeneutician? :heh:

Actually, you’ve reminded me of a question that kept occurring to me while I read: how does Bloom’s Freudianism-by-analogy interact with Freudianism proper? He endorses both, but that seems to imply a worldview where a poet’s psyche is very different from those of other people, and not susceptible to family dynamics in the literal sense, which looks suspiciously like the resuscitation of a Romantic cliché. The other possibility that occurs to me is that he considers Freudian dynamics to be subsumed by his own anxiety of influence (Tessera? :p ) .

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Posted

I’ve thought of another new word just now: disinterpretation. It indicates a blatantly fallacious interpretation, made in full consciousness of its perverse and antithetical relation to the material being interpreted.

Furthermore, Bloom’s refusal to consider this important concept in his book—his coming to a halt before mere misinterpretation— is clear evidence that he is unwilling to consider the seamy side of literary creativity. :yup:

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Posted (edited)

Bloom's Misinterpretation of his Disinterpretation, by Tzela Vieed.

:cheers:

Edited by The Heretic

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Posted (edited)

I loved this discussion! and I have truly missed this place! As I have said to Davidm and others, I will try to be less of a stranger here.

I just wanted to say that I think Heretic is right to suggest that Bloom anticipates Kristeva's intertextuality, and his misreading is really a means of allowing a kind of creative licence to the ephebe or poet doing the misreading.

But on the subject of whether poets are influenced by other poets and poetry (I think this was raised by Heretic), I have a few thoughts.

Having been asked to give a lecture on Polish poetry with a particular focus on Czeslaw Milosz and Zbiegniew Herbert (who by the way was a descendant of George Herbert, the English Metaphysical Poet - what would Bloom say about the anxiety of influence here, I wonder), I was surprised to find a little essay by Seamus Heaney, that quintessential Irish poet, where he cited Milosz and Herbert's work to be grounding influences for his politico-mystical poetry. All good writers must be good readers, even if like Heidegger, they dismiss their reading as metaphysical dawdle.

Even if you don't study the history of poetry, a poet would read poetry. He might not like the poetry he reads, and choose to write poetry in a way that he feels challenges what came before, but this too is a kind of misprision, I would venture. The process of misreading is not static, nor linear, but multi-temporal. It is an absence space, and the likes of Derrida and Blanchot and even Freud have tried to, some more successfully than others, shed light on this process.

I am not a big fan of Bloom, but I liked this book. I know I haven't addressed all the issues that were covered in this discussion. So please forgive me.

Edited by nivenkumar
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