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On re-reading Harold Bloom's

The Anxiety of Influence

by Miles Mathis


The most modest expenditure of intelligence, not to say decency,
would convince these interpreters of the complete
childishness and unworthiness of such an abuse of dexterity.


I first read Bloom's highly influential book in college many years ago.  I think I was supposed to like it, and I think I tried to.  I was a philosophy major at the time, and I was one of the few who then found Deconstruction unentertaining.  I had been told that Bloom was critical of Derrida and Lacan and Foucault, as well as contemporary poetry, and so I went to him looking for ammunition.  I still remember a quote of his, from an interview, where he said that modern poetry was not verse, much less poetry: it was just typing, or word-processing.  I liked that.

       But I read the book and put it aside.  I couldn't agree with any of it, but I didn't know exactly why.  I needed more information.

       His more recent forays into notoriety—his theory of the "J-writer" in the Bible and his theory that Shakespeare all but created the modern mind—led me back to a reconsideration of his theory of criticism.  And his student Camille Paglia's many citations of Bloom also made me think I might be missing something.

       But a lot has happened to me in the meantime.  I now have more information.  I have read a lot, it is true.  But, more importantly, I have painted pictures and written poems and books:  I no longer need someone else's theory of creativity.   And as an artist I have developed the ability to see the argument from the other side.  From the side of synthesizer rather than analyzer.  From here I must tell you that Bloom's theory is a vast absurdity.  A vast absurdity composed of many smaller preposterosities. 

       Let's start with the vast absurdity.  His central thesis, stated as such in italics on page 30, is that "poetic influence always proceeds by misinterpretation," and that this misprision is "perverse, willful revisionism."  In another place he states that all interpretation is misinterpretation.  At first this may sound bold and impressively esoteric.  A psychologically rich vein.  But the fact is that "misinterpretation" only has a meaning in relation to "interpretation."  If you cannot do something right, you cannot do the same thing wrong.  Misinterpretation, as a word, only makes sense if there is a standing idea of correct interpretation.  This is simple logic.  If you say that all interpretation is misinterpretation, it begs the question, "Misinterpretation with regard to what?"  In other words, what is this misinterpretation missing?  If the sentence, all interpretation is misinterpretation is true, then it is also true that there is no meaning, and no standard for meaning.  In which case, all of Bloom's judgments are no more than empty sentences, and the book becomes even worse than it is: a collection of ink and paper with no hope of even the smallest insight.

       Bloom never considers, because it is much less titillating and psychologically complex, the possibility that poets—of whatever skill—do not misread or misinterpret.  They simply disagree.  That is, a subsequent poet does not falsify his precursors; he corrects them.   A poet reads a poem by a poet he admires.  He understands it: he correctly interprets it.  However, he sees faults, holes, problems un-addressed both technical and emotional.  Or maybe he sees only successes, but he sees where these successes might become even more successful.  Or, at worst, he sees how these successes can be translated into new successes, related but different.

      Another thing that Bloom's theory of misinterpretation does not address is how poets who can see nothing but themselves in anything ever manage to learn to write, or to write better.  It seems to me that one must assume that a strong poet is more able to correctly interpret a great poem, to see truthfully how it succeeds and how it fails.  If he misinterpreted a poem, he could not properly learn from it, and could never hope to equal or transcend it.  Maybe this is why the very greatest poets all felt no anxiety (as Bloom freely admits) and denied any misprision: they did not need to bastardize their precursors in order to better them.  They could admit all the greatness of their teachers without having it detract from their own.  It is only the weakest poets, and the especially the critics, who must misread the great ones.


Now for the preposterosities.  Bloom's title concerns the anxiety felt by poets when they are influenced by their precursors.  This anxiety causes misprision.  What is most strange is that Bloom cannot even give examples that support this thesis, although one would think that you could always quote scripture to prove any point.  Again and again, Bloom is forced to admit that Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Nietzsche* did not agree with him, and (even in his own opinion) do not seem to have been anxious at all.  This at the same time that he is stressing that his is a theory of what strong poets do.  All that Bloom really proves is that he feels a terrible anxiety of influence, and that perhaps where several lesser poets—such as Wilde—failed was often in succumbing to this anxiety.  But I do not think he proves even this.  What those like Wilde felt was not an anxiety of influence; it was simply disappointment.  Disappointment caused by the recognition that they could never write as well, in any style, as those they admired.  It was a recognition of inferiority, which may or may not cause anxiety.  Anxiety is a complex internalized emotion.  And it is possible, I believe, for a healthy person to feel not anxiety, but only disappointment.  Disappointment is a fairly straightforward thing.  But as such, of course, it is not as interesting to the armchair psychologist and severe critic.  

        Once one performs the sort of Freudian reading on Bloom that he performs on poets, one can see that all his criticism is tainted by a transparent personal agenda, a resentment toward the greater poetic talent of all those he critiques, whether they are in the empyrean clouds, like Shakespeare and Milton, or whether they are much further down toward the foothills, like Stevens or Ashbery.  What Bloom's theories all do, first and foremost, is elevate Bloom.  In several places he compares his book to a "severe" poem.  "All criticism is prose poetry," he says on the back cover.  In fact, it is not, and Bloom should know it.  Not even the most correct and brilliant criticism, like that of Goethe or Shelley, has anything to do with poetry.  Poetry is synthetic.  Criticism is analytic, and never the twain shall meet.

        All this was bad enough, but when Bloom began to talk of Milton as the great barrier to achievement in subsequent poets, I realized precisely how far he had sunk.  Bloom was now on a level with Clement Greenberg, the influential art critic who once said that the Renaissance masters had long been the ultimate blockade to future art, simply on account of their mastery.  It does not take a Goethe or a Nietzsche to see how perverse both these sentiments are. 

       Bloom is a casualty of his own erudition, and his own ego.  His vast array of factual knowledge and quotations only set him up for ridicule from any strong poet who happens to read him, since he is so clearly baffled by his own field from the very first page, and since he is so psychologically transparent to anyone who knows Freud and Nietzsche as well as he does.  He is in the horribly unenviable position of being scorned by those he claims to admire most.  And admired by those he knows to be fools.  And the strong poets and artists scorn him the more for his success in the world, for his burning of the fuel that should help to light poetry and art.  What contemporary poet is as well known and influential in academe as Harold Bloom, non-poet?

       It is not great historical poets who have been the barrier to poetry in the last century.  It is the overriding and pernicious influence of criticism and theory—of all kinds—that have sternly told young poets that all visible poetic influence is a mistake, and that the weapons of our dead heroes are forbidden.  It is the hyper-egalitarian milieu in which we are all steeped, that tells us that a Goethe or a Nietzsche is no longer possible, or, even if possible, unwanted.  What would we do with a Goethe now?  What could we possibly accept from him?  How could he possibly present himself to us?  Any claim to such greatness now would be treated as a sign of megalomania, no matter what artifacts he happened to share with us.  Intellectuals like Bloom control all the creative fields, and they simply will not allow a Goethe to erupt in their own lifetimes.  A dead Shakespeare is one thing.  A living genius would take entirely too much of their light, and is a thing not to be considered.  

*"Philosophy is to be understood here in a very wide sense as the art of reading well --of being able to read a fact without falsifying it by interpretation, without losing caution, patience, subtlety in the desire for understanding. Philosophy as ephexis [undecisiveness] in interpretation." Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 52.

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