On Sunday, I’m going to see Harold Bloom, one of the heroes of my adult life, speak in New York. Although I am delighted to be able to see him in person before he dies, and deeply grateful to the very important someone who bought us tickets to go, I’m not sure the event itself will be so great. Bloom may mumble, the questions may be facile, the audience riotous. And if provoked, Bloom becomes a bear, raging and incoherent—he is at his worst when responding to opponents’ attacks. Yet these doubts about seeing him in the flesh don’t remove Bloom’s grandeur in my eyes. Over three blog posts, I’m going to explain Bloom’s central ideas, and why I admire them so much, his central flaws, and why I find them so exasperating, and, lastly, how, after long periods of doubt, I came to re-understand him, and come to peace with my ambivalence.
I will of course be happy to answer any questions in the comments.
Part One: Harold Bloom Found
I was teaching English in Taiwan, and was looking for extra work, when I met Sean, the manager and owner of a private school, Agatha Academe. Sean is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, a terrific scholar of philosophy, whose collection of books, in both English and Chinese, piles to the ceiling. Soon after I had begun teaching a course on Western Philosophy for him, he handed me a photocopied book, bound with a bulldog clip, a wad of pages not that thick.
He suggested I read it.
I was holding Harold Bloom’s great breakout book, The Anxiety of Influence, and had I not read it, I am not completely sure who I would be today. For stronger souls, who began writing—and living in literature—at a young age, this confession may seem rather sad, but in Taiwan, I felt keenly the loss of my old life as a career person, and was perceptive enough to see that I could not fully replace that sense of identity merely by calling myself a traveller and a part time English teacher. I was in danger, and Harold Bloom opened a new world.
The Anxiety of Influence claims that the essential characteristic of all modern writers is their debt to, and their battle with, their predecessors. Imagine that in simple pre-literate societies, what Bloom calls, “before the flood,” story-tellers and priests and bards puttered along, reciting old tales, making the occasional adjustment to their stock legends, but essentially repeating what they learned from their teachers. As a society becomes more complex, however, poets begin to prize originality. The trouble for such poets is that they exist in a literary tradition, and achieving originality is tricky, for a young pup, when the libraries are already stocked high with God-like figures—Milton, Homer, Shakespeare, Whitman. The young writer learned to want to write because he read those greats, but now he needs to topple them, because unless he finds space for himself, he cannot be original. Bloom believes that for really strong poets, this need for originality is more than just a pleasant desire—it is an overwhelming, reality-distorting necessity. Each poet must be able to say that he or she came first, that he or she is the unique and original flowering. Of course, from an objective standpoint, this necessity cannot actually be met. One’s predecessors’ works already exist, and so, from the first moment of the discovery of poetry, comes the realisation that poetry exists both inside and outside the self. Therefore, something highly unpleasant, and highly creative, happens to the young poet’s work. In order to become great, the young poet must be influenced by the predecessor, but must also deny that influence. The anxiety of influence engages writers in a long battle with the dead, using the past greats as starting points, and then swerving from them, in order to create space for themselves as a separate voice. The great symbol of the modern artist, therefore, is Milton’s Satan. Satan rebels against God because he insists on being first, that his essence predates his creation, on his priority over even his creator, and when this rebellion fails, he is thrown down through the universe to hell. If he is able to perform some kind of revisionary act upon God as he falls, however, if he can swerve, he may become a poet in his own right. This outlook prompts Bloom to write,
The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. . . .
The process is not a happy one. As one generation of poets fights with another, the new generation must inevitably repudiate some of their predecessor’s greatness. Something of the scope and grandeur of poetry that the past had access to must be repressed, ridiculed, denied, parodied. And because of this, poetry gets worse the further a literary tradition develops. Shakespeare outclasses Milton, Milton outclasses Wordsworth, Wordsworth Eliot, Eliot Larkin, and so on, to our own intensely beleaguered age, us contemporary writers bearing the heavy burden of coming so late. Against this diminishment, however, grand individuals appear, who offer more brutal, more creative reinterpretations of the past (in the United States, for instance, the two key figures are Emerson and Whitman), and these greats create fertile traditions of their own, influencing countless later children. Agree with this, or disagree, but I think it’s hard not to be awed by Bloom’s colossal reach—that starting with one rather simple claim about poets, he can ride all over the western world, from the fall of man to the death of poetry.
A modern poet may say, “Bullshit. I don’t feel any anxiety towards Wallace Stevens. I like his poems, but I don’t remember them too well—plus the poor guy ate apples dipped in mayonnaise!” Bloom replies that “anxiety” is something found in the poem, not the poet. The poem, if it is a strong one, will enact the struggle with a precursor, whether the actual poet is conscious of it or not. Bloom, using this technique, tracks a particular mode of expression, or a particular philosophical idea, through generations of writers, showing how, for instance, Emerson’s great call for “Self-Reliance!” works its way, changing in each separate incarnation, through the work of Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Ernest Hemingway. Read a lot of Bloom, and you learn to smell similarities, hearing echoes in quiet sections of prose, seeing one writer live in another.
I suppose that, as a result of reading this theory, an aspiring writer might feel depressed. By Bloom’s rules, you are either a mediocre nobody or a schizophrenic madman challenging the moon, choking with bloody hands a monster that may, once the lights turn on, wear either your father’s face or your own. But I think that “anxiety” should not be taken too emotionally. Anxiety will happen—you just need to read the classics and write your best. And Bloom himself is the counter-argument to his own pessimism. If someone can write like this, with so much rumbling power, so much awe-inspiring scope, then another (i.e. me) can, too. More importantly, reading Bloom, one conceives of the possibility that literature could be an entire world. A world that may relate to the regular one in a variety of ways, straddling, observing, transcending, revealing—it doesn’t matter exactly how. But without some sort of conception alien to the usual one of profit and loss, I’m not sure how it is possible to devote a life to writing. The real world screams too loud for mild assertions of faith. In Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow has his narrator muse:
…poetry was one of the frantic professions in which success depends on the opinion you hold of yourself. Think well of yourself, and you win. Lose self-esteem, and you’re finished. For this reason a persecution complex develops, because people who don’t speak well of you are killing you.
For most of us, even someone like myself, who was (unimaginably) lucky to receive a readership almost immediately on beginning to write (thank you, bootsnall), the “people who don’t speak well” do not simply include unfavourable readers, but most of the existing world. Your bank balance does not speak well, your pension fund does not speak well, those scientists actually doing something useful for humanity do not speak well, those book shelves groaning with already published stories do not speak well. Quitting a job, writing stories you know aren’t that great, with only the mental back up of “I really want to express myself” is like holding off a fifty-foot wave with a spoon. No, one needs a whole new conception of what life is for. And, in terms of me as a thinker, as a theorist about literature, I built something of that new conception from Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (a phenomenal book which my deceptive memory informs me that I also got from Sean), but as a worker, a fighter, someone dedicating himself to an enterprise unlikely to ever succeed, well, I found what I needed in Harold Bloom.