Monday, June 30, 2014

New clothes, no emperor

Harold Bloom proposes an antagonistic relationship between artists and art, an Oedipal struggle* between young artists and older artists, where the young/beginning artist must defeat his predecessors or be defeated. A major component of this struggle is the presumed privileging of originality by successful (Bloom's word is "strong") artists. These propositions and assumptions (found in Bloom's rollicking fantasy novel The Anxiety of Influence) tell us many interesting things about the presumed author of that novel, including the obvious influence upon Bloom of that old reactionary crackpot, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They do not, alas, tell us much at all about the poets of the real world and how they came to write poetry.

I've never managed to make it all the way through The Anxiety of Influence in any of my past attempts, the book being so clearly wrongheaded, but I have sworn to actually finish the damned thing this time through. It is, after all, pretty slender. What's wrongheaded about Dr Bloom's famous bit of fiction is this: he has noticed, being a good reader, that some good poets progress over their lives from stumbling, derivative poets to being poets who find new formal strategies. Other poets never find anything to do in the way of formal innovation. Bloom takes this observation and spins his Oedipal fantasy, creating a drama with young poet as protagonist, and influential older poet as antagonist, the father figure who must be killed in order that the young poet may become his own man. Exciting stuff.

What Bloom fails to see is that there is a much simpler explanation for this progression: the young artist must learn his craft. He is not oppressed by the spectre of the poets of the past, nor does he battle against them. In the preface to the edition I'm reading, Bloom makes a claim about Shakespeare's allusion to Marlowe in "Richard II" (where Richard looks into a mirror and asks if his was the face that once commanded thousands of men, an echo of Marlowe's "the face that launched a thousand ships"): Blooms says,"however we think Richard intends it, Shakespeare flaunts it as an emblem of his new freedom from Marlowe." There is no reason at all to believe this claim. It is more likely that Shakespeare, never shy about plagiarism, just liked the sound of it and stole it for himself. There is no reason to believe any of Bloom's claims about the poets under discussion. There is no reason for Bloom to have imagined this violent struggle between generations of artists.

Well, there are reasons, but they all have to do with Bloom's failure to become an artist on his own. He gives it away when he says that criticism "is either part of literature or it is nothing at all." His claim is that criticism is part of literature. He presents this false dichotomy, daring you to tell him that criticism might be something that is not necessarily part of literature, because Bloom wants to be an artist. In The Anxiety of Influence, we read Harold Bloom's hallucinatory struggle against the Western Canon, and nothing more.

Bloom is not, in this tiny book, talking about the creation of art. He claims to be, but he's not. Entirely missing from Bloom's discussion is the joy of creation, or in fact any kind of understanding of the creative act in action. Bloom has poets, and he has poetry, but he has nowhere really considered the poet's sense of writing a poem, what Jon Gardner calls being within "the fictional dream." Bloom gives us agony. Where is the ecstasy? Perhaps Bloom labors, struggles, claws his resentful way forward and dreams of murdering his literary predecessors. Most people who make art do not engage in this particular struggle, is my claim. There is no reason to believe that Bloom is right about any of this. There is no reason to believe that poets, writers, playwrights, spend much time or effort thinking about the poets/writers/playwrights they admire, and certainly less reason to believe these people are in any way oppressed by the past.

One of Bloom's criteria for "strong" artists is the creation of new and original work, something that moves away from the respected figures of the past. Bloom writes as a critic, an outsider to art, not as a man who creates art. There are some artists who talk ceaselessly of finding their own way, of making something unique, and these (contrary to Bloom's claim) are generally the least of our artists. A good, "strong" artist is concerned with what he is trying to do now, with what he is trying to accomplish in the present work. Artists collect tools and learn how to use them, and find new things to do with those tools as a matter of course, because the ideas one has look different every time you learn a new technique. As craft grows, so naturally does vision evolve. This is not a freeing of oneself from one's psychological fetters; it is experience and competence and acquired depth. Perhaps this is actually what Bloom means, all he means, and he's chosen to build this clumsy and amusing metaphor around it, and the "murder your fathers" stuff is all a bit of a joke. Why else would he lard his prose up with Greek terms, as if we all live in ancient Athens? He hides his commonplace observations about the growth of art behind jargon, and we all should know what that means. Nabokov would've had a good time with Mr Bloom, I think, lampooning and dissecting. Oh, wait: he already did. Nabokov wrote that splendid novel where a critic writes himself into the history of someone else's poem, remember? In Pale Fire, certainly, criticism was literature.

* In the preface to the 1997 edition, which is the edition I'm reading, Bloom states that his theory in no way invokes an Oedipal struggle. The anxiety is not in the poet, it is in the poem. What can this possibly mean? Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day, I'll talk about Bloom's actual theory of influence and the anxiety inherent in that process.

15 comments:

  1. I guess I will put you down as a "No" vote when it comes to whether or not Harold Bloom is either persuasive or worthwhile. Oddly enough, Bloom probably has equal numbers of defenders and detractors. I have been in both camps at different times. So, for whatever it is worth, Bloom provokes thought.

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    1. The thing is, whenever I read interviews with Bloom, he seems like a brilliant guy and I like him a lot. I think he's one of the best defenders of the idea of informed criticism (as opposed to the idea that "everyone's opinion is equal in an egalitarian society"). When I read his books, with the exception of How to Read and Why (if I've got the title right), I think he's a madman. Influence is a mad, mad book with a mad, mad premise.

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    2. My response to Bloom in all of his work that I have read can always be reduced to one phrase: I am provoked to think more than I would have otherwise; I may not always agree, and I may not always understand, but I am always at least forced to think.

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  2. Your post shows a remarkable lack of understanding of what Bloom actually says. Great poets struggle with their influences in the attempt to outdo them. Mediocre poets concern themselves with "craft" in the way you describe.

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    1. Tomorrow or next day I'll be looking at "what Bloom actually says."

      Show me the evidence that "great poets struggle with their influences in the attempt to outdo them." It's a pretty and poetical claim, in line with the well-worn suffering-artist myth, but I see no reason to believe it.

      Do great poets not concern themselves with craft? That's an extraordinary claim I also see no reason to believe. Why would anyone believe it?

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  3. Scott, please consult Bloom' s The Western Canon, pages 4 - 11, for a snapshot view of the anxiety concept. Of course, the book length essay is the preferred approach, but the snapshot may help.

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    1. Tim, my plan is to stick to the text of The Anxiety of Influence. That's the book I'm reading. My task is to see what Bloom says in that book, where he--in case you've not noticed--avoids actually defining "anxiety," "influence," and "the anxiety of influence." At least not in the first few chapters. Maybe he gets around to it later. He may offer a definition of "influence" in the chapter on clinamen. At least he refers to a contemporary definition of the word though he never says "this is what I mean by 'influence.'"

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    2. If Green's "great poets struggle..." is a shorthand of Bloom's theory of influence, which I believe it is, then I just disagree with Bloom, which is not the same thing as misunderstanding him.

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  4. "Provokes thought" - man, that is one weak defense. The sandwich I had for lunch, provoked thought,dark, dark thought. It was not a good sandwich.

    Two real objections to Scott's argument.

    1. You are not allowing for conceptual art. "Grows his craft" and so on, yeah, usually. Not always, though. Very little craft was grown, very few tools collected, very little competence or acquired depth were necessary to create Papa Ubu. This is a minor objection in that conceptual art has rarely been so important in literature, and never as important as it is, to pick what is becoming a limiting case, contemporary visual art.

    2. Sometimes Bloom's metaphor is true enough. German poets, and other writers, too, spent a century or more trying to escape, absorb, or in some way deal with Goethe. They weren't trying to murder him - maybe Buchner was - but Goethe was a problem that had to be solved. Same goes for American Southern fiction writers post-Faulkner. And another example, and this is the formative one for Bloom, are the English Romantic poets, which ties back into #1, since this was perhaps the most conceptual episode in British literature, or at least since Sir Thomas Wyatt imported the sonnet into English.

    Come to think of it, I have more objections. I should mention that I have not read Anxiety since it looked incomprehensible. I've read lots of Pop Bloom, though. So the core objection, which really supports your argument more than it undermines it, is that Bloom is really writing about texts struggling with each other, not authors. An author is some sort of gnostic spirit bestowing the text on us. "The poets of the real word"!

    Maybe this is what you are talking about in the footnote.

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    1. So . . . Weak defense, huh? Well, that provokes thought! Ouch! How about "provocative" instead. Is that clear enough?

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    2. Yes, that's it: Bloom seems to present poems as battling it out, but shows no reason to believe that the poets of the later poems are fighting the same battle (or any battle) that Bloom imagines. The pointers to this warfare that Bloom sees could be explained away by poets trying out ideas they've stumbled across in the work of other poets. Unless Dr Green is correct, and great poets don't concern themselves with mere craft. Perhaps reasons to believe Bloom are found in his other works; they ain't in The Anxiety of Influence.

      I ignore #1 because I don't think Bloom is talking about conceptual art, and also because I don't know much about it. I ignore #2 because I don't know how to respond to it yet. I am not sure I believe this idea of escaping the influence of great poets, but that's mostly because I've seen no actual evidence of it. I have of course not read any of the German poets you mean. I have however actually gotten to know many poets and writers, who all seem to acquire the tools of the trade in a similar manner, and all seem to have individual and widely-varying personal theories of art. Maybe "great poets" can be defined as poets who have successfully battled against their forebears, so Bloom's theory is a nice and extremely limited tautology. Which would be fine.

      Tolstoy told Chekhov that he wrote awful plays, and for a while Chekhov was unhappy writing plays, because he felt that Tolstoy would want him to write them elseways, and he was certainly anxious about that. But eventually he went his own way. This was not achieved through any misprision of the work of Tolstoy; Chekhov was already a mature artist and he had his own goals and technique.

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    3. When Bloom is talking about Shelley, he is talking about conceptual art.

      You have read Eduard Mörike, so you have read at least one of the relevant German writers, but I know what you mean. All I can say is, I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. I believe, I believe!

      Even though the threading puts this in the wrong place, I will also acknowledge that Bloom's vagueness can be maddening. He often summarily refers to arguments he has made in other books.

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  5. The evidence, as Bloom shows (not just in The Anxiety of Influence), is to be found in the poems they wrote.

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    1. Perhaps you can show me the evidence within "Richard II" that the line "Was this face the face That every day under his household roof Did keep ten thousand men?" is "an emblem of his [Shakespeare's] new freedom from Marlowe." The claim is easily made, but I don't see the surrounding text covered with bruises and Marlowe's blood. Maybe Bloom is right about this, but his book doesn't make a good case to support his claims. Though I have only read the first couple of chapters, as I've said. I don't care whether Bloom is right or not; I do care that his book is vague.

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  6. The best exposition of what Bloom is about is in Agon, not Anxiety of Influence.

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