Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Madness of King Harold

Let's suppose for a minute that Harold Bloom's "theory of poetry" is correct. Let's suppose that a young poet is creatively blocked by the awareness of, the spectre of, the influence of the great poets of the past. A young poet cannot move forward into the New because he is too busy comparing himself to his precursors, and comparing his own poems to the great precursor poems. Let's suppose that's true. Let's suppose also that the most common way a young poet breaks through this creative blockage is by imagining a flaw in the work of the great precursor, by deliberately misreading the great precursor poem(s) and then writing a poem of his own that "corrects" the "flaw" in the precursor, psychically diminishing the precursor in the eyes of the young poet, who is then able to move forward and become some future young poet's precursor. Let's say Bloom is right, and this is all true. Let's further say that my concern with craft and my lack of concern with any precursor novelists and my non-efforts in the way of modeling my work on any precursor novels is either self-delusion because artists aren't conscious of the process, or because I’m a minor talent so I don't actually know what the greatness of the precursor novelists is and I'm blind to those elements of their work which would creatively block me if I was talented enough to be properly intimidated. I can accept being a minor talent. So let's say I accept all of this, that I have no beef with Bloom's theory of poetic influence.

The problem is that I'm reading a book Bloom wrote, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he might lay out this theory. This book is a mad book, a disorganized nonlinear book whose language is vague and contradictory. The narrative chases its own tail around what is mostly an empty space where clearly-defined terms and theses ought to be. That's my problem. Bloom bezels and prolixes for page after page, saying "this is the anxiety of influence" but failing, again and again, to supply an actual this. He does not say whatever it is he is saying. He spends a lot of time spinning a metaphysical metaphorical tale about the poet as caught in the duality between the spiritual world and the empirical world, and he invokes the Muses and tells us that weak poets are Adam and strong poets are Satan (Paradise Lost as a metaphor for poetry, which is fine because I'm sure Milton's Christian metaphors were bound up with ideas about the mind and art) until Satan becomes merely a hack, an imitator of God and loses his originality. That's all a good time and Bloom's writing is breathless, breakneck, totally insane and full of fun for the reader. None of it tells us what "anxiety" or "influence" mean, though. None of it relates directly to the historical process of poetic influence, or how a poet becomes a poet. Bloom does not directly confront his subject matter in The Anxiety of Influence. I am told that he does spell out what he's really talking about in some other books, but the thing is, the book I'm reading is The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom talks around and around and makes many vague claims without demonstrating that there is any reason to believe those claims or even, frankly, making clear what his claims are. The theory that I am willing to accept, the theory I talk about in the first paragraph of this post, may be behind all the lunacy and poorly-formed argument-in-the-form-of-a-severe-poem that makes up The Anxiety of Influence, but there's no way to discover that by reading the book. The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece, and can never be sure that this meaning is actually Bloom's meaning. That is my beef with Mr Bloom, and that is why I find myself reading The Anxiety of Influence as a novel, because it makes sense if Harold Bloom is Charles Kinbote or Charles Arrowby. The book does not make sense if Harold Bloom is a respected professor and theorist.

No one, so far, has been able to point to a passage within The Anxiety of Influence where Bloom either makes his theory of poetry clear, defines his terms, or shows any reason to believe his claims. I don't dispute the theory, but I do say that Bloom has written a bubbling mess of a book that says almost nothing. It is a sparkling incoherency about poetry, built around the central claim that poetry is dying. "The death of poetry" is one of the few clear passages in the book. Unless Bloom means that as a metaphor, too. I can see why this book is so influential: a reader can fill it with whatever meaning he likes, because Bloom obfuscates, dances, babbles and whirls but he does not say.

12 comments:

  1. Setting aside the arguments that always percolate whenever Bloom is discussed, consider this: Does a 21st century writer who has carefully read and understood Shakespeare, to name one author as an example, ever escape the influence of Shakespeare upon that 21st century writer's own efforts? Is that modern writer ever completely free from the influence of the dozens or hundreds of other writers he or she has "consumed" in the past? Now, if that writer is alert, that writer must certainly realize his or her desire to be original and new is complicated by those influences. Am I being too simple-minded in my thinking? Perhaps. I do not pretend to be an intellectual. That is why intellectuals confound me. I am simply a reader who has some understanding and appreciation of literature.

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    1. Two things: 1) there is a difference between being influenced through the exposure to works, and having one's creativity blocked by awareness of those influential works. Bloom argues for the latter in his "anxiety" theory. 2) not all writers have a "desire to be original."

      My claim is that good artists have a desire to bring into being something that feels true and alive; originality is beside the point, and in the real world, the artists I know who go on the most about originality make the smallest, least true and living art. Like I said yesterday, I think a real artist concerns himself with the work in front of him, and gives little thought to originality or influences. My personal belief is that this is a fictional story told by critics and other outsiders to explain the trail of poetic elements that leads backwards in time through the works of artists. The insistence upon originality and the artist as individual are the most suspect parts of the theory of influence. What's the sonnet in which Shakespeare says that his contemporaries don't see him as original or innovative at all? We do, but we are not Shakespeare. We make claims about Shakespeare's inner artistic life from a remove of four centuries, in the wake of the Romantic notions of the artist as some sort of metaphysical genius. I do not believe that Shakespeare thought about art in anything like the way we think about art. This difference, I claim, is of great importance.

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    2. Well . . . yes . . . but . . . perhaps . . . and I remain provoked by Bloom as I understand him . . .which means, I guess, that I do not understand him . . . but please see my Note to Self:
      http://beyondeastrod.blogspot.com/2014/07/note-to-self-which-i-need-to-remember.html
      I should listen to my own advice.
      In any case, I will follow Hamlet's words: "The rest is silence."
      -30-

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    3. I'm no intellectual, either. The happy news is that it doesn't matter one whit whether Bloom is right: poets will continue to write poems, and the history of poetry will remain where it is. It also doesn't matter whether or not you or I understand what Bloom is on about. The world of literature will remain in place, for our continued enjoyment.

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  2. I never read Anxiety. It looked too much like philosophy, so I figured I would not understand it. Here you are making it sound a lot like philosophy. "The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece" - this is true of every metaphysician I have ever come across, every system-builder. Point to the passage in Plato or Hegel that shows any reason to believe their claims. That just ain't the way it works. It is a common rhetorical mode in the humanities. Jacques Derrida was an even more highly respected professor.

    My training is elsewhere, so I certainly don't know how to read this stuff. But there are clearly people who do.

    The claim in the comment about originality - I am going to historicize Bloom. He is building out, as is common in any scholarship, from his early are of expertise, English Romantic poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats - these poets were all deeply concerned with originality, as were many of their descendants, including Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne, and now it is only a small step to Pound and Eliot and "Make it new." These aren't the small fry, right? They're real enough.

    You are rightly suspicious of Bloom's Romanticization of Shakespeare, but how about his Romanticization of the Romantics?

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    1. You're certainly more familiar than I am with the Romantics, so I just admit that I am probably wrong about what they were thinking. My own prejudice against certain ideas about art that strike me as pure ego/pride is the loudest voice in this conversation, and that voice is grating on my nerves. I realize that I'm just generalizing from my own experience, which gets me in trouble often enough. The "tortured artist" trope annoys the hell out of me, though. I admit that I don't believe the claims of artists who say that they are imprisoned by the ghosts of the past, that they are foremost concerned with and working toward originality. I think they're lying to themselves, and I think it's an attractive story that somehow gained traction during the Romantic period. That's likely just my prejudice, but I cannot get around that belief. I feel that I'm showing myself to be increasingly small-minded with every word I type.

      I'm not sure what you mean about Bloom's romanticization of the Romantics.

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    2. Not his "romanticization of the Romantics," but the "Romanticization of the Romantics." The joke needs the capital letter. You correctly identify what Bloom (a Romantic) is doing to Shakespeare, and what oddities result. But the Romantics, they not only introduced or amplified Romantic ideas, they believed them. Pushing Romanticism back onto Shakespeare may well be an error, but using Romanticism to understand Romantics, this seems fair enough.

      I have wondered if the tortured artist idea is the result of the curious fact, which I assume is a coincidence, that so many of the best 18th century English poets had serious struggles with mental illness. But I suppose it works both ways - actual tortured artists spur the idea, while the ideas look for examples to support themselves. Thus the Romantic obsession with Thomas Chatterton.

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  3. Two points:

    1. A couple of years have past since I read anything by Bloom, and I have not read The Anxiety of Influence. One of the points I think he makes in his other books is that writers also try to mimic their past heroes, and in that attempt to mimic, they can misinterpret what makes the past writing so great. That misinterpretation leads to the creation of something new. I just thought this was interesting because it's related, but different from what his point seems to be here.

    2. I am a supporter of originality, as you know. In my mind, the quest to create something "true" leads to originality. That could be due to the idea that everyone must have their own unique view of truth, or it could be due to the belief that all writers before us have failed, at least partially, in capturing truth.

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    1. I think the quest for truth can lead to originality, but I doubt the quest for originality can lead to truth. You know I don't think much of originality. Your work surprises and delights because you never use cliches, and it's like you're pointing to truths generally ignored.

      I don't know. This conversation makes me feel like a cranky old Philistine. Possibly my primary objection to Bloom's book is the style, the way it reminds me of Emerson's most crazy and hateful essays. Emerson, you know, was a Great Modern Evil. I'm tired of The Anxiety of Influence. Yesterday I read some of Bloom's reviews of novels, and they were all very fine.

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  4. The only work of Bloom's I have read is "Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human" and it really seemed to me just about the worst piece of Shakespearean criticism I have come across: oracular pronouncements unsupported by argument or by evidence; refusal to define his terms; incoherence - everything you mention in your post above. My post on that book (http://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/a-dog-barks-at-sir-oracle/) wasn't quite as restrained or polite as yours, I'm afraid!

    I do like your idea of reading Bloom's critical works as comic Nabokovian novels, with the author himself as the comic protagonist.

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  5. Bloom's notion of neophyte poets being intimidated by the great masters of the form assumes new, may I say young, poets are extremely well read in canon status works. This seems counter to fact and assumes an over intellectualized view of young writers. I have read bits and pieces of Bloom and liked some of what he says. He loves As I Lay Dying, Pynchon for GR, and Nathanel West, all judgements I applaud.

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    1. He has great taste in literature, but I have my doubts he really has any understanding of how it's written. He finds patterns in literary history and then creates a fantasy world of artists who deliberately have created those patterns. I am reminded of Bertram Russel's chicken.

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