12 February, 2006

Anxiety of effluence

I finally got around to reading Harold Bloom's famous The Anxiety of Influence (1973). This is the one where Bloom cooks up 6 terms nicked from Gnostic philosophy to describe the processes by which poets deal with their precursors. All poetry, he says somewhere and everywhere, is a creative misreading or 'misprision' of previous poems, a problem exacerbated after the Enlightenment, which Bloom equates with the Cartesian 'discovery' of mind/body dualism.

It all feels rather autobiographical. Dumpy, grumpy, frumpy old Bloom (above, in a recent portrait by John Abbott) was evidently feeling weary and ancient, and misnamed, even at the tender age of 43. He reminds us a little of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, lost all his mirth. See, Bloom too had experienced the 'anxiety of influence' after reading the Peddlers of Aphorisms, especially Nietzsche and Emerson, and also Freud. There are more sententious soundbites here plucked out of context and likely as not dowdlerized than in your average movie-trailer. As well as quoting them, he strives constantly to emulate them. I pick a page at random:
But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admitted its intimate alliance with opacity.
Or, on another random page:
Critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities, but he who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet.
Alas, Bloom has none of Nietzsche's wit, and all of Emerson's pomposity. He is excited by canonical Freudian notions like the ego, the uncanny, trauma, and even anxiety itself; but unlike Dali, he is unable to do much with Freud's language, let alone reveal it for what it is, a sublime play of words and ideas. Like our unofficial heroine Taketani, Bloom is totally enraptured by key-words, both Freud's and those of occult traditions. He rips kenosis from Pauline theology, and clinamen from Lucretius, almost certainly by way of Jarry and the pataphysicians, whom he cites, shamelessly. He quotes Vico, whom he doubtless knows through Joyce, and dallies with the great Aufklärung thinkers, from Pascal to Goethe, Lichtenberg and Kierkegaard. O, what a wondrous web of profound philosophy he spins! I was veritably surprised not to find Hamann's name somewhere. Unsurprisingly, however, Bloom gives no real evidence of having progressed beyond half-digested quasi-poststructuralist flippancy, re-Peddling old Aphorisms with a typical air of condescension.

Yes, Bloom is suffering. I can almost imagine him gazing into a mirror, reflected as Max Bialystock: "Bloom, I'm drowning." His obsession with gnomic utterance and the Canon borders on psychosis. With a nervous false casualness he tosses around the Big Names of philosophy, and the Big Names of poetry, but he sounds like only a kid adulating footballers. He suggests impalpable wisdom, something beyond a herd enjoyment of the Romantics. But his rhetoric ends up as anxious invective; for instance, at least three times he cites Arnold's critique of Keats, scoffing that Arnold's chief verse takes its primary cues from Keats' work. Which leads me to wonder if this is his only substantive argument. Most of it is along the lines of, Wordsworth is better than Keats, but Milton is better than Wordsworth, and Shakespeare is better than them all. In fact, Bloom's preface to the second edition of the book (1997) contains early glimmerings of the insane scribblings that would surface in his notorious Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1999). This is Bardolatry of the highest order:
To say that Shakespeare and poetic influence are nearly identical is not very different from observing that Shakespeare is the western literary canon.
Hark at him: Shakespeare is the Western Literary Canon. Not only that, but the roles Shakespeare wrote for his actors "have become roles for us". Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University. Talk about an anxiety of influence, this is practically a neurosis! The Oxford University Press should market this man's works as Case Studies.

All of which absurdity might be almost acceptable if he had an argument to make. But whenever he gets down to concrete examples of poetic influence, his insanity becomes ever more apparent. For example, he regards Wallace Stevens as indebted to Whitman by the mode of the tessera, which means that Stevens views his own work as completing Whitman's by antithesis, and as therefore as going beyond Whitman's in its audacity. When Bloom cites 'The Sleepers' (Whitman) against 'The Owl in the Sarcophagus' (Stevens), we wonder where he's getting these ideas from. No doubt the former did influence the latter—but Bloom's Lacanian prattling is monstrous.

It's almost an emotional experience, all of this. Bloom's performance would have more pathos, though, if he were more articulate. No doubt his compacted ramblings meant something to his Yale colleagues, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. But to me his rhetoric is vapid, his prose dull, his ideas non-existent, his tastes conventional, his personality embarrassing, his fantasy-football approach to the Canon, risible. I must admit, I rather like the idea of resurrecting Gnostic theology as a latter-day literary hermeneutics, but it should have been much better executed. Maybe Kabbalah and Criticism will have more to offer. I doubt it.

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