On Looking Into Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence

by Mark Wallace

Recently I began studying the various film/ TV adaptations of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. With a so often-adapted book, a new version is inevitably greeted with a certain scepticism: “Another one? Why? What can they possibly have to add to all the others?” In trying to come up with answers as to how a text like Oliver Twist is approached in these times, I found myself devoting a close reading to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973). I also looked at his 2011 book on a similar theme, The Anatomy of Influence. Bloom’s theory, going by the name alone, seemed a perfect fit for my subject. However, I have abandoned the idea.

It is interesting to read Bloom’s own reflections of Anxiety made in Anatomy, almost 40 years on, with Bloom now 80 years old and intending Anatomy to be his last full-length work. They are:

The Anxiety of Influence, published in January 1973, is a brief, gnomic theory of poetry as poetry, free of all history except literary biography. It is a hard read, even for me, because it is tense with anxious expectations, prompted by signs of the times, which it avoids mentioning (Anatomy 5).

“Gnomic” is a nice word. And, yes, Anxiety is tough going. On first glance it seems quite a humble admission of Bloom’s that his famous work is a “hard read”. On reflection, however, I think it’s rather devious. Bloom is here asking that his work be judged not by its identifiable content, but that we see it as being the product of Bloom’s grappling with big questions concerning his own time, which he avoids mentioning. Is Bloom here tacitly admitting that Anxiety, on its own terms, doesn’t stand up, and trying to create new terms for it to be judged on, leaving these terms so vague as to be unchallengeable, and hoping that people will read into that resonant phrase “signs of the times” (referencing the Bible and also the once-celebrated essay of that name by Thomas Carlyle – of whom this blog will almost certainly have more to say anon) something appropriately profound? I think this is what he’s doing, but the only part of it I agree with is that the book decidedly does not stand up as literary criticism.

The basic tenet of Anxiety is that all poetry proceeds by “misreading” previous poetry, and that especially since Milton, all western poetry has been struggling to create a space for itself where no space exists, because all his been said. Therefore, poets lie to themselves, “misreading” the precursor so as to convince themselves that the precursor left something out, or failed to go far enough, or got something wrong. So modern poetry is a “poetry of exhaustion”, and “poetry will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength” (Anxiety 10). Poets themselves might deny that what they are doing is misreading the precursor, but Bloom sees this is a defense mechanism – the anxiety manifests itself as a denial of anxiety.

Bloom also places himself in a sense above the poet here, telling him “You don’t know what you’re writing, but I do. I see through your motivation to the anxiety”. I think this is quite central to Bloom’s theory, and I see it as deriving from Bloom’s own anxiety – the anxiety of not being a poet! Bloom has, I think, an obvious ambivalence towards poets. On the one hand, he clearly cares deeply about poetry and has made it his life’s vocation. Even his harshest critic would have to admit his writing has passion. On the other, though, what are we to make of it when he says that the latecoming poet “experiences the shame and splendor of being found by poems – great poems – outside him” (Anxiety 26). Where does “shame” come into the reading of great poetry? And what about excesses of rhetoric like “the modern poet is a befouled version of himself” (Anxiety 62)? At times like this, one wonders how Bloom arrives at such a word as “befouled”. What sort of aggression towards his subject can lead to writing in these terms? More than anything, I think Anxiety is Bloom’s attempt to assert himself against poets; much as he may admire them, he can’t quite forgive them for the fact that he himself is not a poet. Thus the poet in Anxiety, certainly the modern poet, is a pathetic and deluded figure, stumbling through his helpless misreadings of his greater predecessors. This is the critic’s revenge against those who do what he writes about doing.

As for Bloom’s central contention, surely one cannot deny that modern poets have experienced forms of life unavailable to Milton and the other precursors, the Covering Cherubs, and so cannot help being different and finding new reflections on the human condition. I’m sure this obvious point has been put to Bloom, so he may have an answer, but I don’t find it answered in Anxiety. In any case, Anxiety is a book more often name-checked than explored in detail. The title itself provides a nice catch-phrase with which to talk about the psychology of creation. As for the nuts and bolts of Bloom’s theory, well, it doesn’t have any. What it does have is inflated rhetoric, obscurantism and pretensions towards the status of poetry. In fact, in Anatomy Bloom refers to Anxiety as a “dithyramb” and claims he wrote the first draft in a “state of metaphysical terror” (Anatomy 3) after waking from a nightmare. What is being evoked here is the language of poetic creation. And maybe Anxiety is a great poem, or maybe that’s Bloom’s alibi for having created a work of criticism that doesn’t work as criticism. In any case, if you’re looking for insight into the psychology of Harold Bloom, read this; if you’re looking for insight into the anxiety of the latecomer poet (or, in my case, adapter), best try something else.

Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence ([1973] OUP, 1997)

—————–, The Anatomy of Influence (YUP 2011)