Book Review: The Anxiety Of Influence

The Anxiety Of Influence:  A Theory Of Poetry, by Harold Bloom

There is the raw material, or at least the germ of an idea, for a good book somewhere in this mess.  There are some books that are simply ill-conceived and worth less than the paper and ink and the value of time it takes to create and read them, but this is not such a book.  To be sure, this book is baffling and it is unclear what exactly the author thought when he was writing this, who he was attempting to win over to his viewpoint about poetry, and why he made this book so inaccessible to readers who are not willing to adopt his baffling and often unnecessary neologisms to discuss the poetics of poetry.  The book reads like someone who is trying to adopt language over their level of competence to impress other pretentious people about their knowledge about literature, but this does not sit easily with the author’s lengthy introduction added to the second edition in order to make it easier (!) to understand the point of this book and where he shows off his Bardophile tendencies but manages to completely miss the point about the greatness of Shakespeare being accessible to people across cultural and temporal divides, something this book unfortunately does not have.

Bloom begins this short but unmercifully tedious book with a lengthy preface (not included in the table of contents) about the influence that Shakespeare drew from Marlowe and how he transcended it (although the author never talks about Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, typically enough, nor his play about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre).  He uses this preface to make fun of both Jews and French, showing that even the pretentious intellectuals are not immune to the basest of cultural prejudices.  After this comes a short prologue and introduction that discuss the problematic nature of the influence of writers on other writers.  The author spends the rest of the book discussing six different aspects of that influence, some of which are unhelpfully translated using equally arcane and technical English words.  So, the author begins by discussing clinamen or poetic misprision as the first stage of this anxiety of either a sexual or spiritual nature.  After that comes a discussion of tessera, or completion and antithesis, which the author views as part of a dialectic sequence of cultural progress.  There is then a discussion of kenosis or repetition and discontinuity, because mere continuity in the author’s eyes is not sufficient to account for any sort of cultural growth.  What follows is an interchapter (!) that serves as a manifesto for antithetical criticism that rises above the anxiety of inspiration, showing the critic as a godlike figure among the neurotic men (and women) who actually create literature and who are haunted by the influence of contemporary or earlier authors.  Following this there are chapters on daemonization or the counter-sublime, by which writers attempt (unsuccessfully) to negate previous ones, the askesis or purgation and solipsism by which writers inevitably end up alone in their own sad and private universe, and apophrades or the return of the dead where writers are able to make others read differently through their greatness, and a closing reflectoin on the path of writing and criticism.

This book reads like a massive ego trip from someone who has read widely but not necessarily well.  Who is the author talking to?  He is certainly not talking to most readers, as anyone who has read as widely as he does will notice areas where his ideas are faulty and where his selections of the writings of others is noticeably biased and shockingly unreflective.  So if this book can only be understood by people who have a fair grasp of the technical language of textual criticism and can only be agreed with by people who have not read a great deal of the writings that the author refers to here, who can enjoy this book?  The author obviously enjoyed the book enough to append to his existing book more than 40 pages of an introduction to the second edition (which I read) where he fails to understand why it is that his first book tanked like the Oakland Raiders and failed to serve its intended purpose of making readers realize what a great textual critic Bloom was concerning the matter of influence in poetry.  Bloom certainly wrote great books, most of which are about individual books that the author enthuses over and seeks to introduce to young raiders, but this book is not one of them.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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