"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, December 10, 2021

My reading notes on The Anatomy of Influence [i]

My Reading notes on The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life by Harold Bloom

(Yale, 2011)


[....]Literary criticism, as I learned from Walter Pater, ought to consist of acts of appreciation.

The Point of View for My Work as a Critic


[....]I was a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation on Shelley before I began to realize that influence was the inevitable problem for me to solve if I could. Existing accounts of influence seemed to me mere source study, and I became puzzled that nearly every critic I encountered assumed idealistically that literary influence was a benign process.

[....]Literary criticism, as I attempt to practice it, is in the first place literary, which is to say personal and passionate. It is not philosophy, politics, or institutionalized religion. At its strongest—Johnson, Hazlitt, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and Paul Valéry, among others—it is a kind of wisdom literature, and so a meditation upon life. Yet any distinction between literature and life is misleading. Literature for me is not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life, which has no other form.

[....]It took me from 1953 until the summer of 1967 before my meditation clarified. It was then that I awoke in my state of metaphysical terror and after a dazed breakfast with my wife began to write the dithyramb that eventually became The Anxiety of Influence. It took about three days to complete, and it baffled me as I brooded. What was it? I could recognize that I had been thinking it a long time, not always consciously.

[....]the cultural present both derives from and reacts against anteriority.

[....]it is a last-ditch defense of poetry, and a cry against being subsumed by any ideology. Opponents accuse me of espousing an "aesthetic ideology," but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.

[....]Creative misreading....  The influence process always is at work in all the arts and sciences, as well as in the law, politics, popular culture, the media, and education.

[....]I acknowledged Shakespeare's Sonnet 87, "Farewell, thou art too dear for my possession," for giving me what have become critical keywords: misprision, swerving, and mistaking....  belatedness....

[....]Influence anxiety, in literature, need not be an affect in the writer who arrives late in a tradition. It always is an anxiety achieved in a literary work, whether or not its author ever felt it.

[....]Joyce's personal lack of such anxiety was, to me, not the issue. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake manifest considerable belatedness, more in relation to Shakespeare than to Dante. Influence anxiety exists between poems and not between persons. Temperament and circumstances determine whether a later poet feels anxiety at whatever level of consciousness. All that matters for interpretation is the revisionary relationship between poems, as manifested in tropes, images, diction, syntax, grammar, metric, poetic stance. 

[....]greatness ensues from giving inevitable expression to a fresh anxiety.

[....]Longinus, critical.... formulator of the sublime, said that "beautiful words are in very truth the peculiar light of thought." But what is the origin of that light in a poem, play, story, novel? It is outside the writer, and stems from a precursor, who can be a composite figure. In regard to the precursor, creative freedom can be evasion but not flight. There must be agon, a struggle for supremacy, or at least for holding off imaginative death.

[....]to see art as a contest for the foremost place.

[....]Norman Austin, commenting upon Sophocles in Arion (2006), observes that "ancient poetry was dominated by an agonistic spirit that has hardly ever seen its equal.

[....]Western culture remains essentially Greek, since the rival Hebrew component has vanished into Christianity, itself indebted to the Greek genius.

[....]In the wake of French theorists of culture like the historian Michel Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the world of letters is most often portrayed as a Hobbesian realm of pure strategy and strife.

[....]Bourdieu's now fashionable account of literary relationships, with its emphasis on conflict and competition, has an affinity with my theory of influence and its emphasis on agon. But there are fundamental differences as well. I do not believe that literary relationships can be reduced to a naked quest for worldly power, though they may in some cases include such ambitions. The stakes in these struggles, for strong 

[....]For decades, I was informed that women and homosexual writers entered no contest but cooperated in a community of love. Frequently I was assured that black, Hispanic, and Asian literary artists too rose above mere competition. Agon was apparently a pathology confined to white heterosexual males. 

[....]In the wake of French theorists of culture like the historian Michel Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the world of letters is most often portrayed as a Hobbesian realm of pure strategy and strife.

[....]I do not believe that literary relationships can be reduced to a naked quest for worldly power, though they may in some cases include such ambitions. The stakes in these struggles, for strong. poets, are always literary.

[....]A strong poet seeks not simply to vanquish the rival but to assert the integrity of his or her own writing self.

[....] I define influence simply as literary love, tempered by defense. The defenses vary from poet to poet. But the overwhelming presence of love is vital to understanding how great literature works.

[....] Milton's defense against Shakespeare is highly selective repression while Joyce's is total appropriation.

[....] Shakespeare a special case for the study of influence: his effects are too large to be coherently analyzed.

[....] We would have been here anyway, of course, but without Shakespeare we would not have seen ourselves as what we are.

[....]Shelley appears in several chapters as a strong influence on Yeats, Browning, and Stevens, and as a somewhat reluctant skeptic too. Whitman, who appears in many chapters, comes in at least two key guises. He is the poet of the American Sublime, but he is an important representative of the Skeptical Sublime, and as such he appears alongside Shelley, Leopardi, Pater, Stevens, and the more covert Lucretians John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Milton, and Tennyson.

[....] The structure of literary influence is labyrinthine, not linear.

[....] how to transcend echoes and allusions, and to find the more crucial matter of the transmission of poetic stances and vision.

[....]My ways of writing about literary influence have been widely regarded as relying upon Freud's Oedipus complex. But that is just wrong, as I have explained before, to little avail. Freud's Hamlet complex is far closer, or even better, your Hamlet complex and mine. Hamlet's deepest struggles are with Shakespeare and with the Ghost, who was played by the dramatist.

[....]Magpie that he was, Shakespeare voids any distinction between tuition and provocation, and loots where he chooses. Whitman tends to limit his sources because his self-presentation demands that he become his own supreme authority.

[....]Influence, which figures everywhere in life, becomes intensified in poetry. It is the only true context for the strong poem because it is the element in which authentic poetry dwells.

[....]Influence stalks us all as influenza and we can suffer an anguish of contamination whether we are partakers of influence or victims of influenza. What remains free in us is the daimon. I am not a poet, but I can speak of the reader-in-the-reader and also as a daimon who deserves to be appeased. In our age of the screen—computer, television, movie—the new generations grow up seemingly bereft of their daimons. I fear that they will develop new versions of the daimonic, and that a visual culture will end imaginative literature.

[....]correct readings are not possible if a literary work is sublime enough. A correct reading merely would repeat the text, while asserting that it speaks for itself. It does not. The more powerful a literary artifice, the more it relies upon figurative language.

[....]To practice criticism, properly so-called, is to think poetically about poetic thinking.

[....]Imaginative literature is figurative or metaphoric. And in talking or writing about a poem or novel, we ourselves resort to figuration.

[....] I prefer the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard on anxiety to Freud, but Anna Freud mapped the mechanisms of defense, and my accounts of influence are indebted to her.

[....]Makari concludes by rightly judging psychoanalysis as the leading modern theory of the mind, citing its ideas of defense and inner conflict. Since I define influence here as literary love tempered by defense....

     Defense ( Abwehr ) is an agonistic concept in psychoanalysis, but it is a dialectical one as well and thus a splendid fit for any theories of influence. We fall in love, and for a time we have no defenses, but after a while we develop an arsenal of apotropaic gestures. We are animated by a drive that wants us to return to the ego's narcissistic investment in itself. So too with poets. Possessed by all the ambivalence of Eros, the new but potentially strong writer struggles to ward off any totalizing attachments.

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9 December 2021

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