Bloom, Harold

Assigned: Bloom, Harold. From The Anxiety of Influence, “Introduction. A Meditation upon Priority, and a Synopsis”(1574-80), “Synopsis: Six Revisionary Ratios” (1580-81), and “Interchapter. A Manifesto for Antithetical Criticism” (1581-82). Also read the editors’ introduction (1572-74).

From The Anxiety of Influence (1973)

Introduction. A Meditation upon Priority, and a Synopsis

1. On 1574-75 (“This short book offers a theory…”), what vision of “poetic history” does Harold Bloom set forth? Why is he interested only in “strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death” (1574)? How does Bloom use Oscar Wilde’s composition of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” to illustrate what happens when a poet fails to deal well with what Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence” (1574)? What insight does he also draw from comments by the American poet Wallace Stevens regarding the influence of other poets? (1575)

2. On 1575-76 (“This view, that poetic influence…”), how does Bloom counter-argue against Wallace Stevens and other like-minded “anti-influence” commentators in favor of the key role that influence plays in the life and work of a great poet? Why is it the case, according to Bloom, that poetic influence “need not make poets less original” and that the view of the anti-influence commentators amounts to “a variety of melancholy or an anxiety-principle” (1575)? How might Bloom’s Freudian framework for dealing with poetic influence as “misprision” (1576) tend to reduce the impact of worries about the poet’s originality?

3. On 1576 (“Nietzsche and Freud are, so far as…”), what does Bloom suggest that his theory about “poetic misprision” and “the anxiety of influence” owes to Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche? In what ways does he say that his theory diverges from theirs? Why, for example, does Bloom reject Freud’s “qualified […] optimism that happy substitution [for one’s “earliest attachments”] is possible”? In other words, how is Bloom’s theory of primal competition darker than Freud’s theory about the “family romance” or struggle between a male child and his father over the affections of the mother?

4. On 1576-78 (“Freud recognized sublimation as…”), Bloom continues his meditation on Freudian psychoanalytic theory and, specifically, the notion of sublimation of primal pleasures for the sake of “more refined modes of pleasure” (1576). How, according to him, is the romantic poet confronted with a starker or more “severe” struggle since that poet’s quest is for nothing less than “the vision of immortality” (1576)? How is Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood a good illustration of the poet’s confrontation with the inevitability of death? (1577) How, too, do Romantic poets engage in a struggle with nature that they are bound to lose? Finally, how do you interpret Bloom’s remark that “Romanticism […] may have been a vast visionary tragedy, the self-baffled enterprise not of Prometheus but of blinded Oedipus, who did not know that the Sphinx was his Muse” (1577)?

5. On 1578 (“The greatest poet in our language…”), what reasons does Bloom offer for excluding Shakespeare from The Anxiety of Influence? In particular, why does Shakespeare’s relation to his predecessor dramatist Christopher Marlowe gravitate against inclusion? How does Bloom gesture towards an assessment of Alfred Tennyson’s relative value as a poet in comparison with fellow Victorians based on his relation to his predecessor poet, John Keats?

6. On 1579-80 (“This book’s main purpose is…”), how does Bloom, reflecting on his preferences among the poets of his own time, describe the contentions and achievements he finds in their work? (1579) Similarly, what assessment does he make of the critics he most values, and values least? What comments does he make about the work of Giambattista Vico (see Leitch 337-57) and about the Gnostic author Valentinus, both of whom have evidently influenced his own literary theory? (1579-80)

Synopsis: Six Revisionary Ratios

7. On 1580-81 (“1. Clinamen, which is a poetic misreading…”), Bloom lists six “revisionary ratios” or relationships between latter-day and predecessor poets: Clinamen, Tessera, Kenosis, Daemonization, Askesis, and Apophrades. Write a brief summary of each, choosing two among them for additional examination. What kind of relationship do the two “ratios” you choose posit between the predecessor and the later poet? Why do you find these two more interesting than the others? Explain.

Interchapter. A Manifesto for Antithetical Criticism

8. On 1581-82 (“If to imagine is to misinterpret…”), Bloom gives us a sense of the criticism he finds most appropriate to his theory of “the anxiety of influence” and the “six ratios.” What does he apparently mean in calling this criticism “antithetical” (1581)? What two “swerves” (i.e., clinamens) are initially required of Bloom’s critic in reading works of literature? What more than this is required to reach the level of truly antithetical criticism?

9. On 1582 (“Summary—Every poem is a…”), Bloom summarizes the messages he has been conveying throughout The Anxiety of Influence. Choose a few of the ones you find most interesting or compelling, and examine them for the insight they offer. For example, Bloom writes that “A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety.” What does this statement perhaps suggest about the critic’s task in reading such a poem? What insights about the nature of criticism does Bloom offer in his summary?

10. General question: Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom’s fellow member of the 1970s Yale School of Deconstruction consisting of Bloom, Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man, wrote in the course of weighing the merits of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory that “literary history is for him like human life, a polymorphous quest-romance collapsing always into one tragic recognition” (Hartman, The Fate of Reading and Other Essays, U of Chicago Press, 1975, pg. 50). Do you find Bloom’s strongly Freudian account of the “strong poet’s” struggle with precursors compelling? Why or why not? If you prefer other models that explain the progression of literary history—why one school of art is formed and then gives way to another; whether the artists of a given age mostly support or mostly tear down the dominant ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting in their time; etc.—provide a brief explanation of what you consider the most productive model.

11. General question: Harold Bloom’s study The Anxiety of Influence centers on the strong competition of later poets with their predecessors for poetic primacy and, in a sense, the right to tell whatever stories they want to tell without being overshadowed by those predecessors. Which pair of poets or other artists would you choose that seem to fit into this paradigm of anxiety and artistic contention? In what ways do you find the newer artist to be influenced by the earlier one, and, on the whole, do you believe the newer artist to have produced better work than the first, or at least to have achieved the authenticity and independence he or she sought? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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