Speaking Volumes: The Anxiety Of Influence

November 22, 1996

Richard Cockett on Harold Bloom's The Anxiety Of Influence .

My bookshelves are my intellectual odyssey. In the proper Oxford schools manner, Gibbon and Macaulay now gather dust near the floor, and Tocqueville and Machiavelli constitute part of the shelving. Level with the light switch are the English masters - E. P. Thompson whom I love for his passion, Christopher Hill and even Paul Addison. At the top, the cobwebs have to compete with the postmodernists and usually win. Lyotard and Foucault rub spines with the less exotic Harvey and Norris.

But in the midst of all the history books is a small diaspora of literary criticism texts, and it is one of these that I still find the most challenging and frustrating book I have ever read, and reread and reread. A slim, innocent-looking paperback, it remains the most influential book in my life, for good and for ill, and its very subject is the nature of influence - to be precise, The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom. The subtitle is A Theory of Poetry, for Bloom is essentially a critic and poet himself, specialising in the Romantics, but I read The Anxiety of Influence as a metaphor for anyone writing in the social sciences, and of societies themselves. Bloom's principal concern is the way that poets - all writers - have to wrestle with their predecessors. For Bloom, this is the primary occupation of intellectual life. It is impossible to escape influence, but the question is how we use that influence, and whether we can transcend it to create an original voice. I had written five books and too many articles but was still filled with a nagging sense of unfulfilment by the time I encountered the rolling thunder of Bloom's opening sentences: "Poetic history ... is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves. My concern is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealise; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves."

"Strong poets" can exist in any field. Academics are especially prone to fail Bloom's test of a strong poet, and historians in particular. I had buried myself in books and archives and footnotes for years and had produced "sound scholarship" - but then we are trained to appropriate. All my books, from the dust by the skirting board to the cobwebs on the ceiling, are my "precursors" - but Bloom's challenge is to ask whether I had ever achieved enough distance between them and my own writing to say what I think, rather than merely providing thinly veiled commentaries on everybody else. The answer, as I quickly came to see, was an emphatic "no".

So Bloom has rationalised my sense of dissatisfaction, and provided me with a spur to the future. He writes about the value of "radical discontinuity", the break that you have to make with your precursors to become a strong writer; an enormous and rather daunting risk to one schooled in the cautious empirical traditions of English history writing. But that is precisely what made Gibbon and E. P. Thompson such strong writers and good historians - and Bloom himself such an effective critic. Britain itself is beset, to a greater degree than any other country, by The Anxiety of Influence, so I also read it as a critique of our own times. Most political and social debate in this country is a commentary - a Bloomian "misreading" - on our past. Should we go into Europe and surrender our historic sovereignty? Should we abolish the House of Lords? These are all questions about our national, institutional precursors, about a relationship with our own history. Britain, governed as it is by the Zeitgeist of the Whig dictum "reform to preserve", has always been cruelly averse to the poetics of "radical discontinuity", at the cost of ossification and complacency. We now "appropriate" Japanese working methods, but we surrendered any chances of becoming a "strong" nation in the Bloomian sense decades ago - and now enter the 21st century with an 18th-century constitution.

Everyone in the social sciences should read Bloom's subversive little book; there is no greater critique of the process of thinking and creation.

Richard Cockett is lecturer in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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