The Canon: The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. By Harold Bloom

May 20, 2010

The trouble with this book is that it's very hard to disagree with, without ending up endorsing its central argument that writing stems from intergenerational conflict. Younger critic: "The thing about you Bloom - with your smug, self-satisfied, bourgeois-capitalist understanding of subjectivity, and your notion of creativity as an almost Darwinian competition for survival, and your fuddy-duddy beliefs in a post-Romantic, post-Freudian idea of genius and the egotistical sublime (that's like ... so last century) - is that you just don't understand us! And you're so embarrassing on my shelves when my friends come round! Grrrrr ... I hate you dad!" (Younger critic shakes fist, slams bedroom door and turns up Derrida very loud.)

Bloom's was an impassioned articulation of the reactionary position in what we now call the theory wars, but somehow its own influence endures beyond its historical moment, and despite the seemingly bonkers terminology of its schema. Anxiety, published in 1973, provided a taxonomy of six types or phases of conflict ("misprision") between young poet ("ephebe") and precursor. So Blake swerves to avoid the out-held right hook of Milton by misreading him ("clinamen" - phew!); Wallace Stevens turns Whitman's own strength back on himself to "complete" him ("tessera" - body slam - THUD!); Shelley feints emptying himself of his own divinity, only to knock out Wordsworth's at the last second ("kenosis" - ker-POW!). And so on.

It wasn't just that the names of these categories seemed arbitrary when, as a postgraduate, I first read the book - Bloom's introduction admitted as much - but that the categories seemed arbitrary, and the combative nature of the model was one I failed to recognise in much of what I was studying. As a reader of modern poetry looking for its relationships with medieval poetry (a 1,000-year-long blank space in Bloom's otherwise dizzyingly capacious purview), I was just becoming aware of the sophisticated models that medievalist scholars had long been developing of authorship and textual production in their period as collaborative and social functions (and quite distinct from those later advanced by New Historicism). Like many narratives with universalist ambition, Bloom's seemed to leave out whatever would have troubled it. Moreover, I had my own anxieties about the Wallace Stevens epigram to the book, that "the theory/Of poetry is the theory of life" (a theory of life, surely?). Anxiety was a theory of life by which I did not wish to live.

A good friend helped me to make peace with the book when he suggested that maybe, at one level, Anxiety was written as a kind of self-ironising joke, sending up its relationship to William Empson's equally crazy but equally brilliant attempt at interpretative taxonomy, Seven Types of Ambiguity. I was stunned - and suddenly anxiety-free. Until then it hadn't occurred to me that literary criticism could be written with that kind of humour. Now I don't think it should be written without it. "Dear Dad, I'm writing to thank you for all that you've done for me ..." (I think that's apophrades).

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