Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Bloom, Anxious Influence, Joseph Epstein, The Merchant Of Venice And More


For the billions and billions waiting anxiously for this, waiting to be influenced by it: 

On Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” as Joseph Epstein has it, round two. 

And then moving outward from there to The Merchant Of Venice and a few other points.

My friend, who didn’t want to comment further till he reread Bloom and  who had been defending him:

....It's worse than Epstein says.  Amazing he can get away with it.
My copy has a Preface written 24 years after and it, on the other hand, is quite good and also tricky.  

In it he pooh poohs the Greek names for the various defenses and the over-systematization, says it is not a "theory of poetry" (the sub-title) but is only about the way a few great poets respond to earlier poets, and this process only begins with Shakespeare and Marlowe, who were not in the original.  He also says that the book was an effort to counter the going theories that made literature the prisoner of power, while its effect then was just to be another theory.  

He also keeps saying (in the main text) that his theory is meant to re-invigorate close analysis of individual poems but he gives no example and it certainly doesn't do that.  

The Preface however makes good points against the reigning contextual criticism and offers a lively account of the relationship between Marlowe and Shakespeare, including a nice statement in accord with my New Yorker letter that The Merchant of Venice is a good anti-semitic work while Jew of Malta, and his argument is the same one that he makes for Sh's special place in the canon, pointed to by his silly phrase, "the invention of the human."  

What that amounts to is the "inwardness" we find only after Shakespeare and mostly in a few novels by the greatest novelists, a sense that here for the first time one has characters who are fully human, whose full humanity is made available (as it never is in actual life in my view).  

My hope is that I had read the Preface before and was thinking of that!  But I am afraid I was just defending his Shakespeare stuff, The Western Canon and an essay on pedagogy that I admire in a perverse way....

Me, in response:

....So what I’m getting from you, maybe not entirely clearly, is that the book, on your rereading, is even worse than what Epstein says and that his 1/4 century later Preface to, I presume, a then updated republication of the book rationalizes what critics complained about in it. 

Is that right? 

Is he, for instance, pooh poohing his own original pompous bs? Is he saying, after the fact, that his book meant no systematic theory of literature, anxiety of influence, but rather was confined to specific writers, when in fact he does propose a grand theory? 

What does he mean when he says he was countering theories of literature that in fact made it a prisoner of power? Does he as mean post modern theory especially Foucault’s? If he doesn’t mean that, then what does he mean? 

I take it he, as an after thought, claims that his purpose was to enliven close reading of individual texts when in fact his book does none of it. It’s hard to see logically how an assertion and elaboration of anxious influence jibes with the postscript-claimed effort to revivify close reading.  

I don’t get a clear idea of what he or you mean by the “reigning contextual criticism.” Is it a species of pomo criticism; is it the kind of criticism that the New Criticism reacted against and transformed as an academic school of criticism; or what? 

Faisal, I don’t think the M of V is a good play, depending on what “is” is, so to say, which is to say, what “good” is. 

Forgetting Marlowe, why is it good? What’s the argument for that? 

I think it’s a bad play with a massive and unredeemable thematic and emotional final let down, with the flat final celebration of, as it’s presented, routing out villainy, with the undermining of the sparks of power and complexity that shone through what was flat, dull and “tricky,” to use your word, namely the power and complexity of Shylock as a character. He in my view got away from Shakespeare, as measured by his impact in relation to his brief presence in the play. The undermining is most potent in the final making a fool of Shylock, making him abject, talking away all his estate, and have him exit stage left or right like a beaten dog,  turned servile and cowardly. 

So again, what’s the argument? If it’s the presentation of “inwardness” that comes from full characterization, then I’d disagree, not with the inwardness, but with its redemption of the overall play as good. 

 My point is this: for all the good of Bloom’s vast learnedness, a point Epstein concedes, and how with that he has made literature better understood  and accessible too for scholars, critics, teachers and lay readers like me, something I’m not in a position to assess, but I’ll take Epstein as providing a working hypothesis requiring rebuttal, to me, subject to that rebuttal, he’s just another guy talking, when he does, about specific works. That is how I encountered him when I wrote my essay on Hamlet, an unscholarly effort to be sure, consulting only cursorily no more than three or four commentators, Bloom being prominent among them and most widely consulted only because I had a few of books at hand.

He was the least helpful. 

Catherine Belsey in a few comments on Hamlet was illuminating, authoritative on the point she made— the drive to revenge as a province of Hell. 

David Horowitz, yep him, then a (graduate?) student or Chafee at Columbia, was wonderful for near to poetic analyses of Shakespeare’s vision and of Hamlet’s inner torment, beautifully wrought and written by Horowitz. 

Compared to these two, Bloom, in getting right down to the text, was competent and ordinary, with some nice analyses of some of the imagery, but botching thematic extrapolation from them and getting lost analytically in the spume of his prose. I got nothing useful from him save for starting points to take off from and to disagree with. 

I’ve found that too when I read him on other plays and others’ works...

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