Monday, October 9, 2017

On Harold Bloom By Joseph Epstein Including The Idea Of The Anxiety Of Influence


Anxious Influence:

I'm having some fun arguing with a friend of mine about some whys, wherefores and the quality of Harold Bloom's idea of the anxiety of influence. Our discussion takes off from what I consider an eviscerating take down of Bloom, including that idea, by Sheriff Joe, being Joseph Epstein who likes to run pomposity, pretentiousness and flabby thinking parading as something grandiose out of town.  

A mutually self deprecating limit on our discussion is that we're both at some remove from actually having read Bloom. In the spirit of that self deprecation, I'll say that "some remove" is quite liberating for comments that are written in, how to put it?, a free wheeling, casual way, with no claim to particular depth or expertise.

So I was saying....

....Talk about tricky: that’s all a lot of stuff I haven’t read and I can’t say anything really on what I haven’t read. In fact, as I say, I haven’t read Bloom’s book for an awfully long time and even then only parts of it. So in effect I now comment by way only of what I know of it by hearsay including most recently Joseph Epstein’s.

One thought I have is to ask, whatever the scope of the idea Bloom asserts, anxious influence, which I’ve taken to be a claim of an encompassing idea in literature—Epstein noting that he sees Bloom seeing it everywhere and making unsupported broad brush claims for it that rest not on evidence, says Epstein on Bloom, but rather on Bloom’s say so, or whether as you say he confines it only to specific writers where the anxiety manifests itself, why limit that claim to writers? 

Deeper than only occurring in literature, I's think anxious influence to be a human trait applicable to all endeavours from bakers to candlestick makers. And certainly since no one works at anything ex nihlo, but rather and always within a tradition, where those who reach heights do so by being exemplary within the tradition or by being exemplary in subverting the tradition and reforming it, some influence presumably anxious and haunting and some—most?—not, I still can’t see what Bloom adds theoretically to anything by harping on anxiety. 

And  if he does, as you say, confine himself to specific instances, then save for illuminating particular cases (where compelling evidence for the anxiety supports his claim,) then what does that do to any claim for him enunciating a grand theory? 

What Epstein quotes as an example of the theory at work seems both breathless, ponderous, pretentious, unsubstantiated and altogether critically unhelpful. From everything I remember and have read about Bloom’s book and his idea, my impression is that he means that idea to wear the clothes of grand theory. And again, if it’s only certain writers-specific, then its existence as a theory seems non existent. 

You say that Bloom attempts classification of anxious influence. (Like seven types of ambiguity?) But I’m unaware of any other discipline in which the modes or modalities of influence get classified. Clearly, since all art, indeed essentially everything we do in the way of work, occurs within a tradition, something dialectical is universally afoot, showing itself in varieties of ways, if only the imprint, effects, of specific works on the tradition, which is what I remember of Eliot’s famous essay.

So while I’ve seen plenty on how “tradition and individual talent” has worked out in specific cases and across a spectrum of disciplines—this kind of dialectic seems to lie at the  very heart of the history of ideas—I’ve not, again, seen either the modes or the modalities of influence taxonomized.

I don’t know what it means to say that Bloom tried to classify anxious influence on the model of or by analogy to Freud’s defence mechanisms or even how Freud classified them. But I can imagine. Yes, I can imagine that Freud classified varieties of defence mechanisms sourced on the basis of, flowing out of in recurrently describable and predictable ways, his mainframe theory. If that’s indeed something like what Bloom attempted, I can’t imagine what his classification consists of, what theory it’s rooted in, and it surviving any analytical or evidential scrutiny. Also, classification suggests to me much more than the discrete examination of particular instances; rather it suggests, perhaps necessarily, the enunciation of a grand theory. 

So if Bloom, as you say, has ideas, what are they beyond the tracing of specific instances of anxious influence, which, again, would itself only have utility in particular cases insofar as evidence supports it? 

I read long ago specific parts of Mimesis. I can’t remember its thesis. I can only remember, truth to tell, an essay on Don Quixote, the specifics of which escape me. But I do remember liking a lot what I read and only being impressed by it. That style expresses a culture—if I understand that, I’m not sure I do, but maybe I do—I don’t think I doubt. I’d only say this further on Auerbach: my impression of reaction to Mimesis is near to universal acclaim. Unlike anything I’ve ever noted about reaction to Bloom. 

 Can you say what “Bloom’s method” is? 

You may be cutting Bloom too much slack by emasculating what a theory is by saying that a theory of literature isn't right or wrong A theory to be a theory, about anything, must have within it a claim that it’s right. And it either is or isn’t. That establishing right or wrong proves somewhat indeterminate doesn’t obviate what’s fundamental to theory, that it attempts to be an accurate account--concededly provisional, its only a theory, after all, awaiting validation or falsification--of some slice of what is. 

I once read some theorizing by Ransom on the psychological basis of the New Criticism. It was impenetrable. 

Finally I’ve not read Empson’s book but I did read the sequel,  The 7 Types Of William Empson....

No comments:

Post a Comment