Harold Bloom: The Anxiety of Influence
The Anxiety of Influence
On the surface of things, the concept of influence seems straightforward. An artist trying to define a space for himself or herself under the weight of tradition is inspired by precursors. She or he selects elements that are useful or admired, interpolates them with implicit commentary of his or her own, and arrives at an "original" production that nevertheless grasps what has gone before. Influence is pervasive and inescapable, even if the artist is a revolutionary and acknowledges the past only to condemn it. In this way history in the arts makes progress.
In 1973, the literary theorist Harold Bloom published a study which questioned this commonsense formulation. In The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Bloom explored the psychology of influence, and concluded that it was conflict of Oedipal dimensions between the poet and his or her literary forbearers. It is the struggle of the artist, Bloom argued, to find his or her own voice through an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden relation precisely with those precursors whom they most admire. Through creative misinterpretations of these shadowy figures, the artist, in the very act of holding up certain past artists as admired precursors, also imagines them as incomplete, failing for all their genius, and falling short of the mark that only the present artist is capable of reaching. If the present artist did not believe that, what would be left for him or her to accomplish? Admiration therefore necessarily becomes accusation, and the present artist only discovers his or her own power by distorting, demonizing, and then devouring those influences that he or she loves so much. Originality is achieved in the misinterpretation of the precursor as incomplete, which allows one to write the past according to one’s own agenda, that is, to influence (in imagination) one’s precursors instead of letting them influence one. One unconsciously takes credit for...