ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 14

 - Influence


In this lecture on the psyche in literary theory, Professor Paul Fry explores the work of T. S. Eliot and Harold Bloom, specifically their studies of tradition and individualism. Related and divergent perspectives on tradition, innovation, conservatism, and self-effacement are traced throughout Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Bloom’s “A Meditation upon Priority.” Particular emphasis is placed on the process by which poets struggle with the literary legacies of their precursors. The relationship of Bloom’s thinking, in particular, to Freud’s Oedipus complex is duly noted. The lecture draws heavily from the works of Pope, Borges, Joyce, Homer, Wordsworth, Longinus, and Milton.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 14 - Influence

Chapter 1. Introduction to Harold Bloom [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So I’ll tell you a little bit about Harold Bloom’s career later in the lecture. Those of you who knowHow to Read a Poem, the books on religion, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, and perhaps only know those books, may feel a little surprised at finding him on a literary theory syllabus, but the great outpouring of work beginning with The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Poetry and Repression, and a great many other books in the seventies put Bloom in the very midst of the theoretical controversies then swirling. He was associated with the so-called Yale School. In fact, he was willing to put his name as editor and also a contributor on a volume that was calledDeconstruction and Criticism.

I think though that, even in reading what you have before you, you can see how relatively little Bloom has to do with deconstruction. Certainly in his more recent career he’s distanced himself from theory. He hasn’t really changed his views of anything, although he doesn’t any longer read poems through the machinery of the six revisionary ratios. Perhaps I should stop there and say the six revisionary ratios won’t be on the test. [laughter] Now I think that nothing could be more exciting than to understand clinamen, tessera, sort of kenosis, askesis, demonization, apophrades–whoa!–and to wander in the realms of these ideas, and actually to use them as the machinery for practical criticism: to take a poem and to see what you can actually do with these ideas really is, and I’m serious, an exciting process. You may very much resent not having these six ratios on the exam, and you may wish to hear more about them. You’ll hear something about a few of them in passing today, but if you do wish to hear more about them, perhaps your sections will [laughs] provide some guidance.

In any case, the contributions of Bloom to theory in my opinion, and I hope to bring this out in the long run, have primarily to do with the fact that I think he can legitimately and authentically be called an important literary historiographer. That is to say, together with people like Tynjanov and Jakobson earlier in the course and Hans Robert Jauss later in the course, Bloom does seriously deserve to be considered a literary historian–that is to say, a person with a theory about literary history on a par with those other figures. This hasn’t always often been remarked. As a matter of fact, the general critical attitude toward Bloom is that he’s hopelessly ahistoricist, cares nothing about history, and cares nothing about the way in which the real world impinges on literature. In a certain measure, as we’ll also see, there is some truth in this, but he has a powerful argument about the relationship among texts as they succeed each other in history. It’s an argument which I think really we ignore in our peril. It’s an important one and it is a psychoanalytic one, which is one of the things that places him at this point in the course.

You’ll remember the sort of tripartition of the subject matter of our course which–it’s all headed up in the syllabus and all clearly to be understood. First we have logo genesis, the production of literature by language. Then we have psychogenesis, the production of literature by the human psyche. Then we have sociogenesis, the production of literature by social, economic, and political and historical factors. Okay, fine, well and good, but you may have noticed how much trouble we have had getting into psychogenesis. We keep saying we’ve arrived [laughs] at psychogenesis, but we actually continue to be working obviously with linguistic models. Here is Lacan telling us the unconscious resembles a language, that it’s structured like a language; Brooks telling us that it’s the verbal structure arising out of the relationship between metaphor and metonymy that constitutes the narrative text. We keep sitting around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for somebody to say something about the psychogenesis of the text.

Well, Bloom brings us closer, and he himself, when he speaks of the poet in the poet, is concerned to describe what he calls an “agon,” a psychological agon or struggle between the belated poet and the precursor taking place at that level in the psyche; but even Bloom, of course, is talking about the relation of text to text. He is talking about relations which are arguably verbal. Verbal influence, by the way, he always professes contempt for. He calls it moldy fig philology, but I think that as you study the examples of literary influence in Bloom’s text, Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading and so on, you will see that there is a kind of dependence on verbal echo and verbal continuity, and that his theory, the strong version of his theory, struggles against but, I think, nevertheless does link itself to. I want to move into a general exploration of the topic of influence by talking, in fact, about how unstable the relationship between an idea of influence which is, let’s say, psychological or world-based and an idea of influence which is word-based can be. It’s not as simple and straightforward a distinction as one might imagine.

Chapter 2. Mimesis and Imitatio [00:06:31]

So we linger in these linguistic models and there’s a long tradition in which the confusion between the psychic and the linguistic is manifest, and it has to do with the very traditional subject of imitation. Plato and Aristotle agree that art, poetry, is an imitation. It is, both of them say, an imitation of nature. Plato thinks it’s done badly, Aristotle thinks it’s done well, but both agree that poetry is an imitation of nature. Then as time passes, this idea of mimesis, the imitation of nature, gradually becomes transformed so that by the time you get to the Silver Age of Roman literature, a high-water mark of elegance in the Latin language, you have rhetorical theorists like Quintilian and Cicero and others talking not about mimesis but about–in Latin, of course–imitatio, seemingly the same idea. They are still talking about imitation, but the strange thing that’s happened is now they’re not talking about the imitation of nature anymore. They’re talking about the imitation of literary models: in other words, the imitation of language, the way in which we can establish canons by thinking about the relationship of particular poets and other writers with a tradition of literary expression from which they emerge. So this then, imitatio, becomes a language-based theory of influence arising seemingly spontaneously out of a nature-based theory of influence.

Now take a look at the first passage on your sheet from Alexander’s Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” He’s talking about Virgil here. Homer, the argument is, has to have imitated nature. After all, there were no literary models to imitate, so if Homer imitated anything it must have been nature. Well, fine. Homer imitated nature, but then along comes Virgil–in this same period, by the way, when rhetorical theories were redefining imitation as the imitation of verbal models–along comes Virgil and he says, “I’m going to write my own national epic and you know what, I’ll just sit down and write it.” But then he starts looking at Homer; this is all what Pope is thinking as he prepares to write the couplet that’s on your sheet. Then he starts to write, but then he rereads Homer. At first he feels terrible because he realized that Homer has said it all. There are two poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s nothing left to say. Homer has covered the entire waterfront, and so Virgil is sort of stuck. What is he going to do?

Well, what he can do, if he can’t imitate nature anymore because Homer has done that, is he can imitate Homer. The result is that he comes to a sort of realization that Pope epitomizes in this couplet:

But when t’ examine ev’ry part he came [that is to say, every part of Homer’s compositions, every part of his own composition as he undertook to write his own epic]

Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.

So here you have emerging the idea that to imitate nature and to imitate art–to imitate the things of the world, the people of the world, and to imitate language–is part and parcel of the same process. To do one you necessarily and perforce do the other. That’s what I mean by saying that we’re still struggling to get away from the logogenetic [laughs] model to the psychogenetic model. Even in the most traditional expressions of how influence works, like Pope’s, we are still concerned to distinguish, and find it very difficult to distinguish, between nature and art. When Samuel Johnson, fifty years after Pope, is still saying, “Nothing can please many, or please long, but just representations of general nature,” he is in this idea of representations and in the idea of general nature teetering between a sense that it’s things in the world that art imitates and it is existing literary models that art imitates and from which art takes its cue. So there’s a kind of collapse then in the idea of imitation. There’s a kind of a collapse, a surprising collapse perhaps when you think about it, between the notion of the imitation of nature and the notion of the imitation of art.

Chapter 3. Bloom “Misreads” Eliot [00:11:51]

Now if we turn then to the two texts that you’ve read for today, both of which are theories of influence, you can see that T. S. Eliot, too, is a little bit unclear as to the relationship of these two sorts of imitation. For Eliot the individual talent that inserts itself into, that engages with, tradition has to cope with what Eliot calls “the mind of Europe,” page 539, left-hand column. I’ll read a fairly extensive passage because this is one of the most accessible summaries of what Eliot has to say:

[The poet] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe–the mind of his own country–a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind…

Let me just stop there and say this seems as much unlike Bloom as it can possibly be because Bloom, the Romantic, is all about one’s own private mind, the struggle of the individual mind to define itself over against all of those minds jostling for attention that precede it to over them to the point where they are, in effect, effaced, and the belated ego can finally establish itself as prior to all preceding egos. This sort of struggle seems–and I say “seems” because I’m going to be lingering over this for a while–seems to be absent from Eliot. Eliot seems to be all about self-effacement, about the recognition that the mind of Europe is more important than one’s own mind, and that if one is to contribute anything as an individual talent to tradition, that contribution has to be a matter of the most acutely sensitive awareness of everything, not that one is struggling to be but that one is not. It seems, in other words, like a very different perspective.

To continue the passage:

… [The mind of Europe is] a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route which does not superannuate either Shakespeare or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draftsman. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist any improvement.

In other words, the relationship between tradition and the individual talent is a relationship of entering into a vast matrix of literary, philosophical, and other sorts of expression that changes and yet never really transforms itself and certainly can’t be understood as a grand march or progress toward some great goal, because nothing is ever lost and nothing radically innovative can ever really be introduced.

I hope you are thinking and reflecting on a passage of this kind about a good deal that we’ve passed through already: Gadamer’s sense of tradition as something which depends absolutely on the awareness of continuity, on the willingness to meet the past halfway, to enter into a merger of horizons in which the past and the present can speak in an authentic way to each other; and that in other ways this idea, or possibly also the Russian formalist idea in its Darwinian sense, that the dominant and the recessive elements of any literary text are always present at any time. It’s just that they tend perpetually in a kind of oscillation to be changing places with each other. So the whole gamut of literary possibility, of expressive possibility, is, according to theories of history of this kind, is always already there, and one’s own entry into this vast sea of expressive possibility is always a subtle thing that certainly can’t in any way be seen to showcase or to manifest any sort of original genius as the Romantic tradition might want to insist on it. So this is basically the perspective of Eliot and one from which certainly you know Bloom would obviously seem to be diverging.

Now I want to argue that actually there is a tremendous amount of continuity between Eliot and Bloom, and that Bloom’s [laughs] Anxiety of Influence–I’ve never discussed this with Harold, by the way. Those of you who may be taking his seminars, I leave it up to you whether you want to take this up with him. As I say, I leave that up to you, but I think a strong argument can be made, and I have made it in print so Harold has seen it, that Bloom misreads and is a strong misreader of T. S. Eliot: which is to say–such is the logic of strong misreading–that T. S. Eliot said everything Bloom has to say already. I do believe this, [laughs] despite this extraordinary appearance of total difference in perspective, the traditional versus the Romantic and so on. I don’t want to go into detail in this argument for fear of being considered obsessive, but I’d like to make a few points about it in passing, because I think it’s such a perfect exemplification of how The Anxiety of Influence works. Bloom has always denied the influence of “Tradition in the Individual Talent.” He acknowledges influences, but they are Emerson, Nietzsche, the great Romantic poets, and so on. He has, as I say, vehemently denied the influence of Eliot, yet as one reads Eliot–and I’m going to spend some time with Eliot now–it seems to me that at least in skeletal form, in suggestion, Bloom is all there already, which is, after all, all Bloom ever says about the relationship between a precursor and a belated writer: so it can’t be surprising, can it?

All right. Now first of all, it’s very important to Bloom to show the way in which the new reconstitutes the old: that is to say, the appropriation of the precursor text, which is not a notional text although it–and that’s one of the things that’s sort of counterintuitive about Bloom’s writing in this period. He insists that there is a particular precursor text. The precursor text for “Tintern Abbey” is “Lycidas.” Don’t tell me about other [laughs] precursor texts. It’s “Lycidas,” and he shows how this is the case, but the relationship between the belated text and the precursor text is such that we can never read the precursor text the same way again. The strong misreading of the precursor text is so powerful, in other words, that it becomes our strong misreading. We just can’t think about “Lycidas” in the same way on this view after we’ve read “Tintern Abbey.”

If this seems counterintuitive, just think about certain examples that might come to mind. The most obvious example is the famous text by Borges called “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” I imagine a number of you know that text, but what it consists in basically is–it’s a kind of an anecdote about a Frenchman writing, as I recall, in the end of the nineteenth century in Spanish a text, and his text is as it turns out verbatim, word for word, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, only it’s not Cervantes’ Don Quixote; it’s Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote. Think how different it is. This is a Frenchman at the end of the nineteenth century writing in Spanish. That’s pretty impressive, much more impressive than Cervantes merely writing in his own language, and it’s a completely different historical perspective. Whereas Cervantes thinks he’s being a little bit ironic about his own historical moment–the death of chivalry and all that–think about how ironic you can be about that historical moment writing several centuries later with everything that you know now. What a tour de force to be able to write Don Quixote at the end of the nineteenth century in another language, a whole new ball game! How can you ever read Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the same way? It seems naïve, right?

Now that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is actually to belittle Pierre Menard, but you can see this as a theory of strong misreading. Pierre Menard thinks he’s doing something new, right? The fact is, he’s not doing anything new at all. His belief that he’s doing something new is precisely his misreading of the precursor text–and by the way, you don’t have to have read the precursor text–but that misreading, after all, is something in its very power which, as it were, infiltrates our own understanding of the precursor text, making it impossible for us to read it the same way again.

Think of Joyce’s Ulysses. We all know that Ulysses, like Virgil’s Aeneid, is based on The Odyssey and that it, as it were, recycles The Odyssey; but it seems to be looking at The Odyssey through the wrong end of a telescope. It’s dragging all the sort of heroic dimension of the poem down into a kind of nitty-gritty account of everyday life in recent society. In other words, it implicitly, precisely in following The Odyssey debunks the heroic myth of The Odyssey. How can we read, in other words, The Odyssey in the same way again after we’ve read Ulysses?

Now it has to be said, and Bloom would say this, Ulysses is not a strong misreading of The Odyssey because it’s perfectly conscious of what it’s doing. It knows exactly what it’s doing with respect to the text of The Odyssey, so it’s a deliberate misreading which has other virtues. It’s not quite the same thing, but what it does have in common with Bloom’s theory and what it has in common also with Eliot’s idea about the relationship between the individual talent and tradition is that it reconstitutes tradition. It doesn’t just provide something novel. It makes us see tradition itself in a different way. Turn to page 538, the right-hand column about halfway down:

The existing monuments [says Eliot] form an ideal order among themselves which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.

We can’t quite see it the same way again, so it’s a dynamic, mutual relationship between tradition and the individual talent: the strong precursor and the belated poet, in each case, which is mutually transforming. The basis, the principle of transformation, is the belated poet’s strong misreading of the precursor which simultaneously asserts the egoistic priority of the belated poet: I’m doing something new; I’m going where no one has ever gone before. I’m doing so so powerfully that it’s a question of whether there actually was anybody before, on the one hand, and the strong precursor who turns out, as one reflects more and more and more about the relationship, to have said everything the belated poet says already, right? So simultaneously, Bloom’s theory of literary history, his literary historiography, places a premium on innovation and on conservatism, or tradition, simultaneously. Unlike Gadamer, leaning toward the conservative or traditional, and Iser or the Russian formalists, who lean toward the innovative, the Bloomian idea simultaneously countenances the idea of tradition as something absolutely continuous and also of tradition as something which is constantly being remade or at least rethought. That, I have to tell you, is very similar to T. S. Eliot’s position.

So now again the famous aphorism of Eliot on page 539, the left-hand column at the bottom:

Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

Rather good, I think. The famous aphorism of T.S. Eliot can also be understood as something that Bloom, in his own way, might very well say. The past is what we know, but we’re not aware of knowing it. In other words, I write the past when I write my belated poem, but I don’t think I’m doing it. I think instead that I’m doing something new. In the first provisionary ratio, clinamen, I am swerving from the past: I swerve out and down, I find my own space like a Lucretian atom. If it weren’t for swerving–and Lucretius says all the atoms would fall in the same place–that wouldn’t be good, so they all swerve so they can all fall in their own place. Well, that is the belated poet’s sense of what he’s doing in relation to the precursor. He’s swerving out and down from the precursor poet, but of course he’s not. [laughs] Again–and we’ll come back to this–he’s not. He’s actually falling in the same place, but the strength of that swerve, the rhetorical gesture of the swerve, is so powerful that we do feel transported. Once again we feel both at once, the innovation and the necessary conservatism, or preservational aspect, of the new poet’s composition.

All right. So I think, as I say, that Eliot’s aphorism, too, very much anticipates Bloom’s view of the agonistic struggle among poets. Then finally Eliot’s famous emphasis–and of course, nothing could seem to be less gloomy than this–Eliot’s famous emphasis on the poet’s impersonality, on the wish to escape personality: he says, in the right-hand column, page 541, end of section two, “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things”–in other words, to enter a world of art, in effect, to abandon the sense that what’s important is my personal psychological agony; to enter, by contrast, the mind of Europe; to recognize the complete insignificance of any individual mind, certainly my own; and to immerse oneself as a poet, as an artist, and as a creator, if one can still retain this term, in that which is infinitely more vast than one is oneself.

Chapter 4. Literary History: the Always Already Written “Strong Poem” [00:29:34]

Well, that doesn’t sound very Bloomian, but look on page 1160, the right-hand column, at Bloom’s fifth revisionary ratio, askesis. [laughs] He’s talking about what the later poet, the belated poet, does in order to find space for himself. What can I do in order to make myself different from other people? Well, you’d think the answer would be make yourself bigger than anybody. Wallace Stevens has a wonderful poem called “Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” and the rabbit swells up to become so big that it just kind of overwhelms everything. I always think of this as Bloom’s belated poet, but if you have askesis as one of the authentic revisionary ratios, something very different is happening to this same end.

About halfway through the definition, definition five–and by the way, the masculine pronoun is something that Harold has never apologized for. What he means is that a poet is gendered masculine but that, of course, any woman can be a poet. We’ll come back to distinctions of that sort later. He does think of Emily Dickinson, for example, as a strong poet. Obviously, that’s a controversial aspect of Bloom’s work, but he uses the masculine prologue unapologetically. Of course, his theory is very much caught up in the idea of Oedipal conflict which, as Freud is always being criticized for, is, unless you project it into the realm of the symbolic as Lacan and feminist Lacanians do, undoubtedly a masculist idea. If the essential generational conflict of human beings is between father and son, well, obviously [laughs] problems can be seen to arise from that, and in Bloom’s rhetoric, in his vocabulary, the masculist Oedipal conflict is still central.

In any case, returning to this point about the effacement of the self, in the very act of trying to find a place for oneself as an innovator–an effacement which, however, once again seems to me to catapult Bloom back into the position of Eliot that he is trying to misread strongly. He says, “[The poet] yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment.” In other words, he curtails himself; he shrinks himself; he makes himself less than he might have been, of course, in order to be more than he has been. He yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment so as to separate himself from others including the precursor. So in askesis–and also in kenosis, by the way–there is a self-shrinking or self-effacement on the part of these particular moves of strong misreading with respect to the precursor. It’s not, in other words, just a question of the rabbit as king of the ghosts. It’s not a question of a massive ego swelling to the point where it fills all space. It is more complicated than that, and in being more complicated it is frankly more Eliot-like.

All right. So turning then more directly to Bloom, his career begins–it has always involved a sense of struggle in the relationship among poets. In his earliest work–Shelley’s MythmakingBlake’s Apocalypse, and The Visionary Company–the idea of struggle was embodied plainly as what he called Protestantism. In other words, he saw the tradition he was talking about arising in relation to the Reformation, that time when, as I said in my thumbnail history of hermeneutics, everybody suddenly realized he had his own Bible and his own relationship with God: in other words, that time when human individuality emerges, which is also, of course, called by many others the emergence of the bourgeoisie. In that moment, the idea of Protestantism–purely in the sense, as a character in Durrell says, “that I protest”–emerges so that each poet takes, in some sense, an adversary stance toward previous literary models. This is present in Bloom’s work from the beginning of his career. The word “Protestant” gradually gives way to the word “revisionary,” and then that’s the word that he uses primarily in The Visionary Company, for example, and then finally becomes the notion of misreading. The protest of the belated figure is the protest which takes the form of transfiguring the precursor text in such a way that one can find oneself to be original. It is an Oedipal struggle.

Now this idea of Oedipal struggle, which is largely unconscious, is not new to Bloom, just quickly to review the next three passages on your sheet. Longinus, the author whose actual identity we cannot quite determine but whose On the Sublime, an extraordinarily interesting text, is available to us to read–I’ve got two passages from him. The first is:

As if instinctively [this is in the moment of the sublime] our soul is uplifted by the true sublime. [Fine. That’s what you would expect anybody to say.] It takes a proud flight and is filled with joy and vaunting [and this is where the surprise comes] as though it had itself produced what it has heard.

In other words, there’s a kind of possession by the other that takes place which is simultaneously experienced psychologically as possession of the other, right? It is speaking through me. It’s making me very excited like a little kid. They’re watching TV, somebody hits a home run, and the little kid goes like this [gestures] and thinks he thought he hit the home run. He’s completely into the fantasy of being that hero, right? It’s the same thing with the response to something that we haven’t said, such that in a certain moment we think we have said it. It’s a mutual possession. It possesses us, causing the psychological reaction that we think of ourselves as possessing it. It seems to me that there is real insight in what Longinus is saying and that it has an important influence on Bloom’s position.

Another passage from Longinus–and by the way, I think what Longinus says here is absolutely true: Plato is constantly abusing Homer, and yet nothing can be easier than to show the ways in which the great Homeric actions and even tropes help shape Platonic thought. It’s a fascinating topic and Longinus, it seems to me, again is exactly right about it: “There would not have been so fine a bloom of perfection on Plato’s philosophical doctrines unless he had with all his heart and mind struggled with Homer for primacy.” He even thinks in Bloomian terms of that of wanting to be first even though in some part of your mind you know you’re second–he even struggles for primacy, showing perhaps too much love of contention and breaking a lance with him, as it were, but deriving some profit from the contest nonetheless; for as he says, “This strife is good for mortals.”

Quickly, a more commonplace example taking from Sainte-Beuve, a famous essay of his called “What is a Classic?”–which is all about influence. There’s a tradition of essays called “What is a Classic?” Eliot wrote a great one in 1944, and these are very much a contribution to the history of the theory of influence. So Sainte-Beuve writes:

Goethe spoke the truth when he remarked that Byron, great by the flow and source of poetry, feared that Shakespeare was more powerful than himself [it’s true, Byron was always abusing Shakespeare] in the creation and realization of his characters. He would have liked to deny it. The elevation so free from [this is Goethe talking] egoism irritated him. He felt when near it that he could never display himself at ease. He never denied Pope because he did not fear him. He knew that Pope was [and you know how short Pope was] only a low wall by his side.

So in other words, he chose as his literary model somebody he knew he was better than– not true, by the way, but he thought he was better than Alexander Pope, and he perpetually denied a very, very powerful influence on his writing, quarreling constantly with Shakespeare and bardolatry and excessive love of Hamlet and all the rest of it. He’s constantly sort of denying any influence or power over himself on the part of Shakespeare. He chooses, in other words, for his precursor a weak precursor instead of a strong precursor. All of this is a continuous theme in the psychodynamic of Bloom’s theory as he elaborates it.

So what complicates Bloom’s argument, apart from the vocabulary and the philosophical range of thought, is what I began with: the traditional idea of influence as an art-nature problem, trying to figure out, in fact, whether the crisis of influence is the sense of one’s orientation to nature, one’s ability to imitate nature and have nature available to one, or whether it’s word oriented, which it seems to be more in Bloom: the sense of one’s relationship with text. But notice on page 1157 that Bloom really doesn’t want to say it’s just about text. He doesn’t really want to say that it has exclusively to do with the strong precursor understood, as it were, as an author. There is in some sense a text of nature as well, so that Bloom says, bottom of 1157, right-hand column:

… Freud’s disciple, Otto Rank, show[s] a greater awareness of the artist’s fight against art, and of the relation of this struggle to the artist’s antithetical battle against nature.

In other words, nature is death. Nature is that into which–should he not sustain himself in the triumph of his assertion of priority nature–the author will fall back in the form of death. Wait until they try to transcribe that sentence.

Okay. Well, but you [laughter] got what I mean. This is an interesting problem, and Bloom wants to insist that part of the struggle of the belated poet is a struggle for immortality. Part of what it means to come first and to know nothing ever having been there before you is also to suppose that you are going to be last, that you’re going to be immortal, that you really do not belong in an unfolding, inexorable sequence of the sort that we call history; but that you are rather something, a force, a genius, or a power that transcends history. This entails as much the “lie against time,” as Bloom calls it, holding off death as it does, insisting on there having been no beginning, no priority, and no genesis in what you do; you were there first.

All right. To illustrate this very quickly, let’s look at passages five and six on your sheet. Wordsworth, the particularly important strong misreader and belated poet with respect to Milton, in Bloom’s view: Wordsworth writes in a kind of programmatic or promissory poem–written actually in 1800 and not published until 1814 as part of the preface to a poem of his called “The Excursion”–he wrote a prospectus to “The Recluse,” that’s what at one time “The Excursion” was supposed to be part of, and he says: “I am not interested in writing Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost for me is a thing of the past. It’s just archaic. Who would care about the things Milton cares about: ‘all strength, all terror, single or in bands that ever was put forth in personal form, Jehovah with his thunder and the choir of shouting angels and the imperial thrones, I pass them unalarmed.’ Paradise Lost, that’s just playing with toy soldiers. That’s nothing compared with what I myself am going to do: ‘not chaos, not the darkest pit of lowest Erebus nor aught of blinder vacancy scooped out by help of dreams can breed such fear and awe as fall upon us often when we look into our minds, into the mind of man, my haunt and the main region of my song.’ I’m not talking about God. I’m not talking about heaven. I’m not talking about hell. I’m not talking about war in heaven. I’m not talking about anything mythological or archaically heroic.

“I’m talking about this. I’m talking about the mind of man. I’m talking primarily about my mind, but my mind is your mind. Mind is universal, and in talking about mind I’m not falling back into the pit of nature. I’m keeping my focus not on the sky gods, not on the “transcendent, starry junk,” as Wallace Stevens called it, of my precursors, all those people with their outworn superstitions. I’m not interested in any of that, but I’m not interested in any of this either. I’m not interested in nature. I’m not interested in that in which I would be buried if I reduced myself to that. I am interested in consciousness, the psyche. In other words, my focus is,” Wordsworth says, “altogether psychological.”

All right. No interest in Paradise Lost. That’s just archaic. Well, look at passage five: three statements by Satan which Bloom insists–it’s not so much Milton, because Bloom follows Blake and Shelley in this. It’s not so much Milton who is the strong precursor of Wordsworth. It’s actually Satan, right? [laughs] It’s Milton’s Satan who says, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Okay. Gee whiz. [laughs] I guess Satan is writing the prospectus to “The Recluse,” isn’t he, because that’s what Wordsworth is saying in the prospectus to “The Recluse.” “I know no time,” says Satan, “when I was not as now.” That’s what the belated poet always says, “I came first.” Elsewhere in the poem Satan tells his troops, “You know what. God keeps saying he created you. Do you remember being created? I don’t remember being created. I’ve always been there.” Right? That is, in effect, what he says again, what he repeats in this passage, “Finally, myself am hell.” Well, that’s, of course, rather an uncomfortable thing to say, but at the same time it’s the rabbit as king of the ghosts, isn’t it? It is whatever you can throw at me, I’m it already. Right? Because “the main haunt and sole region of my song is the mind,” is my own mind.

All right. So Satan has already said in Paradise Lost everything Wordsworth can possibly say in the prospectus to “The Recluse.” He has strongly misread Paradise Lost such that he thinks he’s doing something completely new, while revealing precisely that the strong precursor poet has always already written what the successor poet can write. The tension, the dynamic in other words, between conservation and innovation is intact in all such moments, in all the moments, that involve the anxiety of influence.

Chapter 5. Lacan and Bloom on Tony the Toy Truck [00:48:09]

I’m sorry I have so little time for this. Give me a minute or two because we have to honor Tony the Tow Truck, and it’s rather obvious that for Lacan, Tony the Tow Truck is a text in which Tony settles for the objet petit a, right: little Bumpy the Car, an imperfect being but a helpful one and a friend–“that’s what I call a friend”; whereas the objects of desire, Neato, Speedy–whoa, those are cars. The objects of desire are improper object choices on the face of it. That’s what an American ego psychologist would say, but they are, in a more Bunuelesque way of putting it, obscure objects of desire as they motor on down the road which are simply unavailable to Tony as object relations at all. So Neato and Speedy are the big other–right?–and Bumpy is the object petit a.

All right. Now it’s just perfectly obvious that for Harold Bloom, Tony the Tow Truck is a strong misreading of The Little Engine that Could. It’s perfectly clear because Bumpy is the hero of The Little Engine that Could. The misreading involves making Tony the hero who needs the help of Bumpy. In other words, Bumpy, in the folkloric sense of the story, becomes the helper and not the hero, but we can see, after all, that the essential narrative model–the model of the small turning out through perseverance and energy to necessarily reinforce the strength of the strong–is about the strong and the weak. Both The Little Engine that Could and Tony the Tow Truck are about the strong and the weak, that the strong must in some sense or another be supplemented or supplanted by the weak if the strong is fully to self-realize. We can’t ever read Tony the Tow Truck, the character, Tony, quite the same way again after the appearance of Bumpy, and yet Bumpy is nothing other than the hero of The Little Engine that Could, a subject position that has been appropriated by Tony in this text. So the relationship is again an agonistic one involving the transposition of heroism from one character-focus to another while at the same time–as anybody can recognize who has read both stories to their kids–simply rewriting the story in a way that The Little Engine that Could completely anticipates.

All right. So much then for that. We’ll be returning to more Lacanian pastures on Tuesday when we study Deleuze and Guattari and Slavoj Žižek.

[end of transcript]

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