Imitation Versus Anxiety

A Christian Response to Harold Bloom’s "The Anxiety of Influence"

From the Editors: In light of Harold Bloom’s death last week, we will be presenting a series of reflections on Bloom’s ideas, including (later in the week) a review of one of his newest books. Today, we present the following brief reflection on one of Bloom’s most important books, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.

By Jessica Hooten Wilson

At the conclusion of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, he unveils the theological assumptions behind his critical theory:

The Protestant God, insofar as He was a Person, yielded His paternal role for poets to the blocking figure of the Precursor. […] Poetry whose hidden subject is the anxiety of influence is naturally of a Protestant temper, for the Protestant God always seems to isolate His children in the terrible double bind of two great injunctions: “Be like Me” and “Do not presume to be too like Me.” The fear of godhood is pragmatically a fear of poetic strength, for what the ephebe enters upon, when he begins his life cycle as a poet, is in every sense a process of divination. (152)

This Protestant God may as well be the Judeo-Christian God shared by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Bloom dissects the Trinity into competing gods rather than distinct natures shared in a single deity. The Father rigs the game against the Son, and the Son must trump the Father. Although Bloom insists that he has no Oedipal suggestions in his theory, his use of the father-son tropes makes it difficult not to see the allusion. Granted, Bloom was merely employing the language of his predecessor Roland Barthes, who, in “The Death of the Author,” classifies the relationship as that between a father and his child (121). A strong poet, like a strong critic, must committee patricide. It takes little imagination to jump from the death of the author to the death of the father, and thus, to the death of the theological father, God.

In Bloom’s attack against the Protestant God, he finds Him deserving of death. God’s death is a prerequisite for the freedom of the poet. While He remains, poets are bound on both sides by impossible chains, the commands, in Bloom’s words, to imitate God while not to presume godlikeness. The two sanctions are at odds only when one misunderstands God’s nature and thus the word “imitation.” For Bloom, all imitation is slavish and weak. However, saints, in response to God-as-Christ’s dictum to follow Him (Matthew 4:19), uplift imitatio Christi as one’s highest goal. To imitate God is to reach one’s highest potential, to reclaim one’s true self; it is an ascendant act that requires divine strength. Yet it is not a process of divination in Bloom’s way of defining it. Bloom praises Milton’s Satan as the character who models this poetic divination, which counters the Gospel’s account of this process.

The selflessness of God-as-Christ, the gratuity of divine self-abnegation, makes no sense to Bloom, who redefines it with his own “demonic parody” (Anxiety 92). Instead of the humility and self-emptying described by St. Paul in Philippians 2:3-8, which he quotes nearly in full (Anxiety 91), Bloom redefines kenosis as making “the fathers pay for their own sins, and perhaps for those of the sons also” (Anxiety 91). Rather than imitate the meaning found in his predecessor’s work, the son should attempt to empty the parent-poet’s poem of meaning in his new poem. Bloom finds a “double bind” because he cannot understand how impossible it would be for the one who is imitating Christ to presume godlikeness. In the Philippians letter that Bloom quotes, Paul asserts that Christ did not consider himself “to be equal with God.” Therefore any attempt to be like Christ will fulfill God’s injunction not to presume to be like Him. It should be noted that Bloom does not completely quote Paul’s letter, for he ellipses “on the cross” from the end of verse 8. In his version, the apostle’s words end with “unto death….” (Anxiety 91), and Bloom instructs readers that a “kenosis proper,” or a Bloomian kenosis, is “not so much a humbling of self as of all precursors, and necessarily a defiance unto death” (Anxiety 92). Such a conclusion lines up for a critic who admits a “distaste for the Crucifixion” (Anatomy 5), a revulsion to humility, sacrifice, or its imitation.

If you like this article, you will love the FORMA Review, a beautiful print journal that contemplates the intersection of classical thought and contemporary culture! Subscribe today for $4/month or $39/year!

These theological assumptions stem from an aesthetic ideology and a Gnostic humanism that values autonomy, solipsism, and immortality, all of which are illusions. Bloom claims, “We need to stop thinking of any poet as an autonomous ego, however solipsistic the strongest poets may be” (Anxiety 91). Yet this very claim equates “solipsism” with strength and assumes “autonomy” as an unachievable ideal. Bloom asserts that a poet’s intuitive desire is to prevent death, which only happens through strong poetry. However, this end directly opposes the Christian intention to die.

In imitation of Christ’s sacrificial death, Paul insists, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is the Christian definition of kenosis. The follower imitates the self-emptying of his God, so God may dwell in him. Elsewhere Paul directs readers, “Be imitators of me, just as also I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The imitator desires that others imitate him in order to imitate Christ, like a domino effect. This is not Bloom’s insistence that the prayer of the poet “is to be an influence, and not to be influenced,” for the former only happens after the latter (Anxiety 126). Imitating precedes influence.

Bloom admits that pre-Romantic poets did not suffer this anxiety, but he does not draw the connection to the Christian worldview that dominated Western poetry before 1700. The anxiety of influence evolves in conjunction with the rising value on autonomy and the replacement of Christian religion with Romanticism’s devotion to art as faith, both of which Bloom shares.* For those writers, like Dostoevsky and Percy, who adhere to the Christian ethos that precedes Romantic poetry, not only is there no anxiety of influence but also there is an ideal of influence, an exaltation of imitation.

Just as Christ says, “Follow me” and Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” so every Christian writer desires to follow, to continue the trend, to imitate the kenosis of the predecessor and thus be offering an example of selflessness and charity to the next writer.

* In the culminating volume to his influence series, he writes, “Faith in the aesthetic…is the little book’s credo” (Anatomy of Influence 4).

Jessica Hooten Wilson is an associate professor of literature at John Brown University and is o the author of three books: Giving the Devil his Due: Flannery O’Connor and The Brothers Karamazov (Wipf & Stock 2016), Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence (Ohio State UP, 2017), and A Guide to Walker Percy’s Novels (Louisiana State UP, 2018). Currently, she is preparing Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage? for publication.

This article was excerpted from Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Search for Influence (Ohio State UP 2017).

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal.