This kill-your-darling from Wrestliana is about the American literary critic Harold Bloom.
In A Map of Misreading and The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom puts forward a theory of how writers come to be the writers they are. It is, he says, because of an agon, an Oedipal struggle, a wrestling match, a war-embrace, with strong forbears – fathers.
For Bloom, Milton battled Shakespeare, Keats took on Milton, Wallace Stevens grappled with Keats.
Bloom’s isn’t an opening gambit of a metaphor – he doesn’t forget it or let it go; everything is perpetual muscular mano-a-mano struggle.
Poetic strength comes only from a triumphant wrestling with the greatest of the dead, and from an even more triumphant solipsism. pg 9. A Map of Misreading (Oxford University Press, New York, 1975).
Who could set forth on the poet’s long journey, upon the path of labouring Heracles, if he knew that at last he must wrestle with the dead? Wrestling Jacob could triumph, because his adversary was the Everliving, but even the strongest poets must grapple with phantoms. (pg 17)
Nothing is less generous than the poetic self when it wrestles for its own survival. (pg 18)
Bloom’s theory is cranky and full of dead white males – and, sadly, the truest thing about how I felt while trying to become a writer that I have ever read.
Of course, even as I first read Bloom, at university in the 1980s, I knew he was heinously, irredeemably sexist. In The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom leaves all female writers out of account; none of them are for him strong ancestors, in the way of Dante, Shakespeare and Milton; none of them shake the earth with their stride.
I have found, in writing, that I am frequently bested by a mother, usually Virginia Woolf. Each novel I’ve written has at least one antagonist-novel or -genre. Beatniks was vs. On the Road; Corpsing vs. Crime (Revenge); deadkidsongs vs. The Island Novel (Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, The Virgin Suicides); Finding Myself vs. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse; Ghost Story vs. Ghost Stories (specifically Haunted House); Hospital vs. Dream Visions (Pearl, Piers Plowman, The Divine Comedy, Blake’s Prophetic Books); Journey into Space vs. Science Fiction (specifically, Generation Ship and Space Opera); King Death vs. Crime (Amateur Sleuth) and vs. Minimalism (American and Japanese); Notes for a Young Gentleman vs. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.
This is too schematic. Each book battled multiple other books. This book, Wrestliana, is no exception. It explicitly takes on William’s Wrestliana, but he’s not a strong ancestor prosewise. He’s only a trace in this paragraph. Each sentence here is wrenched against itself by not-being so-and-so’s cadence or trying to exist beyond obvious avoidances. In writing this, right now, I feel I’m grappling with Saul Bellow (for gnarliness of telling, dense-intensity), D.H.Lawrence (lava-flow), Osip Mandelstam (Fourth Prose and Journey to Armenia are conscious models), Beckett (who wouldn’t write it at all, but came closest when he wrote Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, an ago with Finnegans Wake). And all writing-about-writing loses to Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries.
I can’t generalize about Women Writers – do they wrestle predominantly with Mothers? Or against an Army of silencing Maleness? Or against inner demons that are essentially anti-writing (you shouldn’t be doing this)? Is the Oedipal model moot, just a testosterone-fuelled illusion? Does, instead, a truly supportive sisterhood exist – where rising generations are supported on by the great dead? Where doors are opened by ghost-hands, keys to secret gardens are hidden in sewing boxes? In their case no agon, only agape.
I can’t really see it. Bloom probably still applies. To take poetry as an example, Sylvia Plath destroyed generation after generation of female poets (1963 onwards) just as comprehensively as Auden did (1928 onwards). Plath was simply too strong; write against her or in her grip, her influence still annihilated weaker souls.
Bloom’s theory of agon may be, as objective description of literary influence, wrong. Yet when I was at university it answered to my twin desires. I desired a vocation, and I desired a defining and refining struggle. Writing, for me, became both. (‘Writing’ makes it sound so simple – as if it’s a matter of handwriting, rather a matter of struggling towards worthwhile being, making your being worthwhile through language.) What is at stake, with too intense a reading of your ‘influences’, is obliteration. If you lose your balance entirely, all you will become is a landing-ground for the stronger poet. The only way to defeat them is to find their moments of imbalance and turn their very strength against them, for you.
It’s not so much a theory, I guess, as disguised autobiography. Or paternal self-hatred. The Oedipus Complex transferred directly across to literary fathers and sons (the mother, Bloom leaves us to assume, is the voluptuous language itself).
Bloom is questionable, even dismissible all the way down. Yet, emotionally, his agon is very much a description of how it felt – why the desk was a violent place.