Living Under Their Influence

 

This anxiety, this mode of melancholy, is the anxiety of influence, the dark and daemonic ground on which we now enter.

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence

 

A checkered past: a past history of having done bad things or been in trouble.

Merriam-Webster

 

It is probably true that we all have checkered pasts.

And it is unquestionably true that we are all living under the influence of the people of the past—and I borrow the phrase, “under the influence,” with the intention of trading on all its mixed meanings.

Through the history of the United States, Americans have struggled to devise ways to acknowledge the influence that the actions and attitudes of historical figures played in shaping this nation. In recent years, the relationship between the American people and their historical predecessors has been rattled by multiple crises. Though they have varied in emphasis and preoccupation, one pattern in the crises repeats: we put much more effort into pitting the living against each other than in negotiating a peace between the living and the dead.

Here’s a thought.

What if we made this struggle over the past more personal?

What if we tied our struggles over history directly to the intense and conflicted feelings that nearly all of us have toward the people who influenced us— and who sometimes betrayed us—when we were young? Could we gain insights into the national dilemma if we thought harder about our personal dilemmas?

That suggestion surely impresses everyone as a guaranteed way to make a bad situation worse.

But I still think there are good reasons to pair these two questions:

How should we appraise the influential people in this country’s past who played key roles in shaping the nation we live in today?

How should we appraise the influential people in our own pasts who played key roles in shaping the people we are today?

In this “Not my First Rodeo” post, I am heading into very uncomfortable territory. But here’s why I dismissed my initial reluctance to undertake this exploration on public record: I hope that this small-scale enterprise of reckoning with influential people in my past demonstrates a promising way to conduct our reckoning with influential figures from the nation’s past.

Here’s the punchline.

Attempts to confine the people from the past with simple categories will, at best, reveal nothing of interest and, at worst, leave wreckage in their path.

 

An Instinct for Influence

From a very early age, I took every opportunity to absorb influences wherever I could find them. By the time I entered higher education, I had it down: if an older person gave me an idea, an insight, an observation, or a vision, I instantly absorbed what they offered to me. Since accepting influence from my elders usually came in the same package with accepting their encouragement, guidance, and support, this habit got constant positive reinforcement.

Once I started college, the great majority of the people who influenced me were men. In 1968, women professors were a rarity. With the passage of a few years, female role models would become more common on campuses. But the gender proportions of occupants of faculty offices in the late 1960s and early 1970s matched the gender proportions of California Gold Rush mining towns in the late 1840s and early 1850s. But those proportions did not mean that I found a shortage of people who would exercise a positive influence on me.

The majority of the men who influenced me were people of impeccable character who knew they held power over the vulnerable young and who never took advantage of that power.

But there were exceptions.

 

A Deep Dive into the Anxiety of Influence

I was barely one year into graduate school when the Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom published a very high-impact book, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Almost as soon as it came out, I read it closely.

Harold Bloom wrote about poetry, but his findings shed light on every form of human expression. Poets write in a very charged and tense relationship with their predecessors, Bloom said. A poet is necessarily under the influence of his predecessor, but if he just follows the older poet’s lead, he will emerge as an imitative, subservient, and weak poet.

By contrast, a strong poet will become familiar with his elder’s work. He will be altogether aware of its power and eloquence, and he will know every aspect of it from the inside. With that knowledge and awareness in place, the anxiety of influence reaches a peak of tension for the strong poet.

The weak poet will have long ago retreated and subsided into imitation. But the strong poet will swerve and break free into originality.

The start of my second year as an apprentice in an academic discipline was the perfect time to read this book. In truth, even when I only knew him through his writing, Harold Bloom was encouraging and even empowering to an academic newcomer, even a novice as nervous as I was.

The impact on me was immediate. For a semester or two, references to The Anxiety of Influence showed up in many of the papers I wrote. I applied Harold Bloom’s insights to the relationship between the American revolutionaries and the established British political thinkers. I then picked up those insights and plunked them down on the relationship between late-nineteenth century writers from the rural Midwest and the Northeastern arbiters of literary culture.

And, best of all, I found direct, personal inspiration when I adopted the argument of The Anxiety of Influence as a map for my own future. In the next few years, I would become thoroughly, intimately acquainted with my precursors in the field of Western American history, and I would defer, submit, and comply with their authority.

And, at some point, the anxiety of influence would crest, and I would swerve from the route that my precursors had mapped out and traveled. The book called The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West is the result of that swerve.

My indebtedness to Harold Bloom was pretty darned deep.

But I had never met the man.

 

It’s All Greek to Me:

The Performance of Clinamen, or The Swerve

When I traveled on the New Haven Line to New York, I rarely passed up the chance to be influenced by whomever fortune placed next to me on the train. On one ride, sitting next to a carpenter, I learned quite a bit about how carpenters coped with the fact that sometimes, even with the greatest care and attention to detail, a cabinet door will still not close completely.

But then the carpenter made the mistake of asking me what I did.

I tried to speak with clarity, but this was a tough row to hoe. After enduring a few minutes of my reviewing the reading lists for my courses in American intellectual history and theories of American literature, the carpenter gave up.

“Everything you’re saying,” he said, “it’s all Greek to me.”

When I finally met Harold Bloom, I had moments when I fully understood how that carpenter felt.

I had moved to an apartment nearer campus, and it turned out that Harold Bloom lived a few blocks away. We sometimes left campus at the same time in the late afternoons, so I now had the opportunity for multiple conversations with this erudite man. As he did in his writing, Harold Bloom peppered his spoken remarks with Greek and Latin. By this point in my tour of duty in the Ivy League, experimentation had proven that trying to bluff never went well, and I had lost any shame over having to ask for translations.

The Greek word clinamen, I had already learned, was a real “don’t leave home without it” addition to the aspiring scholar’s vocabulary. Clinamen was the term Bloom chose to capture the strong poet’s moment of parting with his predecessor. Laying out his terms in The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom explained that he had taken this word “from the writings of Lucretius, where it means a ‘swerve’ of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe.”

If the atoms did not swerve, the universe would be duller than dishwater. And if a poet did not “execute a clinamen,” every supposedly new poem would be impossible to distinguish from the poems of the precursor.

Non-academics, you can relax.

It is OK to forget the Greek word clinamen, and simply keep in mind that Harold Bloom made a great case for the performance of the swerve as the moment when liberation prevails over the anxiety of influence.

In this swerve, whether we are poets, historians, carpenters, mechanics, scientists, artists, or musicians, we say to our precursors, “Thanks for taking me this far, but I’m leaving you now.”

We’ll pause here.

 

A Checkered Past

When referring to someone as having a checkered past, the emphasis is usually on the disreputable or negative things that the person participated in. Someone who is labeled as having a checkered past is considered fairly untrustworthy.

The Grammatist

Harold Bloom died in the Fall of 2019 at age eighty-nine. He was, as his lengthy obituary in The New York Times makes clear, a very unusual person, living under the influence of a compulsion to explore and interpret every written or spoken word that came to his attention. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

The obituary in the Times contains this sentence: “In 1990, GQ magazine, in an article titled, ‘Bloom in Love,’ portrayed him as having had intimate entanglements with female students.” The obituary also cited a 2004 article, in New York Magazine, in which the writer Naomi Wolf accused Bloom of having made a decidedly intrusive and awkward move in 1983, when she was “a twenty-year-old senior at Yale.”

I was not cited as a source in the GQ Magazine article, and I have never met Naomi Wolf. But, trying for an impossible combination of honesty and discretion, I will only say that the claims made in GQ Magazine and by Naomi Wolf do not strike me as implausible.

Reading these statements in The New York Times triggered a rapid sequence of two thoughts:

First Thought
I had been planning to write a “Not my First Rodeo” post that would celebrate insights from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, but now that I knew his personal conduct had been called into question on public record, I would have to come up with another plan.

 

Second Thought
In the cultural climate of 2021, it was now even more important for me to quote from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and to explore the influence he had on me.

 

How This Deeply Uncomfortable “Not my First Rodeo” Post Came to Be

For weeks, I had been promising myself a good time. Sometime in June, I would write a tribute to the writers who were the major influences in shaping my sense of humor. Preparing this post would permit me to spend quality time with a neglected bookshelf, whose holdings would sustain a prolonged spell of merriment and hilarity. But I would also want this post to have a serious dimension, with reflections on my relationship to the writers who had influenced me.

But this line of thought led me to another bookshelf, in search of my heavily annotated copy of Harold Bloom’s book. This, I felt sure, was going to work really well. I would use Harold Bloom’s idea of “the anxiety of Influence” to explore my relationship to my precursors and predecessors in humor! In fact, the idea of using such a serious book as the underpinning for a celebration of humor struck me as pretty darned funny in itself.

And then I looked up that 2019 New York Times obituary. Simply quoting appreciatively from Harold Bloom, and simply referring fondly to my personal acquaintanceship with him, was not going to be simple at all.

Reluctantly—really, very reluctantly—I realized that I had to delay the piece on humor and embark on an exploration of our relationship to the people of the past who encouraged and influenced us. Or, to use Harold Bloom’s own words, it was time to confront the “immense anxieties of indebtedness.”

The post I was planning to write—about people who influenced my sense of humor—is still alive. But it is spending some time in rehab.

 

What Did We Know, and When Did We Know it?

Writing this post has rattled me with a recognition of how different the expectations for the behavior of professors were in the 1970s and 1980s. But before my email inbox receives a burst of messages pointing out my obliviousness to the troubles of our times, I urge everyone to read this next statement.

I fully realize that episodes of professors misusing the power they hold over the young have never come to a halt.

And yet I stand by the relevance of a statement initially made by the little-known novelist L.P. Hartley and often quoted by historians: “The past was a foreign country. They did things differently there.” In that foreign country where I lived fifty years ago, when professors and students were in each other’s company, there was very little in the way of recognized rules of conduct, and even less in the way of frameworks for accountability.

If the past is a foreign country, then it is not surprising that I am having trouble finding my way around the alien land of the present. And it is even less surprising that I struggle when I try to speak the language and ask the locals for directions.

 

Second-Guessing My Former Self, Who Seems to Be Unavailable for Interrogation

I started college in 1968. At that time, the cultural consensus on the conduct of relationships between men and women had been unsettled by the concatenation of changes called “The Sixties.” This statement of historical context has to precede what I now present as a two-part statement of fact:

  • Several of my professors made overtures or advances that showed little respect for the dignity of women.
  • Even though these men fell short of the trust I had placed in them, I never registered a grievance or made a complaint in response to any of those episodes.

 

Pushing hard to extract clarity from cluttered memory, here are the reasons why I never asked for intervention, corrective action, or even advice.

1) Far from thinking that I was witnessing serious wrongdoing, I felt that I was encountering foolish and inconsequential lapses of self-management.

2) I never faced anything in the way of coercion or force, and I never received a threat of punishment or retaliation for rejecting an overture.

3) Even if I had felt in peril, and even if I had wanted to lodge a concern, I did not know of any channels or procedures for addressing misuse of professorial influence and power.

 

Turning Hindsight into Foresight

The Slogan of the Center of the American West Produces Mixed Results

 

When I try to apply it to this dimension of my personal history, the Center of the American West’s slogan does not have its finest hour.

Turn hindsight into foresight?

Hindsight might raise the question: If I had spoken up, taken action, or asked for help, would I have saved other women from discomfort and indignity in the future?

This is the unsatisfactory answer that comes to my mind: “Well, maybe, but I doubt it.”

Raising another question entirely, hindsight leads me to a more definitive answer. But it gets there by a winding route, and the destination seems far from ideal in terms of moral clarity.

In my early years in the academic world, I was under the influence of men who, to a person, conveyed to me their belief that my opportunities were unlimited and their confidence that my talents and skills were in good operating order. Not a one of my professors ever said to me: “Here are the things you cannot do and should not even try to do.” Declaring their recognition of my promise and potential, the men who influenced me in those early years created the foundation for my successful career.

In that category of “the people who created the foundation for my successful career,” I include both the men whose conduct met the highest ethical standards and the men whose conduct fell below those standards.

In other words, I cannot argue myself out of the conclusion that a significant share of my success rested on my willingness to accept guidance and encouragement from men whose respect for the dignity of women was decidedly inconsistent.

And here is the paradox (or perhaps I mean inconsistency or contradiction?) that hindsight presents: my professional achievements, as well as any collateral benefits I have been able to provide to others, may have been made possible by my choice not to raise complaints or lodge grievances.

I have been positioned to use my success to encourage young women and men in the field of history and to endorse their work.

The upshot: I cannot now persuade myself to repent for—or even regret—my choice of silence.

If you think I made a devil’s bargain and chose complicity over principled defiance, you should help me understand your viewpoint.

If you think I was in denial and remain in denial, invite me out of that state.

 

The Return of the Dead

(The Title of the Last Chapter of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence)

Ancient Athenians, Harold Bloom declared in the concluding chapter of his influential book, believed that there were “dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead returned to reinhabit the houses in which they had lived.”

Unlike the ancient Athenians who found themselves having one of those “dismal or unlucky days” when the dead returned, historians spend every day thinking, “Here they come again!” Usually with our consent but sometimes without it, the dead keep showing up in our minds. Most of the time, these are people we never knew, but who we met through their own words or through the writing of historians who traced clues and followed up hints to reveal the lives of the departed. But we also have visits with the dead who we once knew directly and in-person.

Given how much I remain under the influence of the men who influenced me in college and graduate school, I rarely go for more than a few days without these figures reappearing in my thoughts and feelings.

Some of the men whose conduct was beyond reproach still live. But all of the men, who behaved as we would now put it inappropriately, have passed away. This I know as truth: even when they are alive in our memories, especially when they are alive in our memories, the dead respond with indifference to our most earnest condemnations of them.

 

Executing the Clinamen, Also Known as the Swerve

And now for a dizzying shift in scale, moving from a consideration of a few influential people from my own past to a consideration of influential figures from the big picture of history.

Here are the two questions brought together at the beginning of this post:

 

How should we appraise the influential people in the country’s past who played key roles in shaping the nation we live in today?

How should we appraise the influential people in our own pasts who played key roles in shaping the people we are today?

 

I rely here on Harold Bloom’s concept of clinamen, by which younger poets resolved the anxiety of influence by swerving from the practices of their elders. Here are the results of applying his concept to the large-scale question and the small-scale question at issue here.

As individuals, we retain the right—sometimes the obligation—to swerve from the practices followed by the people who influenced us in our personal lives.

Citizens of a nation retain the right—sometimes the obligation—to swerve from the practices followed by the influential human beings who brought that nation into existence.

 

Now to put those rights into practice—first, on the personal scale; second, on the national scale—with a purposefully executed swerve.

 

Harold Bloom, I admired you, and I remain grateful that I was under your influence. I would achieve little— for myself or for humanity—if I disavowed my appreciation for the impact that your words, written and spoken, have had on me. But if I tried to ignore or obscure your failings, I would do you a disservice. In truth, if I tried to sanctify you, I would dehumanize you.

Founders of this nation, I admired you, and I remain grateful that I live in the country that is under your influence. I would achieve little—for myself or for humanity—if I disavowed my appreciation for the impact that your words, written and spoken, have had on me. But if I tried to ignore or obscure your failings, if I dismissed the centrality of slavery and of conquest in the origins of this nation, I would do you a disservice. In truth, if I tried to sanctify you, I would dehumanize you.

Repeatedly, over the nation’s history, Americans have attempted to perform a moral audit of their predecessors and precursors, and we are now in the midst of another such undertaking. The complexity of human nature, as it is manifested in individuals and in groups, makes it impossible that such an audit will produce findings that are clear and certain. Any enterprise for assessing and judging the dead will rest on a fragile foundation if it assumes that human character is simple.

I conclude with three assertions, arranged in chronological order. The first two are completely debatable. Paradoxically, the third one is beyond dispute, even as it explicitly invites debate.

 

Assertion #1
My mind became more vigorous and agile because I had the opportunity to know Harold Bloom when I was young.

 

Assertion #2
My mind became more vigorous and agile because I had this opportunity to deliberate on the influence that Harold Bloom still exercises over me.

 

Assertion #3
My mind is about to become more vigorous and agile because I will have the opportunity to reconsider what I have said here, if the reactions (with a good share of them likely to be critical) that may now be racing around readers’ minds get typed up and sent to me at pnl@centerwest.org.

 

A Quotation Worth Repeating
This anxiety, this mode of melancholy, is the anxiety of influence, the dark and daemonic ground on which we now enter.
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence

 


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