Harold Bloom

The Anxiety of Influence

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The Anxiety of Influence Summary

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The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry is a 1973 monograph by Harold Bloom. One of the acclaimed critic’s best-known works, it is, perhaps appropriately, his most influential. In it, Bloom argues that poetry is largely the production of later poets’ responses to their predecessors’ works, in particular, their misreading of these previous works. Bloom developed the theory from his study of nineteenth-century Romantic poetry, but posits the theory as generally applicable; indeed, it has been applied to various creative fields aside from poetry. Having sold more than 17,000 paperback copies since its original publication, The Anxiety of Influence remains a central text in the study of literary theory.

Bloom’s theory is modeled in part on the work of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalytic theory. Central to psychoanalytic theory is the concept of defense mechanisms: strategies of perception originating in the unconscious that distort reality in various ways to protect the conscious mind from anxiety and unacceptable impulses. In other words, defense mechanisms protect the ego’s concept of itself, its self-schema. A classic example is the defense mechanism of projection, in which an unacceptable desire or aspect of the self is projected onto another person. It is not a healthy dynamic in that it prevents the successful sublimation of what is being projected, but it does “defend” the ego, in the short term, by preventing the ego from having to face something about itself that might potentially be devastating. For instance, a married husband may project his unacceptable attraction to a coworker onto that coworker, interpreting her behavior as flirtatious when in fact she harbors no feelings of attraction whatsoever.

Applying this general concept of defense mechanisms, albeit loosely, to the study of poetry, Bloom arrives at a set of six “revisionary ratios” that delineate the development of an author’s relationship to his predecessor’s text and anxiety responses to it. The revisionary ratios, in order of progression, are:

Clinamen – the “poetic misreading or misprision proper.” The author’s composition implies that their predecessor’s work was not completely accurate in some way, attempting to provide the “correction” for this mistake.

Tessera – the “completion and antithesis” of the predecessor’s work. Here, the author elaborates the work of their predecessor, extending them into new conceptual terrain. There is a parallel to be drawn here with the thesis-antithesis-synthesis movement of Hegelian dialectic.

Kenosis – a movement of discontinuity; the poet attempts to break with the predecessor.

Demonization – a “movement toward a personalized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor’s Sublime.” Here, the author identifies in the predecessor’s work something larger and more universal than what was bestowed by the predecessor; the author also identifies with this larger, more universal something. Doing so divests the predecessor of genius, and, by extension, magnifies the genius of the author by comparison.

Ascesis – defined by Bloom as a “self-purgation” that aims at “a state of solitude,” ascesis is the process by which an author attempts to purge both their own work and the work of their predecessor of the taint of influence. In its place, the reasoning for individual achievement is substituted.

Apophrades – the last of Bloom’s revisionary ratios. In apophrades, the artist throws off their previous affectation of isolation or solitude, placing their work into the context of their predecessor. The effect is to give an uncanny sense not that their work is a continuation of the predecessor’s work, but that somehow the predecessor anticipated their work; that the author constitutes the new standard by which the predecessor must now be read.

For Bloom, the influence of one writer upon another is never direct, simple, or benevolent. It is, rather, a shifting relationship fraught with negative affect: in his estimation, all literary creation results from the struggle of younger authors to free themselves from the influence of their forebears – a situation that is ironically impossible, since it is only through this struggle that they create. The aim of The Anxiety of Influence is well in line with Bloom’s goal to unite the Western literary tradition into a cohesive historical object. Indeed, in his analysis, what underlies the Western literary tradition is an unbroken chain of anxiety and competition, passed down neurotically from generation to generation.