The Anxiety of Influence

November 01, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


If there is one phrase associated with Harold Bloom, who passed away last month at the age of 89, it is “the anxiety of influence.” Born in the Bronx to an Orthodox Jewish household, Bloom went on to become the most prodigious literary critic of the twentieth century. His love affair with literature took him from devouring anthologies of Yiddish poetry to a mastery of the Western canon at Cornell and then to Yale, where he would receive his doctorate and then teach throughout his career. I never knew Bloom personally, but as a literature major at Michigan, it was impossible not to encounter him. His studies on Shakespeare, Montaigne, Whitman, Emerson, Marvell, and so many others made Bloom a steady companion, guide, and sometimes foil in my own studies. Bloom’s influence went beyond the ivory tower as he shared his love of literature with a broad readership by way of bestsellers. I remember the stir surrounding his 1990 The Book of J, in which Bloom unpacks the historical context of one strand of biblical authorship, suggesting the author to be a woman in the royal court of King Solomon. Prolific, provocative, and not without personal controversy, Bloom was a giant of literary criticism.

Bloom’s most famous book was The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1973. In it, Bloom outlines his theory of intra-poetic relationships, in other words, how one poet influences another. As all of us intuitively understand, no poet emerges in a vacuum. Virgil had his Homer just as Dante had his Virgil. Shakespeare had Marlowe; Emerson had Montaigne; Spenser had Chaucer; and so on and so forth. No different than Monet influenced Cézanne and Cézanne influenced Matisse, Picasso, and others; no different than Guthrie influenced Dylan who influenced Springsteen. Every art form – music, painting, architecture and poetry – reflects a process of influence that can be studied and traced. But for Bloom, this observation is just the beginning of a discussion of poetic influence. Because while every poet is, by definition, subject to influence, every poet also aspires to assert him- or herself as original. The “anxiety of influence” is the poet’s struggle (agon in Bloom’s language), to, at one and the same time, be an extension of his or her predecessors and yet also overcome, sublimate, redirect, or reject that influence. The measure of a poet – and for Bloom the world is divided into strong and weak poets – is the degree to which they are able to master their poetic forebears, overcome them, and, in rare cases, transcend them to create something truly new.

If you think this sounds very Freudian, you are right. And if you think this sounds very rabbinic, then you are right on that front, too. Bloom himself identified Freud as one of two prime influences upon him (the other being Nietzsche). That’s unsurprising given that his entire thesis hangs on the notion that great literature reflects a sort of Oedipal attempt of a writer to surmount the life-giving parent-poet. (Anxiety of Influence, p. 8) In a later book, Bloom reflects that the rabbinic project of midrash and kabbalah is akin to one writer reading and sometimes misreading a prior writer in order to emerge with an original reading – a process, in Bloom’s words, suggestive of the kabbalistic concept of shevirat kelim, in which the primordial vessels of creation must be broken in order to be restored. That is a sermon for another day – a fascinating reading of the rabbinic project as the attempt of every Jewish generation to be both an extension of and a reaction to the generation that came before. It leaves us wondering how much Bloom’s Jewish background may have influenced the very theory of influence for which he became famous.

While all of this is of interest, in order to understand the possible Jewish influences on Bloom’s theory of influence, one need look no further than this morning’s Torah reading, concluding with the introduction of our people’s founding forefather, Abraham. The origin story of the Jewish people is typically thought to begin next week when Abram is called on by God to go forth from his land to the land that God will show him. You may have missed that it is actually today, in the final verses of this week’s Torah reading that we meet Abram, as Abraham was originally known. If you read closely, you will discover that Abraham’s famed journey begins not with Abraham, but with Abraham’s father Terah, or more precisely, with Terah’s father, who died in Ur Kasdim. Upon his father’s death, Terah took his son Abram, Abram’s wife Sarai, and the whole family from Ur Kasdim to Canaan by way of Haran, where Terah himself would pass. It is only then, at the point where next week’s Torah reading begins, that Abraham is called on by God to leave his homeland in order to go the land that God will show him. It is an odd command if you consider that Abraham had left his birthplace long before and was already on his way to Canaan. It is a bit complicated, but the takeaway is there for all to see: Abraham’s story did not begin with him, it began with his father. His journey, geographically and spiritually, is an extension of what came before.

I know, that is not the story  you learned the story in Hebrew school. And I know, this reading lacks the drama of how we have liked to imagine Abraham – a breaker of idols, an original and true iconoclast. But it is a telling that is true to the text. All we know for certain about Abraham’s early years is that he followed, quite literally, in his father’s formidable footsteps. Abraham’s call from God was thus his opportunity to affirm the journey of his father, but in his own way: both an extension of and a reaction to that which came before. Abraham is Abraham not because he broke with the past, nor because he continued on his father’s path. Abraham is who he is because he struggled mightily with the anxiety of influence and emerged as a product of his predecessors who was also an original the likes of which our world had never seen. A traditional reading? Perhaps not, but a reading, I submit to you, that is true to the plain meaning of the text and true to what we know to be the case in our own lives.

While this anxiety of influence is first seen in this morning’s recounting of Abraham’s relationship with his father Terah, it does not end there. Some time after Abraham emerges from the shadow of his father, he and Sarah are finally blessed with the birth of Isaac. Born for the express purpose of actualizing God’s covenant with his father, Isaac is famously brought to the top of Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by Abraham at God’s command – a Freudian father-son psychoanalytic drama if ever there was one. That near-death event understandably prompts Isaac to part ways with his father, but the text relates that soon after Abraham’s passing, Isaac uncovered the wells his father had dug, an act which the Rabbis acknowledge to signal a recovery of Abraham’s legacy by his estranged son.

The pattern continues with Isaac’s son Jacob, who, due to a combination of clumsy parenting and regrettable sibling rivalry, first acquires his father’s blessing and then flees his father’s house. The story of Jacob is also a story of the anxiety of influence, a man who at one and the same time seeks his father’s approval, all the while trying to establish his own personhood, as like his father as he is unlike. The exact same tension is, not surprisingly, found in the personhood of Jacob’s son Joseph. Joseph, who dreams like his father Jacob, is identified explicitly as his father’s favorite but ultimately has to leave his father’s home in order to grow into the man he dreams of being. This week and next week’s Torah readings are the kick-off to the patriarchal narratives, in which every protagonist struggles to embrace their predecessor all the while staking out new territory. This anxiety of influence is the narrative thread that holds the book of Genesis together. I is not just the men, the fathers and sons. Similar anxieties can be found in the lives of Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and especially Dina – all women who define themselves as an extension of their households of origin and also reach beyond them. If you think about it – if you really think about it – this tension actually begins prior to Abraham. Not just when Adam raised a Cain, but in the Garden of Eden itself. What is the story of Creation if not the tale of a humanity created in the image of God the parent, a humanity who, from the very start, seek to assert themselves, even if – especially if – it means breaking with that very One who granted the gift of life in the first place.

I have the good fortune of having about as good a relationship with my old man as I could ask for: He loves me; he looks out for me; and he lets me be. I treasure our relationship. I am well aware how lucky I am, and I hope to be a father to my children in the way that my father is to me. If I experience an “anxiety of influence” it is not from of my father, but in relationship to my grandfather I never knew, also a congregational rabbi, whose extended shadow shelters, shapes, and guides me even as I try to emerge from under it. All of us exist under an anxiety of influence of one sort or another – our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our teachers, our mentors, biologically related or not, whether we knew them or not. We would not be here without them; we are who we are because of them; and yet we become our fullest selves only when we escape their gravitational pull and define our identities on our own terms. It is the struggle that defines who we are and sets the course for our lives. There is no shortage of reasons why the book of Genesis continues to have a millenia-long hold on its readers, but maybe the most potent is that it reminds us that none of us are originals, no matter what we may believe. The text and subtext of all our lives, like the lives of the figures we read about during these weeks, are written under the anxiety of influence.

One final image: There is a beautiful and enigmatic rabbinic midrash, a parable told about Abraham’s origins, comparing Abraham’s “aha moment” to that of a man who sees a house full of light (in Hebrew, doleket), and is prompted to ask, “Is it possible that the house has no owner?” In answer, the owner of the house peers out and declares, “I am the owner.” Some interpret the midrash to mean that Abraham saw a world aflame and on the brink of ruin, and Abraham’s greatness was that he took on the responsibility to save God’s world. Others, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, interpret the midrash to mean that Abraham was thunderstruck by the light of creation, and Abraham’s greatness was his ability to understand from the wonder and beauty of creation that there must be a single God of the cosmos.

Under the influence not of Harold Bloom, but an even more modern prophet of father-son relationships, Bruce Springsteen, I choose to interpret the midrash as follows: The owner of the house filled with light is not meant to be God. The man in that house is Terah; the house is Terah’s house, the house that Abraham left. In Bruce’s lyrics: “. . . that shines hard and bright. It stands like a beacon calling [him] in the night.” Abraham has left home and yet yearns to return. His father’s presence beckons even as a full homecoming is forever beyond reach. Abraham stands, as do we all, balancing the debt we hold to those who gave us life against our ongoing efforts to transcend them. It is the anxiety that defines us, the tension that shapes us, and ultimately – redemptively – the struggle that gives us strength and offers us the possibility of unlocking our heroic potential.