The Anxiety of Influence

I recently finished “The Anxiety of Influence” by legendary literary critic Harold Bloom. Besides my ongoing Hegel studies, this might have been one of the toughest books I ever read: Bloom does nothing to invalidate the common stereotype about academics being too wordy, too cryptic and too cloistered. If anything, he takes it one further: He does not even try to make a rational argument you can follow – you either get his very subtle literary and cultural references or you don’t.

Talk about being elitist.

Having said that, under all the pretentious wordiness lies a very interesting idea: Bloom argues, that, in order to establish ourselves as strong artists (substitute artist for any other identity or profession as you like), we have to eventually misinterpret our role models – the people that came before us, the people that paved the way for us. We have to take their accomplishment that inspired us to follow in their footsteps in the first place, and somehow make that source of inspiration seem imperfect, even murky. It’s only then we can add new meaning to our chosen subject, which would otherwise remain occupied by the predecessor. So you either mutilate your role model, to become a force to be reckoned with yourself or you remain a weakling, an epigone. Bloom then goes on to exemplify that basic idea by looking at different writers from English romanticism, and the specific literary strategies they applied to kill off their predecessors. As you probably guessed by now, Blooms thinking is highly influenced by psychoanalysis. The whole notion of killing the predecessor is a spin off of Freud’s Oedipus complex, i.e. the son killing his father who is viewed as a rival for the mother.

That’s Harold Bloom for you in a nutshell.

If you are currently wondering why the hell I am telling you all this: I have a suspicion that this anxiety of influence does not only apply to the rather lofty world of English romanticism, but also to real life and to personal development specifically. Just stay with me for another moment.

What got me thinking was a long critical look at my own life. If I look at the most influential people in my life, in terms of past teachers and mentors, there is distinct pattern that shines through: I initially tend to be in complete awe of my mentors, not being able to fathom how anyone can accumulate that much knowledge on that complex of a subject (whatever that happens to be at the time). Next comes a long, intensive phase of modeling myself after my hero – I try to copy them as exactly as I can, oftentimes not limited to the area of knowledge I’m trying to learn about but even their general behavior, like mannerisms and language patters; this is how much I’m under their spell, I just can’t help it. But eventually, after a period of at least a few years, I inevitably start to recognize cracks in the perfect surface of that idol I created, slowly starting to move away from teacher, eventually changing his teachings or combining them with something else into something new.

Some people might call this development healthy and only natural and after all, it does very much resemble how a healthy relationship with your parents plays out over time. So why the fuss?

Well, Harold Bloom would argue: You don’t just organically detach from your teachers and mentors; you have to actively kill them off, if you ever want to amount to anything yourself.

In that vein, Niels Bohrmann would argue: If they are not there, you have to create these cracks in your idols yourself; you have to over exaggerate them, even flat out invent them. You have turned your teachers into something they never truly were, just so you can step on them. If you consider this, the shiny positive thing that is personal development suddenly becomes a cutthroat competition.

Going back to the real world, this seems to hold true, at least in my case: I hardly talk to any of my former mentors anymore. Of course you could argue that is due to laziness, distance or time not being spent together; and I think those are all part of it. But I also suspect I – in my very idiosyncratic, limited ways – might be really suffering from what Bloom termed the anxiety of influence.

It works the other way around too. Having been a teacher or coach for most of my professional life, I could name several people that I taught or coached to some level of success who eventually had to kill me off as their primary influence. As you can easily imagine, that was not a pleasant feeling: You feel somewhat used; and even worse, on some level you realize that they were right to kill you off, that their potential for development had grown larger than yours. So you are being stepped on and feel sorry for yourself – and at the same time, you think you SHOULD be stepped on.

There is one more interesting twist to this: What about the people who, out of pity or weakness, cannot kill off their teachers? Harold Bloom talks about these too, and not in friendly terms. These are the writers who tend to be forgotten just 100 years later, the influencers without lasting influence; the footnotes of history. The less aggressive these weaklings act towards their predecessors, the less meaning they can add to the cultural discourse. So rightfully, they go under.

Again, if that is true, what does that mean for your personal development? Are you someone who is killing off your role models? Or are you valuing harmony with your teachers and other influences on your life above anything else, risking never making a contribution in the process?

Maybe it’s time to cultivate some anxiety.