Anxiety of influence: American literary critic Harold Bloom, now best known for his controversial books The Western Canon (1994), Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human (1998), and The Daemon Knows (2015), developed a brand of “revisionist” or antithetical criticism in the 1970s that challenged conventional conceptions of influence. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Bloom significantly developed ideas set forth by another American critic, Walter Jackson Bate, in his book The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970). Whereas Bate had argued that poets inevitably feel that their precursors may have already accomplished all that can be accomplished, Bloom discussed the way in which poets deal with this fear, or “anxiety.” He suggested that the writing of all poets involves the rewriting of earlier poets, and that this rewriting always and inevitably involves some form of “misprision,” a kind of misreading that allows the later writer’s creativity to emerge. Bloom acknowledged the long-standing view that any given poet (particularly since seventeenth-century English poet John Milton) is, in fact, influenced by a “precursor” poet or poets, but he further contended that the “belated” poet (or ephebe) fears that the precursor poet has overshadowed him, encroaching upon his territory and thereby negating his creativity.

Bloom relied heavily on Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex to explain the anxiety of the belated poet, who jealously regards the precursor poet as a competitor even as he admires that earlier poet’s work. The belated poet, or son, respects and learns from the patriarchal precursor poet, or father, but also envies and resents his predecessor’s precedence and preeminence. In an effort to preserve a sense of autonomy and individual creativity, the belated poet reads the precursor poet’s works defensively, subverting them in accordance with one or more of several revisionary ratios, which Bloom modeled on Freudian defense mechanisms. The ephebe, for instance, may write a poem that appears to correct or complete a poem by a precursor; he may also write a poem that appears to have influenced an earlier poem by a precursor — a poem that, in fact, influenced his own poem. In composing his own works, the belated poet cannot help but incorporate elements of the precursor’s work — many of which are themselves distortions of his great precursor’s work — even as he ardently seeks to establish his originality.

Because Bloom believed that everyone employs revisionary ratios in reading, he also argued that all reading can be considered misreading of sorts; any interpretation inevitably involves some misinterpretation. He thus ultimately asserted that no one can understand a “poem-in-itself.”

Evidence of the anxiety of influence extends beyond poetry and pervades even twenty-first century culture. The official poster for the film Lady Macbeth (2017) protests (too much) that this “story of sex and murder … has got nothing to do with Shakespeare.”