Glawe: In the footsteps of great writers

Michael Glawe

During the five-year voyage of my undergraduate years, I was tossed about by foreign ideas and uncomfortable conversations. Nonetheless, in the waning weeks, the indelible words of immortal minds have left me so stricken, I find myself on distant lands, wholly peculiar from where I set sail. Here at the precipice of adulthood, lacking any real identity, one may find himself, as poet Wallace Stevens put it, “more truly and more strange.”

A great host of writers and thinkers have affected me in such profound ways and it would be strenuous to catalogue them all, at the danger of being remiss. The reader may find this sentiment familiar: everybody has his or her stock of champions — many, unfortunately, find solace in such unnecessary piffle as Ayn Rand. Mine are wholly literary, as Percy Shelley put it, “the unacknowledged legislators,” and if one were to compose a list it would have to include both Shelleys, Emile Zola, George Orwell, Wallace Stevens, Friedrich Nietzsche and Vladimir Nabokov.

My greatest influences are Harold Bloom and Christopher Hitchens. I owe so much of myself to those titans of the mind. How ironic it is that I write of my forebears, continually sapping away at their wisdom, when the greatest among them, Harold Bloom, is himself, as he once said of Nietzsche, “the prophet of anxiety.”

Harold Bloom’s contribution to literary criticism is his theory of anxiety: that the poet’s creative processes are stymied by the influence of a precursor poet. The poet attempts to break away from the precursor out of the anxiety that originality is no longer attainable — that the precursor has already said everything needed to be said.

The most obvious would be John Milton’s attempt to escape Shakespeare’s sphere of influence. But as Bloom argues, no one can escape Shakespeare. Shakespeare created the human, and if you’ve read Hamlet or experienced Falstaff, you would know precisely what Bloom means by this argument. All of what I know of literature can be attributed to Bloom and all inwardness that exists in literature is, necessarily, attributed to Shakespeare.

The German poet and literary critic Heinrich Heine once said, “There is a God and His name is Aristophanes,” and Bloom revised this statement by stating, “There is no god but God, and his name is Shakespeare.” I am inclined to say that Bloom is my god, but he would disagree, as would I. Bloom represents the common reader as much as Shakespeare wrote for the human, not the wealthy high-brow snobs.

Our precursors, the people who most influence us, are inescapable. They dwell in our minds, they haunt us and they are the cause of great anxiety. Harold Bloom and Christopher Hitchens are, admittedly, my precursors.

Perhaps artists, a term acting as an umbrella under which reside musicians, poets, writers and so on, understand this better than anyone else. It seems to be the case that originality, the fight to usurp a precursor, has driven us to madness. I constantly see articles, novels, music and paintings written and composed with a sort of windiness or blandness. This obsession with originality is so filled with frivolity and so skewed by expedience that it is ultimately meaningless.

I once wrote that, “throughout our writing career, we silently and desperately tear at the umbilical cord connecting us to Shakespeare or Cervantes or Melville. By reconciling with our forebears, perhaps we may endure the struggle.” Great art comes from an acceptance of our influences. Why has it become the case that allusion is akin to plagiarism? Astounding works of art embrace the inherent anxiety and oftentimes the end product is composed, as Bloom puts it, out of a “misreading” of the precursor. An allusion, therefore, is an ode.

This acceptance of our precursors leads us back to where we started. Presumably all of us begin our journey toward artistic greatness with the idea that we will immortalize ourselves, as so many before us have been immortalized. Accepting our influences and fighting to escape them leads us to transcendence over our peers. We too often see people roll over and die, unwilling to attempt usurpation of their predecessor because of the sheer difficulty, and we often see see people driven to madness to attain immortality.

I’d love to say I am original, but that will never be the case. Not many of us are. But anxiety drives us toward conquering our influences and ultimately producing originality. A Promethean hero resides within each of us, attempting to steal the fire back from the gods Shakespeare and Mozart. Perhaps at the end of that great struggle, I too will find myself more truly and more strange.