Revisiting: Bloom and Creativity

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted blogs or tumblogs: The Thinking Grounds, Learning to Read the Internet, or Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. This one, from The Thinking Grounds, is about one of the things we can learn from Harold Bloom, despite his less-than-glowing welcome in English lit departments these days.


Bloom and Creativity

An Observation

Blossoms (or blooms, if you like) in Vancouver, probably the UBC campus.

I do not have much of a thesis for this post; I just want to record an observation I had some time ago but keeping forgetting.

Harold Bloom, a literary critic now notorious in lit departments for his Freudian misogyny (and as Bardolator-in-Chief), wrote that all creative endeavours—and he was writing primarily of authors—are in perpetual rebellion against their predecessors. This is the anxiety of influence, the fear that, in order to be remembered, they must compete with the very poets who inspired in them a love of poetry. Most authors never rise above mere imitation of their predecessors, and their poetry remains weak. But those few strong poets idiosyncratically misread their predecessors, so when they struggle against those predecessors they struggle against a predecessor that does not exist and thus produce something new in their poetry. Milton misread Shakespeare and Blake misread Milton, which is what made them great. This is the heart of creativity: idiosyncratic misreading.[1]

A lot of Bloom’s literary theory has been criticized. First, though he denies that he is a Freudian, his kill-the-father routine seem heavily indebted to Freud. (Besides, of course a Freudian would deny that he’s a Freudian. (That link has some language inappropriate for some contexts.)) Second, he can be quite sexist, and while this theory sounds gender-neutral, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar note in Madwoman in the Attic that woman authors tended not to have this competitive relationship with their predecessors; rather, woman authors, especially early ones, usually collaborated with predecessors, relying on pre-existing female poets and novelists to justify their own writing. Third, it seems a bit strange to suggest that the only way a person can be creative is through idiosyncratic misreading, even if you do posit the existence of an anxiety of influence.

But I want to notice that we can safely repudiate Bloom’s totalizing claims without losing the key insight that idiosyncratic misreading can be, or anyway lead to, a creative act. In an intellectual rather than artistic sphere, I know that I can sometimes have some of my better ideas by misunderstanding the theory I am reading. (Though it should be noted that such benefits are rare.) Moreover, I come up with good ideas for novels by reading content into existing works and then later discovering that I had been hallucinating a clever commentary that wasn’t there. As I said, I have no conclusion; I just want to observe that we can safely jettison most of Bloom’s framework while still retaining idiosyncratic misreading as one place where creativity is possible. In particular, if all work is derivative—which is almost certainly true—then idiosyncratic misreading might be a way of escaping the trap that all creativity is merely a new arrangement of old elements.


[1] Bloom would prefer “misprision” to “misreading.”

The photograph in this post was taken and is owned by Christian H of the Thinking Grounds. It is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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3 thoughts on “Revisiting: Bloom and Creativity

  1. Christian H. wrote:
    “But I want to notice that we can safely repudiate Bloom’s totalizing claims without losing the key insight that idiosyncratic misreading can be, or anyway lead to, a creative act. In an intellectual rather than artistic sphere, I know that I can sometimes have some of my better ideas by misunderstanding the theory I am reading. (Though it should be noted that such benefits are rare.)”
    I like it!

    I like C.S. Lewis’ idea that a given interpretation of a story can of “force itself upon [one] …as the way the thing must have been.”
    (I’m thinking of what Lewis says in the “Note” at the end of “Till We Have Faces.”)

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    • The passage rings a bell, but I have not read Till We Have Faces, so I don’t know why I’d have read its “Note.” Is that were he recalls misreading a passage and therefore misremembering it? And he got into an argument about it, and since his misreading worked so well with the rest of the piece he was surprised to find he was wrong when he looked in the book?

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      • “Till We Have Faces” is a retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth…

        Here’s what Lewis wrote in the note at the end:
        “The central alteration in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes– if ‘making’ is not the wrong word for something which forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the thing must have been. This change of course brings with it a more ambivalent motive and a different character for my heroine and finally modifies the whole quality of the tale. I felt quite free to go behind Apuleius, who I suppose to have been its transmitter, not its inventor…”

        It’s not quite exactly what you were talking about, but related.
        (I was writing something on “Till We Have Faces,” so it was sort of “the last thing on my mental queue.”)

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