Sunday, December 16, 2007


I'm submitting an abstract for a conference, and it's a paper I haven't touched in a while. I re-read (mostly) one of the background articles, and I want to recap it in an attempt to better prepare and organize my abstract.

The article is "The Breaking of Form," by Harold Bloom, in Deconstruction & Criticism. I'm using it as a foil to discuss form in Joel Durand's Athanor.

Bloom's article serves mainly as a polemic against his detractors. His work on poetry--most famously The Anxiety of Influence--was received poorly (and Bloom would say unfairly) by some, and here he seeks to redress the balance.

Bloom's understanding of form, or the creation of form in strong poetry, is that of breaking. The prolonged discussion is on breaking from older (or elder) poets, though this can also, it seems to me, manifest in a breaking from form. Ultimately, these end up being the same thing (for me. Argument to follow). Bloom quotes Kenneth Burke on form: "A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence." Anticipation, especially in poetry, can be formed only through citationality (in music as well): if there is no preceding discourse (or syntax or semiotic system etc.) upon which to base expectations, there is no gratification. The corpus cited, of course, is precisely the o/elders. One wonders if this can be argued in such a way as to keep from dissolving into the old story of patricide.

Two things make this myth (all criticism is a myth, to over-generalize Bloom) more interesting than Oedipus. One is Bloom's capacity to think a history of poetry (or art) without invoking either organicism or any other teleology, however crude or sophisticated. The anxiety of influence is not a natural phenomenon that propels a poet to his (except Dickenson) greatness, but is a historical/cultural (documented in some cases) phenomenon with which we all struggle. The narcissistic aggression of the artist is what makes the work strong. This first labyrinth unsettles me on two accounts: I'm not sure I'm comfortable with a discourse of strength as it is deployed by Bloom, and I am skeptical of any framework with so openly places psychoanalysis (especially Freudian) at its foundation.

The other turn in this otherwise banal story is Bloom's deliberate position in the between. First, Bloom positions himself in between the over-coding and the abyss: "Language, in relation to poetry, can be conceived in two valid ways, as I have learned, slowly and reluctantly. Either one can believe in a magical theory of all language, as the Kabbalists, many poets, and Walter Benjamin did, or else one must yield to a thoroughgoing linguistic nihilism, which in its most refined form is the mode now called Deconstruction." (4) We have on the one hand the over-determination of meaning, and on the other the dearth of meaning. But which we chose is of no importance, Bloom says. In either case the poet/critic must wrestle for freedom from meaning(lessness): "Either the new poet fights to win freedom from dearth, or from plenitude, but if the antagonist be moderate, then the agon will not take place, and no fresh sublimity will be won. Only the agon is of the essence." (5) Again there is the problem of strength, but I would like to suggest that the positive in this analysis of analysis (or rhetoric of rhetoric, as Bloom prefers), is that there is not focus on the actual freedom, but on the struggle. It is in becoming-poet that is the poet, the canal from fetus to infant. The poetry is in the forgotten margin.

This loops us back to influence. For Bloom, a strong "misreading" of poetry (and we can only misread, it seems) involves reading the (anomalous) ratio between poems/poets (but maybe we have only poems; or to follow Bloom more closely, we have only readings of poems). His reading of Ashbery (which I've not yet finished) is closely tied to his understanding of Stevens and Whitman; it is always read as its influence (forget Foucault). Never, though, because that is where we find truth, or the meaning. Only because (I suspect) that is the only way we can ever read anything--Bloom prefigures, perhaps because of a common affection for Derrica, Spivak's scrupulous mistakes. So not only does Bloom deny authorial authority and the immanence of truth or meaning, but he refuses to search for meaning in the text itself, or even in the reader. Instead, meaning (or perhaps better, reading) comes from the space (and time) between one text and another--or perhaps there is only one text already. The reader--centered by virtue of its subject position--is also always already in the margin, perhaps experiencing its own anxiety of influence.

There is perhaps more I ought to say, particularly by way of critique, but I will forgo that for now, on account of the lateness. The use of this for my abstract is already partly manifest, but I should like to flesh it out some more.

In the original paper I make use only of Bloom's quotation of Burke, and then go on to demonstrate Durand's use of repetition, both on large and small scales, to generate repetition. My analyses (aside: firefox doesn't recognizes analyses?) focus primarily on rhythmic/motivic devises as well as structural (often mistakenly called formal) articulations. I use this in lieu of a more common pitch-class analysis, which seems to me quite out of place in Durand's music, not in the least because of his comment describing his aesthetic for Athanor as "unmodern."

From here Bloom himself becomes more useful. It is interesting to me that Durand could write music like Athanor after studying under Brian Fernyhough, a man who deliberately writes music so complex (or complicated, depending on whom you ask) that even the most virtuosic of performs are constantly, as they perform, forced to decide which mistake they shall make. Athanor stands in stark contrast to Fernyhough's music, just as does that of Reich, Glass and Carter next to the pedagogy of Nadia Boulanger. I worry here that this is too trivial. I'm reading in Durand's music the absence of Fernyhough's. I can complicate this by also reading it for Murail and Grisey, for whom Durand has some respect; the crucial difference here would be Durand's interest or skill with form. This can finally be expanded out to include the "unmodern" and read Athanor particularly as a radical break from and repetition of the modernist--or according to Burke, artistic--refusal of influence. This might suggest that Bloom is writing in circles (which wouldn't surprise, giving his reliance on Freud): if anxiety is posited as a universal for successful art, and if it is typified by absence and difference, then all that is needed to support they hypothesis--and perhaps even to prove it's unescapability--is change.

That's good for now. It's sleepy time.

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