Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On the revelatory ratios


Although much of the language it is couched in is relentlessly opaque, the idea of the anxiety of influence is fairly common-sense now. It says that since the time of Shakespeare, all artists in the literal tradition fight against the influence of those who have come before them in that tradition. So even Shakespeare felt the pressure, or anxiety of influence, to compete with Christopher Marlowe, to take what he made and outdo it.

Harold Bloom argued first in 1972 that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because a poet must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee his survival into posterity (i.e., to guarantee that future readers will not allow him to be forgotten), the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets. Just copying masterpieces adds nothing new to be remembered, nothing to make one distinct. So Bloom says that true artists willfully twist themes and ideas from this overloaded prior art, making something new based on a creative misinterpretation.

Nevertheless, a minority of strong poets must have a way of overcoming this anxiety. This leads to Bloom's 'revisionary ratios', or literary devices based on Freudian mechanisms by which authors use to navigate between the anxiety of influence and plagarism:

1. Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprison proper...This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves.

2. Tessera, which is the completion and antithesis...A poet antithetically "completes" his precursor, by so reading the parent poem as to retain its terms but to mean to them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.

3. Kenosis , which is a breaking device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions; kenosis then is a movement towards discontinuity with the precursor. The later poet, apparently emptying himself of his own afflatus, his imaginative godhood, seems to humble himself as though he were ceasing to be a poet, but this ebbing is so performed in relation to a precursor's poem-of-ebbing that the precursor is emptied out also, and so the later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems.

4. Daemonization, or a movement towards a personalized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor's Sublime...The later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond that precursor. He does this, in his poem, by so stationing its relation to the parent-poem as to generalize away the uniqueness of the earlier work.

5. Askesis, or a movement of self-purgation...The later poet does not, as in kenosis, undergo a revisionary movement of emptying, but of curtailing; he yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others, including the precursor, and he does this in his poem by so stationing it in regard to the parent-poem as to make that poem undergo an askesis too; the precursor's endowment is also truncated.

6. Apophrades, or the return of the dead...The later poet, in his own final phase, already burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism, holds his own poem so open again to the precursor's work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle, and that we are back in the later poet's flooded apprenticeship, before his strength began to assert itself in the revisionary ratios. But the poem is now held open to the precursor, where once it was open, and the uncanny effect is that the new poem's achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor's characteristic work.
More opaqueness, but we can relate each in a shorter version using examples. Each of these can be seen in the area of fan-created fiction which surrounds media properties with highly devoted audiences, like Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is by nature derivative art, but much of it consciously misinterprets characters, plotlines and dialogue from the original work in order to align with the new writer's revised vision.

Clinamen is the basic ratio and it takes the view that the original poem started good but went wrong, and that the new poem avoids that error by doing the opposite. So we could think of a story in which Luke joins the Dark Side after his confrontation with Vader in Cloud City or in which Spock becomes captain of the Enterprise.

Tessera is a the second ratio and is a more specific version of clinamen, in that it implies the mistake made was a premature ending, by which the new poem. This, in its gross sense, encompasses fanfiction where the unresolved sexual tension between two otherwise heterosexual characters explodes into gay melodrama.

Kenosis is the deconstruction or emptying of influence, through an explicit purging of affliation. perhaps we can see this reaction in the differences between Coppola and Scorcese in depicting LCN in film. With Goodfellas he knew he was going to get Godfather comparisons, so the story is about a guy who isn't even really in the mafia, and end up in Witness Protection.

Daemonization is perhaps the most recognizable and the best described: taking something assumed to exist within the original poem and giving it an expanded power. this reminds me of a great series of science fiction stories that Cory Doctorow has been doing, each of which is based on assumptions in other great science fiction stories: like having a single design monopoly on robot's in Asimov's I, Robot series or the patriarchal warmongering pseudo-morality of Ender's Game)

Askesis, a method of cutting away from the influence of the earlier work by sacrificing its ideals. Perhaps this is the most ascetic as it involves a complete break with anything having to do with the original work. Any work which is so committed to denying the themes of its predecessor that it explicitly mentions it would edge towards this category. I would put Dune, a master piece on its own merits into this category, because it was a science fiction novel which eschewed any sort of artificial intelligence, any robots common to space operas of the past.

Apophrades, return of the dead, describes how one artist so throughly transcend the artist he was originally inspired by, as to seem as if he wrote the original work. A real-life case, could be the relative difference in modern-day fame of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Or take this anecdote: California is named after the island of California, home of Queen Calafia, her beautiful black amazons and their man-eating griffins, as all detailed in Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo's Las Sergas de Esplandian, which was a highly unauthorized but popular sequel to the much more highly respected Amadis de Gaul, more The Lord of the Rings of its day. Las Sergas de Esplandian was the pulp novel the conquistadores had on board when they sailed around and encountered the Baja peninsula. What's more, when the Portola party went up the coast, thinking the descriptions in LSdE were based on actual travelers' tales, they thought the California condors were Queen Calafia's big black man-eating griffins.

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