Monday, December 3, 2012


Harold Bloom is a famous literary theorist/philosopher.  Why anyone would make a distinction between literary theory and philosophy is beyond me.  To me they're the same thing, but if I want to be politically correct, Bloom is a literary theorist only.  Whatever.

Anyway, Bloom is most famous for his theory of influence, also known as misreading.  Basically, the theory states that every authors' corpus reflects a misreading of authors he or she has read.  If you've ever encountered Baudrillard's theory of the simulacra (technically, if you've watched The Matrix, you've been exposed to Baudrillard.  Just about the entire film is based on Baudrillard and, if you weren't aware, his Simulacra and Simulacrum is the book from which Neo takes the disk to give to his friend at the very beginning of the movie) then you more or less understand what misreading is.  A weak misreading indicates a lot of similarity, but since no one can precisely imitate another author, the slight variations in style and content and quality are due to the author's misreading; a strong misreading indicates a lot of recoil.  Strong misreadings cause what we would otherwise call, "unique authors" or "great authors."  What the theory proposes at its heart is that no author can produce any writing without a maze of influence dating back to the beginning of humanity.  I haven't read a lot of Bloom's work (I should, however, because he donated his personal library to my alma mater) but I assume that the same can be said of all creative and artistic vocations.

If you've been paying attention then you know that I clearly agree with Bloom, at least somewhat.  I have written a few posts discussing how necessary it is that we are familiar with the tradition within which we work or else we cannot produce good work.  Bloom, like many theorists of the past hundred years or so--especially Baudrillard--leaves little room for true originality, what we usually mean by originality anyway.  On that point I disagree wholeheartedly, but that's beside the point.

I mention Bloom for two reasons.  First, now you know a little about the world of literary theory.  Count yourself smarter than you were five seconds ago.  More importantly, however, I mention Bloom because I have talked a lot about reading on this blog.  Each time I do write a post about reading I feel as if I have left out the vital link between reading and writing, between reading and success at vocation x.  Clearly a link between reading and writing exists and we generally all acknowledge that the more you read the better you will be at writing.  Part of the reason is that by reading you are in a sense writing in your head.  Writing in your head does not amount to the same effort as actually writing, but it's practice nonetheless.  The real link between reading and writing well, far more applicable to a professed writer than just some guy who writes business reports or papers for school, is misreading.  It is by misreading that that we writers truly fuel our work.

Of course, I wouldn't be entirely satisfied if I simply left you with a short exposition of ideas not my own.  So, in keeping with the bad essay that I just wrote that will probably never see the light of day, I must add a little tweak to the theory of misreading: misunderstanding counts as misreading.  I do not encourage anyone to purposely misunderstand or to purposely skim over material that is hard to grasp or to generally act and be oblivious, but when it comes to the world of ideas and stories I believe it's more important to have read than to have understood.  On one hand, to understand what a writer intends in a story--and oftentimes in a work of non-fiction as well--should never be the goal in reading anyway.  Stories and ideas carry meaning distinct from the author's intention.  Storytellers often don't have intentions, either.  On the other hand, words in any language cannot ever be equated with mathematical language.  Math never changes, the rules of derivatives and terminal velocity and imaginary numbers and centripetal force, etc., will always remain the same.  If ever a mathematical rule undergoes revision (I haven't followed up on this, but a few months ago I read some scientific reports that would by implication throw E=mc2 out the window) it's because the first version was simply wrong.  Cultural language does not follow the same rules.  So if you read a piece of writing and do not understand it as other people understand it, that's okay.  It might be embarrassing sometimes if you are the only person in a crowd to have understood the piece in your own way, but consensus on artistic works never matters.

Again, the key is simply to read.  The more you read, the more ideas and lives you absorb into your being and make your own.  Since you must become the person you want to be with your own individual personality, you must translate every idea and every story and every life that you encounter into your own words, your own ideas.  And the more you read, the more you absorb and translate into your being, the better chance you have of forming and developing a strong, confident personality that you can and will be content with.  If you don't read much, the chances that you come across a story or a person and think, "Woops, I guess I should be more like that," drastically increase, and then you won't be entirely content.  Plus, the more you read and the more you determine who you want to be, the more you'll see that you are not yet that person.  More motivation never hurt anyone. 

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