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When You’re Belated, Make Lemonade

I've been reading Harold Bloom's classic work The Anxiety of Influence, and I've come upon an odd quote. It's the kind of thing that sounds so right that I really want to like it, but I'm not entirely sure I understand what it means.

So, I'm throwing it out to the crowd. Anyone want to take a shot at unpacking this?

Cultural belatedness is never acceptable to a major writer, though Borges made a career out of exploiting his secondariness.

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9 comments to When You’re Belated, Make Lemonade

  • Maybe he means that Borges didn’t gain international attention until fairly late in his career, and so his ‘surrealist’ style only came into public consciousness well after surrealism as a movement had ended? Although it seems like Bloom wants to apply this to his whole career. Can we get a little more context?

  • sr. varoa

    I would understand it more or less as anachronistic. He said many times things like “I wonder if my writing has any freshness. I think of myself as belonging essentially to the nineteenth century”. (quote from an interview that can be read at http://www.wooster.edu/artfuldodge/interviews/borges.htm)
    In a way I think Borges would agree partly with Bloom, he said that every writer is modern just by existing in his time so there is no need to try to be modern. So I suppose those who try don’t achieve great results.
    However, if Borges is interested in the past, I don’t think he is out of touch with his time considering how he influenced his and later generations, and connected old traditions with his century.

  • Francoise

    Borges didn’t care that he was an afterthought, or, at least, he pretended not to care, which was part of his charm.

  • PJ

    Bloom’s idea of belatedness is connected with the fact that so much literature has already been written. With so many great novels, poems, stories, etc, already written, why bother writing more? Can anything I write measure up to the great writing of the past?
    Borges, of course, made the very existence of so many books and stories and so forth his subject matter. Hence, he “made a career out of exploiting his secondariness.”
    I’ve only read parts of the Bloom book, and quite some time ago, but I suspect he means something along those lines.

  • These are really good answers. Thanks to everyone who responded.
    I don’t have time to respond myself right now, but I would like to address the point of context. There really isn’t any (which is why I found the remark so elusive). The remark comes in the preface to the second edition, which is a very lengthy essay generally centered around the idea of Shakespeare as the first writer in the modern Western tradition (and thus, non-anxious). It’s really a one-off statement, though . . .

  • Richard

    Scott,
    In the world according to Bloom, “belatedness” means that you are essentially a direct product of your precursors, and without them, your writing wouldn’t really exist. Under his theory of “the anxiety of influence,” those writers whom he considers “strongest” (in a way, you can read “most original”) actually “create” their own precursors. They refuse to accept their “secondariness” or “belatedness,” and actively strive against it. (I think he points out somewhere that, from one point of view, they all lose, but from another, the “strongest” writers actually throw their own influence backward to their own precursors, and sometimes outshine–or overshadow–them.) It’s a paradox: Wallace Stevens, out of the anxiety of influence, essentially “creates” Shelley. I always took this to mean that, while you might think that Shelly “created” Wallace Stevens in a way by being a massive influence on his poetics (or at least on mid- to late- period Stevens), Stevens reacts both with and against Shelley’s influence, in essence throwing his own shadow back upon Shelley, so that, in light of Stevens’ poetry, we read Shelley differently now.
    A writer who is “belated” would only succumb, as it were, to the anxiety of influence, and in all likelihood be “destroyed.” However, Borges is an exception in that he embraces his “belatedness” by using it as a poetic strategy itself–thus, cf. “Pierre Menard,” etc.
    I studied Bloom in grad school, or at least had a professor who had us study Bloom in the course of reading a “strain” of American poetry (from Whitman through Williams through Stevens through Ammons to Ashbery, a very “Bloomian” progression, if you will), and that, at least, is what I got out of it.

  • Richard

    P.S. I forgot to add that you don’t really get this translated for you, as it were, from The Anxiety of Influence…you also have to read A Map of Misreading, and more to the point, Bloom’s books in individual writers–for instance, his book on Wallace Stevens (The Poems of our Climate), his book on Shelley, etc. A lot of reading to get the “point” of something that you would think the book entitled The Anxiety of Influence would explain fully and clearly, but it doesn’t!

  • Donald Naggie

    Bloom opens his book “Figures of Capable Imagination” with a retelling of Borges story “The Theologians” and remarks on it that it is like so much of Borges a story of the anxiety of influence.

  • Very late, but Bloom’s ideas interest me because a twenty years before, Borges himself wrote that ‘every writer creates his iwn predecessors’.

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