Avant le Bloom: Mandel’štam’s Presciently “Meta-Bloomian” Poems and Essays

Stuart Goldberg, Georgia Institute of Technology

Osip Mandel’štam was not without poetic influences. He does, however, seem to have largely escaped verbal anxiety, an achievement particularly notable for a poet who began his creative life as a latecomer to the latecoming Symbolist movement. His success in sidestepping the “anxiety of influence” is, of course, attributable in large part to his great genius, but also to his ingenious positioning of his poetry vis-ŕ-vis the concepts of influence, priority and originality.

To “apply” Harold Bloom’s theory of influence to Mandel’štam’s poetry seems an awkward reversal. In this regard, is it not Bloom who is the latecomer, his Covering Cherub long since de-winged? One can only wonder whether any other “post-Enlightenment” poet has so thoroughly, consciously and inventively transformed the threats of poetic influence into the material of uninhibited creativity.  Mandel’štam accomplishes this through a series of “Bloomian” (or better, “meta-Bloomian”) poetic “maneuvers,” including some radical dialectical revisions of the very Romantic mindset which, if not generates, then exacerbates the burdens of influence and anguish of foregone priority.

Still, there were two figures who generated real anxiety for Mandel’štam – Puškin (analyzed by Andrew Reynolds in his dissertation) and Blok. The differing types of not entirely verbal anxiety Mandel’štam experienced before these two precursors are typical of the Russian context and point the way to necessary revisions in Bloom’s theory. (In general, recent years have seen a growing interest in possible applications to Russian literature of a redrawn anxiety of influence theory as one way of reengaging the author [after Structuralism] on a sophisticated theoretical plane [Andrew Reynolds, Anna Lisa Crone, David Bethea].)

In this paper, I demonstrate that the fundamental concept of “anxiety of influence” was widely understood by poets at the turn of the century (hence Bloom’s own “latecoming,” but also the validity of his basic approach); illuminate some of Mandel’štam’s strategies for dealing with influence and test the appropriateness of Bloom’s later definitions to describe them; and, finally, briefly outline the theoretical underpinnings of my own broader applications of a modified Bloomian theory of “anxiety before the precursor persona” to the early Mandel’štam and Blok.