Engross, prejudice, and intimidate

This post from Ian Leslie’s Ruffian newsletter rang a bell for me. He’s talking about the nature of creative influence, and here adds a thought about why great influences can be so blocking:

I recently (re-)read U and I, Nicolson Baker’s book about his obsession with John Updike, writer and man. … U and I is essentially about creative influence and how to survive it. In my post How To Be Influenced I mention Harold Bloom’s idea of ‘the anxiety of influence’ – the struggle that artists undergo, early in their careers, to separate themselves from those they start off by imitating. Baker mentions it too. He lives it. He desperately admires Updike but also wants to avoid getting crushed by his love for him. He needs to find his own way of being a great writer. At one point he quotes from an essay by the eighteenth century English poet, Edward Young. It turns out that Young hit upon the same thought as Bloom, three hundred years earlier.

Young’s essay takes the form of a letter to his friend Samuel Richardson (Clarissa etc) about the nature of originality in ‘composition’ or literary writing. It’s verbose but fascinating because Young is thinking through what it means to be original, what it means to be a great artist – a ‘genius’ – almost from first principles. It’s got some nifty aphorisms: “Ambition is sometimes no vice in life; it is always a virtue in composition.” It also contains some straight-up good advice – for instance, he says it’s OK to imitate great writers, but instead of imitating their writing, imitate their method; their approach to the work, rather than the work itself.

The bit that anticipates Bloom’s theory is this. Young asks, why are there are so few original writers? It’s not because there is nothing new to say or because the human mind has become less powerful. It’s because the writers we admire most “engross, prejudice, and intimidate”:

They engross our attention, and so prevent a due inspection of ourselves; they prejudice our judgment in favor of their abilities, and so less the sense of our own; and they intimidate us with the splendor of their renown, and thus under diffidence bury our strength.”1

Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour will recognise every word of that.

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