Influence: A Practice in Three Wanders
For a long time now, I have had it in mind to write an essay called “Fiction as a Way of Life.” The allusion here is to Pierre Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life, in which Hadot, himself a philosopher, argues that the ancient Greeks regarded philosophy not as an idea, or not only as an idea, but as a practice, a lived experience. A way of thinking was not merely the love of wisdom, but a practice of wisdom, an ethics, a matter of being in the world in the right way. The Greeks used the term “askesis,” or self-formation, to convey the connection between ways of thinking and the ethics of the thinker. In my as yet unwritten essay, I have wanted to consider the way that we, as writers, interact with and not only create but also are created by our work—fiction as a way of life. I don’t mean our reputations, our reviews, our author photos, our sales. I mean something simultaneously more delicate, powerful, and strange, that place where the work and the life are joined, looking-glass fashion; I mean, too, the way that choosing to write, choosing to be an artist of any kind, often necessitates making other choices as well, choices with ethical implications, causing in turn a variety of epiphenomena that come to shape your life in ways that might seem, on the surface, to have nothing to do with writing at all.
You find yourself, for instance, in the cornfields of Iowa; or working construction as your bread and butter job even though you’re not very good at construction; or signing on to be an au pair at forty-two; or, as I recently did, following a rock band to Estonia. The decisions that you make to support the work ramify, and those ramifications have consequences as well, rippling outward. The decisions that you make within the work itself also ramify, and those have consequences, too—who or what do you choose to write about and why? What does it mean to kill off this character or exalt that one, what ethics are you proposing, what questions do you choose to explore? Over the arc of an oeuvre, what path have you traced? My point is probably a simple one, at the end of the day: the practice of writing, over the long haul, changes you. It shapes you, it tells on you, it leads you down odd and wondrous paths.
Anyway, I haven’t written that essay yet. But as an epiphenomenon of that unwritten essay, inspired by a philosopher’s book about the influence of other philosophers on actual lives, I’d like to consider the question of influence as it relates to the practice of writing. Immediately, of course, I am confronted by what is arguably the most influential contemporary text on influence, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1973. Bloom’s idea of influence, centered in poetry, is anxious, agonistic, bloody; it involves a protracted and bitter war that poets wage to win their souls from the poets who preceded them. Bloom’s theory is both tightly woven and frankly, almost belligerently, Oedipal—sons must kill their fathers to live, essentially. “My concern is only with strong poets,” writes Bloom, “major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death.” His concern is with the canonized poets only; his conception of influence is entirely text-based. He makes frequent, unambiguous distinctions between “strong” and “weak” poets; there are failures and successes, there is grave and irretrievable loss, bodies are scattered all over the poetic roadway. Indebtedness, Bloom writes, the sense that a poet inevitably feels belated, lacking, and derivative in relation to the strong poets who preceded him (and this is a country of male poets only) causes an anxiety so overwhelming, so nearly fatal, that most poets spend their entire lives trying, awkwardly, to work it out. The stakes are high. “. . . [W]hat strong maker,” asks Bloom, “desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?”
Bloom’s wide-legged stance is obnoxious; he practically begs the reader to punch him. “Failed to create himself”? That’s rather . . . sweeping. Would a rhyming dictionary have helped? He charts the phases of this epic self-creation as a series of what he calls six “ratios”: clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis (there it is again), and apophrades, which—except, perhaps, for “daemonization”—all sound to me like characters on Battlestar Galactica. But if you look a bit past the ancient Greek ratios and the Nietzschean bluster, you will see that Bloom actually has a more nuanced, indeterminate, and downright peculiar sense of this question of influence. He writes movingly of the role that mistakes, discontinuity, misperception, and willful misreading play in the artist’s development. Those fancy-sounding ratios are actually a series of ingestions and negotiations, elaborate defenses and then the crumbling of defenses as the younger poet tries not only to defeat but also to embody and reincarnate the older poet. Powerful identification wrestles with equally powerful urges toward individuation, and the battle is never, in fact, decisively called for either side. It may be, in fact, that both father and son are wrestling with another, more uncanny, force altogether. “The strong poet,” writes Bloom, “peers in the mirror of his fallen precursor and beholds neither the precursor nor himself but a Gnostic double, the dark otherness or antithesis that both he and the precursor longed to be, yet feared to become.”
In my own misreading, that part right there is where I pause. The Gnostic double? What is that? This is, of course, from the same man who writes that the “primary God of poets” is “the bald gnome Error, who lives at the back of a cave; and skulks forth only at irregular intervals, to feast upon the mighty dead, in the dark of the moon.” I think the Gnostic double Bloom had in mind might be a member of Slayer, but this image of the mirror, of fear, of failure: this speaks to me as an emblem of influence. Not the Gnostic double, which I guess is The Mom or something (a figure conspicuously absent from Bloom’s Freudian–Nietzschean–Goth equation), but this rather strange image of the looking, the seeking in the looking, and the sense of failure in that odd, visually impossible mutual gaze—looking into the “mirror of the fallen precursor,” that is, looking into a mirror and hoping to see, instead of one’s own face, the face of the precursor, and then seeing yet another face, an unanticipated face, looking back. The strong emotions of fear and hope. This is where I get interested. Bloom and I meet here, we agree: influence and failure have something to do with one another. That feared, hoped-for face never appears. We look. We look again.
What I want to do is not to propose a counter-theory concerning influence so much as to make a few excursions into that mirror, that looking-glass world, in search of a practice. If I have a theory, or an idea, it has something to do not with an agonistic success but with an equally agonistic, and perhaps equally productive, sense of failure. I want to talk primarily about influence beyond the text-to-text conjunctions. I’m interested in the ways we are influenced not only by what we read—poets reading T. S. Eliot, novelists reading Henry James—but also by music, by art, by pop culture, by elements in our everyday lives, by the noise in the street. I have an idea that, as writers, we are as bewitched by, and as anxious about, these influences as we are about the great writers who came before us. We study these forces just as closely, and fail in relation to them just as thuddingly. New art is the result; or at least one hopes so. Consider what follows in the nature of three rambling walks, three wanders, that somehow all end up back at the same place.
MY FATHER'S PORNOGRAPHY
It wasn’t a very well-kept secret. Hardly much of a secret at all. We had a deacon’s bench in our living room that had a hollow beneath the seat and a little brass ring, unlockable, that you pulled to lift the seat. My father’s way of poking fun, maybe—in the church pew, under the deacon’s ass, essentially, porn. In that hollow were glossy, messy stacks of Playboy, Penthouse, the usual. Nothing especially violent or kinky; nothing that every man and boy in America wasn’t invited to look at all the time. I loved it. I loved the way the women looked and also the way they looked at the camera, with such delight; I loved the little drawings of ladies wearing only black stockings and garters in the margins of the text; I loved the supersaturated color of the photos; I loved the sexiness, the nakedness, the display, and the sense that here was an alternate world, an image-drenched zone where the usual rules obviously didn’t apply. I loved the dirty words in businesslike type; I loved the knowingness, the inside information that this was what people really thought about all the time, what went unsaid in every situation—sexiness could spring at the gas station, the supermarket, in the office. I loved all the tawny, beautifully lit skin. I loved, too, although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, that this was some part of my father’s secret life as a man, a life he drove off to in cars with his friends, a life he alluded to in jokes and stories—the pranks, the fights, the drinking, the strange women; a life of appetite and surprise. My fondest aspiration, at six, was to be a go-go girl on the television dance show called Hullabaloo and dance in a cage in white boots. I wanted to dance for my father, but I also wanted to dance with him. I wanted to go where he went, to that other place, that secret life.
My father’s pornography was one of the first dreamlands that I knew. Even as a child, I knew that it wasn’t exactly real—skin didn’t look like that, women in the everyday world didn’t dress like that, the rooms they lay in didn’t look like real rooms; it was all so shiny, so bright and smooth, like a world made out of Lifesavers candy populated by people in costumes that couldn’t be worn outside. It was sexland, another country, only half-concealed, another world tucked into the everyday folds of our ordinary living room; it was, in many ways, a sign and signal of my father’s desire and the messy, glossy, sliding dreamland within him. He didn’t mind so much that we knew it, that we could see it—his wishes, and his belief that there was a place where those wishes might be fulfilled. His dreamland, in other words, was exotic, superabundant, obscene, but also readily accessible at every newsstand. My father’s pornography taught me about doubleness, about other-zones that hide in plain sight, about a kind of transparency in the world: paradise is ever at hand, even on the dullest suburban afternoon in a little house on a dead-end street.
My father’s pornography also wasn’t, on the face of it, art. It didn’t appear to aspire to be art. It proudly aspired to be used for the most basic satisfaction. It had no interest in being figured out, in being interpreted; though it was replete with images of surrender, it invited the viewer to surrender as well, to let down all defenses. And if there was pleasure in it, and prettiness, there was also a recognition of need; even, of a certain grubby desperation. That was all right with it, too. It wasn’t asking you to be smart. When I got a little older, I understood what porn’s place in the world was and the shame that hovered around it; later still, I understood that as a woman I was supposed to dislike it, but I never did, really. It was fairyland for me, too, always had been. I thought it was beautiful.
We are taught to resist the pornographic in writing fiction—in writing literary fiction, anyway. We resist turning on the reader for the sheer sake of it; we resist the ethic of use, especially the use of women, that pervades pornography; we resist the clichés of porn, the hypererect nipples and constantly stiff cocks; we resist its shallowness and disposability, its narrative predictability. All to the good. But, as a writer, I can’t quite shake the sense that porn gets something right about beauty and need, about hunger and the production of hunger in comparison to which literary fiction often seems to me anorexic, to traffic in a suspiciously easy, even mingy, sense of irony and skepticism. Porn wants you to want. It will beguile you, and tease you, and even alarm you into desire; porn is never ironic. (It can be jokey, as Hustler famously was, but they’re all dirty jokes, no air quotes involved.) There is a nakedness on every level in porn—its aims are naked, and it wants to get you naked, too, to want to get naked. In literary fiction, we tend to honor the indirect, the elliptical, the layered; we swoon over the astonishingly lacerating elision. Reading Chekhov, for instance, can make you feel so rueful and melancholy and falling-leaves-like about love that you’re not sure why you would ever bother to start.
My father’s pornography was, in that way, quite innocent, psychologically speaking, and very optimistic. Desire, incited, could be fulfilled relatively easily. And though desire was everywhere—every diner waitress was apparently wearing garters and no underwear, or maybe even no skirt at all—it wasn’t everything. I don’t think anyone ever thought that, say, Miss November could wreck your life and cast your soul into a shadow from which it would never emerge. Playboy was no Beast in the Jungle; it would have had a very simple suggestion for what ailed John Marcher. (It’s a South Park episode waiting to happen—John Marcher meets Hugh Hefner.) In this regard, I think Playboy may have had a somewhat melancholy point. In considering porn and influence, I could, at great length, talk about the pervasiveness of porn in modern culture. We see it everywhere now, in everything, all over every shopping mall; it has very little edge left.
But, for me, the lingering influence of pornography has been a cluster of ethical questions that I never entirely feel I’ve answered. Do I make the reader hungry for the world? Do I give beauty its due? Do I ask to be read as frankly, as unabashedly, as those women looked back at the camera? Or do I fail? Perhaps I, like my father, have always half-concealed my stash of beauty, sort of hiding, not all that well, my essential love of beauty, my lyricism—both as one who employs it and one who easily surrenders to it—in more sober, upstanding narratives about loss, dismay, and redemption. Do I take the easy way out, and teach the easy way out, of endlessly deferring satisfaction and closure as opposed to the rather more sober lessons of porn—sure, satisfaction is entirely possible; then what do you do with the other twenty-three hours of your day? There is something, in porn, that reeks of mortality, of the unexceptional, transitory nature of the flesh. Miss November is like a piece of cake. She is delicious and she can be had; she will also rot. Miss December will take her place soon enough. I’m not sure which Bloomian ratio this is, but pornography both introduced me to a copious, libidinal, playful dreamland and demonstrated that dreamland’s inherent fragility. Those pretty naked ladies were always going away. Perhaps every text does contain its own criticism.
The third face in pornography may be the face of the transitory image, of the transitoriness that suffuses every image, no matter how exalted or rare. Do we love Michelangelo’s David because it reassures us in its grand, marble solidity that beauty is monumental and eternal? Or do we know, somewhere, that the very grandeur of the statue is the sign and signal of its obverse: whatever flesh might have inspired it has been dust for centuries. Even our looking lasts for a few minutes, not much more. My father didn’t save his pornography, didn’t slipcase back issues, didn’t frame the centerfolds. He would have thought that was crazy. Because it is. All of the hue and cry, on both the left and the right, about pornography overlooks—perhaps subconsciously excludes—a fact that porn itself, now free on the internet in every permutation, is quite frank about. Beauty and pleasure pass. The moment ends.
VIRGINIA WOOLF AND THE MARKS ON THE WALL
In 1913, Roger Fry, an influential British art critic and painter who coined the term Post-Impressionism, founded a design company called the Omega Workshop. It was located at 33 Fitzroy Square in London. Discouraged and angered by the contemptuous critical reception that Post-Impressionism was then receiving in England, he wanted both to bring Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism directly to the public and to eliminate the middlemen—the wealthy patrons, the critics, the State—whom he felt had a stranglehold on artists and their incomes. His ideals were more or less socialist, crossed with a vision of artists as the new elite. In a just world, he wrote, society “might choose its poets and painters and philosophers and deep investigators and make of such men and women a new kind of kings.” To this end, he wished to employ artists to bring cutting-edge artistic movements into home design, into furniture, textile design, pottery, stained glass, and so on. The designers of Omega were the members of the Bloomsbury group—Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Edward Wolfe, Fry himself. Despite Fry’s visionary intentions, the work produced by Omega was expensive, in limited quantities, and the company collapsed altogether in 1919.
But Fry’s basic idea—an idea that derives from the earlier Arts and Crafts Movement—that the boundaries between the decorative and the fine arts should be erased is, indeed, quite radical. In one stroke, it frees art from gallery walls and the curators who decide what goes on them while simultaneously elevating the home to an artistic zone. It took art away from the academicians who governed it and delivered it to the people. The Omega designs for rugs and linens funneled the new Modernist shapes and motifs into the infinite repetition favored by domestic design. This apparently small element—that domestic designs for rugs, wallpaper, linens and so on favor the repeated image over any central image—will turn out to be important.
Meanwhile, Fry’s close friend Virginia Woolf was struggling to find her own way toward a new kind of writing. Her first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), were more or less conventional forays with a feminist edge. But by 1919 she was restless, she was onto something. In the 1919 essay “Modern Fiction,” she wrote, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday. . .”
That last phrase, of course, is the title of the title story in the collection Monday or Tuesday, the first book Woolf published with the Hogarth Press—established by her husband, Leonard—in a print run of a thousand copies, with woodcuts by her sister, Vanessa Bell. The press liberated Woolf to be, as she put it, “the only woman in England free to write whatever I please.” Jacob’s Room, the novel that followed Monday or Tuesday, was also published by Hogarth, as were all her books.
From this point forward, the fully brilliant Woolf came into being. Liberated from conventional publishing, she was liberated as well from the conventional notions of the time concerning character, consciousness, and narrative. In the 1923 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” she throws down the gauntlet to her immediate predecessors such as Arnold Bennett and Hugh Walpole when she argues, essentially, for insight and metaphor over reams of realistic description of houses, clothing, and landscape. “Those tools are not our tools,” she exhorts the modern, aspiring writers of her time, “and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.”
Now, I don’t want to press relentlessly hard on the point I’m about to make. Consider it more in the realm of noticing. But what one sees in Woolf as she made her breakthrough around 1919 is an extraordinary subtlety and suppleness in the use of visual patterning in her fiction and, further, a radical use of what one might call the ethics of that patterning to structure her fiction overall. Monday or Tuesday contains the short piece “Kew Gardens,” which I have often used with students to talk about the use of an omniscient—a superomniscient—narrator. In “Kew Gardens,” the narrative point of view flows seamlessly among the insects, the people, the city at large, the past, the present, the real and imagined, the living and the dead, with no boundaries or hesitation whatsoever. Scale shifts constantly, vertiginously, gorgeously. But it also makes continual use of repeated visual patterns, a method that Woolf expanded considerably in the novel that followed it, Jacob’s Room.
Consider this short passage from Jacob’s Room, where young Jacob is sailing with a friend around the Cornwall coast:
The Scilly Isles were turning bluish; and suddenly blue, purple, and green flushed the sea; left it grey; struck a stripe which vanished; but when Jacob had got his shirt over his head the whole floor of the waves was blue and white, rippling and crisp, though now and again a broad purple mark appeared, like a bruise; or there floated an entire emerald tinged with yellow. He plunged. He gulped in water, spat it out, struck with his right arm, struck with his left, was towed by a rope, gasped, splashed, and was hauled on board.
You don’t need me to pick out the color patterning for you—you can see the repeating notes of blue and purple, the way the purple is then analogized to the fleshly mark of a bruise, joining the man to the sea via color; the way that, by the time Jacob splashes in, he seems to be diving into a pool of colors; we see them without Woolf needing to name them again, the blues and purples and shots of yellow splashing around him. This kind of patterning suffuses Jacob’s Room, scene after scene.
All pretty enough. One might even say, decorative enough, very nice, very Post-Impressionist, the splashes of color, and so on. But this does not get at the brilliance of Jacob’s Room. The brilliance of Jacob’s Room is that Woolf uses this aesthetic of patterning and repetition to tell the entire story of Jacob’s life, birth to death, on its edges, often without him being, literally, present at all—we see him, we infer him, like the colors in the scene above, even when he isn’t being named. Jacob is a refrain, a textual recurrence, a collection of repeated impressions: around him cluster, over and over, the sea, books, beauty (his own and the world’s), a series of messy, well-appointed rooms. We never know him, not really. His askesis is pointedly, limpidly diffuse. He repeats in an open, syncopated rhythm until he disappears, leaving an empty room behind him after his death in the war: “the rooms are shapely, the ceilings high; over the doorways a rose or a ram’s skull is carved in the wood.” Jacob is more the point around which the world of the novel revolves than the character driving it; he’s like Woolf’s famous mark on the wall from her short piece of the same name in Monday or Tuesday, or like Stevens’s jar on a hill in Tennessee. There are, in fact, several passages that describe a room of Jacob’s that he isn’t even in, invoking him through his objects, his shoes (“His slippers were incredibly shabby, like boats burnt to the water’s rim” is just one amazing description), his walls, his doorways, his furniture.
Moreover, this aesthetic of patterning, repetition, of spirals of self that curve upward and upward toward death is not decorative, not a particularly elegant way of compressing information; it implies an ethics, an envisioning of fiction as a way of life, which is to say: Woolf demonstrates over and over that every life—no matter how deeply felt individually, no matter how unique we feel ourselves to be (and are)—is exquisitely, hopelessly enclosed in an overall pattern of life and death, of color and light and movement, over which no single consciousness, not even the Queen’s, is master. Ironically, for a woman who was herself such a great writer, she doesn’t appear to believe in Greatness. Instead, throughout Woolf’s work, we see that we are woven into a fabric much larger than ourselves—often troped as a city, or a day, or a garden, or a single house—and the writer reveals the shining warp and woof of that fabric, the web of interconnections not necessarily ever fully known by the characters themselves. Remember in Mrs. Dalloway, the moment when Lady Bruton, beginning to doze after lunch, imagines everyone she loves being “attached to her by a thin thread . . . which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner . . . as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body . . . by a thin thread . . . [like] a single spider’s thread. . . .” Each of us is a mark on the wall, a thread in a vast pattern not woven by any single creature.
This is not a decorative technique. This is not a clever way to write description. This is an ethics, a vision of what it is to be alive in the world. Like my father’s pornography, it essentially takes the long, generous view of human desire, the view suffused with the knowledge that it passes—all desires, all our most willful acts, our most heroic stances and worst blunders alike, pass into the glorious, collective hum and blur of the human. You might remember the very last sentences of “Kew Gardens,” where the point of view pulls farther and farther back, beginning with the everyday noises in that public space:
Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.
I’m sure you can see and hear, too, the synesthesia here, the way that the separation between the voices and the colors is lifted and they flow into one another so freely. The patterning is Woolf’s ars poetica and, indeed, her genius. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf argued eloquently against the system of values which asserted that important books deal with wars, while trivial ones deal with “the feelings of women in a drawing room.” As Woolf and the other members of the Bloomsbury group attempted to take down these barriers of value between wars and drawing rooms—Strachey, one remembers, was the first English translator of Freud, who, one might say, placed a high value on interior space—aesthetic barriers between the “decorative” and the “artistic” began tumbling as well. The homey, decorative, domestic use of patterning—on wallpaper, on sheets, on dresses—became a new way not only of looking at, but of understanding and conceptualizing, the world. We are all part of a larger, very beautiful pattern that repeats over and over. No great man, or even woman, weaves it. That thin thread winds them all round.
And this is where, as I’ve said, I don’t want to bear down too hard on the question of who influenced whom, or how exactly it all went down, primarily because I don’t know. I’m not a Bloomsbury scholar. And perhaps influence isn’t always a subject/verb/direct object situation. But we do have the evidence of Woolf’s comprehensive biography of Fry, the next to last book that she wrote before her suicide in 1941. The only other biographies she wrote were Flush, from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, and Orlando, the fabulistic biography inspired by the life of her lover Vita Sackville-West. Throughout this weighty endeavor, she paints Fry as a Modernist hero, a sensitive, multiply talented, extraordinarily intelligent man, a revolutionary of the new aesthetic the members of the Bloomsbury group both produced in their work and embodied in their lives. It wasn’t, by the way, received very well. Critics found it messy.
Which brings us back to failure. Did Woolf ever, in some sense, feel that she failed in relation to the world itself, that she could no longer hold her place in the fabric? We don’t know that, either. We don’t know what the actual woman felt. But in the work, one can certainly feel, on every page, the yearning to understand the entire thing; and the continual, almost unbearably powerful presence of a vast, living pattern that the author discerns in flashes and colors, hints, images, conversations, threads, repeated gestures and sounds, subtle clues. One can feel the writer’s great desire to grasp the gestalt, to give it its due in fiction. That is the third face into which both Woolf and Fry gazed with hope and fear and axis-shifting intensity: the face of a pattern no single human being could ever know. I won’t presume to guess at what Woolf might have felt about the influence of that massive, unknowable pattern. I can only say that it seems to me that she was almost supernaturally sensitive to it and that she found a way to express it in her fiction.
I want to talk now about two pieces of music. The first is a song called “Tigers,” by my friend Thomas Bartlett, who performs as Doveman, and the second is Cat Power’s “Metal Heart.” If you listen to “Tigers,” you will hear how breathy it is, how liminal, how suspended; it sounds like the very end of a song, the place where the song trails off into silence. When I asked Thomas once who influenced him, he said that one of the strongest influences on him was Cat Power. I was surprised. I wondered—what do these two sounds have to do with one another, where do they meet? I couldn’t even entirely understand it, honestly, when he said he was influenced by Cat Power—they seem so utterly different. If you were influenced by Cat Power, your music would have strong minor chords, your voice would sound dark and torn and riven with duende, your lyrics would have violent, inscrutable phrases in them. “And they will lock you up in a sad, sad zoo”—what is she talking about? We might think, say, that Cat Power was influenced by PJ Harvey, that both of them had spent a fair amount of time listening to the blues. That makes sense—we can hear the sounds of these predecessors in their work. But where is the Cat Power in Doveman? He must have failed, if his ambition was to be like her.
If, in other words, he was trying to look into that “mirror of the fallen precursor” and see her face superimposed on his own, he failed miserably. No one would think of him as her son, musically speaking. But this is a simplistic notion of influence as resemblance or imitation, and not as a force that moves you, that sways you. Bloom writes that the “root meaning” of influence is “inflow . . . [that is,] an emanation or force coming in upon mankind from the stars. As first used, to be influenced meant to receive an ethereal fluid flowing in upon one from the stars, a fluid that affected one’s character and destiny . . . .” Think of the phrase, “to be under the influence.” If we consider Cat Power in this way in relation to Doveman, and to Doveman in relation to Cat Power, we might be able to hear it, that astral inflow.
If you listen to Cat Power, you’ll notice immediately how they are not like one another, but the inverse of one another; Doveman is the negative of Cat Power, soft where she is hard, whispering where she keens, visual and rather childlike (“falling past tigers,” a dream image, like something out of Sendak, one imagines a drawn figure in pajamas) where she is gnomic and densely verbal. It’s as if she carved a path, a riverbed, and Doveman is running his fingers along the surface of the water. What they share is an unabashed vulnerability. This is the place where her star affected him, influenced him: she is unapologetically vulnerable. Doveman—half man, half bird of peace—borrowed not her style, but her stance. He found some sort of traction there. Of course, her stance looks different on him. Also, one can still say that he failed—he is singing back to her in a form she might not recognize as belonging, essentially, to her. She might not, in other words, be able to see herself in him, to claim him. This is a direction Bloom doesn’t consider: the return of gaze from the older poet to the younger, the quizzical, puzzled squint. I made you? Really? What’s your name again? Would Whitman have been able to claim Stevens? Would Keats have been able to claim Whitman?
Would Doveman claim me? The novel that I am working on has to do with the comeback tour of an indie rocker, a woman of about forty-four. In my mind, she falls somewhere along the Beth Gibbons/Aimee Mann/Patti Smith trajectory. In my dreams, her music might, in fact, sound something like the work of these musicians—as soulful as Gibbons, as smart as Mann, with a ragged Smith edge—but I don’t want the book to sound like that. I want the book to sound like Doveman. Or, that’s not even right. I want the book to be able to walk on its own edges the way Doveman’s music does, to seem to be, almost, the afterthought of itself, the aftermath, the reverberation. I want the novel to appear to be falling past tigers. To that end, I wrote a scene in which the main character, Anna, has a breakthrough moment early in her career, a moment of understanding how to create the unconventional sound that launched her into a brief hipster stardom in her late twenties. Here is the pivotal moment in that scene:
And then one night, suddenly, stinking and exhausted, drowning in dunes of self-pity, I passed through the eye of the needle to wonderland—to the broken, the illogical, the roads that double back on themselves, the weird, the uncanny, the in-between. It was such a small sonic shift at the time, an awkward half-note, like a single letter in a familiar word turned backwards. And yet. It changed the entire thing. I saw all at once that my form would be to be in search of a form, like someone wandering, tracing an unpredictable path. You can’t understate a phrase you can’t predict. And I realized something else, too: the central importance of the unheard chord, the chord that is never played, the chord that happens after the music ends. How had I missed it for so long? It’s the sound you don’t quite hear, the reverberation coming off the top or the side or the edges of the note. Not a silence, but a potential sound, a space exactly the shape of what the sound is about to be. Invisible, inaudible, and yet revelatory, what finishes and composes the sequence retrospectively: you discover that it was all going, in the end, toward the chord that isn’t heard, but is only anticipated. Which is to say, the last chord happens in the mind of the listener, as if he is remembering a sound, which, in reality, he has never heard before. The unheard chord feels like, must feel like, a memory. This was my ambition.
In relation to Doveman, let’s say to “Tigers,” this just fails utterly. For one thing, it would take longer for me to read it to you than the length of the song itself. But for another, more critical thing, this passage works far too hard to explain everything that the song simply invites the listener to experience—the feeling of falling off the edge of the note, the place where the last, unplayed note sounds in the mind in the way that the unnamed colors splashed before the reader’s eyes in that passage I quoted from Jacob’s Room. Behind Doveman as influence one can probably also detect the specter of Joan Didion, compared to whom I also fail entirely. Her brilliant, hyperelliptical 1972 novel, Play It As It Lays, a book more white space than text, does exactly what I can’t seem to be able to do—it reveals a life on its edges, falls or glides, tight-lipped, past myriad tigers. Tragically, instead of being able to make the book sound like Doveman, I have made Anna making music that sounds like Doveman, or like the liner notes to The Conformist, the album that includes “Tigers” (speaking of influence). As Louise Glück says in the poem “Condo,” “I hate when your own dreams treat you as stupid.”
What can I salvage? What third face can I see here? Perhaps the answer, a glimmer of hope, lies in pastness. The scene that I just quoted is a flashback—Anna is not experiencing this breakthrough in the present action of the book, she is remembering a breakthrough that happened much earlier, a breakthrough that is not available to her as she stumbles awkwardly down the trail of a comeback tour that may or may not be successful. The influence of Doveman, then, may lie not in the description of Anna’s music, but in the music of the scene’s grammar—on the edges of the breakthrough, the long-lost tiger, is Anna’s unstated, hopeful, terrifying question, And what will happen to me now? In that liminality, that unspokenness, maybe (maybe), one can see the influence of Doveman. So, if we were just to sketch out the trails of influence here, we would see, on the surface, a sonic ambition that fails every time—Doveman does not sound like Cat Power, and I do not sound like Doveman, not to mention my hopeless cross-genre reaching in this very attempt; what prose passage could ever attain the condensation, the brilliantly associative composition, of a three-minute song?
But underneath, there is a field of vulnerability, of negative capability, of doubt in which the three of us might recognize one another. In Cat Power, that negative capability resides in the melancholy of the lyrics; in Doveman, that negative capability resides in the broken whisper of his sound; in the passage from my own work, that negative capability resides in the grammar. We all found a way to stand in free-fall. Or so I misperceive it, with all the conviction I can muster. If what I think I see is actually there, then we might say that each of us is attempting, in our own way, to put the listener in the position where we found ourselves when listening to the one who came before us: in this instance, in a rather pleasurable state of doubt, of in-between-ness, induced by lyricism. One can imagine a different chain of influence in which what is passed along, passed down, is a state of empowerment, a state of outrage, a state of emotional devastation, a state of historical identification, and so on. But among me, Cat, and Doveman, the influence, that celestial force, is the pull of unknowingness. “And you will be changed,” sings Power in “Metal Heart.” Into what? She doesn’t say. That’s the moment we feel the pull of—that leap, that gerund: falling, changing, going, direction unspecified.
It’s a risky business, this being influenced. Bloom was right about that. It changes you. It is an askesis, a self-formation, whether you like it or not. Can one read, or write, more conventional fiction in the same way after reading Woolf? Could Doveman, a classical piano prodigy, ever be the same after hearing Cat Power at sixteen? He left his training behind and began, even then, to live a very different kind of life. Once I lifted the lid of the deacon’s bench, could I unsee dreamland? And how can these experiences not affect one’s practice—having heard or seen or felt great beauty, one thinks, I want to do that. And inevitably fails. What we think of as our own voices may be simply the calibration of the gap between what we tried to be, failed to be, and the solution we then improvised. In my unwritten essay “Fiction as a Way of Life,” I would probably suggest that that constant falling, changing, and going creates, over time, a practice of optimism that my father’s dreamland first taught me and which, it turns out, I have never forgotten. I would start there.