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  • The Ambivalence of Generosity: Keats Reading Shakespeare
  • William Flesch

We cannot put aside, and yet also cannot endure the thought, that a being, which we represent to ourselves as supreme amongst all possible beings, should, as it were, say to itself: “I am from eternity to eternity, and outside me there is nothing save what is through my will, but whence then am I ?”

— Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (A613=B641)

  ‘Tis paltry to be Caesar: Not being Fortune, he’s but Fortune’s knave, A minister of her will. Antony and Cleopatra


Harold Bloom’s Freudian conception of the anxiety of influence might be usefully related to Marcel Mauss’s analysis of the ambivalence imposed by any gift. To receive a gift is to know its source to be elsewhere, outside yourself, and to incur an obligation to that source. Bloom’s analysis of belatedness tends to show strong latecomers reacting to this obligation by trying to see themselves as self-originating. Even if their original vocation was as readers of other poets rather than as writers, they free themselves by claiming to be beholden to no one for their poetic wealth. Similarly, Mauss’s central anthropological insight was to show that the ambivalence with which gifts are regarded by their beneficiaries is universal, that generosity is always a mixed blessing for its beneficiary. Generosity confers on its objects both benefit and obligation. Often this obligation is intangible: it is the obligation to admit obligation and dependency. The donor of the gift appears to the recipient, and intends to appear, as having a privileged relation to substance. The prestige that attaches to the donor, the donor’s charisma, is charismatic precisely because it is opaque. It is inconceivable as a first-person experience, because the notion of experience already presupposes the receptivity of the person experiencing. Charisma consists in giving the impression of a self-sufficiency inconceivable for first-person experience: charismatic authority always belongs to the other (originally to the parental imago). To put it in perhaps too lapidary a form, the paradox [End Page 149] of wealth is that for the first-person all wealth would seem ultimately an ambiguous blessing. Wealth can never be conceived of as having a first-person origin. Any human substance derives from sources outside the self — what Wittgenstein called “the world as I found it,” or Emerson the “Not-me.”

For both these figures, there is nothing we can call ours except our own poverty and the assertion of this original ownership of nonownership is one way to claim self-reliance and independence. In this essay I want to reread Keats’s “To Autumn” fairly radically. My interpretation will seem counterintuitive to many people (although it is not at all counterintuitive to me). I hope both to draw on and to modify Bloom’s theory of influence, in order to claim that Keats’s true precursor was not just Milton or Wordsworth, but Shakespeare; and yet this is an even richer composite Shakespeare of Keats’s own creation, one that includes aspects of Spenser, Milton, and Wordsworth. The main modification of Bloom will be in my attempt to show the ways in which Keats tries to free himself from that influence: not by asserting a counter-strength but by a sort of refusal of wealth and hence of the obligation it marks.

In “To Autumn” a figure of endless abundance guarantees, even in the teeth of scarcity, the world’s inexhaustibility. Despite the imminence of winter, Autumn continues “to set budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease, / For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.” 1 It is in keeping with Autumn’s generosity that he is patient, and encourages patience. 2 Autumn is an allegory of time’s generosity, and Keats’s ambivalent achievement in this poem is to come to an at least temporary reconciliation with time. But “To Autumn” also suggests, I think, the darker side of this generosity: that it feels alien to its beneficiaries. The costs to the beneficiary of this apparently free generosity are unavoidably part and parcel of...

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pp. 149-169
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