Harold Bloom’s Pal, Donnie Darko


I want to use Richard Kelly’s recent science fiction film Donnie Darko (2001) as a proof-text for a discussion of anachronism and untimeliness in scholarship, specifically discussing the writings of Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence) and Sigmund Freud (in the “Wolf Man”). As this is a more-than-faintly ridiculous claim I want to avoid introductory remarks (which I have never had any skill at writing anyway) ; let me only begin with a short epigraph from Borges :

The other was one of those parasitic books that set Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Can[e]bière, or don Quixote on Wall Street. Like every man of taste, Menard abominated those pointless travesties, which, Menard would say, were good for nothing but occasioning a plebian delight in anachronism or (worse yet) captivating us with the elementary notion that all times and places are the same, or are different.


Donnie Darko takes place in 1988 and tells the story of a sixteen-year old boy who sleepwalks, and wakes up in strange places (in the opening scene of the film he wakes up on a road high above his town). One night he is called from sleep by a voice and sleepwalks out to a golf course where he sees a man in a grotesque, full-body bunny suit, who tells him that 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds remain until the end of the world. Donnie awakes on the golf course the next morning and returns home to discover that a jet engine has crashed through the roof of his home and into his bedroom ; had he been home he would have been killed. Mysteriously, there is no report of a plane from which it must have fallen. Returning to school he meets a girl, Gretchen, and finds his school curriculum infiltrated by the reductive thought of local 80s self-help guru Jim Cunningham, whose system maps action on a single line that polarizes Love and Fear. Donnie has another confrontation with Frank the Bunny who tells him to attack the school ; the next morning it has been vandalized : a water main broken, an axe impossibly cut into the head of the bronze school mascot, and graffiti reading “They made me do it” ; in another encounter Frank asks Donnie if he believes in time travel. As he counts down the days remaining, he deals with a bully, goes to therapy, and spends time with Gretchen. Watching football with his father and a friend he discovers he can see, emanating from the chests of people, watery paths which anticipate the direction a person is about to take ; following his own he discovers a gun in his parents’ closet. From his science teacher he discovers that a local old woman —who the kids call Grandma Death, and who wanders into the street in front of her house as she incessantly checks for mail— used to teach at his high school and wrote a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel. He goes to the movies with Gretchen (to see Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead) and sees Frank the Bunny, who takes off his mask revealing a young man with a bloody eye. Frank shows Donnie a time travel portal and instructs him to burn down Jim Cunningham’s house, which he does. The next day Jim Cunningham is arrested because the fire has revealed a child pornography collection. A teacher who was to take Donnie’s little sister’s dance troop to Star Search wants to stay behind to defend Cunningham, and now Donnie’s mother must take the girls. As the final day remains of Frank the Bunny’s ominous prediction, Donnie’s older sister, taking a year off between high school and college, is accepted to Harvard ; in the parent’s absence and near Halloween, they throw a party, and Gretchen comes. Having written a letter to Grandma Death, and having been told by a progressive English teacher that a famous linguist thought “Cellar Door” the most beautiful sounding words in the language, he is drawn away from the party to the cellar door at Grandma Death’s house, where he and Gretchen are attacked and thrown to the ground by the school bullies. Donnie’s sister’s boyfriend Frank, who we have not yet seen in the film, but who we know went on a beer run for the party, drives past the house ; Grandma Death is in the middle of the road with Donnie’s letter, and, swerving to miss her, Frank runs over Gretchen, killing her. Frank gets out of the car and is revealed to be the figure in the grotesque bunny costume, his costume for the party —Donnie shoots him through the eye with the gun he found in his parents’ bedroom. His 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds up, he recalls all he has learned and (somewhat inexplicably) calls down the jet engine from the plane his mother and sister are returning home on, and sends it back in time to kill him 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds ago. The “tangent universe” rewinds, the deaths undone, and the film ends the morning after the engine crashes, with Donnie’s body taken away, his family grieving, and Gretchen coming by on her bicycle, where she wonders at what happened to this boy she never met, and shares a wave with his grieving mother 2.


Time travel —pop culture’s version of the more respectable philosophy-oriented anachronism and untimeliness— is a trope : literary critic Harold Bloom, who has done important theoretical work on the subject, aligns trope, or figurative meaning, with Freud’s Eros (1981 : 223) and against literal-reductive meaning and death. A trope, which derives from the Greek word ‘to turn’, is a turn against death, an attempt at more life (as Bloom elsewhere points out, the Biblical blessing is a gift of more life). Time travel, as an extreme and radical trope, is a figure that is emblematic of trope as such. Hence its role in Donnie Darko : the (almost) linear plot of the film is that Donnie wakes up on a mountain, returns home to deal with his family, and is soon after killed by a falling jet engine (from the future). The bulk of the film is an extended tangent universe —a turn or trope away from the primary universe in which he is killed— which grants more life, rams a moment with a 28-day limbo 3. Describing trope as an “evasion”, a “swerve”, and a “lie against time” (suggesting all tropes are by definition anachronistic), Bloom writes

Evasion is a process of avoiding, a way of escaping, but it is also an excuse. Usage has tinged the word with a certain stigma, but in our poetry what is being evaded ultimately is fate, particularly the necessity of dying (1979 : 9).

On one level Donnie Darko is simply an elaborate science fiction version of a common teen film which critiques reductive, empty, shallow, suburban surface life, typified by self-help guru Jim Cunningham, by confronting it with a teenager who sees the system for what it is – reductive thinking which crushes life. What is interesting is that Donnie Darko, whose name makes Gretchen ask if he is some kind of superhero, is a kind of poet-hero, who demands more complex and powerful tropes and who ends up overturning Jim Cunningham’s reductive “Life Line” (the poles of Love and Fear) with one of the most extreme and powerful tropes available to the creative mind : time travel.

Here I want to invoke Harold Bloom’s notion of time that is a key part of his anxiety of influence theory of poetry, in which one poet actively and creatively misreads his predecessors. Bloom invokes six revisionary ratios to describe the kind of moves (swerves, tropes, lies against time) a poet makes in relation to the strong poetry of the past, to avoid fate and carve a place for freedom. Tessera, for example, occurs when “a poet antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough” (1973 : 15). (As an example from popular culture one might be inclined to read Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty as ‘completing’ John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, by using the same five archetypical characters to imply the former film did not go far enough in its message that anyone can get along when it suggested romance could never exist between the nerd and the popular girl, and when it gave Goth weirdo Allie Sheedy a makeover in order to make her attractive to jock Emilio Estevez). Bloom’s final and most powerful revisionary ratio is that of apophrades, the return of the dead : a theme clearly related to Donnie Darko’s invocation of Halloween, the day when the dead come most close to the living. It is something that, in a less serious mode, might be deemed a kind of time-travel-by-persuasion :

the poem is now held open to the precursor, where once it was open, and the uncanny effect is that the new poem’s achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor’s characteristic work. (16 ; italics Bloom’s)

Bloom’s primary example of this trope is the claim that, at times, John Ashbery is so powerful a poet, usurps the place of Wallace Stevens so well, that we hear Ashbery’s distinctive voice in the works of Stevens, written years earlier.

Bloom gets this idea from two key sources : the first is Freud, discussed below ; the second is Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. This story is a description of an author who wished to write Don Quixote : not to copy Cervantes’s work, but to arrive at the same words in the same order as a result of his own twentieth century experience. The narrator judges his friend’s aborted project, writing that “Menard’s fragmentary Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes’. […] The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer” (93-94). He cites these lines from Cervantes : “[…] truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and advisor to the present, and the future’s counselor”, and comments “This catalogue of attributes, written in the seventeenth century […] is mere rhetorical praise of history” (94). Citing the same words, this time Menard’s, he writes “History, the mother of truth ! —the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not ‘what happened’ ; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases — exemplar and advisor to the present and the future’s counselor — are brazenly pragmatic” (94 ; italics Borges’s). “There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless” (94) the narrator writes as he begins his conclusion :

Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique —the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution. That technique, requiring infinite patience and concentration, encourages us to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid. […] This technique fills the calmest books with adventure. Attributing the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce —is that not sufficient renovation of those faint spiritual admonitions ? (95)

It is a fantastic, and a very funny story, but it is also one that opens up the possibility of a serious reading 4. What is it that prevents me from doing exactly as narrator of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” suggests ? The obvious objection is that the form of writing that is literary criticism, as a branch of non-fiction, has scholarly responsibilities to accuracy. But especially after the influx of stylistically elaborate French theory, and a critique of objectivity that demolished the idea of a neutral place from which to speak, criticism is clearly open to the possibility of unearthing, not material truth but historical truth – a distinction used by Freud to describe the split between truth that describes “what actually happened” and the kernel of truth to be found at the heart of fiction or jokes. In short literary criticism may be read as falling into two camps : description and persuasion, the latter sublating the former and falling in more easily with the discourse of fiction, and the movement of trope which it discusses. “Truth is so great a matter”, writes Montaigne, “that we must not disdain any method which leads us to it” (1207), perhaps not even a literary criticism that would take the kind of liberties with chronology as suggested by Borges.

To argue for a literary criticism rooted in imaginative flights of fancy – one that tell us something about literary experience with words like genius, unity, and transcendental as easily as science fiction gives us the Alien —is obviously outside the scope of this paper. Here, we have an observation : anachronism and untimeliness tempt scholarly thought with the promise of power —the power to make the Imitatio Christi important, the power of imaginative fiction— but threaten to make it obsolete and irrelevant – an ultimately pointless intellectual exercise.

Time, timeliness, tradition, lineage and power, are part and parcel of the literary criticism of Harold Bloom ; irrelevancy and flights of fantasy are close to any discussion of his thought (especially given his novel A Flight to Lucifer : A Gnostic Fantasy, which he regrets having published). Returning to Bloom’s description of his apophrades, quoted above, we can see the connection to Borges. This “imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism” creates a very small breathing space for Borges’s “There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately pointless”, and its conclusion is the academic pick-up of Borges’s narrator’s confession that “I often imagine that [Menard] did complete [the Quixote], and that I read the Quixote — the entire Quixote— as if Menard had conceived it” (92). It is in Bloom that Borges’s fictions enter the realm of scholarship 5. I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere (in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why) that Bloom’s aesthetic theory has powerful application outside his Patron Saints of Post-Enlightenment Poetry, and his notion of apophrades is worth keeping in mind in a variety of academic and pop culture contexts.

But the time travel trope is difficult to sustain, because it is an extreme trope which exposes the trope qua turn-against-death as the fiction, the figurative flight of fancy, the “lie against time” that it is. If the power of literary criticism is in its ability to persuade, it will be wholly undermined if it begins to feel like a pointless intellectual exercise : Bloom must modify Borges by describing his revisionary ratio of apophrades as almost making us believe that, for example, we hear Ashbery’s voice in the early poems of Wallace Stevens. In Bloom, Borges is brought into scholarship by being internalized, a version, perhaps, of Bloom’s Internalization of the Quest Romance. Donnie Darko, as a science fiction film, obviously has a different set of constraints, but clearly recognizes the connection of the time travel trope to the duration of fiction : the director’s commentary reveals that the director and his crew were on a 28 day shooting schedule, and though Richard Kelly does not discuss the link, it is hardly a leap to see Donnie’s 28 day delay from his death in the primary timeline as a form of the 28 day schedule of the film itself ; both are the creation of a fiction, a figurative creation that tropes against the universe of death and the literal. And though it is common in time travel films to have a single time traveler who is the only one who knows what happened, someone who may believe it was all a dream until some small detail (a change made in history, an anachronism) justifies their mental experience (in Back to the Future Doc Brown arrives in the end to prove it was all real), certainly Donnie Darko (along with Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys) is remarkable among time travel films for its more severe internalization of the time travel trope in which the anachronism that proves it was not just a dream (Donnie awakes in his bed, laughing, after the tangent universe rewinds, just before the jet engine from the future kills him) is the hero’s death itself.


But as time travel and anachronism become figures in works of powerful writers such as Borges, they haunt literary criticism and theory as unconscious traces, suggested and hinted at so that they retain a measure of power —as in Bloom’s oblique mention of it— without dissipating the whole project under the harsh light often thrown on these modes of writing which are not fully under the protective umbrella of fiction 6. Donnie Darko draws our attention to this aspect of the time travel trope : once Donnie has sent the plane engine back in time, we are shown a montage of each major character in the film, most in bed at night, disturbed by the vague understanding of a reality now erased. Frank, for example, is shown at home surrounded by designs for his costume : he is dazed and slowly reaches up to touch the eye that was shot in the alternate timeline. This power of the fictional is especially evident in that Donnie Darko, as science fiction, should be classified as “pulp” sci-fi, as opposed to the “realistic” sci-fi of Star Trek : The Next Generation : pulp fiction is designed to have a particular effect on a first time viewing (e.g. a shock value, the twist at the end of, say, Fight Club, or Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes) which may dissipate under inspection, and should not be judged by the constraints of Star Trek fans who expect a science fiction universe to hold up under a certain amount of scrutiny. It is significant that the first character in the montage shown is Donnie’s psychiatrist, who wakes up with a gasp that begins the sequence : anachronism haunts as an unconscious force, a mental presence, a dream time barely recalled, an influence much in the character of the influence of Borges’s story on Bloom, that is to say, deconstruction’s point that trope inhabits all thinking and writing —Freud’s unconscious is one of the most powerful and persuasive tropes of Western civilization. Harold Bloom found his theory of poetry as unsustainable as Donnie Darko’s tangent universe ; it is the discourse of psychoanalysis, as figured in Donnie’s psychiatrist 7, which keeps time travel most alive in its concept of deferred action.

Freud’s time travel trope is Nachträglichkeit, usually translated as “deferred action” which Freud describes in “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” (most often known by its unofficial pulp fiction style title, “The Wolf Man”) :

At the age of one and a half the child receives an impression to which he is unable to react adequately ; he is only able to understand it and to be moved by it when the impression is revived in him at the age of four ; and only twenty years later, during the analysis, is he able to grasp with his conscious mental processes what was then going on in him. The patient justifiably disregards the three periods of time, and puts his present ego into the situation which is so long past.

What is especially complex about this notion of deferred action is that it can be understood as an effect that precedes its cause : that is the cause, the primal trauma, is created retroactively 8. This paradoxical structure is familiar to all fans of time travel films in which our hero goes back in time to stop some horrible tragedy only to discover it was his own interference with the earlier time which created the tragedy in the first place : in Twelve Monkeys, Bruce Willis goes back in time to gather information about a plague that will devastate the world of 2035, but becomes concerned that, put in a mental asylum in the present, his ravings about the future have given the idea of unleashing a plague that will almost destroy humanity to an asylum inmate with the power and desire to make it happen. The jet engine in Donnie Darko is, of course, its own emblem of deferred action : the latter event that returns to change the past, the effect that is ultimately its own cause.

One of Freud’s most powerful intellectual heirs, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, describes deferred action as the “retroactive effect of the signifier”, i.e. that the dead-letter field of language —signifier over signified, words over things— retroactively orders our past from the present moment. In The Sublime Object of Ideology Lacanian theorist Slavoj Žižek, a very lucid exegete of Lacan’s often very difficult fusion of Freud and structural linguistics, provides a useful gloss :

The effect of meaning is always produced backwards, [by deferred action 9]. Signifiers which are still in a floating state —whose signification is not yet fixed— follow one another. Then, at certain point […] some signifier fixes retroactively the meaning of the chain, sews the meaning to the signifier, halts the sliding meaning (101-102).

This makes an interesting and surprising appearance in Donnie Darko in the form of Donnie’s English teacher who informs him, as an aside, that a linguist once said that the words “Cellar Door” had the most beautiful sound of any phrase in the English language 10. Nothing could better illustrate Lacan’s notion of the work of the pure signifier than this reference to the sounds of words fully apart from what they refer to, which acts as a clue for Donnie Darko, leading him to the cellar door of Grandma Death, and the deadly conclusion of the tangent universe. “The Lacanian answer to the question : From where does the repressed return ?” writes Žižek, “is paradoxically : From the future. Symptoms are meaningless traces, their meaning is not discovered […] but constructed retroactively” (55-56) ; Donnie Darko knows this well : the symptom of Donnie’s psychosis, his daylight hallucination, is, without hyperbole, from his future.

Here then we may use Donnie Darko as a topos to map literary criticism and psychoanalysis. Bloom aligns himself with literary critic Walter Pater’s search for the exquisite literary moment, the epiphany, the fleeting, unsustainable moment in which we “burn with a hard, gemlike flame” or in the words of Wallace Stevens, in which we “more than awaken” ; that realm is the realm of the tangent universe, the universe of the Blessing, the turn or trope against death, the lie against time and the bid for more life, which collapses to a single point and remains as a trace. Outside ostensibly fictional and imaginative narrative, it is only in psychoanalysis, what Lionel Trilling calls the science of tropes, that time travel is sustainable : in the science fiction of tropes.


One of the lessons Donnie Darko has to teach scholarship about time travel, anachronism and untimeliness, is to make us aware of a very fragile relationship between figure (life qua Blessing, trope, Eros, fiction, persuasion, power, the exquisite moment, anachronism) and the literal (death, reality, entropy, flat fact, mere accuracy, reduction, the dull routine of habit and custom, chronology). It is the swerve from Donnie’s death that brings us to the tangent universe, but it is the swerve (Bloom’s word for turn or trope) of Frank’s car to avoid Grandma Death that brings the tangent universe to a head and to a close. Jim Cunningham drew a line and opposed the poles of Love and Fear. Donnie Darko gives us a Möbius strip : take a strip of paper, give it a half twist, and connect the ends together in a loop and you will have a figure which at a given point appears to have two sides ; follow a side long enough and you will cross over without being able to tell at what point you crossed, because it is a one sided figure. Donnie Darko “flips” from the literal to the figurative with the tangent universe, which sustains itself until it “flips back” to the reality of dying, the jet engine making a complete circle in time, going all the way around the strip until it ends where it began, and ends in the postponed death. In the words of Jacques Lacan we are “between two deaths” : our biological death, and our death in the symbolic order, the realm of the dead letter of language in which we are caught, and misrecognized, at the moment of our birth. In the image selected by Žižek, we hang like the cat in the cartoon who has walked off a cliff but does not fall until he looks below and realizes he stands on nothing. So too do we find trope between two deaths ; time travel is the most extreme figure because, as the most powerful, it allows us to walk farthest from the cliff’s edge, but it also puts us closest to realizing where we stand. Hence the need for, in the words of John Ashbery, “a kind of fence-sitting/Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal” (232).

  1. 1Geoff Klock is the author of How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (Continuum, 2002), which uses Harold Bloom’s poetics of influence to look closely at a vein of popular culture. He attended New York University and the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied English literature on the Ph.D. level, and has delivered papers on literary theory, psychoanalysis, and popular culture in three countries. He has never been to Mexico.
  2. 2Richard Kelley’s DVD director’s commentary helps to connect some of the dots that make up the plot, specifically the fact that Donnie causes the jet engine to go back in time, extraordinarily unclear in the straight narrative. “Tangent universe” is Kelly’s phrase.
  3. 3Two details in the film reiterate this limbo time : Donnie’s older sister is taking a year off between college and high school ; more importantly, the movie theater where Donnie goes to see Evil Dead lists The Last Temptation of Christ as the only other film : while this could be read in a Joseph Campbell savior mode, it seems more relevant to note that in the film Christ experiences a hallucinatory life in a single moment while suffering on the cross.
  4. 4In the world of superhero comics, taking a joke seriously resulted in one of the most important advances in the genre : Alan Moore got the idea for Miracleman, one of the Citizen Kane’s of the comic book world, from a Mad Magazine comic strip which spoofed superhero comics by applying real world constraints to a fantasy genre : superheroes who are too strong and punch through the skulls of those they are fighting went from a gag to a frightening vision of “realistic” superheroes, terrorists who use their power to change the world any way they feel fit. (Kimota, 11-12)
  5. 5Though I am often inclined to see deconstruction emerging from Borges’s “Blue Tigers” and “The Book of Sand”.
  6. 6Whenever I have a complaint about any inconsistency in a film, my father delights in unknowingly quoting Coleridge by invoking the principle of “a willing suspension of disbelief”.
  7. 7My response to anyone making the obvious objection that the psychiatrist cannot be an emblem of the discourse of psychoanalysis because they are distinct fields, is simply to point out that Hollywood makes no such distinction, always presenting one-on-one mental therapists as psychoanalysts – who deal with Oedipal struggles, repressed memories, dreams and even use hypnotism — but who also prescribe drugs (e.g. Grosse Pointe Blank, The Sopranos, etc).
  8. 8As an addendum who feel this connection between the psychoanalytic concept of deferred action and time travel a little far fetched consider D.H. Thomas’s stunning White Hotel, which describes these phenomena as one. The novel includes a brilliant simulacrum of a Freudian case study of a patient suffering from hysterical pains in her left breast and pelvis. It is only at the end of the book that it is revealed that twenty years after her analysis with Freud she was tortured and killed by Nazi soldiers, and that her “hysterical pains” were the results of torture, so painful it could not be contained in a single time, but reverberated into the past.
  9. 9At this point in the text Žižek uses the French translation of the German Nachträglichkeit, “après coup”.
  10. 10The “linguist” was Old English scholar cum famous author of Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien, in the essay “English and Welsh”, though the quote has been attributed to several other writers.