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The Useful Critic

"What counts is that the critic should be really involved with a work; that he should follow the track of his curiosity into it just as long and as passionately as may be necessary."

Thirty years ago, when I began practicing this peculiar trade of criticism, I had the good fortune to fall in love with an unfashionable subject, American literature. I say "fall in love with," not specialize in," for it never occurred to me to vote myself exclusively to this literature. There was not enough to it, yet what there was would still have been too much for me even if I had had the patience to give up everything else for it. I certainly did not want to do that. I was under no illusion that American literature was more significant than English or French or Russian literature, or that it could be understood in itself apart from English its mother tongue, English its mother literature, its connections with German literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century and with French and Russian literature at the end of it. To devote oneself exclusively to American literature would have seemed to me a confession of mediocrity. And in any event, literature, or at least some of the literature of Western man, was practically all the culture I had, and it composed for me, in T. S. Eliot's phrase, a simultaneous order. It included such writers as America never had —all the great dramatists; great novelists of manners who were also among the most profound interpreters of human nature, like Tolstoy; great poets of the sensuous life, like Villon, Shakespeare himself, (Goethe, and Baudelaire; great philosophic and critical spirits who were knife blades opening up the imagination: Montaigne, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderol. Nietzsche.

So it was not in fond illusion that American writing was food enough for the mind that I settled down to practice some criticism of it. I fell in love with it because in a sense this literature was mine, by which I mean that I felt part of it and at home with it; because I reacted with intellectual affection to the tone of certain American writers —I was charmed and stimulated and satisfied by certain American books because I felt that I really understood them. I felt, as the French have learned to say about certain moral problems, authentic in my critical reactions to certain American writers. I seemed to know what they were talking about; I thought I recognized what they were aiming at; I liked the voices in which they spoke. I was at home with certain texts: I responded with intellectual kinship and pleasure. I knew the modulations of their language; could picture landscapes I hadn't seen for myself. And very important indeed, I shared much of their belief in the ideal freedom and power of the self, in the political and social visions of radical democracy. It was as if I started from the same human base and was accompanying them to the same imaginative goal

Yet behind all these friendly and interested reactions was the fact that my judgment was real, too real to distrust. I felt free to like what I liked, not to like what didn't like, and to support my critical reactions by formulating aesthetic reasons. In a way it was easier thirty years ago to feel this arbitrary confidence in one's critical judgment, for American literature was still in the making, and the best writers and critics rather condescended to it. If you settled down to it with any passion, you realized that you were eccentric and were making claims for writers that no really distinguished mind would look at for a moment. In those days the fashionable approval now attached to Henry James was by no means shared by everyone; criticism was still a matter of individual knowledge, responsibility, and taste not a way of introducing students to literature, and people still thought they could learn more about life from a good story than from the most brilliant exegesis of the story. So I was left, in delicious isolation, to read books that no one else had looked at in years, to have reactions that were wild but which I didn’t know enough to tame—to be, without shame, what in those days was considered the absolute second choice and consolation prize: a critic.

"Criticism" is just a word, but critics are very real if their opinions are real to themselves. A critic lives in a buzz of culture and in a vast exchange of opinion like everyone else; being a critic, dedicated to opinion, he often sets too much store by other people's opinions. If you tell him that King Lear is an unbelievable play, full of rant and uncontrolled emotions, he will not ignore you, as a poet would, but will, in his own mind at least, figure out what it is in King Lear that would allow a presumably good head to say such a thing. A critic deals in considerations about art not in life as drama, not in the psychic situation that an imaginative writer sees everywhere he goes. A critic is more naturally considerate of opinions than a novelist for his world is made up of opinions. For him literature is not himself seeking to put the widest possible amount of experience into dramatic consciousness; it is literature, many literatures, many writers, books, forms, styles, traditions —all of which add to the burden on him of other people's opinions, for draws his sustenance from opinions; he takes off from them. No critic is ever one by himself; criticism takes place in society, it is a dialogue with the past and one's contemporaries. The circle of examples and traditions and opinions draws tighter and tighter around the critic trying to a something useful and honest to the many libraries that have put him into being.

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