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.

Nevertheless, a critic is someone whose reactions to a work of art are so real as to be binding on himself and meaningful to others, who will use, not imitate, the learning and insight of other people. The critic is someone whose reactions are so authentic to himself as to become above all else, interesting for others because illuminating of their own unconscious experience in the presence of art. By reactions I mean the ability to take pleasure in what is good, to recognize in the concrete instance the classical truth of those aesthetic laws that are so few and incontrovertible yet meaningful only in the practice of art and in profound critical response to art. What is "personal” is what is most deeply experienced by the whole person of the critic. Taste cannot be, and should not be made, so “objective” that opinions become simply right or wrong. The value of a particular work in criticism never depends on the critic’s position alone. In our day critical fashion tyrannizes over many innocent minds. But it does not follow that a book attacking Henry James derives any necessary merit from opposition to the vast herd of sophisticates who now think that James is the last word in the English novel, which in their experience he may well be. A good critic can uphold any reasonable opinion, if only he will hold it and engage himself of art that inspired him to it. Jean Paul Sartre may not convince us in is essays on Dos Passos and Faulkner that the first is so bold in technique as to be the greatest twentieth-century novelist, and that Faulkner is so traditionalist in his thinking as to kill the future for his characters. But Sartre grapples with U.S.A. and The Sound and the Fury with an understanding and conviction that make his own critical thinking in these essays an experience to us —Dos Passos and Faulkner have already been great experiences to Sartre.

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. This follows from what I call being-at-home-with-a-text, from feeling in one's bones that one knows what the work is about, that one knows the tone of voice in which the writer speaks that one is present, at every stage. Criticism exists, after all, because the critic has an intense and meaningful experience of a work. And if he doesn't why pretendthat he does? Why bother, if what one is doing is not intensely real to oneself?

This is the first condition, not of "criticism" but of being a critic. When I read Shakespeare, I am dazzled by the speed and force of his mind. But I also know when I read him that there is something fundamental about Shakespeare that I simply do not understand. I do not mean that Shakespeare's characters use expressions that have to be explained. Historical matter can be learned. But even if I were a better scholar, I would not feel that 1 understood Shakespeare for myself —which is all the fun and all the use of being a critic. Many people have written brilliantly abound Shakespeare without convincing me that they understand him for themselves. Most readers are in fact uneasy with Shakespeare, which is why the silly snobbish question of who wrote his plays for him rages in every generation. Shakespeare is the unknown man whom even the greatest critics, like Dr. Johnson and Goethe, have redrawn in the character most suitable to themselves. Perhaps only John Keats, because he was a virtuoso of language like Shakespeare, saw him whole; in the famous letter of October 27, 1818, he wrote in clairvoyant excitement that "the poetical Character . . . is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing…It has as much delight in conceiving an lago as an Imogen . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually infor[ming] and filling some other Body. . .”

These orphic revelations make a dependable guide to the subtle and mischievous imagination that bars our full understanding. Keats, at least, mastered Shakespeare's protean mind; because in his own way he duplicates Shakespeare's sense for language, he is confident that his own reaction of wild delight is also a path to new knowledge. Keats does not preach Shakespeare the romantic, Shakespeare the monarchist, Shakespeare the cynic, as so many other critics have done. It is not Shakespeare's opinions that impress Keats; it is his pure poetic intelligence that in turn becomes each character it can create and takes its force from each dramatic event. Shakespeare discovered Keats to himself. The Shakespeare text, which is a chore to students and an intellectual maze to scholars, was to Keats a release, of the kind that Herman Melville was later to find in Nathaniel Hawthorne: "For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand with genius, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round."

Keats knew Shakespeare as only one great poet knows another, can imitate him without really knowing the others language. To know, not just to know about, is the highest aim of criticism and depends on sensibility intellectually cultivated, on the most urgent instinct for aesthetic achievements and distinctions. Of course, one great writer talking about another can be subjective and may well seem tendentious to a later generation.  But the condition of being at home-with-a-text that I am setting forth here as crucial to criticism, the reality compelling response, is important because it risks being  fallible. To be a critic, nothing else is so important as the ability to stand one's ground alone This gets more important as criticism gets more standardized and institutionalized, as the critic gets more absorbed in criticism itself. The more abstractions we deal with, the more we look for proof, and, since this is not possible in literature, for confirmation from other persons.

Criticism however, is a branch of literature not of science. Like any other form of literary expression, criticism can satisfy nothing but our sense of imaginative truth; its judgments operate only within our inner sense, and depend on our taste and culture. Critical statements are not binding on everyone, as are proofs of scientific truth. Keats on Shakespeare and Melville on Hawthorne are operating within a realm that most people have never heard of, and which does not touch on their lives in the slightest. Literature operates significantly only on exceptional individuals who are socially fortunate enough to afford the luxury of pleasing their imaginations. Criticism operates on even a smaller number. If Keats's reaction to Shakespeare seems more "personal" than a scientist's findings can ever be, that is because literature exists only in the realm minds and takes its sanction from laws of art that are understood only in relation to the human mind.

Keats is one of the few writers on Shakespeare who help me to read him and not just to read about him. Shakespeare is entirely real to Keats, and so Keats makes Shakespeare less unreal to me.  That is what I look for in a critic—his use to me; I can use critics whose general point of view is outrageous to me, but whose specific matters have this capacity for making a writer real and a text real. A useful critic is someone who has already begun to use a text in a significant personal way, who is not in doubt about his fundamental reaction, who is not arbitrary but convinced, in his reading or Dos Passos, that he knows what there is to know. Of course this is not enough for the ages; only the greatest critics survive, for as Johnson said, they raise opinion to knowledge. These are the lawgivers of art, and there are very few of them —far fewer, it turns out, than there are original minds in science. But opinion in criticism, if held at a level deep enough to become interesting, can vivify our sense of what writing is all about and may even excite us to write in new ways. If I ever make an anthology of criticism, it will be called The Useful Critic, and will feature only writings that have helped me.

It would come from all sources, and would be an odd mixture indeed. The conversation of Johnson. A line about Vladimir Nabokov in a letter by Isaac Babel. The art criticism of Baudelaire, the music criticism of Nietzsche. A few lines from Whitman's diary on Emerson's essential genius as a "critic or diagnoser." Emerson on "The Poet," because this rhapsody is the most eloquent and uncompromising revelation of the artist as hero who stands behind his prophetic writings. William James delighting in Emerson, William James talking back to Henry Adams. Melville's magnificent praise of his as yet unmet friend in "Hawthorne and His Mosses," because it shows in every free and flowing line of praise how Hawthorne's insistence on becoming a storyteller in Calvinist New England could help another genius to recognize himself. Henry James's preface to The Portrait of a Lady, not because it reveals the "laws" of any novels but James's own, but because James's art is founded on the celebration of civilized beauty with which this preface begins.

Among twentieth-century critics in English my anthology would include (poets make my favorite critics: they have the most intense personal consciousness of art) Eliot on Pascal, D. H. Lawrence on Hardy, Auden on A. E. Housman, Randall Jarrell on Frost, Conrad Aiken on Faulkner, Wallace Stevens for his general reflections on intellectual nobility, Robert Penn Warren on Conrad. It would include V. S. Pritchett, because he is a genius at truly literary journalism, and for any of dozens of appreciations of the English and European novel, but especially for his notes on the comic novel; Edmund Wilson, for so many illuminations of different literatures, but especially for the notes on American style in Patriotic Gore; Malcolm Cowley, for the introduction to Faulkner in the Viking Portable Library; Newton Arvin, for his book on Melville; Richard Chase, for his last, superbly illuminating book on the American novel.

This list could go on, just as personally, to include A. C. Bradley, whom in my unfashionable way I still deeply admire on Shakespeare; Erich Auerbach, the great German refugee scholar, whose Mimesis on the portrayal of reality in Western literature, is the most useful contemporary work in criticism that I own, because I can never turn to Auerbach on Homer or Montaigne or even Shakespeare without being enlightened in the deepest and most active kind of way. My anthology would include Erich Heller, for his moving inte1lectual sympathies with Nietzsche, Rilke, Thonia Mann; Frank Kermode, for his-remarkable double gifts as a scholar and interpreter of Romanticism; Harold Rosenberg, for his observations on modern poetry; Joseph Frank, for his insight into spatial form—

Indeed I could go on, yet oddly, the list would not include many academic voices whose brilliant authority has never instructed or even provoked me. What I ask of a critic is that he can usefully show the impact on his own consciousness of another’s artistic power. If the critic cannot suggest to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text.

Presented by

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In