The Critic and the Commonplace

PIERRE EMMANUEL,himself a poet and a critic, is particularly aware of the problems of the critic. Mr. Emmanuel, who was born in 1916, is the author of some fifteen volumes of prose and verse; he taught mathematics and philosophy at a French lyeée but stepped out of academic dress to take an active part in the Resistance movement. He is now in charge of the English-language broadcasts of the French government radio station, Radiodiffusion Francaise.



WE HAVE seen too many examples of appropriation of artistic works by the critics not to fear their readiness to add literature to literature, as if the work of art they chose to discuss were merely a pretext, an incitement, and finally an epiphenomenon of their own system of thought. Aren’t we then justified in reminding them that the work of art not only comes first, but transcends whatever critical thoughts it suggests to them; and also that the critics’ subsequent reader does not read them for their own sake, but for what they have to say of a given work of art? Literary criticism is relative to: it cannot be taken as an absolute without becoming a counterfeit of philosophy, a philosophy for non-philosophers — that is to say, ridiculous bosh.

I am not adverse to the commonplace. I have always cherished it as an unexplored field of thought where everything has to be discovered again and again. The artist’s relation to the commonplace is a deep and contradictory one: he tends to escape it as it appears, and yet he wants nothing but to find it as it is. When he is true to himself, he always returns to it by his own way, which may be a very long and painful one, full of admirable failures and apparently fruitless experiences. No matter how he strives to achieve his aim, he aims only at the truer forms of life, and the simpler ones, which is the same thing. His work contains a secret, but it is a common secret: what he wants to communicate is not something utterly new, which nobody had thought about before him, but a basic though forgotten knowledge, the resurrection of a common experience hidden or lost under the strata of indifference, prejudice, or habit. The artist’s ultimate desire is not only to express himself but to communicate, even if he does not admit it openly. He may tell us that he writes ad se ipsum. He nevertheless uses the words of common language: the dialogue with his soul is a dialogue with the world. There is no such thing as artistic solipsism, for whenever words are used, they express an interest (inter-est); that is to say, a situation among, and simultaneously — or consequently — a relation to. The syntax of language reflects the syntax of life: to utter the word is to show one’s deepest needthe need to be related, to communicate, either immediately or beyond the limitations of one’s time. But there would be no such need without the deep feeling of a commonplace reality, whose presence is both proved and masked by what we superficially call the commonplace, regarding it as worthless or, at any rate, without any mystery. When Baudelaire writes: “The immense profundity of thought contained in commonplace turns of phrase: holes burrowed by generations of ants,”he has in view, without any doubt, what is behind what we take for granted: a deeper evidence lying under customary evidence, a science of life that makes him say, “Nothing is more beautiful than the commonplace.” The artist is a man who has discovered evidences as plain for him as can be; who wants to share them, for they are not his alone, but a common treasure. When Baudelaire, or Novails, or Nerval claims that creations of the mind are more alive than matter, let us not take their assertions as an autojustification coming from dreamers who try to make their living out of their dream, but as a fundamental belief in the universal reality of human imagination, a belief without which they wouldn’t have been artists.

Yet the artist’s world is a singular one, and its greatest value comes from the conflict between its singularity and our actual view of the universal. It is common to say of a great work of art that it is inexhaustible, but the meaning of the adjective has to lose its mystical vagueness if we want it to be of any use for us. A work of art is both in time and out of time — or more precisely, beyond time: it appears, and it lasts while we are passing. After having reflected the artist’s situation within the universal, it becomes a living reality in itself, while its creator fades away, and with him the personal references that once made the work of art explainable in terms of individual experience, as a transubstantiation into symbols of a concrete destiny. Gaining in freedom, the work of art tends to become anonymous, being no more considered as the artist’s property, but as a common field of further experience, as a moral space whose investigation may still lead to new discoveries. Proust, speaking of Beethoven’s quartets, shows that a work of art grows within time, maturing its admirers and being matured by them.

What we call the inexhaustible character of the work of art does not come from the potentialities the poet might have put in it. These potentialities are there without the poet’s realizing them, for his symbols carry a far wider and deeper unconscious knowledge than he suspects. The inexhaustible character of the work of art is in fact the constant possibility of confronting it with ourselves and our time. A work of art is a potential and provocative witness that can be questioned and attacked as if it retained that part of the truth we are always striving for and never attaining. It is disquieting, and yet fruitful, to see ourselves put on trial by the massive and silent presence of a world within our world. The masterpiece we are examining will not answer except through our own voice the question that contains all others: Does the world you tell us about exist? Is there such a world as that singular universe of the imagination whose figures appear again and again under the same mythical shapes, but never in the actual world? Or shall we consider such a constant aspiration as a delusion of the mind, ending in failure or at best in a well-controlled dream?

In other words, our relation to the work of art is ambiguous inasmuch as the world it proposes seems both more substantial and less real than our own. Because we are not sure of the reality of our own world, we are in a state of perplexity and desire before the poet’s universe — that singular self-evidence set up, it seems, once and for ever, never changing and yet always revealing new aspects, suggesting some deeper communion than our relative solidarity with our world, a vast insight into what is permanent and beyond what unceasingly changes. Yet when we try to translate the poet’s vision into common language, we find nothing left of it but the dust of awkward ideas, neither original nor closely linked. We have killed the magic of the work and lost faith in both the realms of imagination and common sense.


WHAT we have said is sufficient, I presume, to show how dangerous it is to be a critic. Literary criticism is at ease neither in the world of imagination nor in the conceptual world. Yet that fundamental uneasiness is the condition of the critic s activity —a condition that exposes him to attack both by poets and by philosophers, on the grounds that he introduces either bad philosophy into poetry, or bad poetry into philosophy. The critic’s language is indeed a very ambiguous one; and such an ambiguity, though necessary as a means, may well become an end when the critic enjoys it in itself. Literary criticism as an art would be the art of ambiguity: the art of drawing at will unreal ideas from a nonconceptual reality, the literary critic being finally able to find in the work of art whatever pleases his faceted mind or suits his taste for paradox. At that point, the work of art has disappeared, and with it what substantiated the critic’s language, which becomes pure emptiness, a mere game of words. And a very esoteric one sometimes, far more hermetic than the poet’s work. Maybe some readers will be taken in by it — nothing seems more profound than carefully produced obscurity — but it cannot fool for a long time even the critic himself.

For the critic, there is nothing so unsatisfactory as to translate symbols into ideas. He cannot do it, and yet he has to do it. If he knows the meaning of words — that is to say, if he has had some philosophical training and is not inclined to reduce complex abstractions to their common-sense value — he won’t dare to move among philosophical concepts that would become nothing but empty conch shells vaguely retaining the remote and confused noise of some vast intellectual dream.

When I read a piece of criticism that pretends to be philosophical, usually I cannot understand it in philosophical terms, though I may perceive in it an obscure nebula of concepts, feelings, and intuitions mixed together. This shows that philosophy and poetry, being two languages of completely different nature, have nothing to do with each other. The X rays of philosophy, when used to analyze a work of art, will show us an imprecise structure of more or less heavy shadows, suggesting a thick and voluminous matter, but nothing like a rich biological system of interactive images.

The reader, especially when he has a philosophical mind, will not accept a constant abuse of words and will become irritated against both the critic and the poet. The pseudo-philosophical description of a work of art is a very naïve kind of swindling, which overshadows with intellectual contempt the genuineness of the poetical activity.

The critic’s approach to the work of art is perhaps easier under the cover of metaphysics; but even for the philosopher, metaphysics is not firm ground, and how much less firm will it be for the critic, who is so commonly lured by words. Instead of observing the process of creation, the critic is often tempted to isolate apparently clearer fragments of the whole, to put them in plainer words and to link them together, not as they really are, but as he has chosen them to be. He substitutes for an organic structure a system of conceptual relations that may retain a vague reflection of the whole it is intended to translate, but that will make it appear inconsistent and sometimes rationally childish. No doubt one would prefer a sort of personal commentary starting from the poem as a mere matter of experience, and describing by what ways of approach and through what combination of hazard and intuition the critic made the poem his own, felt it as a spiritual reality.

Yes, one would prefer such an account of the critic’s encounter with the poem: this would be a conversation the critic would have not only with himself but with the poet and the critic’s reader. Any conversation where the interlocutors state the best of what they think and love has a chance of being fruitful, even when it is loose, hesitating, and desperately trying to overcome the uncertainties of the mind by the inner revelations of experience. Or is it precisely because of those hesitations and discontinuities that it is really fruitful? If only the critic could accept his ambiguity without being ashamed of it, but without taking it either as a sign of particular distinction of mind, of election to some sacred office appointing him to stand as an Interpreter of mysterious signs on the threshold of the Unknown! The critic’s ambiguity is an aspect of his ambiguity as a man: it is the weakness of his finitude, and I sympathize with him when he feels that it is a permanent self-dissatisfaction.

We all know that the poet’s vision is nothing but a vision, in which he aspires to live and yet does not live. Such a world may exist, and yet its expression is only a substitute for its actual existence, a perpetual inadequacy whose tragic character not only is felt by the poet himself but pushes him forward into further attempts which he perceives as equally unsuccessful and yet necessary.

“He who is with himself dissatisfied
Though all the world find satisfaction in him
Is like a rainbow colored bird gone blind
That gives delight it shares not,”

says Thomas Hardy in The Dynasts. Such a dissatisfaction is the active principle of all creative necessity; it does not disappear but grows with the practice of art, never ceasing to question the ultimate value of that practice and the works of art resulting from it. Thus, at the same time, art may reveal to that artist both its utter futility and its absolute reality: a paradox related to the ambiguous position of man, a being who becomes, a whole forever alienated from itself. Not only the artist but the critic and the average reader may think simultaneously before the work of art, “This is nonsense, let us go back to the commonplace” and “This work of art tries to open our way to that very commonplace we believe we know and still is essentially unknown to us.” Maybe the artist only discovers man’s total separation from w hat he is; were it the only evidence he could communicate to us, it would remain an invaluable one, for it contains an inexhaustible possibility of contradiction.


OF COURSE an evidence which brings contradiction into our proud practical certainties is highly undesirable for the many: certain literary critics consider it their special vocation to kill art and to stuff it in order to make it more sufferable, and yet even such a dead art remains strangely disquieting. A good way to kill art is to systematize it, to make it sound like a by-product of philosophy, or psychology, or even religion. Another and much more clever way is to take art not as a sui generis spiritual activity, but as a technique of language, and scrupulously (that is to say unscrupulously) to avoid any reference to something beyond perfect craftsmanship. One can even, if one wants to sound profound without the inconvenience of profundity, define the so-called rules or canons of art as Platonistic ideas or patterns and dress the corpse of poetry in majestical garments of nothingness. It is plain enough that the disturbing reality of a world of signs irreducible to general consent (or general misunderstanding) will never be admitted by the average consumer of words, who would not indulge in imagination without first protecting himself from it, by naming it fancy, dream, or at best another way of putting things that can be said more clearly otherwise. That type of reader finds a perfect accomplice in any of the critics mentioned above, who may never have devoted one moment to thinking why art is art and not something else —why poetry still remains obscure after having been explained “philosophically” or “technically.”

Nevertheless, is it not remarkable to observe that for more than one hundred years the poets and other creative writers have been the first to burrow the depths of human psyche, thus leading the way to future psychologists as well as existential philosophers? The greatest inventions in the field of human nature were first due to poets: when Kierkegaard, for instance, makes himself “the physician of his own soul,” doesn’t he announce what will later become not only new therapeutics but a new method of exploration, a science ot the deepest self in its complex relation to itsell and the universe?

The modern revolution in psychology makes it possible to expect a new type of reasoning — detached from the logic of ideas and familiar with the logic of symbols. A good modern critic therefore would be one who would consider first the process of growth of the poem, and find what it expresses from the way it grows. A good critic would let the poem grow in him, reproduce the poet’s creation in his own way, which may not necessarily be the poet’s way — but even that difference would show that the poem, once written, is not merely a still life.

There is a tendency in modern criticism to insist on the importance of the poet’s situation as a determining factor of his work. True enough, any work of a living artist is in situation, which makes it both achieved and yet unfinished, a whole and a possibility. Every critic realizes that there is infinitely more danger in dealing with such a work of art than in adding some new aspects to the knowledge of a consecrated one. But he knows too that his real vocation is precisely to take the risk of lifewith the possible failures it implies; he is not afraid of the uncertainty of literary criticism: he may even be convinced that sometimes the only way to be wise tomorrow is to be taken today as a fool. Actually he will not rely upon rules, firmly established as they may seem, to canonize the existential novelty of a work of art. Everything new starts in a context that is moving and yet chaotic. Chaos and confusion are not the privilege of our time, for there would be no time without confusion and chaos. But inside chaos a process is going on: man tries to take shape, to make sense. The artist’s part in that process is predominant because he ventures a new shape, he tries a next development, he attempts a further integration within his time and ahead of it —and he may very well fail, but even his failure is significant and necessary. Shape grows out of a series of trials and errors — or more precisely, of a simultaneous outburst of often contradictory and transitory forms. Beauty may be a temporal revelation, a transient shape announcing a more adapted one, like the chrysalis that contains and is not yet the butterfly; or it may become timeless, changeless, after having overcome the challenge of time. There are no decisive means of detecting absolute beauty; in any case, we mortals are much more interested in contemporary beauty than in abstract archetypes iu which we do not believe. Even lasting beauty is for us nothing but beauty confirmed by time, and still subject to revision or oblivion.

A critic aware of the permanent challenge which makes beauty exist in time, will understand a work of art in connection with the fundamental insecurity of human condition as our time reveals it; the work of art in that perspective is both in time — a report — and beyond time — a prophecy. But what interests the critic is less the former than the latter; he really becomes a critic when he is prepared to bet that a work will turn out to be a lasting one, and to give reasons why he is betting. This implies that he sustain a deep relation to his own time, a relation which enables him to foresee the future in the poet’s words.

But the critic must also show us the poem as a living organism, revealing some of its dynamic characteristics, which are part of the active forces of its time, be they realized or not; those characteristics, coupled with others coming from the poet himself, are the components of his effort to project a new shape. He who examines the poet’s work will find there recurrent, insistent images, from and around which all others seem to spring. Generally, those primitive and obsessional images can be reduced either to a single one or to what I would call a symbolical symbiosis: here is the core of the poet’s thought, his obscure intimacy with himself. Here he watches his imagination grow, by that special kind of attention to shape which is influenced by the unconscious forces underneath. Such an attention to shape is not the poet’s privilege alone: isn’t sympathy the faculty of molding oneself in somebody else’s shape? When the critic has discovered the poet’s imaginative center, he can from there observe and feel by the same act of sympathy the work of art taking shape, Thus he participates, though by delayed action, in the creative process. Only then will he be able to pronounce an aesthetic judgment on a work that escapes the old rules, precisely because we live at a time when creation and destruction are at work together: a time of radical change, shapeless and striving to take shape, by projecting its confused desires and dreams.

No critic can be asked to renew indefinitely his sense of shape, so that it would be born again for every new work he studies. Such a faculty of metamorphosis at will, were it possible, would not be criticism, but mere mimicry. Every critic has his limitations and prejudices; to test their elasticity will be wise, but not to break them. They are sometimes among the best tools of the profession. No critic is obliged to sell his soul for what he does not love; it may be important for us to know why he reacts to some works as if they were personal offenses. No critic is obliged to hide his feeling for what he loves; let him show it and impress upon us the passion of the poet, the urge that possesses him. A temperamental critic is better than a so-called objective one: he is a man for whom works of art live by themselves, like persons; a man who looks at a book as he would look at a face. Only such a critic can approach the poem in itself, the poem as a poem, and make his the fusing force bursting into images, the organic process from the undifferentiated plasma to the symbolical articulation of the whole, with its levels of understanding, its echoes, its complex solidarity.

It is easy to help the reader to become the procreator of the work of art when the critic understands why such a thing as a poem exists, how it is born, develops itself, and ripens into its full shape. I even dream of a critic who would believe not only that he can convert people to poetry, but that poetry can convert people to themselves, make them able to burrow the commonplace, not unconsciously as Baudelaire’s “general ions of ants,”but with the same deep attention, the same power of self-creation, as the poet’s.