I like a view but I like to sit with my back to it.
“Criticism can talk,” Northrop Frye provocatively remarked in his introduction to Anatomy of Criticism (1957), “and all the arts are dumb.” Yet in the hands of some practitioners, among them Frye, criticism itself aspires to art; a profane sort of art, perhaps, in Auden’s vocabulary (“The value of a profane thing lies in what it usefully does, the value of a sacred thing lies in what it is“)—in that criticism must always be a reaction, never quite an action; a secondary creation, and not an original. Unlike the venturesome artist who creates something out of nothing, the critic can only “create” something out of something that already exists. In another, more cinematic distinction, “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea”—this from the foreword to Hugging the Shore (1983), John Updike’s masterly (and massive: 900 pages of Updikean prose) collection of essays and criticism. At sea, amid a beautiful blankness, we risk disaster and death; hugging the shore, we never lose our bearings and can return to land easily.
A modicum of respect for the subject, then, as the basis for the critic’s project, would seem to be a primary element of serious criticism. A measure of judiciousness, tact, sympathy, and empathy; an awareness of historical and cultural context; an awareness of the “life and times”; an intimacy with the actual texts to be considered—these are perhaps not necessary for all intelligent and useful criticism, but their absence weakens the critic’s effort and can make of it mere opinion-mongering—your word against mine. “Letting the mind play freely around a subject”—in Matthew Arnold’s words—presupposes an interesting and informed mind. Add to such an ideal-critic portrait an accomplished prose style that would seem to mimic (and, in the reading, inspire in readers) the subtle modulations of a first-rate sensibility; and, not least, though rarely if ever acknowledged, the persuasive power of graciousness—that mysterious yet unmistakable quality of personality cherished in personal life yet ignored and undervalued in critical discourse.
These are qualities of high value in civilization, and criticism of such a kind might be said to be synonymous with civilization, though “art” may well predate civilization. For here we have the refined, reflective, idealized voice of the conscience of the race beside which, in fact, the arts are dumb, or mute; that is, presenting themselves directly without polemics or explanation. Without such criticism, we lose our cultural memory; all is a blooming, buzzing present, a vast tide of “entertainment.”
In reading literary criticism that qualifies as art, whether by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, V.S. Pritchett, John Updike, or Gore Vidal, or Elizabeth Hardwick—in their obviously very different ways—we confront a subject through the prism of a sensibility that “judges” in such a way as to expand the significance of the subject; to leave it, in a sense, altered from what it…
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