In a memorable passage in the opening pages of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, an observer says of the eminent writer Gustav von Aschenbach: “’…[He] has always lived like this’—here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist—’never like this’—and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair.”
What more appropriate image for the art of criticism: the tightly closed fist, the open and relaxed hand? The one concerned with defining boundaries, passing judgment, inflicting punishment; the other with presenting the subject sympathetically, pushing beyond boundaries, a predilection for appreciation and praise. Contrary to what might be assumed, it is far easier for the critic to revile than to reveal; to deride and dismiss than to illuminate, especially when difficult work is being considered. In ordinary language, to be “critical” means to find fault, justly or unjustly. In fact, is there an art more exacting, more risky, more vulnerable to censure, than the art of intelligent appreciation? In contrasting the critical styles of H.L. Mencken and his younger contemporary Edmund Wilson, Joan Acocella speaks of Wilson’s enthusiasm for literature “together with sophistication, judiciousness, and an ability to generalize, to say what the ‘scene’ was.” Not the strongly opinionated Mencken but Edmund Wilson is her model critic:
Wilson knew his gifts, and wished they were less rare. He called on American magazines to develop “a genuine literary criticism that should deal expertly with ideas and art, not merely tell us whether the reviewer ‘let out a whoop’ for the book or threw it out the window.”
Such criticism requires of the critic not only intelligence and taste but a more rare talent for self-effacement of the kind so much in evidence in Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of thirty-one exemplary essays Acocella has written over the past fifteen years and originally published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
Of the twenty-eight artists discussed in this volume, nine are associated with dance (among them Vaslav Nijinsky, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, and Twyla Tharp) and the remainder are writers (among them Italo Svevo, Stefan Zweig, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Dorothy Parker, M.F.K. Fisher, Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, and Frank O’Hara). The saints are Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. In her introduction Acocella notes that when she was rereading essays for the collection, she discovered that a single theme predominated: “difficulty, hardship.” By this she means not unhappy childhoods and “early pain, conquered and converted into art,” but rather “the pain that came with the art-making, interfered with it, and how the artist dealt with this.”
When I first moved to New York in 1968, I fell in with a group of young artists whom I was often awed by. “What will they become?” I thought. They were so brilliant, so bold. And as the years passed I found out something …