Nil: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void during the Nineteenth Century

by Robert Martin Adams
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In the Human Grain: Technological Culture and Its Effect on Man, Literature and Religion

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“We are but critics, or but half create,” Yeats wrote in a rueful poem, lamenting the death of the old nonchalance. In the meantime critics have come to wear their rue with a difference. If Swift were now at work on A Tale of a Tub, he might still put the critic under the table, “like a dog at a feast, whose thoughts and stomach are wholly set upon what the guests fling away.” But his victim would continue to smile. It is comfortable nowadays to be the middleman, the retail grocer buying cheap and selling dear. But this, a common figure for many years, is no longer adequate. If you hate critics, there is no point in calling them parasites, because increasingly they depend upon themselves, their own imaginations. Bacon’s figure of the spider is nearer the mark. Critics are now almost poets, planetary poets, making notes toward their supreme fictions. The critic is happy to comment upon literature, but only on the understanding that the interest of the commentary is intrinsic, “self creating, self delighting.” Few critics are content to say helpful things about hard poems. The critical essay, traditionally a modest genre, aspires beyond its old station: it hopes to become a handsome body of knowledge, a rival form of poetry with the advantage of a richer mixture of ideas.

There is an implication abroad that criticism, unlike poetry, gets better and better, a notion clear enough in René Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism. The possibilities of critical growth seem endless. A man starts by writing a Ph.D. thesis on a minor Elizabethan poet; continues with more challenging essays on Poe, Tennyson, Hopkins, Joyce, and Eliot; writes a book called The Mechanical Bride another called The Gutenberg Galaxy, then Understanding Media. And he is still a reasonably young man, on the wing from Toronto to New York and Fordham. A critic who writes a study of Blake and then, extending its implications, writes Anatomy of Criticism is plying a trade in which the possibilities are dazzling. A poet can hardly have the same feeling that the future of his vocation is, as Arnold would have it, immense. But a critic, if he is a good Kantian, has only to be sufficiently inventive, and the dictionary is his oyster.

FOR THE READER, it is exciting to see a great critical balloon rise, floating above the shed of common experience. The balloon cannot be denied, because we see it. And if we are not prepared to love all balloons equally, there is the nasty hope of seeing one or two of them burst and fall; as I await the fall of Norman O. Brown’s latest, Love’s Body. The freedom and gaiety of balloons are functions of our own desire. They lift the mind. Indeed, at a time when philosophy is daunting in its rigor, criticism gives something of the old philosophic satisfaction, the pleasure of seeing a structure of ideas rise off the ground, like a Calder mobile.…

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