eunuchs in a harem

Ronan McDonald - The Death of the Critic

“'The best that has been thought and said' – Matthew Arnold's exalted old credo, long superannuated – devolved to 'Whatever'. If taste governs all, then distinctions melt away, and the jihadist's 'taste in morality' is no worse than mine or yours, and choosing life or choosing death comes down to chacun à son goût.”
-- Cynthia Ozick, 'On Discord and Desire'; The Din in the Head (2006)

The rout of criticism seemed, for a time, almost complete. The university arcanists – addled by the Chinese-box wares of Derrida, Lacan and Foucault – had retreated into self-referential blather, and the book pages of the print media dwindled, and dwindled, to an auxiliary of publishers' marketing departments. 'Bookchat', as Gore Vidal contemptuously termed it, became a white noise of logrolling and mutual self-congratulation. Or the scrape of many axes being ground. The shade of Edmund Wilson flickered and mournfully expired. The Jacobins of the blogosphere let out a whoop of triumph; and the book group metastasised through the cultural life of the land.

And why not? The critic, after all, applies his killjoy instincts to the cramping of creative freedom: he pettifogs and carps, snidely undermines the best efforts of the finest spirits, and generally comports himself as a humourless puritan fault-finder. He is an embittered second-rater, a snippy Pharisee. Of course, the critic deserves to be sidelined – no one likes a sour negativist. The pontiff of this dismal breed was F.R. Leavis, issuing his bulls from Downing College and spoiling literature for generations of undergraduates. Leavis, it was, who insisted on the high seriousness of the literary endeavour, its irrefragable moral dimension – and what fun is that?

Earth-bound, joyless, beside-the-point: so the critic stands condemned as a relic of another age, as hoarily irrelevant today as the Master of the Revels.

All this squares with the low esteem in which the 'expert' is now broadly held. The democratization of culture is held up as an a priori good; and the value-judgment has gone the way of the witch's cantrip. A poem by Charles Bukowski merits serious consideration just as much as a poem by Milton. Evaluative discrimination mocks the principles of egalitarianism; and, as Gore Vidal has it, “Don't knock, boost! was the cry of Warren Harding. To which the corollary was plain: anyone who knocks is a bad person with a grudge... to say that one English sentence might be better made than another is to be a snob, a subverter of the democracy, a Know Nothing enemy of the late arrivals to our shores and its difficult language.” Vidal, elsewhere eulogizing V.S. Pritchett, says: “...an entire generation of schoolteachers and book chatterers now believes that an inability to master English is a sign of intellectual grace, and that a writer like Pritchett is not to be taken seriously because he eschews literary velleities for literary criticism. Madame Verdurin has won the day.” (Literary velleities: as neat and elegant a description of the style and tenor of certain sections of the literary blogosphere as any...)

Certainly, the internet and the matto grosso of the blogosphere have enfranchised readers to the extent that they now can be sure that their views will have an audience, somewhere. Niche tastes are amply catered for. Google is your friend. The essential conservatism of the mainstream press reviews increasingly appears insufficient to the variety of the marketplace. And we live in a social and cultural climate in which people are disinclined to be told what to do or think. (William Skidelsky chews all this over in his piece for Prospect magazine.) The subsequent 'deregulation' of literary studies brings in its train a prickly, agitated parliament: from serious, passionate readers sharing their enthusiasms to amateur scribes seeking to showcase their talents and – maybe, just maybe – catch the eye of the literary editor of a broadsheet newspaper. Yet for every thoughtful, nuanced blog post, there must be a dozen sophomoric tirades. The extraordinarily ugly, ill-tempered response to the work of the critic James Wood shows up in the blogosphere a spleenful incontinence. Wood, for the moment, has been cast as a eunuchoid bully; and has few sympathizers in the cyber-savannah. (One honourable exception: SC of the excellent Un Arbre dans la Ville arts-blog, who has written a number of sane, temperate defenses of Wood's critical practice; identifying what he terms James Wood Neurosis – although it seems to me to tend more toward derangement.) The prevailing atmosphere is less one of Kulturkampf than of an alpha-male dick-swinging contest. All that impotent fluttering in 'mediocrity's columbarium' (Gore Vidal, again).

Ronan McDonald's study The Death of the Critic reads as a kind of retrenchment. McDonald wants to set before us an account of the history of criticism that will remind us of its value as an activity – in spite of its secondariness – and of the essential decency of the enterprise, its contribution to cultural welfare. He argues for the emergence of a 'new aestheticism', the cultivation of a broader, less partisan approach to the study of literature, “..intimate with the imagining of political possibilities at the level of form.” Post-1968, an overtly politicized theory bent itself to degutting the work of art. Literature was interrogated not as an analyzable entity in its own right, but as the vessel of ideology. The theorists forced upon literature the burden of explaining its deeply distasteful roots in reactionary politics, its blind connivance in post-colonial oppression, its devious trick of covering up its unpleasant associations with tyranny. When Edward Said suggested that Mansfield Park was a novel that bore the taint of the slave trade, the game was up for traditional close textual analysis. Never such innocence again.

So ruthless a desacralization was accompanied by an inevitable decentring. The Benjaminian 'aura' of art devolved to art as a sequence of schematics. More crucially still, we lost the notion that one must accord a novel, poem or play a measure of respect, that a certain delicacy in how we conduct ourselves among the products of the minds of men and women who once drew breath, is appropriate and seemly, at the very least. What characterizes the labours of such critics as Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt through A.C. Bradley and William Empson – aside from their polymathy, their sheer intellectual heft – is perhaps the sense common to them that literature ought to inspire in us – as a condition of its efficacy – a feeling of responsive tact, such as a botanist might experience with the objects of his study. Something akin to what George Steiner termed 'humane literacy' is at issue here. Steiner, predictably in the current climate of mannerless snidery, today earns for himself a deal of derision from the young and not-so-young Turks. But the closing stave of his 1963 essay still seems to me to have a distinct uneasy resonance:

Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted. It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight. Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary. But it has never counted more. Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.

Pilot-fish even the great critics might be, but they are expert navigators nonetheless.

McDonald's Death of the Critic nicely summarizes the 'fortunes of criticism', with an attractive even-handedness. His survey takes in the development of criticism from Aristotle to post-structuralism and beyond, with all points between. In the end, he urges a kind of syncretism – rather than discard the thought of former ages, each phase offers something viable, something usable. McDonald refuses to scout modern literary theory as the sterile fruit of technocracy. Unlike, say, Christopher Ricks, he holds that appreciation and evaluation aren't strictly incompatible with the insights of deconstruction or Lacanian psychoanalysis. The chasm between academe and the public sphere may yet be bridged. “[E]loquence of writing,” McDonald asserts, “accuracy of expression, and the owning of language, should be part of an education in English literature.” Critical prose itself needs to be overhauled and reinvigorated – it must be enlivened by a nearness to felt experience, be receptive to abstraction and sensuous particularity.

In his elegiac essay on Edward Said, 'The Critic as Artist', Tom Paulin observes “The style of literary critics – if we except Hazlitt – is seldom discussed.” (To which one might add, literary critics are seldom discussed, certainly among the ranks of the common readers.) What excites Paulin about Said's criticism – it shapes his own critical practice, too – is its 'performative' aspect, the way it engages bodily, as it were, with the texts under scrutiny. Expressive, wrought with urgency, the drama and textured life of it. Aesthetics and politics interlace; a prose style forged from the psychological lacerations of Palestine's tragic history. In Said's prose personal testament underwrites and energizes the discourse, making it peculiarly fascinating and absorbing. Such must our critic redux stimulate in his own efforts.

McDonald's guarded optimism breathes through his study. Almost wholly absent are the bitter biases of this faction or the other: Northrop Frye is dealt with as respectfully as Roland Barthes. The Death of the Critic proves that rarest of things, an affirmative polemic – learned, sound and an earnest of how literary criticism might prosper once again.

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