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The Critic as Man of Feeling

From The Kenyon Review, Autumn 1950, Vol. XII, No. 4

At the basis is pathos. Sympathy and empathy—feeling with and feeling into: these are the essential psycho-physical processes without which all criticism is null and dull.

It follows from this that there are no immutable canons of criticism, no perfect critics. Criticism is good and sane when there is a meeting of intention and appreciation. There is then an act of recognition, and any worthwhile criticism begins with that reaction.

Recognition is inhibited by constitutional limitations in the critic. These may be defects of sensibility (e.g., insensibility to the sensuous quality of words) or imperfect sympathy due to pathological inhibitions. Contrast the critical reactions of two such eminent critics as John Ruskin and Lord Acton to the same author—George Eliot. (Ruskin on The Mill on the Floss: “There is not a single person in the book of the smallest importance to anybody in the world but themselves, or whose qualities deserved so much as a line of printer’s type in their description . . . the rest of the characters are simply the sweepings out of a Pentonville bus.” Acton: “No writer has ever lived who had anything like her power of manifold, but disinterested and impartially observant sympathy. If Sophocles or Cervantes had lived in the light of our culture, if Dante had prospered like Manzoni, George Eliot might have had a rival.”)

The sources of such a disagreement must be sought in the psychology of the critic. In this case there would be a general agreement that Acton was right, Ruskin wrong. If we seek for an explanation of Ruskin’s blind spot, it would not be difficult to find. It is part of the same complex that wrecked his marriage. His reaction to Byron, on the other hand, is, unexpectedly, passionately favorable; and has its basis in an identification of himself with Byron. “With this steadiness of bitter melancholy, there is joined a sense of material beauty . . . which in the iridescence, colour-depth, and morbid (I use the word deliberately) mystery and softness of it, —with other qualities indescribable by any single words, and only to be analysed by extreme care, —is found, to the full, only in five men that I know of in modern times: namely, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Turner, and myself….” All critics do not so confidently expose their sympathies, or their antipathies, but nevertheless they always exist, and they are inevitable. We should not confuse criticism with the expression of imperfect sympathies, however much this is disguised in pseudo-scientific jargon. It may be retorted that the same mistake must not be made about the expression of perfect sympathies, but this is not the case. Perfect sympathy may lead to exaggerated partiality (Swinburne’s for Victor Hugo, for example); and love may make us blind to many faults in the beloved. But then the performance is no longer critical. I have said that sympathy is the basis of criticism; the structure above ground level is intellectual. Sympathetic criticism is not necessarily favorable criticism. We can sympathize with the intention and at the same time reject the execution of it, or object to certain details in this execution. Coleridge on Words- worth is the best illustration of this truth: the perfect sympathy is not in doubt, but he can admit that the object of his sympathy may on occasion be out of his element—”like the swan, that, having amused himself, for a while, with crushing the weeds on the river’s bank, soon returns to his own majestic movements on its reflecting and sustaining surface.” “Though,” says Coleridge, here defining the critical principle, “though, to appreciate the defects of a great mind it is necessary to understand previously its characteristic excellencies, yet I have already expressed myself with sufficient fulness, to preclude most of the ill effects that might arise from my pursuing a contrary arrangement. I will therefore commence with what I deem the prominent defects of his poems hither-to published.” (Biog. Lit., ch. xxii.)

The word empathy, indispensable to modern criticism, needs some explanation. It is no longer necessary to give it formal definition—it has entered into our critical vocabulary. But it should be used in literary criticism with caution. The process, as the psychologists from Lipps to Koffka have recognized, is so sensational that strictly speaking it only takes place in the plastic arts. We feel ourselves occupying with our senses the Gestalt of the rising column or the spatial design of a picture. There may be a true empathic relationship to the sound and shape of a poem—our response to metre, for example. But in general our use of the word in literary criticism can only be analogical—as when Acton says: “George Eliot seemed to me capable not only of reading the diverse hearts of men, but of creeping into their skin, watching the world through their eyes, feeling their latent back- ground of conviction, discerning theory and habit, influences of thought and knowledge, of life and of descent, and having obtained this experience, recovering her independence, stripping off the borrowed shell, and exposing scientifically and indifferently the soul of a Vestal, a Crusader, an Anabaptist, an Inquisitor, a Dervish, a Nihilist, or a Cavalier without attraction, preference, or caricature.” (Letters to Mary Gladstone, pp. 60-1.) The phrases I have italicized undoubtedly express the empathic process, but it is directed towards an image, and not, as in the plastic arts, towards a physical object.

Scientific method in criticism, in my credo, is only admissible as a secondary activity. The critic with a head but without a heart, armed with instruments of precision but without love, is the monster who killed Keats. He has had a numerous progeny, and I fancy that the species has found a particularly congenial habitat in American universities (but we have enough to spare for export in England). In so far as he confines himself to textual criticism, he can perform a very useful service. Analysis of Hopkins’ meter, exegesis of Eliot’s mythology—these are the type of necessary activities which one must not for a moment despise. But they must not be confused with criticism proper, which is a philosophical activity, concerned, in Acton’s words, with the “latent background of conviction, discerning theory and habit, influences of thought and knowledge, of life and descent.”

For the same reason criticism proper must be dissociated from sociological criticism of the Marxist type. Again, one cannot object to such criticism as a secondary activity; to demonstrate, for example, “Balzac’s profound comprehension of the contradictorily progressive character of capitalist development” may be of great importance to the sociologist; and if a great artist like Tolstoy “creates immortal masterpieces on the basis of an entirely false philosophy,” the Marxist may legitimately deplore the fact, but the literary critic may ignore the fact (if it is a fact). (Both examples from Lukacs: Studies in European Realism.)

Finally, and most importantly, the true critic will not indulge in moral judgments. With Bradley he will distinguish between moral judgment and moral perception. Moral perception is a mode of sympathy: we have to participate in the moral dilemmas presented by the poet, and we may justly criticize the way in which they are presented. “When we are immersed in a tragedy,” wrote Bradley in his Shakespearean Tragedy, “we feel towards dispositions, actions, and persons such emotions as attraction and repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror, perhaps hatred; but we do not judge.” How difficult it is for a critic, committed to some code of ethics or politics, to observe that prime precept of criticism! How many of the pundits of literature, from Dr. Johnson to Irving Babbitt, have failed for precisely that reason! How often we, who claim to be sympathetic critics, have been false to our imaginative experience!

A credo does not admit of qualifications, and I have none to make. It is difficult, however, to convey the meaning of imaginative experience to those who have no such experience; and to claim such experience for oneself savors of vanity. It is a question of organic sensibility. It would be rash to assume that this is a common possession, even in critics. I know from my own attitude to music, an art for which I have no organic sensibility, how easy it would be to formulate a critical system without imaginative experience. I could begin from my experience of other arts, and argue (for example) that since Stendhal whom I admire as a writer of brilliant critical intelligence expressed a passionate love for the music of Mozart and Cimarosa, that therefore that kind of music was likely to be the right kind of music. I have been tempted to extol the music of Cimarosa simply because there is an impressive amount of evidence to show that in his time he was greatly admired by people of sensibility and intelligence; and because I have never found anyone today who could explain the disappearance of Cimarosa from our theatres and concert-halls. That greatest of modern musicologists, Sir Donald Tovey, had no explanation to offer when I once questioned him on the subject. I am not making out a case for Cimarosa because I have neither the necessary knowledge of his music, nor the sensitive equipment to acquire such knowledge. But I have been tempted, without these necessary tools, to indulge in critical fantasies about Cimarosa; and I am sure that in literature, where exposure of such an organic defect is much more difficult, at least half the criticism in existence is a hollow structure of this kind. The tone of poetry is just as sensational as the tones of music. Many people will readily admit to being tone-deaf in music; I have met very few people who will admit to being tone-deaf in poetry.

There remain those overriding considerations which Arnold, rendering Aristotle’s meaning, called higher truth and higher seriousness. Goethe, a little more concretely, spoke of clarity and serenity. I do not think the critic can do much more than announce the presence of such qualities in a work of art. It is doubtful if the qualities that give Homer, Dante and Shakespeare their supremacy can be analysed by lesser minds. The accent of high seriousness, said Arnold (and he was wise to call it an accent) comes from absolute sincerity. That is true, but how do we define sincerity? We should not make the attempt. We recognize, we feel, such a quality, and if such an action seems like an abdication of the critical intelligence, I can only suggest that there are in the House of Art certain tabernacles which the critic should enter with lowered eyelids, so dazzling is their glory.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) was a poet, critic, captain in the British Army, and an anarchist. He argued for an organic approach to art and literature and published many critical works concerning the philosophy of art. Read was knighted in 1953 and spent his later years as a writer, teacher, and publisher.
Herbert Read (1893-1968) was a poet, critic, captain in the British Army, and an anarchist. He argued for an organic approach to art and literature and published many critical works concerning the philosophy of art. Read was knighted in 1953 and spent his later years as a writer, teacher, and publisher.