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Toward an Amateur Criticism

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

Looking back over my own brief critical practice, I find that it has been rather consistently based on presuppositions fashionably called “obscurantist.” Though not always consciously, I have been searching for strategies to oppose that “scientific criticism whose methods are mining, digging or just plain grubbing,” and which assumes that the work of art is essentially a social function or a function of language, amenable to analysis in terms of the currently honorific vocabularies of various sciences. Though I should hate to call myself a Romantic, I am opposed to the dogged anti-Romanticism of much contemporary criticism which leads to a contempt for the imagination, and is often grounded in a kind of lumpen-nominalism that would grant only a second-class “reality” to works of art. The discrepancy between the metaphors typical to the creative mind and those typical to the critical mind in our world (and this is true often in the single individual who practises both as poet and critic) indicate a quietly desperate cleavage. I propose a mode of criticism more congruous with the sort of literature we admire, a criticism as wary of bureaucratization, as respectful to the mythic and mysterious, as dedicated to a language at once idiosyncratic and humane as, say, Moby Dick or the novels of Kafka.

Some great works of criticism are, of course, great works or art: Don Quixote, Werther, The New Eloise, The Man With a Blue Guitar, Madame Bovary; but even discursive critical comment dare not forget its relationship with literature. To remember that affiliation is to enlist criticism against the chief enemy of literature today, the “liberal” or scientific mind, with its opposition to the frivolous and the tragic, its distrust of such concepts as God, the Devil, Genius and Taste, and its conviction that it is impertinent to ask just how many children Lady Macbeth did have. To insist that criticism be occasional, pleasurable and inexact is to keep it out of the hands of those for whom it is, whatever their avowed intentions, a weapon against poetry.

The role of the critic resembles that of the poet in two important respects beyond the elementary obligation to provide an overbalance of pleasure. First, he must join in irony and love what others are willing to leave disjoined, and second, he must be willing to extend awareness beyond the point where the lay reader instinctively finds that quality profitable or even possible. Unlike the poet, however, the critic has an obligation to be explicit, patient and humble (humble enough, at least); for in choosing his role he has chosen to endure as a necessity what remains for the poet an option, namely, being comprehensible. The critic, indeed, is responsible for all misinterpretations of what he asserts except those arising from absolute stupidity, but including those possible to deliberate malice. The poet, on the other hand, need feel guilty for only those misconceptions of his work which he has secretly desired.

With wit and grace, the critic must mediate between the poem and the platitude, forbidden the insolent freedom of the one and the reassuring dulness of the other, yet required to be faithful to both. Loyal to the work of art and pledged to good faith toward an audience conditioned to banalities, he must somewhat betray both. It is a question of balance and discretion.

These days we are all the time decrying “reductive” criticism (I, too, have joined in the chorus), that is, being more fearful of treason toward the poem than toward the platitude. But we must not forget that as critics we engage to reduce works of art, and that our only defense against hybris toward the poem is humility and confession: a recognition and public declaration that the textual-semantic analysis, or the biographical-psychoanalytic interpretation, is not more fundamental, not “truer” than the poem.

An excessive fear of the platitude is as harmful to the critic as an excessive contempt for the poem. The mastery of Doctor Johnson as a critic lies in his masterful control of the commonplace. His “technical” vocabulary is a stabilization of common speech, and he is constantly illustrating in his critical practise that redemption of the platitude which is more spectacularly accomplished in poetry. By the same token he speaks directly to that general reader for whom the critic ideally writes.

In intent, the good critic addresses the common reader, not the initiate, and that intent is declared in his language. That in fact there are in our own time few general readers in the Johnsonian sense, is completely irrelevant. The primary act of faith which makes criticism possible compels the critic under any circumstances to speak as if to men and not to specialists. The compulsory comprehensibility of the critic is not a matter of pandering to indolence, prejudice or ignorance, but of resisting the impulse to talk to himself or a congeries of reasonable facsimiles of himself. In an age of declining sociability and the widespread failure of love, it is difficult to be an amateur; but at last one remembers that the opposite of the amateur is the onanist, and though an occasional voice is raised for “autotelic” criticism, most writers are prepared to admit, in theory at least, that the critic must be, in love and exasperation, a mediator.

Many, persuaded as I am that in a time of mass culture and debased taste, the critic, neither condescending nor snubbing, must continue to pretend that rational communication is possible, would still restrict the area of his mediation in terms of his subject. They regard with polite horror the critic who concerns himself with other platitudes tangent to the work of art, besides the formal ones. To specify any cliches beyond those dealing with the relations of the parts of a work to the whole and to each other is damned as “extrinsic!” But surely, the duty of the critic is to mediate between the lay public and any area of experience which illuminates or is illuminated by a work of art. The general failure to come to terms with works of literature is often a failure to connect; and the critic who chooses to deal with the work in isolation aggravates an endemic weakness of our atomized world. The critic’s job is the making of mediate metaphors that will prepare the reader for the more drastic metaphors of the poet; and such metaphor-making is his concern because he knows that the relationships he clarifies are real relationships.

In becoming a general critic, the literary critic does not betray his vocation but fulfills it. The “pure” literary critic, who pretends, in the cant phrase, to stay “inside” a work all of whose metaphors and meanings are pressing outward, is only half-aware. And half-aware, he deceives; for he cannot help smuggling unexamined moral and metaphysical judgments into his “close analyses,” any more than the “pure” literary historian can help bootlegging unconfessed aesthetic estimates into his chronicles. Literary criticism is always becoming “something else,” for the simple reason that literature is always “something else.”

The point is not to choose between the complementary blindnesses of the “formalists” and the “historians,” but to be more aware than either: to know, if possible, when one is making aesthetic judgments and when philosophical or ethical ones, or, at least, to realize when one is confused. It is not an easy problem. In which category, for instance, do the estimates of Milton by T. S. Eliot and Johnson belong? To know—there is the difficult and damnable point of criticism. How much easier it is to be a Parrington, thinking one has dismissed Henry James, when one has dealt with a few of his “ideas” torn from their context of felt life; or to be a scorner of Parrington, believing one has demolished Wordsworth for his “imprecise language,” when one has turned from him out of a distaste for Romantic Pantheism; or even to assert that there is neither “Romanticism” nor “Pantheism,” only poems. How easy and how ultimately uninteresting!

In criticism as in art, the false is most often the boring; and after all, the critic’s unforgivable sin is to be dull. What is less amusing than fumbling history or sociology pretending to be literary discussion, except those “close analyses” or tabulations of imagery become machines for the mindless to manipulate? And what is more irrelevant to the work of art?

The work of art remains still a total, human experience, form and archetype, daemonic and rational, immune to categorization, and incapable of being produced by organized and divided labor. But criticism aspires these days in almost all camps to become a field of specialization, or rather a series of specialized fields, each tied by its vocabulary to one of the social sciences: the “formalist” approaches tied to semantics, the historical to sociology, psychology etc. The act of total criticism becomes merely a sum of all these ventures, the end-product of a bureaucratized “team.” Until our own century, criticism had resisted the atomizing impulse; now it seems to have lost faith in the validity of its traditional humane vocabulary, and its inherited modes of intuition and generalization, in favor of more “scientific” modes. Oddly enough, the quasi- sciences it emulates have just recently re-made themselves in the image of the biological and physical sciences. The difference between a Longinus and a Kenneth Burke is analogous to that between Plato and, say, Allport and Parsons, involving a surrender of the humane to the scientific under the shadow of Darwin and the physical theorists.

The various modes of specialized analysis current today, however inimical to each other, share a basic insecurity about the validity of traditional values, and indeed, finally question the very possibility of evaluation. The act of evaluation remains nonetheless the vital center of criticism; but to practise it one must believe in the reality of the true, the good and the beautiful, as well as in the existence of men of taste, in whom a disciplined sensibility is capable of making discriminations among experiences in terms of those absolutes. Lacking these beliefs, one can only fall back on relativism, or make intrinsic, formal evaluations, that is, disguise the source of one’s judgments in a scientific jargon or a parody of one, talking of structure and texture, satisfaction of affective impulses, etc. etc.

To talk of “autonomous” judgments of works of art is not only to aggravate the compartmentalization of our moral lives, which many of the practitioners of such judgments elsewhere deplore, but also to darken counsel. In fact, we respond totally to works of art as their modes of experience jibe or fail to jibe with our weltanschauung. Even the terms of “aesthetic” criticism, complexity, irony, simplicity, concreteness, betray themselves as metaphors one element of which rests on ethical preconceptions. Judgments about literature arise always from some larger system, some “religion,” in most cases where the debt is not openly confessed, on the prevailing Art Religion of our time, that worship of good works, which is actually a debased Protestantism.

If possible, the critic should have some religious allegiance. This lets him begin with the conviction that the source of the values which inhere in works of arts is elsewhere, and saves him from the idolatrous worship of art objects, or the pursuit of the kind of deep exegesis which secretly assumes that certain texts are Scripture. The critic should believe that the practise of art and its contemplation are goods in themselves, as peculiar ways of knowing the real world in love; but that, on the other hand, individual works are more or less good in reference to a truth which they do not define but to which they refer.

If one can believe that poems make only “pseudo-statements,” because, indeed, there is no reality available to any mode of knowing but science, the problem is not posed in this form. But to the realist, evaluation is necessarily double. A piece of literature must be judged first in terms of how far it participates in the essential goodness of art by providing a formal pleasure indistinguishable from an organized apprehension of reality; and second, how mature, consistent, complex, and, alas, true is its individually realized apprehension.

It is ridiculous to have to insist that “My luv is lak a red, red rose” for all its formal excellence cannot possibly be as good as Donne’s sonnet on death, nor the latter, accomplished performance that it is, as good as the book of Job—and that the grounds of this distinction are not ultimately formal but moral. I must confess that, conditioned as I am in my generation, I find it embarrassing to admit this elementary truth; and even more disturbing to have to confess that there are some aesthetically satisfactory works whose vision of reality is narrow to the point of being contemptible. Sometimes, indeed, the technically best works which an age knows how to produce are mean and despicable in their outlook and underlying mythos. This is one of the smaller horrors of our own day. We must honor the best we have, but we must not pretend its meanness is beside the point. The true lover of language can be forgiven a great deal, but not everything. That this truth is dishonored by fools, does not excuse us from considering it.

The determination of the goodness and badness of art, involving as it does an adjudication of a congruity both subtle and immense, is risky at best. Certainly at any moment one should not pretend to know the graded merit of a whole corpus of work, but one does know that such a ranking exists as a limit toward which the critic aspires. And one is especially aware that the new work of art is the touchstone against which the whole existing body is measured, precisely as the new work is assessed in light of the standards implicit in that accepted body. This perfectly dialectical process is made explicit in the critic, for whom all works exist outside of time except as they achieve contemporaneity in his focus of attention. If it were not for the critic, that ideal reader, no work would exist in any sense but the historical. No wonder humility is enjoined for the critic.

Ever since the 18th Century and precisely as the potential audience for the work of art has grown, so has the length of time between the composition of the new work and its assimilation; in the interim period, the living work, however splendid and universal in its appeal, is entirely the critic’s. No wonder that it is tempting for him to resent the moment at which the work passes out of his sole keeping into the living experience of a large group, as the work of Eliot is passing at the present moment. It is at the moment when he accomplishes what he is after, achieving his intended mediation, that the critic is most likely to be tempted out of modesty into snobbishness—crying out, “This is not what I meant at all!”

The critic is least likely to be the victim of pride and most likely to be thought such a victim when he first opposes majority taste with a new claim. Ignoring the charge of insolence, he must patiently explain in terms of the critical tradition or traditions in which he stands his preference; with whatever strategies he knows, he must make available the work of art, and if the lay reader still demurs, he must not hesitate to invoke the sanction of taste, and his own authority as a man of taste. To the liberal mind, to which all theories of Election are anathema, and to the scientific mind, to which all mysteries are distasteful, the invocation of taste, a mystery of the order of inspiration and grace, will seem “obscurantist.” But the critic must dare that condemnation.

Unfortunately, there is no substitute for taste and the self-perpetuating academy of men of taste, —not study, or intelligence, or statistics or Method. Indeed, the whole modern emphasis on methodology seems sometimes a strategic move to make evaluation seem possible at the hands of the mediocre. Each generation has its own peculiar refuge from the stubborn fact of the inequality of sensibility, a device to obscure the problem of the excellent: source-hunting, rime-counting, in our time close analysis.

Against the aristocratic mystery of taste, certain of our contemporaries hold up the claims of “democracy”: professional critics may find, say, Sandburg inadequate as a craftsman and gross in his perceptions, but he is much admired by high-school students and the teachers of high-school students. For the “people” is not Sandburg then better than Wallace Stevens? Even more resolvedly than he opposes the subsitution of measurable psychological standards for his intuitions, the critic must stand against the attempt to replace the consensus of expert judgment with popular suffrage. He must resist that deep-rooted hatred of excellence that seeks to pass itself off through sentimental analogies as essential democracy.

Not all deniers of the primacy of evaluation are misguided friends of the people or worshippers of scientific method. Occasionally, a critic with quite honorable obscurantist convictions will assert, for instance, that not “rank” but “use” should be the main concern of the critic. And yet the defenders of this position do not mean, I am sure, that the “use” of Eugene Field rather than Dryden should become the matter of the literary theorist. Before the critic can begin to talk of the use of works of art, he must select, and his selection is per se an act of evaluation. The only question is, then, whether he make his choice without defending, as far as he can, his selection, and making explicit its ethical and aesthetic grounds. Or perhaps such critics really mean to make of “use” an evaluative criterion, their essential criterion.

If the latter is their intention, I feel some sympathy for what they are after. I understand, I think, their revulsion from the claims of the generation before theirs to be establishing “universally valid standards” when they were trying merely to rationalize certain vices acquired in adolescence, like a taste for Idylls of the King. All critical positions are in one sense strategic and it is good to be frank about it. At worst, we are tempted to defend the prejudices of childhood; at best, we contrive standards that put in its best light the best writing of our own time, our own writing, if we are ourselves poets.

One of the admirable achievements of recent criticism has been the devaluation of such poets as Shelley and Tennyson, the restoration of Donne, the apotheosis of Melville, etc.; and these revisions of received rankings obviously involve an exaggeration of the merits of writers especially “useful” to us, and conversely, an unfavorable distortion of other writers whose practice seems alien to what we are after. But I take it that we have been aware (and this is our peculiar merit) all along that these were “strategies,” and that there was another standard, a balance gradually righted by counter-excesses and exaggerations. Having reached the proper age for paying respects to the Absolutes, Mr. Eliot has been publicly confessing the truths about Milton that in his youth he strategically suppressed. The pity has been to watch those squirm who have been confusing the strategic with the absolute, and who have made their orthodoxy of his exaggeration.

I practise and love strategic criticism, but it is for me not a rival to the attempt to achieve final hierarchies, but rather a handmaiden. The only way to find out if a poet is immortal is to kill him; Milton and Wordsworth slain have risen; Cowley and Shelley are rotting in their tombs. The only way to know of what a God’s feet are made is to lift him into the air; we have tried it with Whitman and with Poe and with Melville, and we are still looking. The strategist provides us with a ritual pattern, the outward ceremonies of the vegetative rite, to adorn our task. It is an apt and lovely metaphor.

Another advantage of the strategic approach is its polemical overtones; its practitioners are aware always that they are in the midst of a continuous debate in which no assertion is unanswered, and in which nothing less than- the truth is at stake. Every position is the occasion for another and the end is never attained. But these are precisely the qualities of living criticism, the antidotes to the pontifical and the pedantic.

I distrust the full-length critical thesis, the ponderously elaborated article, the excruciatingly detailed analysis. The ideal form for critical discourse is the irresponsible, non-commercial book-review, written against time and with the full weight of the generalized tradition pressing in on the aggravatingly present and particular work. The notices by T. S. Eliot that appeared in the Athenaeum in 1919 and 1920 seem to me wonderful examples; they contain almost all of his most fruitful insights and stimulating perversities, flashed off whatever book came to hand, but faithful to a continuing concern with the use and ranking of that whole section of French and British literature on which he based his own creative practice. How apt it seems that this is the substance of his achievement and not those full-dress works he was continually promising us and forgetting about.

The occasional piece discourages the framing of elaborate vocabularies, and encourages a tone committed to communication and sociability. How many voices are available and how many languages tempt the critic these days, and how few of them assume the real possibility of communication: the school teacher handing down wisdom or explicating the text he knows is on every desk, the “liberal” condescending to the great simple heart of the people, the commissar thundering finalities from the dais, the misunderstood prophet crying shrilly what he is sure no one will heed. What discourages sociability discourages style; anid the failure of style is one of the astonishing facts of our critical writing in general. We are attracted (and God knows I do not exclude myself) to one of two poles; the sort of jargon most grossly typified in Kenneth Burke, a “treason of the clerks” become diction, anti-humane and autotelic in its implications; and opposed to it the sort of grey, standard, glutinous prose which can be produced by mass-production methods, and indeed is in such monuments as the recent Literary History of the United States. The one threatens to turn language into glossaries and lose it among statistical charts; the other threatens to become an editorial in the Saturday Review of Literature or an electioneering speech for the Progressive Party.

The true language of criticism is the language of conversation—the voice of the dilettante at home. Its proper materials are what the civilized, outrageous mind remembers and chooses to connect, not what the three by five cards scrupulously preserve or the printed glossary defines. Its responsibilities are the responsibilities of intelligent social discourse, to be true to the speaker’s values and his love for what he discusses, to amuse, to disturb. Criticism must be free to leap, to yoke in the flash of wit what has always seemed alien, to make the seminal generalization, even when the generalization cannot be statistically supported. Not only the hundred percent truth, but the sixty per cent, the fifty-one percent, can be fertile and provocative. The fear of the generalization, like the fear of genius and taste, is an aspect of the cult of the mediocre.

The voice of the critic must be his own voice, idiosyncratic, personal, for without real style (and true style is never safe, choosing always to court extravagance) he carries no conviction except what charts and tables accidentally provide. The voices of “Longinus” or Nietzsche, of Coleridge or D. H. Lawrence, these seem to me all, granting the whole range of their differences, conversational voices in the sense I mean. One feels in their tone and texture an assurance that the works of art being discussed have really happened to the men that discuss them, and have been ingested into the totality of their experiences. As in all good conversation, one feels here that the subject has fallen into place, making a new pattern of an already existing universe and becoming one with it, not abstractly, but in the living personality. It is such testimony, testimony to the possibility of literature being assimilated to the experience of the individual in richness and joy, that is vital in our time, not another reassurance that the parts and wholes of individual works cohere, or that the meanings of a single work are multiple and even inexhaustible.

The vocabulary of the critic must be a humane vocabulary—like the Law of God, he must speak in the language of men. This is not to say that he is forbidden the more useful terminology of the sciences, but merely that he is forbidden to make his own speech a jargon in the image of such terminology. Like the poet, he is free to use whatever language has been humanized, or that he can, in an assimilative foray, himself humanize. It is not enough that he know his language, but also that he have made it a part of his habitual conversation, of his whole outlook. A diction that compels him to its habits rather than yielding to his betrays him.

The metaphors of the critic must be congruous with the metaphors of the poet; otherwise, the critic finds himself forced back into his traditional comic role as the enemy of art. To say with Messrs. Wellek and Warren that characters in fiction are “merely words” is to subscribe to a metaphor sanctioned by semantics, and supported ultimately by some current nominalism. To say with Graham Greene that for such characters Christ died on the Cross, or with Pirandello that they have an autonomous existence and will, is to choose a metaphor that begins and ends in the work of art. What common ground does the critic, who tells us that it is absurd to talk of Hamlet’s relations with his father or his university days, have with William Faulkner, whom he may pretend to admire? For to Faulkner, as to the great writer-critics like Goethe and Coleridge, the fictive is real, the character exists beyond and above his formal realization. We have yielded up this “Romantic” realization to the heavy-handed doctrine of 19th Century Germanic “scientific scholarship,” with its fundamental distrust of the imagination and, indeed, of the artist.

In myth-theory the anthropologist, the psycho-analyst, the philosopher and the literary theorist have been rediscovering a common area in which they, who had been almost persuaded they were merely specialists, can speak to each other as men, and it is to myth criticism that I find myself more and more drawn. For here we find not only the recognition that the springs of art creation are ultimately a mystery grounded in truth, but also a new basis for evaluation in the assessment of mythoplastic power, that goes beyond the merely formal without falling into the doctrinal and dogmatic. Writers like Dickens and R. L. Stevenson, who have fared ill at the hands of the historical and formalist critics alike, reveal the source of their persistent power over our imaginations in the light of myth doctrine.

In terms of myth, too, the critic finds it possible to speak of the profound interconnections of the art work and other areas of human experience, without translating the work of art into unsatisfactory equivalents of “ideas” or “tendencies.” The myth approach is, of course, no panacea; in the hands of the scientizers it becomes, like many other approaches, merely an excuse for another jargon, just one more strategy for avoiding evaluation.

But intelligently exploited, it can open new possibilities for exploring the meaning of the imagination and the persistence of archetypes; it can provide a fund of new critical metaphors that will not betray too grossly the work of art. And finally it can bolster and nourish that dreamed-of language, common to the creative mind, pledged to the daemonic and the mystery of Truth, and the “liberal” scientific mind, distrustful of absolutes, and incapable either of salvation or the tragic appreciation of its own doom. Our especial need is the interpenetration of these minds. In a world where they do not ordinarily find it possible to communicate, there is work enough for the critic.

Perhaps in the end it will turn out that the divorce is too utter to be healed by his resources, but, modest fellow, he will be content to have mitigated a little the cleavage of our mind, or even just to have told the truth about a few books.

Leslie A. Fiedler (1917-2003) was an influential American literary critic. Well known for Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Fiedler penned many other works and was also a teacher. He was heavily interested in mythology and advocated genre fiction.