The Critic as Guide

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OCTOBER 25, 1921

The Critic as Guide

 

Already I am in a scrape with the critics. I am in a scrape for having said, a couple of years ago, that a critic was nothing but a sign-post, and for having added, somewhat later, that he was a fallible sign-post at that. So now, contributing to a supplement which, being written by critics is sure to be read by them, I naturally take the opportunity of explaining that what I said, if rightly understood, was perfectly civil and obliging.

To recall what I did say: I said that critics exist for the public, and that it is no part of their business to help artists with good advice. I argued that a critic no more exists for artists than a paleontologist does for the Dinosaurs on whose fossils he expatiates, and that, though artists happen to create those exciting objects which are the matter of a critic’s discourse, that discourse is all for the benefit of the critic’s readers. For these, I said he is to procure aesthetic pleasures: and his existence is made necessary by the curious fact that, though works of art are charged with a power of provoking extraordinarily intense and desirable emotions, the most sensitive people are often incapable of experiencing them until a jog or a drop of stimulant even has been given to their appreciative faculties.

A critic should be a guide and an animator. His it is, first to bring his reader into the presence of what he believes to be art, then to cajole or bully him into a receptive frame of mind, He must, therefore, besides conviction, possess a power of persuasion and stimulation: and if anyone imagines that these are common or contemptible gifts, he mistakes. It would, of course, by much nicer to think that the essential part of a critic’s work was the discovery and glorification of Absolute Beauty; only, unluckily, it is far from certain that absolute beauty exists, and most likely, if it does, that any human being can distinguish it from what is relative. The wiser course, therefore, is to ask of critics no more than sincerity, and to leave divine certitude to superior beings – magistrates, for instance and curates, and fathers of large families, and Mr. Bernard Saw. At any rate, it is imprudent, I am sure, in us critics, to maintain so stoutly as we are apt to do, that when we call a work of art “good” we do not mean simply that we like it with passion and conviction but that it is absolutely so, seeing that the most sensitive people of one age have ever extolled some things which the most sensitive of another have cried down, and have cried down what others have extolled. And, indeed, I will bet whatever my contribution may be worth that there is not a single contributor to this supplement who would not flatly contradict a vast number of those aesthetic judgments which have been pronounced with equal confidence by the most illustrious of its predecessors. Mo critic can be sure that what he likes has absolute value; and it is a mark of mere silliness to suppose that what he dislikes can have no value at all. Neither is there any need of certainty. A critic must have sincerity and conviction – he must be convinced of the genuineness of his own feelings. Never may he pretend to feel more or less of something other than what he does feel; and what he feels he should be able to express and even, to some extent, account for. Finally he must have the power of infecting others with his own enthusiasm. Anyone who possesses these qualities and can do these things I call a good critic. “And what about discrimination?” says someone, “What about the very meaning of the word?” Certainly discrimination between artists, between the parts and qualities of a work of art, and between one’s own reactions, are important instruments of criticism; but they are not the only ones, nor I believe are they indispensable. At any rate, if the proper end of criticism be the fullest appreciation of art, if the function of a critic be the stimulation of the reader’s power of comprehending and enjoying, all means to that end must be good. The rest of this essay will be devoted to a consideration of the means most commonly employed.

Discriminating critics, as opposed to those other two great classes—The Impressionistic and The Biographical—are peculiar in this amongst other things: they alone extract light from refuse and deal profitably with bad art. I am not going back on my axiom—The proper end of criticism is appreciation: but I must observe that one means of stimulating a taste for what is most excellent is an elaborate dissection of what is not. I remember walking with an eminent contributor to the New Republic and a lady who admired so intemperately the writings of Rupert Brooke that our companion was at last provoked into analyzing them with magisterial severity. He concluded by observing that a comparison of the more airy and fantastic productions of this gallant young author with the poems of Andrew Marvell would have the instant effect of putting the former in their place. The lady took the hint; and has since confessed that never before had she so clearly or thoroughly enjoyed the peculiar beauties, the sweetness, the artful simplicity and sly whimsicality of the most enchanting of English poets. The discriminating critic is not afraid of classifying artists and putting them in their places. Analysis is one of his most precious instruments. He will pose the question—“Why is Milton a great poet?”—and will proceed to disengage certain definite qualities, the existence of which can be proved by demonstration and handled objectively with almost scientific precision. This sort of criticism was brought to perfection in the eighteenth century; and certainly it did sometimes lead critics quite out of sight and reach of the living spirit of poetry. It was responsible for masses of amazing obtuseness (especially in criticism of the visual arts); it was the frequent cause of downright silliness; it made it possible for Dr. Johnson, commenting on the line “Time and the hour runs through the roughest day,” to “suppose every reader is disgusted at the tautology”: but it performed the immense service of stimulating enthusiasm for clear thought and exact expression. These discriminating and objective critics will always be particularly useful to those whose intellects dominate their emotions, and who need some sort of intellectual jolt to set their aesthetic sensibilities going. Happily, the race shows no signs of becoming extinct, and Sir Walter Raleigh and M. Lanson are the by no means unworthy successors of Dr. Johnson and Saint-Evremond.

It is inexact to say that the nineteenth century invented impressionist criticism; but it was in the later years of that century that impressionism became self-conscious and pompous enough to array itself in a theory. The method everyone knows: the critic clears his mind of general ideas, of canons of art, and, so far as possible, of all knowledge of good and evil; he gets what emotions he can from the work before him, and then confides them to the public. He does not attempt to criticize in the literal sense of the word; he merely tells us what a book, a picture or a piece of music made him feel. This method can be intensely exciting; what is more, it has made vast additions to our aesthetic experience. It is the instrument that goes deepest: sometimes it goes too deep, passes clean through the object of contemplation, and brings up from the writer’s own consciousness something for which in the work itself no answerable provocation is to be found. This leads, of course, to disappointment and vexation, or else to common dishonesty, and can add nothing to the reader's appreciation. On the other hand, there are in some works of art subtleties and adumbrations hardly to be disentangled by any other means. In much of the best modern poetry—since Dante and Chaucer I mean—there are beauties which would rarely have been apprehended had not someone, throwing the whole apparatus of objective criticism aside, vividly described, not the beauties themselves, but what they made him feel. And I will go so far as to admit that, in a work of art, there may be qualities significant and precious but so recondite and elusive that we shall hardly grasp them unless some adventurer, guided by his own experience, can trace their progress and show us their roots in the mind from which they sprang.

Impressionistic criticism of literature is not much approved nowadays, though Mr. Arthur Symons and one or two of his contemporaries still preserve it from the last outrages of a new and possibly less subtle generation, while M. Proust, by using it to fine effect in his extraordinary masterpiece may even bring it again into fashion. But it has got a bad name by keeping low company; for it has come to be associated with those journalistic reviewers who describe, not the feelings and ideas provoked in them by reading a book, but what they thought and felt and did at or about the time they were supposed to be reading it. These are the chatterboxes who will tell you how they got up, cut themselves shaving, ate sausages, spilt the tea, and nearly missed the train in which they began to read the latest Work of Benedetto Croce, which, unluckily, having got into conversation with a pretty typist or a humorous bagman they quite forgot, left in the carriage, and so can tell you no more about. But this is not impressionism, it is mere vulgarity.

If in literary criticism the impressionist method is falling into disfavor, in the criticism of music and painting it holds the field. Nor is this surprising: to write objectively about a symphony or a picture, to seize its peculiar intrinsic qualities and describe them exactly in words, is a feat beyond the power of most. Wherefore, as a rule, the unfortunate critic must either discourse on history, archaeology and psychology, or chatter about his own feelings. With the exception of Mr. Roger Fry, there is not in England one critic capable of saying so much, to the purpose, about the intrinsic qualities of a work of visual art as half a dozen or more—Sir Walter Raleigh, Mr. Murry, Mr. Squire and Mr. MacCarthy to begin with— can be trusted to say easily, and, if necessary, weekly, about the intrinsic qualities of a book. To be sure, Mr. Fry is a great exception: with my own ears have I heard him take two or three normally intelligent people through a gallery and by severely objective means provoke in them a perfect frenzy of enthusiasm for masterpieces of utterly different schools and ages. Doubtless that is what art criticism should be; but perhaps it is wrong to despise utterly y those who achieve something less.

Just at present it is the thing to laugh at biographical and historical critics, a class of which Sainte-Beuve is the obvious representative, and to which belong such writers as Taine and Francesco de Sanctis and all who try to explain works of art by describing their social and political circumstances. “At any rate,” it is said, “these are not critics.” I shall not quarrel over words; but I am persuaded that, when they care genuinely for books and have a gift of exposition, these perform the same function as their more aesthetically-minded brethren. I am sure that a causerie by Sainte-Beuve often sends a reader, with a zest he had never found unaided, to a book he had never opened unadvised. There are plenty of men and women, equipped to relish the finest and subtlest things in literature, who can hardly come at a book save through its author, or at an author save through the story of his life and a picture of his surroundings; wherefore few things do more to promote and disseminate a taste for art and letters and, I will add, for all things of the spirit, than biographical and historical criticism and the discussion of tendencies and ideas.

And this brings me to my conclusion. Though the immediate object of criticism is to put readers in the way of appreciating fully a work or works in the merit of which the critic believes, its ultimate value lies further afield in more general effects. Good criticism not only puts people in the way of appreciating particular works; it makes them feel, it makes them remember, what intense and surprising pleasures are peculiar to the life of the spirit. For these it creates an appetite, and keeps that appetite sharp: and I would seriously advise anyone who complains that his taste for reading has deserted him to take a dip into the great critics and biographers and see whether they will not send him back to his books. For, though books, pictures and music stand charged with a mysterious power of delighting and exciting and enhancing the value of life; though they are the keys that unlock the door to the world of the spirit—the world that is best worth living in—; busy men and women soon forget. It is for critics to be ever jogging their memories. Theirs it is to point the road and hold open the unlocked doors. In that way they become officers in the kingdom of the spirit or, to use a humbler and preferable term, essential instruments of culture.

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