Departments

Criticism

There are only two possible foundations for a science of criticism: the criticism of perfection, and the criticism of excellence. The criticism of perfection judges a work by a system of rules, or by its resemblance to a postulated masterpiece. The criticism of excellence, being unsystematic, is harder to define; but to earn approval and applause this way, a work must surprise its critics.

I confine my examples to literary criticism as the paradigm, but I address all criticism.

Many systems for measuring perfection have been proposed; many schools of critics have tried to appoint themselves the lifetime judges of excellence. But to know that a work has been found perfect is not to know why it is perfect; and to know that a work has been found excellent is not to know why it is excellent. Each kind of criticism has its own failings, which appear whenever some standard or group wins out.

The failings of the criticism of perfection are familiar. This method is so far out of favor that it is harder to imagine how it could ever have worked, than what could have gone wrong. The few efforts which have been made in this direction have either fallen flat, or had to shelter downwind of science. This is, after all, the kind of criticism we are taught forms of in school. It takes things apart, it anatomizes to give names to each dead part: theme, plot, symbol, character. Mastery of this method allows the quick-witted to turn a story into an essay so fast and so thoroughly that one is only left to wonder why authors bother with the formality of fiction. It is so inefficient. Why don’t they just write the essays themselves? But this is fishmonger criticism: it fillets the story. The most generous interpretation of this approach is that it expects the hard, essayistic and the soft, esthetic parts can later be reconciled; but that usually works out no better for the story than it does for the fish.

This method was not always decadent. In the French critics of the late Renaissance, for example, we find, not a vital impulse for drama constrained by revenant rules, but rediscovered laws calling dramatic art back into being. Before the professionalization of literature, the criticism of perfection was the only kind of criticism possible: the aspiring writer could present no credential of the mastery of the form, except the perfect fulfillment of the form.

Shakespeare, to make a joke like Pyramus and Thisbe, to hammer at the fourth wall with The Mousetrap, had to enclose them in larger plays; to play with nonsense and nonsequiturs, had to put them in the mouths of fools and madmen. But were he alive today, he could do these things directly. It might be better for his career. Would a modern Shakespeare more easily stage The Tempest or Pearls That Were His Eyes? Titus Andronicus or A Dinner Fit for an Emperor? Macbeth, or The Porter Equivocates?

Despite its failings, of the two kinds of criticism, the criticism of perfection is the more open, the more honest, and the more consistent. It is the default form of criticism: it was the first; it is almost inextinguishable, absent only where literature is absent; and it is resistant to debunking. Where the tools can all be seen, it is hard to call their users impostors.

But what could be more perverse than to write to please those hostile to literature?

The failings of the criticism of excellence are unfamiliar. After all, it saves books. How many great books, not written for the public at large, would have oblivion had not the criticism of excellence brought together a voluntary public willing to meet them halfway? How many great books that came in the first instance before the wrong public, had only the criticism of excellence where to make their appeal?

The failing is simple: the criticism of excellence is based on a fallacy. By definition (assuming a normal distribution), the majority of anything cannot be excellent. Or put another way: all books cannot be above average. The criticism of excellence, by valuing only the excellent, destroys what it loves: like the gardener who, to make room for more flowers, plucks off all the leaves.

Worse, the criticism of excellence is necessarily cliquish. To be able to recognize excellence with certainty – to know a work for the best of its kind or the first of a new kind – you must know (or believe that you know) everything. The result is that a body of critics of excellence form a kind of priesthood or freemasonry; they speak shorthand, they write secret handshakes. This is doubly problematic. First, it makes literature inaccessible from the outside – it is not enough to read the words if you are not in on the joke; and second, it makes literature inaccessible from the inside. If you have not shared their formation, you can no more join a body of critics than you can join an organization of veterans of a war you did not fight in. It is not a question of adopting the mindset formed by certain experiences: instead the experiences constitute the mindset. Thus every few decades a new corps of critics comes up, and drives out the old ones. Unless you belong to the rising corps of critics – unless you belonged to it before its coup, which must be in large part a matter of geography and luck – you are out as long as they are in.

If neither approach to a science of criticism is viable, then there are only two conclusions. Either criticism does not exist; or criticism is not a science. And, in practice, many writers behave as if there were no such thing as criticism. Whom, after all, should they trust? An older writer who has outlived cycles of praise and abuse, ceases to care about their recurrence. And if a young writer needs to keep an ideal audience in mind – let it be anyone but a critic.

Yet criticism exists. Its more workmanlike forms are increasingly difficult to avoid; and if the workman exists, then so must the master. But if criticism is not a science, then what is it? How should it be done? If neither the criticism of perfection nor the criticism of excellence suffices, then is there some third, artistic way; is there some synthesis to achieve; is there some prior unity to return to?

The truth is that there is no criticism; there are only critics. Those who practice criticism according to some criticism of criticism can only be secondary critics. Criticism must end somewhere. Be you tireless as a dog, lithe as a cat, still you cannot catch your own tail.

Nondefinition #3

Doors. Devices which, on all civilized planets, remove themselves from the path of people moving from one room to another. Some swish aside, some rush up and down, some dilate, some simply disengage. There are still, alas, backward planets where people must employ their manipulatory appendages to open doors. Such primitive doors, being dangerous disease vectors and traffic choke-points, and reinforcing inequities with elaborate conventions of who opens for whom, hold back planetary economic and cultural development. When we find such a planet, tragically barred from further progress by its knobs, then it is our clear duty to invade and conquer, in order to civilize them.

Tourism

Filling the mind is as easy as reading, but enlarging the mind is a demanding task, best and most easily done by travel. And tourism is still travel. Even shepherded tourists gain new perspective on themselves; gain the precious stirrings of what the ancients called cosmopolis – the membership of civilized human beings in, and their first loyalty due to, the community and continuity of civilization, and the principle called civility or humanity. Even if a tourist does nothing but add to pictures and names they know already the traces of smell, hearing, and touch; even if the tourist comes away with nothing in memory but a sort of deepened postcard; then that is still an improvement. For what is more bitter than Browning on Venice: “I was never out of England; it’s as though I’d seen it all?” What is more high-handed than to condemn those who hope at last to meet what they have long admired, as if their presence would diminish it? There is nothing wrong with being a tourist – nothing wrong with being just a tourist.

A nation of tourists is a healthy and a vigorous nation. The tour improves the tourist by some increment, however infinitesimal; and each community returned to is similarly enlarged, by the presence of a human connection to what before was but a source of pictures and things. It is not logical, but it is a human truth, that Japan is shelved in the mind beside Ruritania or Middle Earth until some human proof of it is made. It is one thing to know that Japan exists; another to know someone who has been there; and still another to have been there yourself. Even the most credulous harbor a deep doubt that something could exist whole and right yet different – a doubt which we must take dramatic steps to beat down, and can never fully overcome.

Tourism does incur a kind of homogeneity, a floating country of hotels and restaurants; but its contribution to the world’s homogenization is slight. The vices of tourists are overshadowed by business travelers. Tourism is one of the only forces – in many places it is the only force – giving value to and protecting not just the particular instances, but the general concept, of the individuality of place. What must we think of those who propose to encourage tourism – as if it were rainfall to be channeled – to save this natural wonder, this artificial curiosity, but disdain to be called tourists themselves.

Consider that cities as beautiful as Venice or Prague or New Orleans have not been preserved to us by the pride or taste of their residents; each is frozen for us at the moment of the collapse of its prosperity. We must suppose that cities just as beautiful as these have been torn down by their own residents to make way for the brick of Progress, for the glass of Modernity. Now that these cities have, in a degree, recovered their prosperity, it is their value in tourist dollars, not their residents’ sentiment or sensibility, that preserves them. Business is business, and unless sentimental wealth pays better to preserve than to tear down, to the man with the sledgehammer it is always the season to cast away stones. Tourists vote, with their feet and their wallets, for the preservation of the places they visit. They may do damage in their sheer breathing numbers; but in the meantime their presence as witnesses deters the petty crimes of progress.

Rome died, not quickly at the hands of barbarians, but slowly at the hands of Romans. It was Romans who tore down the marble city of Augustus, breaking up pillars to wall their fields and statues to burn in their lime-kilns. Locals whine about tourists; but of all people, locals care least about their cities. Such is the character of our species that the same people in childhood formed and inspired by the wonders of a place, in adulthood take a special delight in corrupting and destroying them; and when you hear a slogan from an architect it is likely to translate to: “Come, the nest is ours now, let us foul it.” It takes tourists – badly dressed, out of shape, gawking, dumbstruck, craning, pointing, peering, murmuring, muttering, exclaiming, picture-snapping tourists – to save cities from themselves.

Nondefinition #2

Lachrymatory. In the Victorian period, a small glass bottle used to catch and preserve tears of mourning. Today, tear bottles are made of plastic, pre-filled to be dropped in dry eyes (as of contact wearers), and manufactured in the third world (presumably under third-world conditions). How they fill these bottles, it were better not to ask.

The Pine Barrens

Forests have gods of their own they suckled and shelter, the old gods
Left there by peoples vanished or dead in their hollows and deer paths.
Always defeated, they whisper and slink through the shivering shadows.
But we have a god, a devil, a shrieking and wandering devil.
You hear him hunting and howling: he hunts in the night and the day-time.
You see the marks of his hooves in the snow on your lawns and your rooftops.
You know the devilish son, thirteenth son of Mother Leeds, cursed son.
Twelve mortal children had grown in her womb by turns and had suckled.
Loose as it hung from her, skin could not hold in her bitterness. Maddened,
Weeping, she prayed this one be a devil. Darkness had filled her
Darkness to cover the sun like a storm cloud, night without morning.
Sticky and crying he lay in his crib while she died in her bedsheets.
Lying alone in his crib how he grew, like the wave in the ocean
Last child of Mother Leeds, thirteenth child, cursed child, fanged child, winged child
Leaving the towns behind, fearing his father’s kind, flying he found us.
Devils are hungry for blood but we gave him pine sap to suckle
We fed him pine sap and bear flesh. He needed no shelter from hunters
Men had forgotten their towns in the dark woods next to the red bogs.
Men left their churches and sweet homes shut up, silent and empty.
Free of their axes we rose up, covered the roads and the clearings
Rotted and broke down fences, dragged down markers and signposts
Scattered young acorns tight in the cracks of the walls and the rooftops
Driving their roots in as wedges to throw down the walls and the roof beams
Unhinged doorways, battered windows, wind-swaying branches
Heaved up foundations. Jumbled and heaped up stables and workshops
Houses, schoolrooms, churches. Mice made nests in the bedsheets.
Sweeter is nothing for forests than violently taking their own back
Nothing like claiming the ruins. We watch all your cities and highways
All of your wire-strung poles and your blind towns white in the night-time
Ready and hungry we plan their ruins. We wait for your weakness
Sending our acorns, testing defenses. Soon when you falter
Our god will walk out among you clearing the way for us,
Violently clearing the way for the oaks and the pines that adore him.
Empty, your sky-scraping towers will rust through, buckle and falter
Vines will soon pull down your wires and smother the voice of your broadcasts
Trees will soon grow in your roads, in your lawns, your cellars and playgrounds
Spiders will seal up your houses and mice will make nests in your bedsheets.

Nondefinition #1

[I have said that I want to post more often; but I don't want to overburden the blog with too much substance. Thus I am trying out a light feature to be run each week besides the Friday post: a short Tuesday "nondefinition".]

Brain. An appliance invented by nineteenth-century German philosophers to remove the drudgery from thought experiments. Pity the situation of the old Arabic philosophers who had ask God to specially create a flying man—separated from all his parts, falling forever through lightless infinity—merely in order to raise the problems which any modern philosopher can confront by borrowing a mad scientist's brain in a vat.

Specialization

Despisers of specialization oppose it to a golden age when to be a thinker was to be a generalist, universalist, polymath, omnifarium doctus, a Renaissance man (Renaissance-era or not, man or not). Defenders of specialization sadly acknowledge the loss, but call it a trade-off: because we know vastly more than our predecessors, we are doomed to specialize: knowledge has become too complex for generalists to cope.

Both these positions are based on false comparison. If specialization were going to undo us, we would have been undone by now. There may be danger may be in restricted training, but we can be sure there is no danger in restricted responsibility.

It is a mistake to compare the most difficult problems we can solve, and projects we can undertake, with the most difficult problems and projects of our ancestors. If we compare their methods with ours in the same problems, we find that (for example) the Scholastic philosopher, weaving new syllogisms to account for every problem a modern physicist dispatches with a fillip of calculus, lived in a vastly more complicated universe than we do.

The diversity of our specializations, the subtlety of our investigations, are possible only because the leading ideas of science are simpler now than they have ever been before – not easier, but simpler, because entities are fewer. Newton uniting the celestial and the sublunary, Dalton reducing a handbook of elemental behaviors to an algebra of atomic weights, Darwin tracing back the origin of species, Einstein folding space into time and time into space, Faraday’s fields, Shannons’s bits, Noether’s symmetries, Feynman’s diagrams, all bear witness. The scientific endeavors of the present are the most complex ever, because they are the least burdened with overhead.

The same phenomenon is present in the humanities, though at a different level. Consider the half-facetious “Godwin’s Law”: “If you are the first to mention the Nazis, you lose the argument.” But the warning of Nazism really does prune our thinking, mostly before we even speak. Knowing that certain ways of thinking can only end in horror saves us time wasted in toying with them, and effort wasted in arguing ourselves or others out of them.

The highest thinking takes place in this kind of shorthand. Philosophy would be impossible without the ability to reference positions by the names of their originators. Even Plato did it, with Parmenides, Empedocles, Heraclitus, &c. If we had to begin every discussion with a clean slate, it would be intractable to think at a philosophical level. Each such new name nucleates the floating notions and inchoate ideas that were not so much inaccessible before, as too much trouble to chase down.

Look at an orchestra. Hundreds of instruments, each with players who have traded much of their lives for mastery. Then look at a chamber ensemble from two or three centuries before. Compare an orchestral score with a piece of chamber music. What has changed? Has music theory become so complex that an orchestra full of instrumentalists is now required to implement it?

To the contrary: music theory has become simpler. Composers use chords (or tone rows) instead of counterpoint; but more importantly, tuning has been simplified. The system of tuning now in almost universal use – equal temperament – is the simplest ever: divide the octave into 12 exactly equal parts. Tuning used to be higher math; now it is A=440. Indeed, it could never be done with precision; thus the chamber ensemble had to be small enough that each player could hear, and adjust to, the deviations of others. It is only by the very simplicity of equal temperament that massed instruments can play in tune.

The very subtlety of our specializations, the very complexity of our problems and projects, testify that our intellectual progress has been due to the simplification of our ideas. It is because we increasingly speak the same language that we are free to develop dialects.

But even for orchestras, tuning only matters when there is something to play. What of composers and conductors? What of generalists? Where are they in the war of department against department?

If departments fight, then they have something to fight over, which implies there are still generalists around, however informally. If so, then their position in our society is like that of homemakers: so indispensable that they go unnoticed, so invaluable that they are not valued.

(At the Valve)

A comment of mine has elicited an interesting post at The Valve on the distinction of content and style.

Community

Community is the best thing to have, the worst thing to be had by. The wish for community is at its worst a kind of wish for death – a wish to be submerged in the group, to be assigned a place, to be enfolded by a web of explicit rules and expectations, to be known in full – to be finished. But community, when it is good, is not a kind of group, but something that can be said of a group; an adjective, not a noun; like marital bliss or individual excellence, it exists only relatively – it can exist only where and because each manifestation is unique.

Community is not in itself a bad thing; but if it is powerful for good, it is also simply powerful, and being powerful can be dangerous. Of course, we are all inescapably part of the anonymous community of commerce, law, and arms. Even the hermit relies on the general peace to preserve him from abuse.

Community is worthy and strengthening in moderation, but in excess addictive and thereby limiting. Everything worth doing in life is in some part defiance of community – even if it is only the widening of a community; for the more closely a community is jointed, the less room it has. Here, as elsewhere in life, the pleasure of security loses the profit of change.

A role in a community is a cell, and cella continuata dulcescit. The stronger the community, the more it will hypnotize itself into identifying you with your role: remembering what fits, forgetting or classifying as aberration or as peccadillo what does not. Strong as you are, given time, the expectations of others will turn your life into a story; turn your words and your thoughts into your lines; turn your taste to your image; turn your face to your symbol. This happens to the famous in the world at large; but in a close and closed community it is worse. Even virtual communities demand from you a declaration of personality, with fields for nicknames, statistics, lists of favorites (modest lists, more concealing than revealing). This is not an awkward imitation of community: real communities are more awkward and confining than anything which human beings could bear to consciously make.

It can be comforting – it is certainly convenient – to allow yourself to be shaped in this way; and it is to some degree inevitable – even the hermit must look like a hermit, if he does not want nomads or hikers to try to rescue him. But to surrender to this force is not to live as befits the equipment and the powers of a human being.

There is no honor in demolishing communities, but there is only good in building them if you do not immure yourself. Keep more than one community; and if one community tries to claim you for itself, shouts or whispers that every other is a lie – you are mine only, mine to judge, mine to keep, mine to make and re-make – then leave it. It is death in life.