Departments

Criticism

[Despite appearances, this was not intended as an attempt to weigh in on the discussions of criticism ongoing at The Valve and Note Bene Books. They are discussing the possibility and value of what they find it necessary to distinguish as evaluative criticism; I am concerned with the methods of evaluation. (Actually, this essay was not intended at all; I set out write something completely different, and wrote this more or less by accident.)]

There are only two possible bases on which to build a science of criticism: a criticism of perfection or a criticism of excellence. The criticism of perfection judges a work by its fulfillment of a system of rules, or by its resemblance to some 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 paradigmatic kind, but I address all criticism.

Many systems for assaying perfection have been proposed; and many groups of critics have tried becomes the arbiters of excellence. The usefulness of this distinction is not positive. 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. Rather, each kind of criticism has its own vices, which appear whenever some standard or group wins out.

The vices 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. Why do they not simply save time, and write the essays themselves? But this is fishmonger criticism: it fillets the story. The expectation is that the hard, essayistic and the soft, esthetic parts can be later reconciled; but that 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 evident 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 dangers, 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 absurd than to practice literature for the benefit of those hostile to literature?

The vices 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 vice here, though unfamiliar, is really very simple: the criticism of excellence is based on an absurdity. By definition, 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 fit 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 experiences, you can no more join a body of critics than you can join an organization of war veterans if you are not one. It is not a question of adopting the mindset created originally by certain experiences: rather the mindset comprises the experiences; the experiences constitute the mindset. Thus every few decades a new body of critics comes up, and drives out the old ones. Unless you belong to the rising body of critics—unless you belonged to it before its coup, which must be in large part a matter of geography and luck—you have no chance for a voice.

If neither approach to criticism is workable, then there are only two possibilities. 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 need to keep an ideal audience in mind, let it be anything but a critic.

Yet criticism does exist. 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; or some synthesis to achieve; or some prior unity to return to? Rather, there is no criticism; there are only critics; for those who practice criticism according to some criticism of criticism are thus secondary critics; and even where shared ideals bring reader to critic, the reader gives not assent, but trust. 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

Expanding the mind is as easy as reading; but enlarging the mind—not supplying it with new facts, or the fact of other perspectives, but opening it out to span them—is a demanding task, best and most easily done by travel, including tourism. 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 known already all that smell, hearing, touch can carry; even if the tourist only comes away with nothing to remember but a sort of deepened postcard; then even that is well. For what is more bitter, than Browning's on Venice, "I was never out of England; it's as though I'd seen it all?" What is more high-handed and uncompassionate than to condemn those who hope at last to meet what they have long admired? There is nothing wrong with being a tourist, or even with being just a tourist.

A nation of tourists is a healthy and a vigorous nation. Every tourist is improved by each tour; 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 objects. It is not logical; but it is a human truth that these are different things: to know, for example, that Japan exists; to know someone who has been there; and to have been there yourself. Each is an ascent in awareness and belief. For Japan lives in the mind beside Ruritania or Middle Earth until some human proof of it is made; for even in the most credulous there exists 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 impose a homogeneity of a sort, a floating country of hotels and restaurants; but its contribution to the world's homogenization, is slight and indirect. Tourists have no vices which business travelers do not cast into shadow. It is one of the only forces—in many places it is the only force—giving value to and protecting not just the particular instantiations, but the general concept, of the individuality of place. What must we think of those who encourage tourism—as if it were rainfall to be channeled—to save this natural wonder, this artificial curiosity, while they avoid disdainfully anything for themselves which might be convicted of the vulgarity of Tourism?

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 peoples; rather, each is frozen for us at the moment of the collapse of its prosperity. One may fairly suppose that cities just as beautiful as these have been torn down by their own peoples to make way, first for the brick of Progress, then 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 people's sentiment or sensibility, that preserves them. For democracies are unsentimental; business is business; and unless sentimental wealth pays better to preserve than to tear down, the man with the sledgehammer sees only so many stones. Tourists with feet and wallets vote for the preservation of the places they visit. They may do, in aggregate, a wearing-down and polluting damage; but in the meantime they hold off ruin.

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, breaking up statues to burn in their lime-kilns. Locals whine about tourists; but of all people, locals care least about their cities and environs. Such is the baseness of our kind that the same people in childhood haunted and inspired by the wonders of a place, in adulthood take a special delight in spurning and spiting 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 the 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

[This is a poem in dactylic hexameter. Poe held that true dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homer, is impossible in English. He was probably right. Still, I regard the hexameter which Coleridge introduced ("all my hexameters gallop like horses") and Longfellow practiced as worthwhile in itself, especially if it is not too strict in distinguishing spondees (rare in English) from strong trochees. I have committed some further irregularities. Google tells me I can claim Matthew Arnold's authority for substituting an amphibrach in the first foot; but the sequence of amphimacers in line 14 is my own responsibility.

Those who are aware of southern New Jersey only as Parkway-wide may wish to look into the Pine Barrens and the legend of the Jersey Devil.]

   Forests have gods of their own which they suckled and shelter, the old gods,
   Left there by peoples who vanished or died 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 daytime,
   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 fit 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 that 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 on her bedsheets.
   Lying alone in his crib, how he grew, like the wave in the ocean,
   Last child of Mother Leeds, thirteenth child, winged child, sharp-toothed child, cursed child,
   Fearing his father's kind, leaving the towns behind, flying he found us.
   Devils thirst for blood but we gave him pine sap to suckle,
   We fed him pine sap and bear flesh. He needed no shelter from danger,
   Men were in flight from their towns in the woods by the banks of the red bogs,
   Bogs full of iron for forges and hammers to beat into weapons.
   Free of their blades and their shovels we covered their roads and their clearings,
   Rotted and broke through their fences and shrouded their markers and signposts,
   Scattered young acorns to grow in the cracks of the walls and the rooftops,
   (Driving their roots in as wedges to throw down the walls and the roof beams),
   Scraped off their roofs and broke in their windows with wind-swaying branches,
   Heaved up foundations. We jumbled and heaped up their stables and workshops,
   Churches and schoolrooms and houses, so mice could make nests in their bedsheets.
   Nothing is sweeter 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 towns while they glow in the night-time,
   Ready and hungry we plan their destruction. We wait for your weakness,
   Sending our acorns to test your defenses. The day that 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 out, buckle and falter.
   Kneaded and twisted by roots even concrete will crack up and shatter.
   Trees will soon grow in your roads, in your lawns and your cellars and playgrounds,
   Vines will soon pull down your wires and smother the masted antennas,
   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.

(Journal of Bloglandia)

[One of my essays—On Essays—leads in the first issue of the new Journal of Bloglandia. I wrote up the following to explain why I think that something like this is to be encouraged, and to take the opportunity to treat of blogs in general.]

Some blogs are more bloglike than others. At one extreme, the most bloglike of blogs are the original kind, web logs or linklogs. At the other extreme, the least bloglike of blogs are those which comprise newspaper or magazine copy reset in blog form. But these should not be thought of as interlopers. What else were web loggers linking to all along?

A little farther from each extreme we find the second kind of blog to arise, the public journal—and blogs written for pay, whether for ventures of print entities, or for natives entities of the net.

Between these, in the middle, is what may be called Bloglandia.

The more bloglike are public journals where the fitful deposition of notices of deeds, travels, and emotional precessions are replaced with longer posts exhibiting some internal narrative development and organizations—and weblogs, where the link's function is not to lead visitors out, but to set off a chain of explosive associations.

The less bloglike are blogs which have traditional literary forms, but which are unsuited—sometimes wholly, sometimes only in the first instance—to appear in print. The least bloglike of these are reviews, or political commentaries, from the unknown or uncredentialed. These shade into those which are, whatever their author's prominence, simply too strongly pointed, or too personal, for print. A little farther fall those bloggers, like myself—who employ traditional forms which are out of favor, or have distinct styles that are hard to harness to house-style teams, or spread our interests too broadly to suit any particular print audience. A little more bloglike than these are the semi-professional blogs, which at once serve as professional grapevines, water coolers, and napkin-backs, and undertake popularization and political apologetics.

The Journal of Bloglandia is not a representative sampling of this country. It offers a wide view, but it misses much: the conservative blogs, the lit-blogs, the science blogs, &c.

But in the analogy of its title is the defense of its method. The task of someone who selects blog posts to put in print is not like that of an anthologist from print to print. It is much more like the task of introducing a foreign literature, where the object cannot to compass diversity, but only to demonstrate vitality.

What we should see from an expedition into a wilderness such as this are not labeled artifacts, but question-raising curiosities. What we should hear guiding us is not the voice of the docent, but the shouts of the barker. The Journal of Bloglandia should be read; but it should be read, not like a guidebook, but like some old pamphlet passed out among weary and hopeless European villagers to say to them: "There is a new world, free, spacious. The fare is cheap, the land is yours if you can work it. See what strange things live and grow there! Will you come and see? You have a place there. Will you not take it?"

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 (whether or not they have the Renaissance in mind). 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 exist.

But both these positions are based on false comparison.

Between modern and premodern science, we err to compare the most difficult problems we can solve, and projects we can undertake, with the most difficult problems and projects possible to our forebears. If we compare their methods with ours in the same applications, we find that (for example) the Scholastic philosopher, weaving new Aristotelian riddles 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 and the complexity of our investigations are possible only because the leading ideas of science are now simpler than they have ever been before—subtler rather than easier, but simpler, because entities are fewer. Newton uniting the celestial and the sublunary, Dalton reducing a handbook of elemental behaviors to a calculus 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 movement, though by different means, is present in the humanities. 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, for example, 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 impossible 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 instantiate 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 o 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 generalization of our ideas. It is because we increasingly speak the same language that we are free to develop dialects.

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

[I have also written about individuality and community in The society of trees.]

Community is best to have, worst to be had by. The nostalgically-tinged fancy for community, and the word's incantatory use, is a kind of desire for death—to be submerged in the group, to be known in full and thus finished, to be assigned a place, to be enfolded by a web of explicit rules and expectations. But community is an abstract quality, not a phenomenon; like marital bliss or individual excellence, it exists only relatively, and can exist only where and because each manifestation is unique.

Community is not in itself a bad thing; but so far as it is powerful for good, it is also simply powerful, and therefore 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 molestation and harassment—by drunkards looking for someone to beat, by vagrants looking for someone to rob or move in with, by seekers who imagine that to be closed to the world is to be open to them, &c.

Community on a personal level is an exhilarating thing, worthy and strengthening in moderation; but when relied upon, addictive and thereby limiting. Little is worth doing in life which is not in some part defiance or abandonment of community—even if it is only the widening of one's community; for the closer a community is jointed, the less room it has. Here, as elsewhere in life, the pleasure of security is bought against 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 keeping you in your role: remembering what fits, forgetting or rating as aberration or peccadillo what does not. Strong though you are, given time, resistless expectation will hold your life to one 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 more forcible. Even a virtual community has the power to depose from you a kind of declaration of personality, with articles of nicknames, statistics, lists of favorites (modest lists, more concealing than revealing), &c. This is not an awkward imitation of community: real communities are more awkward and straitening yet 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 our hermit must look like a hermit, if he does not want nomads or hikers to start conversations with him. But to surrender to this 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 good in building them only if you do not immure yourself. Keep more than one; and if one tries to claim you, whispers or shouts that every other is a lie—you are mine only, mine to judge, mine to keep, mine to make and re-make—leave it. It is death in life.