An extract from “What Is the Critic’s Job?” in the September 28th issue of The New York Review of Books. In his review, Mendelson also addresses two other critical works: This Thing We Call Literature, by Arthur Krystal, and Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach, translated from the German by Willard R. Trask, with an introduction by Edward W. Said.
Two lucid and intelligent books, A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism and Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature, explore the same complex theme: criticism as a public art and a public service, performed, however, by critics who speak for themselves, addressing individual readers, not a collective public. Both books draw maps of the disputed border between popular and elite culture and find ways to cross it without pretending it doesn’t exist.
Scott is a newspaper critic, Krystal a freelance essayist. Both are tempted by nostalgia for a mid-twentieth-century era before books and ideas lost status and excitement. Each writes outside the academy but cares about what happens inside, and each laments (in Scott’s words) “the normalization and standardization” of academic criticism that treats works of literature as products of social conflicts, economic pressures, or other impersonal forces operating unconsciously through language. Each resists nostalgia by finding ways to think about books and art with renewed urgency.
Scott’s title, Better Living Through Criticism, alludes ironically to the old DuPont slogan that, until drug culture co-opted it, promised better living through chemistry. The book itself ignores the irony. It praises criticism for offering readers a better life by alerting them to the direct, personal demands that art makes on anyone who listens. At the heart of the book is the conclusion of Rilke’s sonnet about a statue in the Louvre, “Antique Torso of Apollo,” a sentence, spoken by the poem or the statue, commanding poet and reader: “You must change your life.”
What Edmund Wilson called the shock of recognition is equally the thrill of being recognized, an uncanny, impossibly but undeniably reciprocal bond that leaps across gaps of logic, history, and culture. — A.O. Scott
Scott reviews films for The New York Times. His embarrassment at explicating Kung Fu Panda II while preferring Rilke emerges in the whimsically diffident Q-and-A exchanges that outline his argument. The book got its start, A tells Q, when the actor Samuel L. Jackson, offended by Scott’s characterization of the superhero movie The Avengers as a mere “A.T.M.,” provoked “one of those absurd and hyperactive Internet squalls” by tweeting: “AO Scott needs a new job!… One he can ACTUALLY do!” Afterward, Scott, still in his job, began planning a book “asking just what the job of the critic is, and how it might ACTUALLY be done.”
“A critic,” he writes, “is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” His ideal critic uses whatever knowledge, taste, and wisdom can be brought to the task, but cares less about passing judgment than about understanding the particular ways that a work speaks to one viewer or one reader. Scott doesn’t much like Marina Abramović’s performance art, in which (for example) she stares across a table at museum visitors and many of them start weeping, but it encapsulates his theme: we “go to an art museum to find connection with another soul.”
For Scott, the critic best understands a work when the work seems to understand the critic, when the connection is mutual:
What Edmund Wilson called the shock of recognition is equally the thrill of being recognized, an uncanny, impossibly but undeniably reciprocal bond that leaps across gaps of logic, history, and culture.
This way of thinking would sound naive in a graduate seminar, but it has notable antecedents. Virginia Woolf wrote:
The writer must get in touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to cooperate in the far more difficult business of intimacy.
W.H. Auden, thinking along similar lines, distinguished between merely consumable “reading matter” and a “Book,” which is any “piece of writing which one does not read but is read by.” A Book, in reading you, knows you intimately, perhaps better than you know yourself.
Scott’s book is less an act of criticism than a defense of criticism illustrated by examples. Explaining that a critic who hopes “to activate the interest of others” does not want others’ interest to duplicate his own, he cites Philip Larkin’s poem, “Reasons for Attendance.” Alone outside a jazz club, Larkin hears music speaking to his solitude:
What calls me is that lifted, rough-tongued bell
(Art, if you like) whose individual sound
Insists I too am individual.
Inside, the couples dancing sexily hear something different:
It speaks; I hear; others may hear as well,
But not for me, nor I for them…
Like anyone attending to the personal voice of art, anyone engaging in Woolf’s “difficult business of intimacy,” Scott resists being treated as an object to be seduced or manipulated. A few months ago in the Times, he was provoked by the latest Star Warsspinoff to voice the same complaint he made about The Avengers. Rogue One merely fills in the plot of the Star Wars saga, ignoring “the ethical and strategic problems” raised by its own story:
Popular art—Star Wars included—has often proved itself capable of exploring these kinds of questions [about ends and means] with clarity, vigor and even a measure of nuance. But Rogue One has no such ambitions, no will to persuade the audience of anything other than the continued strength of the brand. It doesn’t so much preach to the choir as propagandize to the captives.
Like Larkin hearing music insist that he too is individual, Scott wants to respond willfully, actively, to works that say something worth responding to. What is wrong with Rogue One is that it lacks even the “will to persuade.”
In much contemporary culture, perhaps in reaction to the eruption of self-exposing memoirs and declarations of “identity,” any claim to a personal viewpoint has come to seem embarrassingly egocentric or aggressive.
Conversely, what for Scott is wrong with academic criticism is that it lacks the will to respond. In academic life “the normalization and standardization of intellectual activity is the goal,” and academic criticism projects onto the arts its own abstract categories, its commitment to generalizing theories. Scott’s brief history of its methods cites Lionel Trilling’s complaint in 1961 that college classrooms reduce literature’s anarchic and personal energies to mere “technicality.” A more recent method of reducing literature to impersonal normality, not mentioned by Scott but consistent with his historical account, is the academic habit of speaking about works of art as instances of (in Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase) “cultural production,” partly generated by involuntary social energies, and made not as personal utterance but for competitive advantage in a shared culture.
Scott insists otherwise, starting on his first page, where his opening epigraph is a long quotation from Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.” One theme of his book is that it is through the act of understanding art that the critic, too, becomes an artist. A critic’s vocation starts in the youthful, awed enthusiasm of a mere fan; his excitement then provokes him to learn the history and method that shaped the art that first excited him. This “transformation of awe into understanding” also involves, for the critic, “the claiming of a share of imaginative power.” Perceiving the unique value of a work, he finds and creates unique value within himself. In reading as in everything else, a sense of this quality in both parties, the reader and the work being read, is a precondition for intimacy.
In much contemporary culture, perhaps in reaction to the eruption of self-exposing memoirs and declarations of “identity,” any claim to a personal viewpoint has come to seem embarrassingly egocentric or aggressive. (This may explain the epidemic in current speech of self-deprecating you knows and likes.) Yet in all human relations, a personal perspective makes intimacy possible by providing a rough surface to hold on to. Alan Bennett wrote: “I clung far too long to the notion that shyness was a virtue and not, as I came too late to see, a bore.” A critic who stops feeling shy about his own viewpoint can see more tellingly and accurately than the critic who effaces himself by adopting a general or theoretical perspective. Objective views—as in recent “histories of reading” that explain books as instruments of social and psychological control, or as useful objects for providing desirable feelings or status—tend to trivialize art. Instead, Scott writes:
The intractable questions that flicker around the edges of our contemplation are best addressed by attending to the play of particular impressions and examples. If we pause to figure out what is happening before our eyes, we may yet catch a glimpse of that rare, perhaps mythical bird, the subjective universal.
The “subjective universal” was Kant’s phrase for aesthetic judgment, which everyone makes individually, but in the conviction that everyone else would agree.
Scott’s book is a defense of criticism…
You can read Mendelson’s full review here.
Edward Mendelson is Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia. His latest book is Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography.