• Andrew Field

Why Does Criticism Matter?

I think in the last few decades we forgot about why criticism matters. What is criticism, and why does it matter?

Criticism is the ability to think, evaluate, describe, perceive, and (untoxically) judge. It is based on deep feeling that finds form and sharpness through acts of active thinking, and it can only happen when someone learns how to read deeply, which in turn only happen when one reads the best authors who have written.

To say authors means poets, novelists, essayist, playwrights, graphic novelists, short story writers, and hybrid works. But it also means critics. And I think too many artists do not read criticism, for reasons I personally find a bit strange. Perhaps it is because they fear that in learning about what they are dong well, and not so well - or what their influences are doing well and not so well - they will lost the magic of the process, or lose their voice. But Harold Bloom argued in A Map of Misreading and other books that at this time in history, with such a wealth of art, that every act of criticism - a powerful one - is a form of art, since it is a slant, an angle on the world, and just as subjective and imaginative as anything else. Good artists, good writers, are good critics, meaning they think about art clearly and realize to whom they are indebted for their influence, and they figure out ways of individuating from them. For that reason, as Bloom said, poetry is verse criticism, and verse criticism is a form of poetry.

Why do people write criticism? They write criticism because they are so powerfully moved by works of art - they so deeply absorb them - that they need to think about them because they have strong personalities that wish to be absorbed while also to understand and, when one understands, to critique, to think about strengths and weaknesses. You cannot think about strengths and weaknesses without a somewhat firm grasp on some fundamental things in the humanities, like a knowledge of metaphor, a certain sensitivity to language, and perhaps even a strong and dynamic personality that likes to battle with the great works, not to be a secondary source to them, but to strive with them, and learn from them, "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," in Tennyson's words in "Ulysses."

This is probably a more male take on it, but women have to battle, too, to find their voices, and whether they use the word "battle" or not, the greatest women artists - I'm thinking now, in terms of graphic novels, of Gabrielle Bell and Liana Finck - have to face an enormous amount of resistance from everyone and everything around them in order to develop their styles and their voices and their subject matter and their forms. So whether we call it a battle, or a fight, or an "agon" (Bloom's term), we should not idealize art, because when we do it devolves into banality and fake statements, which in turn give us false representations of what life is like and involves, which then makes us less powerful readers, which then prevents us from helping others.

The best critics we have had in the past few centuries, to my mind, are Harold Bloom, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Samuel Johnson. And we can think about their work as a kind of pendulum that swings between the poles of virtue and pleasure, or ethics and aesthetics, or social justice and art. Animating this kind of change in emphases, ratios, priorities, is always an emphasis on the relationship between parents and children, and therefore an emphasis on families, and therefore an emphasis on individuals and communities. But it's a matter, like I said, of emphasis.

For Harold Bloom, who is my critical guide and my favorite of the five men listed, aesthetics was his focus. He described himself as the heir to Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, an aesthetic critic. And to some degree this was true. Bloom wrote many books which changed the landscape of criticism, and there was a world before Bloom and a world after, and the world after was the world created by The Anxiety of Influence, which is singlehandedly the most important work of criticism since Emerson and the best possible book of theory on how artists become artists. I cannot recommend it enough, and it is like else that has ever been written. It is utterly original, and it is a work of genius, and it is profound and funny and discerning and syncretic in an almost impossibly possible way, to echo Wallace Stevens, one of Bloom's favorite poets. Bloom was quixotic - but he was also enormously grounded, and a kind of Solomon of the humanities.

When Bloom wrote aesthetic criticism, he focused on evaluation. He liked to say something like, "we have little time. Who should read in the time allotted to us? Of course, the best ever written. Okay, so who is the best?" And he knew that we figure that out through evaluation. Not just analyzing a work of art, but evaluating it, saying this is more powerful than that, this does a better job than that of doing this and this and so on. Bloom valued cognitive originality, aesthetic splendor, and his tastes ran more towards the sublime than the daily or more ephemeral. This makes sense - he favorite poets all-time, besides Shakespeare, were Hart Crane and William Blake, and he made his reputation, before launching into the great works from the Hebrew Bible to Ashbery and beyond, by writing about the Romantics.

Bloom wrote somewhere that if someone is not a good reader, it is useless to argue with them. What he meant is someone without a sensitivity to language, and therefore to metaphor. If one reads a powerful sentence, or phrase, or word - I"m thinking now of Wallace Stevens' "and to have been cold a long time" in "The Snow Man" - and does not feel the weight behind that phrase, or the polysemy, or what William Empson called "ambiguity" - then we might encourage them in school to write essays, but they will not become very talented critics. One needs to have a very good sense of tone, and therefore a good heart for understanding characters, people, types. It requires, to use terms from Howard Gardner's work, both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, and also other intelligences, like linguistic and existential. But if one does have a good sense for these things - I remember reading Ashbery and being completely shocked just by the way he would combine two words - then one might become interested in criticism, for thinking about art, language, images.

Thinking about images, symbols, ambiguity, motifs, themes, is something that is cultivated over long periods of time, whether in poets or critics. This is why no one reads Jay Wright enough - not because he doesn't deserve the attention, but because we are not strong enough. Jay Wright's poetry is a complete refiguration of traditions, with emphasis on the "s," similar to what Eduardo C. Corrall does with the Latino tradition, or what Chagall did, in visual art, with the Jewish tradition. They are artists who absorb the motifs of a tradition - the meaning of a fish, for example, in Christianity, versus Judaism, say, or a mask in Dogon mythology versus a mask in Shakespeare - observing the angles of the meaning, the way the image in the work of the great poets, like Thylias Moss, loses the brittleness of the image in old contexts and becomes something new, a kind of undescribable phoenix.

Just as the meaning of a metaphor changes in the works of poets, based on their traditions, so does it change when considered in the work of great critics. Bloom focused on aesthetics, and therefore beauty, though a rugged kind of beauty we can find in Milton. Therefore he was accused of a kind of innocuous universalism, an aesthetics with no base in justice. This was not true, because he was misread, because he was a genius, like Dickinson or Johnson. Johnson in turn - for though he came before Bloom, Bloom became who he was through Johnson, as well as Emerson, Freud, Nietzsche, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Gershom Scholem, which is what Bloom describes, speaking of all of his literary parents, in The Anxiety of Influence - focused on pleasure, but he also prioritized virtue, and therefore religion. Bloom would have said that Johnsons' emphasis on religion was a blindspot that prevented him from appreciating poems that did not fit somehow into that kind of framework. For example, Johnson did not like the ending of King Lear. And Bloom, though he did not like or dislike it, recognized it as a kind of summum bonum of art, a kind of testament to the limits of art, and something which he argued was, on stage, ultimately unperformable.

Freud, too, focused on morality, aesthetics, and religion, as did Emerson and Nietzsche. We could probably say that Freud was interested in the relationship of morality to sexuality, and that art for him was something more covert. Art for him was not only figuring out cases, but writing about them well. He could read complicated energy dynamics, and he could write about them like a detective writing a detective story. And he was fearless, on top of being a great writer - he talked about taboos that horrified and shocked and disturbed the sexual mores of Victorian society, and he did not bat an eyelash. Freud knew, like Nietzsche, that morality was not what we thought it was, and that strong people, the most moral, were the ones manipulated by the ones who claimed to be moral. And so he plunged into the deepest and darkest recess of the individual psyche; he looked unswervingly into the hideous thirsting hunger of the id, and the relentless battering feaux-judgments of the super-ego, and the reasonable rationality of the ego that finds sublimation to be the greatest good. At the end of the day, he was more of an artist than a psychoanalyst or scientist, because he was a critic, and critics are poets this late or early in our stage of the arts.

Emerson also focused on art and social justice, but for him this was a much more religious matter. Emerson was far more spiritual than Bloom or Freud, and his spirituality was far more heterodox and radical - heretical, in some sense - than Johnson's, who was more heretical than he let on. Emerson, along with Whitman and Dickinson, gave birth to the literary arts in America. In other words, he gave us an identity, different from the gentility of the Europeans, something much more rugged, something that leaped across chasms, something that could not be captured, ebulliently effervescent, effulgent, fulgurant, flagrantly unappeasable and almost dripping with the lust for life. When he described the "transparent eyeball" in Nature, we could say that he was speaking both of aesthetics and ethics, for witnessing is an ethical act, just as it is an aesthetic one, depending on the context, the situation. Emerson was also in some ways more protean than Bloom or Freud or Nietzsche or Johnson, akin to a William James, and perhaps this is because that kind of proteannesss was needed at the beginning of the inauguration of a new scene in the American humanities. Just as James wrote originally on philosophy, psychology, and religion, Emerson was a poet, a philosopher, a critic, and an abolitionist, and he made enormously significant contributions in all of these areas.

I think Nietzsche was the most overtly subversive of these five critics. He seems to have fought with the most spleen, the most vehemence, the most outrage at what he considered philistinism, and what we could call banality, the absence of critical thinking, the kind of mobthink that murders young Black boys out of fear, or incites a form of madness at political rallies, or builds an entire machinery for wiping out the Jewish civilization through deliberate genocide. Nietzsche was an essayist, which means he wrote arguments about what he thought about the world, and how he saw the world was a kind of poetry, for Nietzsche, as Alexander Nehamas argues in Nietzsche: Life as Literature, saw the world as a book, and I suppose the book as a world. He was also a profound reader of people, like Wagner, and he never stopped examining his beliefs in order to grow as a person. He was a vicious critic of antisemitism, and he knew that, to grow, one had to fight, even to the death, to "bear it out to the end of doom," in Shakespeare's words. Nietzsche was the least religious, we could probably say, of the five. Art for him was Greek tragedy, and therefore art for him was social justice, a form of catharsis.

In the 21st century, two critics who I think carry on these legacies are Elaine Scarry and Michael Clune, because of the penetratingness with which they write about art and life. Clune is a student of Allen Grossman, who I believe is also one of the most important critics of the 20th century. Scarry also seems to have been influenced by Grossman in very deep ways. Scarry and Clune also write about art and social justice in fascinating ways - Clune recently gave a lecture on the work of author Claude Brown in the context of judgment and value, which can be watched here. He is also a memoirist who writes about heroin addiction and drug abuse, as well as video games and consciousness. He is enormously talented and gifted, and we should pay more attention to him. Scarry has written, in addition to The Body in Pain, On Beauty and Being Just, and Dreaming by the Book, and Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom - books on politics, representation, Shakespeare, value, and democracy.

We need critics to write about these things, about feminism, about rape, about racism, about religion, about mental illness, about violence, about art, about the relationship between the arts, about ekphrasis, about what the relationships are between art and democracy, or art and justice, or individuals and communities, or solidarity and freedom, to use Richard Rorty's terms. Clune and Scarry are paving the path for us to do so, following in the footsteps of Bloom, Johnson, Freud, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

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