To Criticize the Critic

What use does criticism serve, if any? I’m thinking here of the reviews of books, movies, or music, whether the smallest notices in newspapers on up to book-length studies.

Do some of us genuinely enjoy a good suggestion? Have we found a handful of voices that we trust, that feel like a friend, and so we’re likely to see or hear or read something they recommend—or avoid what they don’t?

Is it simply comforting to read entire generations of scholars intelligently discussing a favorite writer or painter or musician of ours? (I am especially partial to this.)

Do some of us love a good fight, and like to see a talented writer dissect and destroy a movie or a book with obvious relish?

Is there just no other civilized way to find out what’s happening, what’s new, other than to have someone pretend they’re objective and write about it? Because haven’t we all seen something like the review, say, of a few books on the Eastern Front in World War Two, only to slowly realize that what should be a review is actually just some writer’s summary of that time period, or it’s just about the writer himself?

I imagine it’s a combination of all of these, and more, but it doesn’t go much further than that. We can never forget that none of it is objective or final, and it does a disservice to art to ever pretend that someone has found a key to it. Even the best criticism is just what we read or write in between actually experiencing or creating new works of art.

Harold Bloom can claim all he wants that literary criticism “is the modern version of wisdom literature”—but, as he is a critic and not a poet or novelist, of course that’s what he would say. Somewhere the critic George Steiner admits that if essayists like himself possessed even an inkling of what Dostoevsky or Shakespeare did, they would be trying to write novels and poetry, not dissecting them. That’s probably closer to the truth, and it puts me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s famous quote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Even the professional critic would have to admit that the experience of art is to be immensely preferred over any discussion of it. But it’s like televised sports: as much as the fans and the players would prefer to live in the euphoria of that experience, the actual game can only go on for so long. And so, before and during and after the game (and for years and years later), there are the commentators, as learned as any Talmudic scholar, parsing numbers and averages, weather patterns and venues, players and predictions and the relation of all of it to the deep history of the sport itself.

The same holds true, I think, for religions, which all have various theologies and histories that are a way of holding space, a kind of thumb or forefinger keeping the page, in between the kinds of experiences which criticism, explanation, history, and classification cannot touch.

Let’s just try to remember this, as we go along: what we call criticism is actually just a convenient or civilizing way of trying to hold fire in our hands, it’s a way of having manners, of talking about what is beyond words. Yet the comfort of classification or debate must never blind us to the reason we’re there in the first place, the frightening revelation of what we cannot control or understand but which nevertheless gives all our lives meaning: the actual experience of art.