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The Art of Criticism

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Edited by Maxwell Lewis Latham, Thursday, 11 July 2013, 16:36
Without exercising your critical faculties you can get nowhere; and there are laws of criticism that you must learn.

Instinctively, however, you have been criticising all your life. You criticise the habits of your friends, you criticise your sister's dress and your brother's batting at the wicket, you criticise... politicians and most parsons, you are not silent about the shortcomings of your masters and mistresses; and all this is good. It would be even better if you criticised more people favourably and fewer adversely. Adverse criticism so frequently betrays ignorance or narrowness of mind.

Destructive criticism is only of value when it prepares the way for constructive criticism.

There is danger too, in criticism of becoming a prig. It is no use casting mud at best sellers just because all your intellectual friends revile them. There must be reason for their popularity. Most popular writers are poor because popular taste is vulgar and low, and whenever any writer or artist panders to the public demand for inanity or sensation he commits a crime for which he cannot ever be forgiven: he has bartered his soul for material gain. It is merely a waste of time to discuss him at all.

Your business is to train yourself in good taste, to sense beauty when you see it, to maintain a high standard of living, to worship beauty in others and to create it yourself. There can never be too much beauty: your taste will never be perfect.

To test the sound and true is the business of criticism whether in shoe-leather, cloth, motor engines or poetry.

First... recognise as Matthew Arnold recognised that the critical power is of lower rank than the creative, that the true function of a man is to create, but we cannot always be creating: "for the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment," whereas the objective of criticism is to make the best ideas prevail. "...these new ideas reach society, the touch of truth is the touch of life, and there is a stir and growth everywhere: out of this stir come the creative epochs of literature."

It is obvious, too, that a poet, for instance, must know life and the world before dealing with them in poetry: he must therefore criticise first. ... [...]

The exercise of criticism makes us remember that we have a mind and that the mind may be made the source of great pleasure.

The first rule that Arnold lays down is that criticism must be disinterested. Its business is simply to know the best that is known and thought and by making, in its turn, this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. All practical consequences and applications are outside the province of criticism: once they enter into it they cling to it and stifle it. ...

Disinterested criticism scarcely ever seems to exist: small coteries bolster up the aims of the individual members who belong to them: men who strike out on independent lines are treated with contempt, maliciously, wilfully misunderstood by critics on papers out of sympathy with their political aims. Arnold was right when he urged the faculty of disinterestedness as the first essential...

"In France", ... says [Sainte-Beuve], "the first consideration for us [French intellectual critics] is not whether we are amused and pleased by a work of art or mind, nor is it to learn whether we are touched by it. What we seek above all to learn is, is whether we were right in being amused with it, and in applauding it, and being moved by it." This is a manifestation of intellectual conscience - a thing that is almost unknown in England - it is a thing that is found only in those for whom intelligence is quick, open and sensitive.

We can pride ourselves on energy and honesty ... and genius being mainly an affair of energy... but genius working through energy demands complete freedom and is not amenable to conformed standards. ...

Because of the French... with their prescribed standards of criticism, the French... writers excel in form, method, precision, proportions and arrangement. ... [Philosophical debate with the French intellectual elite] ... leads to culture, clearness, correctness, propriety, and so creates a force of educated opinion... [...]

It is well to start with Sainte-Beuve's definition of a true classic.

"A true classic," he says, "is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not unequivocal truth, or revealed some passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or intention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself: who has spoken to all in his particular style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time. Such a classic may for a moment have been revolutionary; it may have least seemed so, but it is not; it only lashed and subverted whatever prevented the restoration of the balance of order, and beauty."

"A classic should above all include conditions of uniformity, wisdom, moderation and reason, which dominate and contain all others."... [...]

He quotes many passages from Joubert to show the high standards that guide all true critics:

"In our written language there must be voice, soul, space, grand style, words which exist of themselves and carry their place with them."

"Writers who have influence are only men who express perfectly what others think, and who awaken in the mind ideas and feelings that were ready to spring into being. Literatures have their origin in the depths of men's minds."

Joubert regarded truth in style as an indespensible quality: he could not abide all that was bombastic, colossal and trifling. "Strength is not energy," he says, "some authors have more muscle than talent - where there is no delicacy, there is no literature."

He worshipped enthusiasm, by which he meant a sort of exalted peace, but distinguished it from explosion. Fine works in his opinion do not intoxicate, but enchant. ...

If you want to know what true criticism is, read Sainte-Beuve on Rabelias. Here you will see the true path where a critic... [writes] ...

... [...] ...

...Gargantua... "At every turn we recognise the enlightened physician, physiologist and philosopher ... the new character of ... education lies in the combination of play and study, in learning things by making use of them, in putting books and the things of life side by side, theory and practice, body and mind, gymnastics and music, as with the Greeks, without, however, modelling ourselves on the past, but having regard continually for the present and the future."...

Chesterfield... listen to him... "There is no surer sign in the world... Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention."

Such advise is worth taking to heart.

"Society is a country no-one has ever known by means of descriptions; each one of us must traverse it in person in order to be initiated into it." As Sainte-Beuve said: "It is better to read one man than ten books." That too, is worth remembering. No wonder that Sainte-Beuve said: "It is a book full of good things. Every page contains some happy observations worthy to be remembered."

Mais, S.P.B. (1938) An English Course..., Richards Press, London (4th ed.), pp.165-173.

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