Friday, January 12, 2018

`We Must Choose Our Parents Wisely'

“[Dr.] Johnson, the most effectively learned man of his time, had taken in all that mattered of everything that had been written, but he was sure that his ability to judge it had started in his blood.”

By “blood” Clive James means something like tested instinct, not accepting one’s enthusiasms, revulsions and indifferences as gospel but honing them over time against experience (of life, of books). A good critic is covertly or unconsciously confirming or rejecting his early tastes. James traces his critical faculty to reading Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s Stuka Pilot as a boy in Australia. At the time, he had no idea Rudel was a fugitive Nazi hiding in Argentina who knew the whereabouts of Eichmann. In the postscript to “Starting with Sludge” (The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008, 2009), he writes: “My clueless fervor was the beginning of my later capacity to find such things out, and the thrill of reading was the first and most solid installment of what Bruno Schultz called the iron capital of the adult brain.”
While assembling his book of essays, James says he often thought of a “worthless critic” created by Dr. Johnson, Dick Minim, in The Idler #60. “Rising to great prestige through no other gift but his sensitivity to the direction of the wind,” James writes, “Dick Minim was devoid of any genuine critical capacity, because he had not been born with it.” In short, a careerist, a dedicated follower of fashion. James next quotes Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare” to suggest what he means by blood:

“There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction which books and precepts cannot confer; from this almost all original and native excellence proceeds.”

Good critics are born, not made. That’s debatable but think of a hot-air balloon like Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic for the New York Times whose decades-long career was based on her inability to write a memorable sentence. In the nineteen-twenties, Desmond MacCarthy was an English critic who wrote a New Statesman column under the pseudonym “The Affable Hawk.” That might describe Johnson’s approach, at once independent and clubbable, amiable and savage. James describes Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare” as

“. . . full of precepts equally pertinent for all critics, however general their approach. As he says here, however, the precepts will never mean enough unless we have it in our nature to recognize their truth. Yes, we must read. But first of all we must choose our parents wisely.”

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