Friday, March 31, 2006

The Useful Critic

Literary critics, the best ones, are fellow readers, pilgrims treading a parallel path, looking for joy and flimflam and reporting back to us with their discoveries. They share enthusiasms and aversions. Their experiences in life and literature equip them to sniff out the fraudulent, dull, pretentious and mediocre, but do not render them impervious to pleasure. At some point, they must answer the impulse to celebrate.

That’s why Alfred Kazin remains vital to me. His joy is apparent everywhere is his lyrical prose. He never pretends to be a clinician. He writes not about books pinned like butterflies in a specimen case but as they really are – moving about in the flux of life, intersecting the trajectories of readers’ lives. This comes from a 1981 essay, “To Be a Critic”:

“Keats is one of the few writers on Shakespeare who help me to read him and not just to read about him. Shakespeare is entirely real to Keats, and so Keats makes Shakespeare less unreal to me. That is what I look for in a critic – his use to me; I can use critics whose general point of view is outrageous to me, but who in specific matters have this capacity for making a writer real and a text real. A useful critic is someone who has already begun to use a text in a significant personal way, who is not in doubt about his fundamental reaction, who is not arbitrary but is convinced, in his reading of Shakespeare (or Dos Passos), that he knows what there is to know…If I ever make an anthology of criticism, it will be called The Useful Critic, and will feature only writings that have helped me.”

Kazin goes on to cite examples from this dream anthology: the conversation of Johnson, Goethe and Auden, and an early comment on Nabokov by Isaac Babel. The art criticism of Baudelaire and music criticism of Nietzsche. Whitman in conversation with Horace Traubel on Emerson’s essential genius as a “critic or diagnoser.” Marx on Balzac, Emerson of “The Poet,” William James on Emerson and Henry Adams. Melville on Hawthorne and Henry James’ great preface to The Portrait of a Lady. Eliot on Pascal, Lawrence on Hardy, Jarrell on Frost, Conrad Aiken on Faulkner, Wallace Stevens “for his general reflections on intellectual nobility,” and Robert Penn Warren on Conrad, among many others.

One is struck by the variety of sources, their notable failure to form anything resembling a school, and also by the preponderance of poets, of whom Kazin writes, “poets make my favorite critics; they have the most intense personal consciousness of art.” To be so receptive to the diversity of useful insight, without succumbing to the contemporary vogue for exclusionary critical tribalism, is a gift Kazin is happy to share with us, fellow readers. No wonder this passage from Thoreau’s journal, dated May 6, 1854, was among his favorites:

“All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love, -- to sing; and, if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love. This alone is to be alive to the extremities.”

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