Saturday, May 19, 2018

'The Task Begins with Oneself'

If I were a critic I would subscribe to an idea formulated forty-seven years ago by the late Hilton Kramer:

“This, for me, is the function of critical writing: to make us more conscious—conscious of what we think and feel and know or will never know—than we should otherwise be. One hopes, of course, to contribute to the consciousness of others—one’s readers—but the task begins with oneself.”

It’s easy as a reader to drift into unconscious passivity, to consume words like a bilge pump, without discrimination. We all do it on occasion, especially when the writing is lousy. In that case it might even be defended as self-protective. That’s how I read when young – omnivorously, without reflection, but we can’t regret having read bad books. Their effect can be homeopathic.      

Kramer was participating in a portentously titled symposium, “The Writer’s Situation,” in Issue #11 of the paperback magazine New American Review, edited by Ted Solotaroff. At the time, 1971, Kramer was an art critic for the New York Times. He’s writing at a hinge in history and he knows it. Values and literacy, taste and judgment, are rapidly disintegrating. He writes:

“There has been, I believe, a significant decline in the value that is placed on critical intelligence. There is a greater yearning for a direct, unmediated response to aesthetic experience—for admitting art directly into the bloodstream, so to speak, without the intervention of conscious intelligence. This yearning, which is fundamentally a desire not for aesthetic experience but for self-surrender, is destructive of a great deal more than critical discourse. It is destructive of art itself in its highest forms, for in its highest form art exists in a symbiotic relation to critical intelligence.”

The process Kramer describes was in part the result of soft-headedness, what we might describe as the creation and consumption of art by hippie-minded yahoos. (Appearing in the same issue of New American Review is a poem by Allen Ginsberg.) But Kramer understands that something more insidious is going on: “The very notion of artistic and intellectual disinterestedness is under suspicion where it is not already under a sentence of death, and more and more people seem to regard such a notion as ‘objectively’ reactionary.”

Asked about the present status of Modernist writers, c. 1971, Kramer says: “It is in prose fiction that our literature has really collapsed. Fewer and fewer novelists feel capable of conceiving a large fictional structure in which the lives of others—the society of their own time—are given imaginative priority over the vicissitudes of private fantasy.” (Eighteen years later, in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” the late Tom Wolfe would echo, more pugnaciously, Kramer’s lament.)  

About American poetry half a century ago, Kramer is rather touchingly buoyant. He describes it as “the richest of our literary achievements, the one boasting the largest number of interesting talents, the greatest variety of statement, and the keenest insight into the relation of the interior life to the quotidian world.” Recall who was alive and working in 1971: Wilbur, Hecht, Bowers, Auden, Justice, Bishop, Cunningham, Gunn, Nemerov. Then consider some of the poets, in addition to Ginsberg, who had already published in New American Review: Merwin, Sexton, Ashbery, Gary Snyder, Ammons, C.K. Williams and so on, the long sad roll call of mediocrity.

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