11 July 2005

A Wise Credo

      Glancing once again at the wonderful Dame Helen Gardner's The Business of Criticism, I stumbled upon a sentence that when I first read it some years ago I thought spot-on, but which I appreciate even more now, given the vapid results of those that elect to believe otherwise:

Critics are wise to leave alone those works which they feel a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate.
This was 1959.    The better part of 50 years later, how many hold to this?    (Answer: check out any recent journal entries on Tom Eliot or Shakespeare, or much more naively and so much less insidiously, any undergraduate essays on same.)    We're wisest to argue for than to argue against, unless, of course, there is a truly and dreadfully ominous line in the sand that must be drawn, like that posed by Mein Kampf.)    The more we ensconce ourselves in the critica negativa (RK will surely correct my flimsy Latin), the more we establish ourselves in self-important punditry than in the development and furtherment of knowledge (cultural, historical, anthropological, or otherwise).    Do we really need more material on what rotten bastards Eliot or Pound were? Or how Conrad was this, and Freud that, and Hemingway such-and-such?    That's not to say there aren't relevant arguments to be made against things or people, or that we should simply argue for those we most admire.    However, I find it snide to sit imperiously in judgment of others, as if we are Elders of Perfection, which we of course are not.    We will have our sides of argument, on any and all number of issues.    But there's a profound ignobility to the lowering of debate to sniping and harping.    Those of us that chastise the overly-partisan tactics of FOX-News and other such "conservative" media forms should probably remember that those tactics are largely the equal and opposite reactions to what has crested forth from the academic left in the past thirty years.    The tone of debate has so gone toward the negative, on all sides, and we now harvest the price for it, some disingenuous nonsense, and some overly-radical bullplop.    There has to be larger wisdom.    And I think Dame Helen reminds us where we ought to start.

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