Monday, 5 May 2014

Principles of Criticism

There is no conceivable way of demonstrating that someone who places Madame Bovary above Anna Karenina or considers The Ambassadors comparable in authority and magnitude to The Possessed is mistaken – that he has no 'ear' for certain essential tonalities. But such 'tone-deafness' can never be overcome by consequent argument (who could have persuaded Nietzsche, one of the keenest minds ever to deal with music, that he was perversely in error when he regarded Bizet as superior to Wagner?). There is, moreover, no use lamenting the 'non-demonstrability' of critical judgments..........

Let me, therefore, affirm my unrepentant conviction that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky stand foremost among novelists. They excel in comprehensiveness of vision and force of execution. Longinus would, quite properly have spoke of 'sublimity'. They possessed the power to construct through language 'realities' which are sensuous and concrete, yet pervaded by the life and mystery of the spirit. It is this power that marks Matthew Arnold's 'supreme poets of the world'.

(from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by George Steiner)

This is what I would call critics patter, analogous in kind and intent to the prestidigitator's 'notice that my fingers never leave my hand'. In short, fatuous misdirection. A.E. Taylor in Elements of Metaphysics admits the difficulty of assessment of levels of reality but insists on the validity of the criteria of comprehensiveness and harmony.

So in our moral life we judge one man's character more individual than another's, either on the ground of the superior breadth of his interests, or of the superior consistency with which his interests are wrought into a self-consistent whole. The man of many interests has so far a truer individuality than the man of few, and again the man of steady purpose than the man whose energies are dissipated in seemingly conflicting pursuits. But the two criteria do not always, for our insight, coincide. An increase in variety and breadth of interests may be accompanied by a diminution in coherency of aim, and a gain in coherency of aim appears often to be bought by concentration upon a few special objects. And we should find it hard or impossible to decide, where the two aspects of individuality appear to fall thus apart, whether the man of many interests and relatively dissipated energies, or the man of few interests and intense concentration upon them, exhibits the higher individuality. For what looked like self-dissipation in the pursuit of disconnected objects might really be the systematic pursuit of a consistent purpose too wide to be clearly apprehended in its unity either by contemporary observers or by the actor himself, yet apparent
enough to the reflective historian reading the significance of a life by its whole effect upon society, and what seemed at the time the single object of the man of one idea might similarly be found in the light of the sequel to be the hasty combination of radically inconsistent aims.^
Such reflections, however, only show that our limited insight is insufficient to assign to every appearance with certainty its own place in the ordered system of appearances through which the single Reality expresses itself They do not touch our general position, that where comprehensiveness and harmony can be seen to go together, we are justified in using them as the measure of the individuality and therefore of the reality of the partial system in which we discover them.

“He knows, you know”. Others rely on physiological signals, 'chills', 'goosebumps', and suchlike premonitory shivers. Myself I get a warm feeling in the centre of my body towards the Hridaya chakra that I associate with coherence, order and harmony.

Behind the Tuileries, the sky took on the same colour as the slates. The trees in the gardens formed two huge masses, tinged with purple at the top. The gas-lamps were lit; and the Seine, a greenish colour as far as the eye could see, was torn into strips of silvery silk by the piles of the bridges.
(from Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert)

You don't need to be a clever Lycée boy like Steiner doing explication de texte to get that. Yes “ses raisons” but there are criteria internalised through the attentive reading of “the best which has been thought and said”. That may even apply to the last episode of Mad Men,(The Monolith) written by Erin Levy. At a first look I thought it quite good. Why is Peggy Olsen looking like Ayn Rand? Is it the State asylum haircut or is that just my projection?

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