A few years ago, a political theorist told me that in the late 1940s and the 1950s “literary criticism was the dominant intellectual genre.” This was plainly true but surprising to think about - that criticism was a genre, and that it derived authority from the clarity of its aims. Wondering what to say about the state of criticism today, I pulled from the shelf a book by R.P. Blackmur, The Lion and the Honeycomb, and came upon this passage about “the masterpieces of our time”:
Consider the poetry of Eliot, Yeats, Valery, Rilke; the novels of Joyce, Gide, Hemingway, Proust, Mann, Kafka; the plays of Shaw, Pirandello, O’Neill; the music of Stravinsky, Bloch, Bartok, Ravel, Satie, Schoenberg; the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, Rouault, Marin, Hartley; the sculpture of Maillol, Brancusi, Faggi, LaChaise, Zorach, Archipenko, Moore.
Several things about the list are interesting. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the self- confidence of the critic: just naming the names was enough for Blackmur, though it might seem early for that since none of the works in question went back before the start of the century. Even so, the list is generous - inclusive without being promiscuous – and it holds up pretty well. (I like Blackmur, too, for adding “Shaw is as difficult as Joyce, Mann as Kafka, if you really look into them.”)
The essay, “A Burden for Critics,” was first published in 1948, and looking at it now one is reminded that the critics of that time wrote not only as commentators but as moralists - there is no denying this when you read Blackmur, Winters, Leavis, Tate, Auden, Trilling, and others. There was a cost to this authority, no doubt, and one can see it in the parochial ideas of “maturity” that some of them fostered. They were teachers, and they were preachers. They were also members of a third generation of modernists; some of them were poets; and they drew strength from the achievement and the orientating value of the first two generations. They felt a close affinity to the masterpieces of a recent great age of literature; and it seemed as true to them as it had to Matthew Arnold that literature was a criticism of life.
What has changed? There is too much culture, and this has been a problem for some time. We can try to stay conscious of every worthwhile development, but the rapidity of the media (which wear their pride on their logo: Instagram, Gawker) makes this a futile proposition for anyone who wants to find his footing. Critical judgment always presumes a common knowledge of its objects before the conversation begins. Are we talking about the same thing? And do we remember the thing in sufficient detail? These questions are impertinent in a setting that invites consumers to “share” and not to argue. The word snark in one of its applications (a pejorative designation for negative comments of any kind) seems to have been invented with the aim of discouraging criticism. And it is true that criticism is necessarily selective. Does that mean that it is austere, elite, and undemocratic? The accusation will be credible to the extent that we accept a mass culture without walls – a culture so enveloping that it cannot itself be criticized.
Blackmur wrote that criticism was “the formal discourse of an amateur.” It can equally be the informal discourse of a qualified judge; and much of the best criticism takes place in conversations of which no record survives. Those conversations will never stop, but teachers of the arts today are unmoored by comparison to the mid-century critics. If we work in a university, we see the signs. How many people begin a critical observation with the words “I feel like” – an all-purpose qualifier that has replaced “I think” (itself superfluous in most settings, since who would it be but me?). Anyway, literature and high culture are not the only and not perhaps the most consequential victims of the technology of our day. Mass surveillance has altered the conditions in which people are able to think because they think themselves alone. The exchange of tweeted opinions can create mob psychology in an instant as reporters see what other reporters are saying while a speech is delivered.
Criticism goes on nevertheless because it performs a human function – one not as natural and necessary as breathing, but on a par with rehearsing a play, editing a film, or writing the second draft of an essay, a novel, or a poem. It speaks to us with a voice that can be as irreplaceable as any in writing. There is, after all, a true voice of judgment as well as of feeling, and they are more closely related than some people imagine.
The point of [The Bridge of San Louis Rey] is the conflict in the writer between the heartlessness of nature and the loving care of God. Five people are killed when the bridge breaks, and the dust cover tells me they all had a “fitting end”; possibly Mr. Wilder, in his whimsical way, really meant that; if so, he is trifling with our feelings. I suspect he did, because of Brother Juniper, an irrelevant mythological figure standing for the author (only with more faith) who is finally burnt alive, much too playfully, by the Inquisition, and “leans upon a flame and dies.” Such false notes are struck often.
I hear the voice there, in a comment by William Empson on a novel he respected but could not care for; and I hear it in a review of a movie of 1941 by Otis Ferguson:
In the middle of [High Sierra] is Humphrey Bogart, whose conception and rock-bound maintenance of the hard-handed, graying, and bitter ex-con is not only one of the finest projections of character in any story of men in action, but the whole vertebrate structure of this one. A good part of the telling time is given to his human side and – particularly in the case of the crippled girl he can help but not marry – is slugged a little hard. But this is a logical part of his life, and it is his life we must be concerned with.
People who care about works of art often speak about them with this warmth of commitment, whether in a classroom, a bar, or a coffee shop; and though we may not conclude that such works can teach us how to live, it seems natural to ask of them: “If not you, who will?”
DAVID BROMWICH is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. His books include Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry and The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence.