Friday, April 8, 2011

ET: Almanac (and afterword)

"Criticism is of two kinds: praise and condemnation: approval or reproval. So many people have told me to ignore negative criticism. If only it were that easy. There are very few of us whose lives have not been deeply affected by negative criticism. Thomas Hardy stopped writing novels after Jude the Obscure was badly received by the critics. He had over 30 years' work left in him so the critics deprived the world of many great novels. John Keats was silenced by his critics and died believing himself a failure.

There may be a good reason for the profound effect of criticism. Mankind evolved in relatively small communities. The civilisation of the last 10,000 years has made hardly any difference to our DNA: the motivations which evolved before that still influence our daily lives, even though many of them are no longer relevant. Our deep response to negative criticism is, I suggest, a remnant of these primordial instincts. In primitive times being considered useless might be fatal. "I am a tainted wether of the flock, meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit drops earliest to the ground." -The Merchant of Venice. Act iv. Sc. 1. Who would want to be chosen for sacrifice or considered to be worth more as a source of protein?

Before there was law, social justice was based on honour. In some lawless communities, such as the inner-city gangs it still is: in such societies it is distinctly unhealthy to be unpopular. Whole societies have been based on manners, etiquette and honour. Alexander Pushkin fought 29 duels and was eventually killed at the age of 39 defending his wife's honour - and, by all accounts, it wasn't worth defending. In such duelling societies the critic had to consider whether his target might be a better swordsman or a better marksman.

Manners or etiquette were codes of social conduct designed to prevent the hurt disapprobation gave to others. In modern society -- particularly in Britain -- this has become inverted: politeness is now considered offensive whereas familiarity and insults between mates are a sign of affection.

This Internet age has given rise to the critical sniper - and snipers have always been the most despised of soldiers. The Internet critic is foulmouthed and illiterate - he hides behind a cloak of anonymity, he offers no products of his own making. The insults he issues have a playground quality. He says to others what was once said to him, believing that they will feel the same hurt as he did - and still does. And somehow this will compensate him. The abused has been sold on the benefit of becoming the abuser.

The only criticism that is valuable to others reflects universal truth, it is not merely an expression of the inner conflict of the critic, and needs must be practised by those most qualified and most altruistic. Negative criticism is often nothing more than boasting in disguise and, like most boasting, is just an outward manifestation of inner feelings of inferiority."

Both of these exemplars of erudition are from the youtube page of SpokenVerse, the site of a man who posts readings of English language poetry for no better reason than the edification of anyone who visits his page. No doubt like most of his fans, I found him by reading Roger Ebert's post on him. And like Roger Ebert, I adore his youtube page. For those who love poetry, it is a place where we can appreciate a master reader who can show us the proper pacing, diction and cadence of poems both unfamiliar and those which we know by heart (assuming anybody has successfully memorizes an entire poem anymore, I'm not sure I have..).

It is a page that superbly renders an 'Old World' feel of culture as something unambiguously ennobling, and perhaps because of that sentiment its proprietor's notions of acceptable conduct might seem to us a bit antiquated, perhaps even reactionary. As true as much of what he wrote above is, I can't help feeling as though I'm reading a person who lauds a more civilized era which never existed. Indeed, the times have changed, but in many cases they evolved for the right reasons. He seems to approve, or perhaps laud, Pushkin's penchant for dueling. Criticism may have killed Keats, but honor certainly killed Pushkin.

I do not approve of anonymous snark. Everything he says about the cowardice of anonymous vituperation is quite true. I do, however, approve vociferously of non-violent acrimony, censure, contempt, corrosiveness, cynicism, derision, disparagement, invective, mockery, rancor, sarcasm, scorn and snark, so long as it is done with the weight of one's name and 'reputation' behind one's statements. I will always maintain that those who wish to criticize in the most strident possible terms should be able to do so long as they sign their name and are ready to stand against the winds that blow back. In the interests of harmony and happiness, it's certainly not wise to engage in criticism except on issues that truly matter. Nor should rigorous criticism ever be a reason for withholding civility, or generosity, or compassion. It is the establishment of these two qualities in tandem, both unflagging support and therefore a need for rigorous evaluation, that (hopefully) makes us humans something worth preserving.

Perhaps that's why I can't help thinking that for all his erudition, SpokenVerse's above statement sounds not a little bit like Thumper's statement in Disney's Bambi, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." There are so many things about that statement which should rub us all the wrong way. But one can't help understanding why people would believe that. Getting your feelings hurt feels terrible even for the most thick-skinned among us, and yet it's a necessary process. Without criticism, there are many aspects of our lives which will require criticism so much more.

This is why I can't help finding these two discursions, one from a plain-speaking bunny with a thyroid problem, the other from a high-flown and long-breathed intellectual, are fundamentally identical. It is as much a reflection of Disney and Conservative America as indicative of yearning for the 'lost old world' of salons and private libraries. This has been the cry of the conservative from the beginning of time. It's easy to only have nice things to say when the world's established order is slanted for your protection over someone else's.

Criticism is a great, and necessary practice. It fulfills a purpose both evolutionary and democratic. The health of a civilization is not only judged by the health of its commerce, science and arts, but also by its ability to evaluate itself against the standards of what it is possible to meet. The fact that we can never attain ideals makes it all the more important to be reminded of what they are. This is why criticism must always be personal, or nothing worth. The critic, however venal, fulfills a need to which all humans must submit. In life, we are all performers, and therefore all critics as well.

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