Saturday, December 03, 2011
Adam Kirsch's Why Trilling Matters Reminds Us of Power of Reading
In his 1963 essay “The Critic’s Credentials,” Stanley Edgar Hyman made this claim: “Our world is a multiverse and complex one, and our literature accurately reflects it. Unless the critic’s equipment is similarly multiverse and complex, he will be turned away at the door of literature.” Fifteen years earlier, in a meticulous work of criticism called The Armed Vision, Hyman distinguished between the “Ideal Critic,” who would possess the highest degree of knowledge in the humanities—Coleridge and Arnold were his Ideal Critics—and the “Actual Critic, poor fellow,” who would limp along as best he could.
Hyman’s requirement that critics be intellectuals stemmed from his recognition of a now little-recognized fact: imaginative literature does not happen in a vacuum. One doesn’t have any business writing about literature unless one’s business is literature, because every important poet and novelist has predecessors informing, shaping his vision, and if a critic has no engagement with those predecessors, he can have no sustained and substantive engagement with the poet or novelist under review. To borrow C.K. Chesterton’s insult against Swinburne, the critic would be all self-expression and no self-assertion. Self-assertion necessitates a steady poise in the mingling of knowledge and intellect.
At a time when many American publications employ pedestrian reviewers to scribble personal-pronoun-obsessed book reports, Adam Kirsch remains a blesséd throwback to the great poet-critic-intellectuals of yore—T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell, Conrad Aiken, R.P Blackmur, Yvor Winters—who brought to bear in every essay what Hyman nicely dubbed “a fearful assumption of personal capacity.” A poet of impressive range, Kirsch writes prose with a baffling prolificacy. Each week you can find him opining for several top publications on nearly every aspect of literary thought. An Ideal Critic of the Coleridgean mold, he possesses a swift command of how history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology inform works of imaginative literature. His Benjamin Disraeli is an expert, emotionally astute study of the complicated Jewish-English statesman and novelist, and The Wounded Surgeon and The Modern Element, his two books on English-language poets, rise to Dr. Johnson’s criterion for lasting criticism: the conversion of mere opinion into universal knowledge.