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Against Criticism

James McGovern

The Dances of Matisse

Obsolescence, sweetness, masculinity, drifting, admiration, blindness, the text, dance, evil, virginity, doubt

What is the sell-by date of a piece of criticism? I’ve noticed that in this library, a handsome modernist structure overlooking tennis courts, most critical works published before 1980 have been shunted off into their own section: pre-1980, pre-contemporary, prehistoric. Even that seems generous. In some fields, books published more than twenty years ago are treated with suspicion. In radical, emergent subjects, such as transgender studies, texts older than five years are looked upon with raised eyebrows.

I ponder the question, glancing absently at the couple sitting at the other side of the desk. A boy and a girl who can hardly keep their hands off each other. They giggle silently. The girl’s sugar and melon scent wafts around, actively, like Dickensian fog. The boy is wearing denim dungarees and his nose is pierced. Their laptops and books are open in front of them, and they glance at their study materials from time to time, their eyes laughing, before again embracing one another. On the screen of each laptop is a blank Word document. Weirdly, I feel a wave of goodwill towards these workshy strangers I don’t know from Adam, or from Eve.

But I drift. I must focus my mind. Focus on the problem at hand: the problem of criticism. More than one tutor has cautioned me to avoid the older works of literary scholarship. Not, as I’m tempted to fancifully claim, in the voice of a parent warning a child away from unsavoury company, but rather in the neutral tone of a well-educated modern liberal doing her best in this leafy city to steer her students on to a proper course. Proper: the word makes no claims and thus leaves no chink in its own armour. So that’s the function of teachers? To help their students cross the seas of humanity, of the humanities, to prevent them from drifting? From wasting their time navigating a route which, the teachers know from painful experience, leads not to the edge of the world, to a sheer drop, but simply to nowhere?

Do ideas really go out of date, I once asked one of my tutors. Do they sour like milk? If an idea is true, isn’t it true forever? Or if it was always false, why were so many sophisticated people taken in by it? I know that the professor considers me a slightly annoying presence, an upstart undergraduate with pretensions, but I noted that she was unable to provide a meaningful answer.

Have academics finally got criticism right, or will the technicians of the humanities in twenty years discard the labours of their predecessors in favour of something fresher? It seems inevitable that they will do so. Freshness: a property belonging only to what is transitory. Strawberries, the green grass that speedily withers, the loveliness of youth. I know that the best literature is timeless. It’s an irritating cliché, even to me, but then the truth is often irritating. Classic texts do not necessarily survive because readers love them, although many are indeed loved. They last because they are great, but what makes them great? Their formal perfection?

Tolstoy and Dickens are formally lax at times without harming their standing, which indicates that there is more to literature than fine construction. The popularity of many classic texts is connected to the relationship they have, or had, with the cultures in which they were produced. But this cannot be the full story, or we would not have any literary translations, especially not, for instance, translations from Chinese to English. Do great books have anything in common, apart from a consensus that they are great? The believable depiction of universal human feelings is a shared feature of enduring works. One can vicariously experience Macbeth’s guilt or admire Imogen’s virtue without being a medieval Scot or ancient Briton (or Elizabethan auditor); one can pity Mizoguchi without being a Buddhist acolyte. By partaking of the universal even when grounded in the particular, the greatest novels and poems last forever, or at least until the extinction of humanity. That may sound ridiculous, but I stand by it.

In comparison, even the ‘classic’ works of criticism are now treated as mere resources from which to mine quotations, or to half-heartedly ‘respond’ to; they have no popular readership to sustain them during such abuse. Maybe I should concentrate on literature and leave criticism to the bespectacled, tweed-jacketed mayflies who revel in their glory of a day. But what could it even mean, in this day, in this age, to write literature without taking criticism into account?

I once planned to write a thesis on the writings of J. M. Coetzee. His fiction engages with criticism: in fact, Coetzee as author-behind-narrator frequently gives the impression of glancing over his shoulder at the critics, the whole gamut from tabloid journalists to literature professors, yet he never does anything as coarse as waggling to attract their attention. The waggle: a gesture of the bee, an encoded dance, drawing the attention of its peers towards the coordinates where treasure lies but also, at the same time, drawing their attention away from something. No, Coetzee is never beelike; he weighs his words carefully, but he never performs, at least not as far as I can detect. I have, however, come to dislike the fact that Coetzee’s reputation has been colonised by his fellow academics, well-adjusted, reasonable, tolerant people who, despite their expertise, always seem to miss something — something crucial yet intangible. What is it? The moment when the text stirs the soul; or gives the soul a shake; or shines a light through the soul as one might shine a torch through a jellyfish? Surely I don’t believe in anything as naïve as all that! Surely I must know that even academics have, however well hidden, souls capable of being stirred. Perhaps academia simply has no business with matters of the soul. But if this is the case, what business could it have with literature, with art? On the other hand, do sensible, level-headed, metropolitan intellectuals even believe in the soul? Or has it been replaced entirely with talk of synapses, neurones, neurotransmitters; or else by postmodern jargon: animality, performativity?

I recently read the sixth lesson in Elizabeth Costello, the one about the devil using literature as a conduit to pass like an electric current from heart to heart. Or rather like a virus. Propagating himself. A ‘lesson’. The word drips with irony since the stories are designed to teach nothing. But the passage on the devil seems to me the antithesis of irony. It’s couched in fictionality, but it remains a stern warning, as resounding as a clarion. Not a lesson but an alert, an alarm. I was alarmed by it. I don’t want to write an essay on Coetzee’s use of Christian symbolism. I want to take the lesson to heart, to let it change me in my deep places, in my very kidneys.

Then why don’t I? I’m not sure. Something within me rebels, arrests the process of transduction. In any case, I’m growing certain that I hate to write essays. Increasingly, the very act of criticism seems bizarre to me. What a strange response to the torments of Anna Karenina, the beauty of Tolstoy’s conceptualisation of her, to pen a dry paper about the presence of rhetoric in the text! I used to promote a Ricksian practical criticism, the ingenious scrutiny of stylistic features, but even that has come to feel empty.

A literary text is more than a verbal performance, more than an investigation of themes, more than the sum of its parts. It resists not only the butcher’s knife of the censor but also the surgical blade of the critic. Even if, like one of Coetzee’s novels, it seems to reward analysis, it always holds something back, its vital part, its essence. It hides its secrets from the wise and learned. That is, until one approaches it in the right spirit. The spirit of a child? No, the spirit of a reader. If a novel or poem could be successfully reduced or paraphrased, dissected like Newton’s rainbow, then it wouldn’t be literature, would it? The only literary criticism should be on Eliot and Joyce, and those of their kind, writers who courted critical attention. The other authors, especially the poets, should be left unmolested.

This is too flimsy to be called a belief. It’s merely a problem. The problem of what to do next in this leafy city. Maybe I’m just being dismissive, juvenile. Maybe I’ll grow out of it, this alienation, this angst. But for the time being, I can’t shake off the opinion. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the boy and the girl who do no work yet appear to be happy and complete. To be full of love. A fragment of Whitman drifts into my recollection. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep … they do not lie awake in the dark and … Why do I agonise over issues which, to other students, are not even issues, let alone serious ones? Suddenly I feel puzzled about my future. A melon scent fills my nostrils. A whiff of something Edenic. It’s sugary and not unpleasant.

James McGovern  is a fiction writer with a fondness for poetry. His prose and verse have been published in Black Bough Poetry, the Oxford Review of Books and Prospect magazine. In 2019, he was longlisted for the Australian Book Review’s Calibre Essay Prize, judged by J. M. Coetzee. He read English at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where his fiction appeared in the College arts magazine MisC.