(Author’s note: I was about to post an illustration today of why I loathe Pauline Kael–I find that returning to her movie reviews is like picking at a scab–when I realized I’d posted a more temperate, less ad Kaelinam, piece last November. So here’s that piece again. It should, I hope, set up the newer and nastier one–which I’ll post here on Wednesday–rather nicely.)
When Ras praised Pauline Kael, a couple of our favorite readers here at 317am let us know they’re not big on critics. Of any kind. Which reminds me that English professors are critics and that I was almost one myself. I can pinpoint the moment when I knew the job description wouldn’t fit me.
Some 40 years ago, my mentor in graduate school at the University of North Carolina was Dr. Wise (or so I’ll call him). In dress and grooming he was like an old portrait, brought to life, of a courtly Presbyterian elder, in his mid-fifties then, with thick eyeglasses and plump dark pouches beneath his eyes that we knew he’d earned under shaded lamps late at night. He seemed to have read, and thought about, everything. Author of standard literary surveys and works on southern writers, he was—though it would have been hard to tell by his gracious affect—one of the biggest names in American lit. We hung on his words.
Dr. Wise knew what he liked and what he didn’t. I recall looking forward to his first lecture on Poe—who as you know by now was my earliest favorite—and sitting, shocked, stupefied, as he explained why Poe was an unimaginative hack. Agh! Yet as I sat there I felt my concepts move. Poe was no hack—I knew this regardless of what anyone said—but I began to understand our Edgar as a poverty-stricken professional writer trying to put food on the table and liquor in his tummy; he managed to develop a marketable formula and generate some sales. I had huge respect for this and the more Dr. Wise explained Poe’s roots as a writer and the nature of publishing in the 1830s and 1840s, the more solid that respect became.
I wanted to be an English professor, much like Dr. Wise, because I wanted to pass this stuff along, as it had been passed along to me, so that others would love it. And also, to impart the critical faculties to know the good stuff from the not-so-good, and to understand a little better how the good stuff gets made. Even more than that, however, a reverence for all the literary gifts that have been laid before us, and the keys to unwrapping and delighting in them.
But this was something, the more I became familiar with the field, that I realized professors generally don’t see as their job. They don’t try to recruit worshippers of literature, but rather to debunk idolatry. One time, another professor of mine at UNC, a renowned expert in Romantic Poetry, informed us that the last two lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are “weak.” They’re irrelevant to the poem, he said, and what’s more, untrue. But what gain, I ask, in this? Were we really better off to see through the lustre of these lines?
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
It seemed to me he was not doing us any favors. How much truth and beauty he’d have had us miss.
That’s because art—creating art, enjoying art—offers not just some consolation in this crazy world, but emotional truths that are not necessarily provable or factual or reasonable, but merely true. Often, art carries meaning—and this applies even to poetry, of course—that cannot be said but that must be felt. Pluck apart the fibers of a poem or a work of fiction, or ask one person to hold a work to standards that are wielded by some other person—this is what critics do—and you may simply kill what’s been felt. Not always, of course. But it is a caution for critics—and meanwhile, a caution that it is in the nature of critics to ignore.
So here is the moment when the wonderful Dr. Wise lost me. I overstate. He merely revealed what critics and scholars do. Middle-brow lover of literature I was, remain, and prefer to be, I was not ready to do it for a living.
We were walking down a corridor toward his office—he and a small covey of his grad-student admirers. We were talking about Truman Capote. In Cold Blood, about the murder of a family of four in rural Kansas by a pair of anomic drifters—had been out about five years; had established the “non-fiction novel” as a viable idea; had wowed us all. We were chirping over it as we walked. We could only imagine accomplishing something in life so extraordinary as writing In Cold Blood. But when we reached the door of Dr. Wise’s office, he turned to us and said, “Yes, but don’t you think it a failure of the artistic imagination?”
And I stopped right there and thought this: That’s it? We’re going to write off In Cold Blood? You, an English professor? And us—a bunch of grad students? Here’s Truman Capote . . . and here’s us. We’re merely making his work the fodder for our own.
The moment doesn’t explain every reason I never became a critic or a professional scholar. But it was a touchstone moment, to be sure. There’s a line in “Visions of Johanna,” a Bob Dylan song from Blonde on Blonde: “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.” I thought a lot about that line. I didn’t want to be a parasite. Not every critic’s a parasite, nor every scholar of course, but it’s the artists who make the critics and scholars possible. It’s easy for critics and scholars–even for a Dr. Wise–to forget who’s making the art and who’s not, and who ought to feel humbled before whom.