Of all the items I’ve posted on this blog in the past month and a half, the one that’s stirred up the most comment is a mini-essay I wrote two weeks ago about the experience of seeing a masterpiece for the first time. If you read it, you’ll recall that I went to Lincoln Center to watch the Mark Morris Dance Group perform V, a dance by Morris set to the Schumann Piano Quintet. I’d seen the New York premiere of V a couple of years ago, and was curious as to the source of the absolute certainty of my reaction to that first viewing: “By now, I know V well enough to be able to talk in a fairly specific way about what makes it so good. But how did I know how good it was the first time I saw it? What made me so sure it was a masterpiece?”
It occurred to me that my immediate certainty must have had little to do with any conscious form of analysis, so I decided to take a closer look at what I felt while watching V, and came to the following conclusion:
As A.E. Housman famously said, “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” I know what he meant. Instead of analyzing V, I read its quality off myself, the same way you can read the seismographic chart of an earthquake and know how strong it was. Or–to put it more simply–I knew how good V was because of the way it made me feel.
It never occurred to me when writing these words that anyone would give them a second glance, much less find them controversial. Critics are always sounding off about how they do what they do–it’s an occupational hazard, if not a professional deformation. (I’m posting an assortment of these reflections all week in the daily almanac. Today’s entry is by Kenneth Tynan, the great English drama critic.) But when I published the blog that night, Our Girl in Chicago e-mailed me a few minutes later to say she thought this particular posting would draw a crowd. Boy, did she get that right.
Several readers were unimpressed (to put it mildly) by my attempts to understand exactly what it is that causes us to recognize that we’re in the presence of a masterpiece when seeing it for the first time. Among them was one of my favorite bloggers, God of the Machine, who gave me a going-over so thorough as to border on an outright fisking:
Terry Teachout, a distinguished critic who surely knows better, unaccountably sets out to adventure among masterpieces in his review of Mark Morris’s ballet V, even quoting Housman with approval. V is a “masterpiece,” Terry is sure, for five reasons, none of which has anything to do with what happens on stage. He is “immediately involved,” he “realize[s] that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing,” he is not bored, he is “anxious,” because “what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong”; and when he finds that this something, whatever it might be, does not go wrong after all, his “eyes filled with tears.” This is all so refined that I nearly forgot that I began the piece knowing nothing of ballet and ended it in exactly the same state. Tell you what, Terry: if I give you the great soul, will you promise, next time, to talk about the ballet?
Pow! Thump! Ouch! A number of other bloggers quickly came to my defense, for which much thanks. For my part, I was mostly pleased by the attention, though my snap reaction was to recall what Dawn Powell wrote in her diary upon reading a mixed review by Diana Trilling of one of her books: “Gist of criticisms (Diana Trilling, etc.) of my novel is if they had my automobile they wouldn’t visit my folks, they’d visit theirs.” I respect God of the Machine greatly, and I take his point–except that I think it’s at least a few degrees beside my point. After all, I wasn’t writing a review of V. Instead, I was trying to understand how we respond to art at first sight, and I came to the conclusion that in my case, conscious analysis simply doesn’t have much of anything to do with it. Art makes us feel. These feelings are anterior to understanding, and after a lifetime of experiencing art I’ve come to trust them. In a very real sense, they are the whole point of experiencing art. As R.P. Blackmur once said, all knowledge is a descent from the paradise of immediate sensation. (I don’t know where he said it, alas–Arlene Croce quoted him years ago in an essay, and I committed the quote to memory the first time I read it.)
Is that criticism? Nope. My job as a critic is to try to understand what it is about a masterpiece that evokes these feelings, and to convert that understanding into intelligible and persuasive prose. Merely to assert is not to criticize, though mere assertion may well be of considerable interest to people who have learned from experience to trust your taste. I mean, I like to think that at least a few of you would rush right out and buy, say, Deidre Rodman‘s first CD if I told you that it was really, really good–which it is–even if I didn’t explain why it was good. (You’re curious now, aren’t you?) But I wouldn’t ever try to tell you that I’d just committed an act of first-degree criticism.
So yes, analysis matters…but it doesn’t matter most, and it doesn’t come first. If you’re sitting in your aisle seat trying to figure out why you’re getting goose bumps, you’re missing the point of getting them. The point is to be there–to be present and fully receptive to the immediate experience. Otherwise, you’re acting just like Tom Townsend in Metropolitan, who preferred reading what Lionel Trilling had to say about Jane Austen to actually reading Mansfield Park. And that’s what I was writing about the other day.
I can’t say it often enough: I go to the ballet to have a good time, not to give myself something to write about. What’s more, I’ll bet that God of the Machine does exactly the same thing.