Joseph Epstein has published a sharply negative reconsideration of the criticism of Edmund Wilson (whom he once admired) in the December issue of Commentary. The essay isn’t yet posted on the Web, but it doesn’t matter, because I don’t want to talk about Wilson. Instead, I’m interested in the following passage:
One of the advantages artists have over critics is that they can be nearly complete damn fools and still produce interesting and important, even lasting, art. Critics are not permitted such large margins of stupidity. It matters that they get things right; their opinions, which is all they chiefly have, are crucial.
These three sentences need a certain amount of unpacking. For starters, they contain a planted axiom–critics aren’t artists–which some readers will find controversial. Not me, though I think criticism can be artful, and should be. Nothing is more tiresome than a badly written review of a well-written book. In general, though, it seems to me self-evident that criticism normally derives its meaning and significance from the works of art about which the critic writes. It doesn’t stand alone. Great art, by contrast, always stands alone, in the sense that it contains within itself all the information necessary for it to be meaningfully experienced. You’ll get more out of All the King’s Men if you know who Huey Long was, but you don’t have to know anything about him–or Robert Penn Warren–to grasp the point of the novel, or be moved by it, just as you don’t have to know anything about Mozart to appreciate the G Minor Symphony.
Having said this, I’m not entirely sure I agree with Epstein when he suggests that the most important thing about criticism is that it “get things right.” Of course it’s desirable to be right, and I don’t see how it’s possible to take seriously a critic who’s wrong about most things. Nevertheless, I’m uneasy with the notion that “getting things right” is the ultimate test of a critic’s worth, just as I’m not entirely willing to go along with the notion that criticism isn’t art. George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, the two greatest music critics of modern times, got all sorts of things wrong, but even at their most willful they never failed to be both interesting and artful. I’d rather read Thomson on, say, Paul Hindemith (whom he completely misunderstood) than Olin Downes on anything, even though Downes was more likely than Thomson to be “right” on any given subject. The trouble with Thomson is that he was violently prejudiced and thus unreliable. The trouble with Downes is that he was boring. Whom would you rather read?
Of course Thomson wasn’t just a critic, he was also a composer, and I think that makes a difference, though I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what it is. It’s easier to explain in the case of Shaw, who was, like him or not (and I don’t), an imaginative writer of high style and memorable personality. These things cannot be separated: a memorable personality is the enabling condition of a great style. We read Shaw’s music criticism for what it tells us about music, but it’s no less worth reading for what it tells us about Shaw.
This is part of what I was getting at in the last chapter of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken:
He was, of course, something more than a memorable stylist, if something less than a truly wise man. Daniel Aaron speaks of “the great comic writer who as time passes will be remembered less for what he said than how he said it,” but the fact remains that his charm is inseparable from his habits of thought. However perverse or excessive his underlying ideas may be, they retain much of their impelling force. One cannot help being impressed by the stubborn way in which Mencken the self-made philosopher grapples, in his unpretentious, take-no-prisoners way, with the permanent things: the limits of art, the rule of law, the meaning of life. The simplicity, one comes to realize, is inseparable from the message. In Mencken, style and content are one, and the resulting alloy is more than merely individual: it is a matchlessly exact expression of the American temper.
That’s where the art comes in. If you can write like Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, and if you have a personality as interesting as theirs, you don’t have to be “right” in order to be taken seriously as a critic. You are, in fact, an artist–a personal essayist whose subject matter is art.
But what about the rest of us? I can turn a pretty phrase, but I’m not nearly as stylish a writer as Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, or as interesting a personality. Hence I’m obliged to attend more closely to the pedestrian virtues, the first of which is being right. Maybe that’s what Epstein meant. Anybody who thinks he’s as good as Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, after all, is probably delusional. Of course you might be that good–but you’d better not count on it. I sure don’t.