Genius, and other essays/What is Criticism?

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A QUESTION put in this direct way, as if from a text-book, is first of all entitled to a plain and elementary rejoinder, if one can be devised.

I even hope that in time some dialectician, as "absolute" as the Grave-digger in "Hamlet," will hit upon an exact reply to the question, What is Poetry? This so many idealists have failed to answer, because they feel and do not analyze; because they attempt by sentiment and inadequate analogy to produce in us their own feeling, rather than to define what is, after all, a human mode of expression and therefore within man's power to define. Feeling is "deeper than all thought," but when the poet Cranch tells us also that "thought is deeper than all speech," he is met by the poet Poe with the confession: "I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language. I fancy, rather, that where difficulty in expression is experienced there is, in the intellect which experiences it, a want either of deliberateness or method." He also observes that "the thought is logicalized by the effort at expression." For a dreamer and man of feeling, whose learning was none too exact, Poe had a curiously scientific method. His perception of the logic of the beauty which he so adored was always vivid. And his own definition of poetry, though exclusive and narrow, is almost the only one on record which conforms to the Euclidean maxim, viz., That a definition shall distinguish the thing defined from all things else.

There is nothing so nebulous in the meaning of Criticism as to befog either its practitioners or the logicians. The dictionaries consider it chiefly in its relation to art and letters. For myself, now first attempting to define a function which nearly all modern writers exercise, I can offer no formula which seems more simple and comprehensive than the following:

Criticism is the art and practice of declaring in what degree any work, character or action conforms to the Right.

Conversely, and implied in this definition, the office of criticism is to see and declare what is wrong—i. e., in what degree a work fails to conform to the Right. As "the Right" fully includes certain traditional constituents—the true, the beautiful, the good—the term thus applies to all matters of fact, taste, virtue, all questions, in other words, of verity, æsthetics and morals. Since analysis resolves it in this wise, the primary qualifications of a critic are accuracy, taste and honesty. Assuredly the last two of these should be inborn, and all are heightened by exercise and culture.

In the differentiation of effort we find many critics restricting themselves, or best adapted, to the review of specific arts—often to special subdivisions of an art. But the consensus of the fine arts, for example, is such that, while each has inexorable limits, they all move in harmony and subject to the same enduring principles. The critic then, even in technical examination of a painting, drama, novel or any other artistic structure, must be grounded in general laws and sensible of their application to other forms of creative work than the one under his immediate observation. Just as a specialist in the art of healing—say an oculist—or a physician essaying to cure the slightest ailment, must have a sound knowledge of therapeutics and anatomy. Otherwise his practice will be inconsistent and hazardous.

The ideal critic is one of universal prerogative. His faculty and doctrine, if trustworthy in one direction, can hardly go far astray in the others. Even in æsthetics a thinker, deliberately conscious of beauty, will recognize its correlation with the true and the good. I am skeptical as to the radical inaccuracy or immorality of noted critics and artists who perceive or create what is lastingly beautiful; yet defects of temperament may influence very adversely their personal conduct of life.

The ideal spirit of criticism is pure and high. The declarer of Right, in its various provinces, assumes the office of a censor, a judge, and if he has no innate gift of perception, supported by acquired knowledge, his assumption will be characterized in the invidious sense of the word. He may have his special tastes and leanings, but private considerations have nothing to do with his decisions. An unfair critic is worse than an unrighteous or ignorant judge, for he deals with creative workmen, the class most sensitive of all to injustice and stupidity. He will be quick to declare what is fine in their work, and will point out errors with the bearing that makes for reform rather than discouragement. On the other hand, he will show no lenience to promoters of flagrant heresy and those whose work is "outlawed of art." Certain of the accused are either highly meritorious or guilty of crime in the first degree. But the maxim de minimis also is to be regarded: what is hopelessly dull or insignificant may be left to the gracious law of natural decay.

With respect to fairness and unbiassed judgment, I have observed that sometimes the mere function of critical writing seems, for the time being, to change its exerciser from what he is in his personal life; to make him forget his own tastes, friendships, antipathies; just as in law we have even seen men of unsavory conduct and character, who, when on the bench, are wise and impartial judges. Into the rationale of this I need not go at present. When the best-intentioned person, not fitted by nature and equipment for a judicial calling, usurps it, the exact reverse of this process is apt to be observed.

Criticism itself, after the methods of its eminent professors, often is a constructive art—the promoter of higher standards and creations on the part of those to whom it is addressed. Each of the great critics has added a step to the stairway from which it takes a more penetrative and enlarged view. Lessing declared the innate sovereignty of genius. Applying his thought to technics, he discussed the privileges of the respective fine arts and mapped out the border lines across which neither can pass without encroaching on the other's ground. Goethe's generalizations are those of a lofty intellect surveying works of the genius to which it was allied and conscious of the theory of their perfection. Taine, more definitely than others, has regarded environment and heredity as factors, a knowledge of which is wholly indispensable for the consideration of an author's product. Sainte-Beuve's method, so poetic and intuitive, looked into the spiritual growth of the character under notice, always intent upon a subject's personality and seeking in his work the expression of his soul. On similar lines Matthew Arnold probes for the realities of life, thought, action; an Anglo-ethical reverence underlies his judgments, in which a consciousness of the malady disturbing a school, an individual, or a nation, is usually apparent.

I speak of criticism as an art, but there is a science of criticism, as of other arts, and to this fact is due the success of great artists, musicians, poets, architects, etc., in technical comment upon the rules and examples of their respective departments. In this age, whose chief note is a recognition of the "reign of law," it is more than ever fit that these classes should be heard with reference to their own lines of effort, should be Masters in the traditional sense of the appellation. The unformulated instinct of a true artist is scientifically correct. This declares to him that beauty is something absolute and objective—if not an entity, a thing, it at all events lies in expression—in the expression and charm of fitness. Only through a course of mental sophistry will he learn to accept the inverted theory of Véron (otherwise the most constructive of modern French critics), who maintains beauty's subjectivity, i. e., its non-existence except as an impression of the observer. Admit Véron's premise, that beauty is a chimera, and you must consider his treatise on "Æsthetics" unimpeachable. It is logical, masterly; but for one I do not think it sound doctrine, and the artistic nature is loath to believe, that "there is no disputing about tastes." I do not admit that Taste—and I use this hackneyed word in its full meaning—is purely the subjective standard of each individual, and that the taste of one is as good as that of another. Beauty everywhere is "a felt conformity to law"—of course to the law of its habitat; hence, again, the expression of the fitness of things, of the Right under the existing conditions. The personal "impressions" of one whose organization does not enable him to perceive that fitness, are no more to us than the visions of the half-blind who "see men as trees walking." And if from a material world or system all sentient observers were to be exiled, certain forms and combinations would still be beautiful in themselves, and would be found so by the first sane intelligence that should arrive to contemplate them.

Taste, therefore, is subjective, because man himself is a microcosm, having the operation of universal methods in his own being, and discerning what is in harmony therewith. So far as he discerns this, he has taste; so far as he can utilize it in forming new and ideal structures, he is a creative artist.

The modern effort errs, in its false assumption of freedom, whenever a workman is encouraged to make rules limited to his own capacity. A sane and noble "impressionism" is that which reveals to us the individuality, the distinctive genius of an artist; it is his personal nimbus illuminating his work, but the work must express what is scientifically defensible, or it will be wrong and not enduring. One may wear blue glasses, but that does not make the world blue. Nevertheless, standards of fitness vary, justly, according to varying conditions of region, material, race, etc., beauty being always dependent on these conditions. An edifice like the Parthenon, whose proportions are exquisite, because exactly fitted to their special locality in this special world, would be absurd and unlovely, if not impossible, on another planet. A race inhabiting the latter would find beauty only in a structure subordinated to the conditions of weight, material, color, climate, there existing. Such observers, like the structure, would be part of the distinct local system, and their mental and spiritual nature would not be out of correlation.

Inferior race types have a beauty of their own. This, with its rules and standards, the superior race comprehends and admits for what it is worth. Criticism, therefore, is inclusive. Only a narrow and superficial zealot promulgates restrictive dogmas—such, for instance, as the claim that a striking theme is of no value in art. The general appreciation of an impressive motive or topic, imaginatively presented, and even apart from the technical quality of the work, is something to be recognized by a healthy judgment.

Above all, I conform to the belief that the great and final office of the critic is to distinguish between what is temporary or modish, and what is enduring, in any phase, type, or product, of human work. I have said nothing of the humor, sympathy, insight, personal style, which enhance the strength and constitute the charm of critical writing. The foregoing points are merely a restatement of what seems to me the merest primer of criticism, given with as little sophistication as possible and in the briefest space.

  1. The Epoch, March 11 and 18, 1887.