Everyone’s a critic

Gombrowicz is entertaining but mostly unrelatable when he goes off on some critic who has somehow wronged him.

—So-and-so, in this month’s Wiadomości, completely misunderstood my latest contribution to Kultura, he’ll complain.

I don’t know, I think I would love to have a detractor! And to be a part of the Polish diaspora, or some other clique, and have our own journals and salons and cafes.

The internet seems to have exploded all that.

But in a 1954 diary entry G goes deep into literary criticism, and while it’s full of the usual invective there are also some excellent insights.

He begins unexpectedly. It’s the responsibility of the work, G says, to defend itself against criticism. And the foundation of this defense must be honesty — the admission that opinions matter to us, even (especially?) the opinions of people we think to be below us:

There are enough innocent works that enter life looking as if they did not know that they would be raped by a thousand idiotic assessments! Enough authors who pretend that this rape, perpetrated on them with superficial judgments, any kind at all, is something that is not capable of affecting them and should not be noticed. A work, even if it is born of the purest contemplation, should be written in such a way as to assure the author an advantage in his game with people. A style that cannot defend itself before human judgment, that surrenders its creator to the ill will of any old imbecile, does not fulfill its most important assignment. Yet defense against these opinions is possible only when we manage a little humility and admit how important they really are to us, even if they do come from an idiot. That is why the defenselessness of art in the face of human judgment is the sad consequence of its pride: ah, I am higher than that, I take into account only the opinions of the wise! This fiction is absurd and the truth, the difficult and tragic truth is that the idiot’s opinion is also significant. It also creates us, shapes us from inside out, and has far-reaching practical and vital consequences.

That’s not to say G spares the critic. The critic’s mere existence is essentially an abomination, says G:

So they want to be methodical, professional, objective, just? But they themselves are a triumph of dilettantism, expressing themselves on subjects they are incapable of mastering. They are an example of the most unlawful usurpation.
Guardians of morality? Morality is based on a hierarchy of values and they themselves sneer at hierarchy. The very fact of their existence is in its essence immoral: there is nothing that they have exhibited and they have no proof that they have a right to this role except that the editor allows them to write. Giving themselves up to immoral work, which consists of articulating cheap, easy, hurried judgments without basis, they want to judge the morality of people who put their life into art.
Detail of The Ladder of Divine Ascent

I love this appeal to the Great Chain of Being and the condemnation of critics as an affront to the Order of Things. G sums it up:

To write about literature is easier than writing literature: that’s the whole point.

This argument is emotionally alluring but kind of sketchy. Since when should difficulty of execution be the criterion by which a hierarchy is created? Should a Born Natural to whom great work comes easy be considered lower than a Tortured Artist who struggles to create? I’m all for putting criticism on a lower rung than literature, but I don’t think difficulty is what puts it there.

Fortunately G doesn’t let us bogged down in the semantics because he has a solution:

What is the way out of this?
Cast off in fury and pride all the artificial advantages that your situation assures you. Because literary criticism is not the judging of one man by another (who gave *you* this right?) but the meeting of two personalities on absolutely equal terms.
Therefore: do not judge. Simply describe your reactions. Never write about the author or the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author. You are allowed to write about yourself.

G seems to be advocating for the personal approach to literary criticism — something, for what it’s worth, I was taught to do in my undergraduate English courses. But he goes further:

In writing about yourself, however, write so that your person takes on weight, meaning, and life, so that it becomes your decisive argument. Do not write as pseudoscientist but as an artist. Criticism must be as tense and vibrant as that which it touches. Otherwise it becomes gas escaping from a balloon, a sloppy butchering with a dull knife, decay, an anatomy, a grave.
And if you don’t feel like doing this or cannot do this, leave it alone.

This, for me, is the big payoff. (See what I did just there? Throw in the “for me” qualifier? This is how I’ve always thought of personal responses to literature: one big qualifier. “Well maybe I’m not equipped to say anything meaningful about Moby Dick because I haven’t read all the stuff that’s been written about it, but for me…”)

G’s point is: only by writing about and through your own experience do you elevate your criticism to art. That is to say — criticism has to be personal because it is inferior, but once it is made personal it is elevated; the critic and the author engage in the same art and can finally engage each other on the same playing field, on “absolutely equal terms.”

This thinking is thoroughly Nietzschean, which I say with some hesitancy since so many people are kind of hard on and dismissive of the dude. In some ways G is a superior Nietzsche, he’s less dyspeptic and actually Polish. In any event this whole theme comes down to “becoming yourself,” a process about which Nietzsche has a whole lot to say so I’ll just drop in the first passage I can think of:

To “give style” to one’s character — a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed — both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly thats could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!

The value of literary or any criticism is to discover and give expression to one’s taste. I liked this, I didn’t like that — we should frame these opinions not as judgments of others but as carvings at the sculpture of ourselves.