Hesse On Critics: The Good, The Bad, And The Actually Helpful


People often assume that artists despise critics.  And I’m sure there are plenty who do.  Probably, this is largely due to the financial concerns of those creative types operating upon a more mundane plane of existence than pure artistic exultation.  This does not have to be an exclusively greedy reaction… less money accruing from unsuccessful artistic endeavors can mean less ability to devote time to one’s art– a living must be earned after all.  And unless you’re one of those sucking directly or indirectly off the government teat, most of us have to produce something people actually want in order to participate in the economic life which sustains us.

Other artists, for egotistical reasons, may also resent critics for bashing their work.  These types of artists indubitably possess a fragile shell of self-confidence or a thin faith in the value of their own work.  By the way, that description would include most of us.  For those with enough confidence, however, what does the opinion of one person, probably a failed artist himself, actually matter?

On the other hand, novelist Hermann Hesse felt that a critic– a Good Critic– could be a great friend to the artist.  Hesse speaks mostly of the artist as writer, but his general sentiment could apply to all fields of artistic endeavor…  “No doubt the poet seeks love, as every being seeks love,” he writes in About Bad And Good Critics in 1930, “but to the same degree he seeks to be understood and recognized.”  He compares the examination of a work by a Good Critic to being diagnosed “by a good doctor,” and goes so far as to contend that, “every True Poet rejoices at every True Critic.”

The Good Critic can offer the True Artist much more than good press.  The Good Critic can help the artist to understand his own work.  “No great Seer or Poet has ever been able to interpret his own views completely,” Hesse states in his review of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in 1919.  Hesse– as great of an admirer of Dostoevsky as anyone– did not believe even the great Russian novelist himself “was aware of the various ideas and insights” that have been attributed to his book.

“In most cases the author of the book is not the court competent to judge where the reader’s understanding ceases and misunderstanding begins,” Hesse says in his 1941 Postscript To Steppenwolf.  “Many an author has found readers to whom his book was more transparent than it was to himself.  In addition, misunderstanding can occassionally be fruitful.”

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Hesse believes that the Good Critic does not have to be an unbiased one.  “It is precisely the incompetent critic who often pretends to objectivity, as though aesthetics were an exact science.”  […]  “In a critic, neutrality is almost always suspect and a lack.”  According to Hesse, “a critic should not hide his passion.”  Readers will pick-up on the biases of the critic and take those into account when they are attempting to ascertain “the poet’s essential quality” as viewed through the lens of the critic’s opinions.  What the readers does NOT want to read is a critic who “has little personality or is unable to express it.”  When someone reads a critic who “does not know how to show himself,” they tend not to take his opinions to heart, and even “the strongest words of praise or condemnation on the part of the critic remain ineffective.”

Hesse is especially vitrolic against those critics who concentrate more on the poet than the work.  He feels that many critics go-in for too much amateur psychoanalysis of the author or else spend too much time guessing at his political motivations.  When critics start psychologically examining the author, says Hesse in About Good And Bad Critics, “attention is systematically diverted from the poetry.”  Thus, instead of works of art evaluated on their own merits, “the poems are degraded to symptoms of psychic illness.”

Criticism based on political concerns is an equally bad business.  “If one is content to extract from a poem or narrative its content in ideas, partisianship, information, or edification,” states Hesse in Interpreting Kafka (1956), “then one is content with very little, and the secret of art, the thing that is true and original, is lost.”  Hesse suspects that if the author under the critic’s glare shares the critic’s political creed, the work “will be praised, or at least treated with consideration.”  Whereas, if the author belongs to the opposing camp, “then he is rejected either by contradiction or ridicule.”  And most unfortunate of all is the author without political affiliation, since “he is often ignored, for there is no power behind him,” no one pulling publicity levers and pushing his work forward.

Critics sometimes deserve their reputation for attacking artists with acidic witticisms.  A envious or bitter critic, says Hesse, can attack with all “the vindictiveness of the ungifted.”  Even the best-hearted critics have chosen for their field of endeavor an occupation “suitable for people who are smart but who are strangers to Art,” says Hesse in Interpreting Kafka, an occupation populated by too many Bad Critics who can “never find their way to the inside of a work of art because they stand at the gate fiddling with a hundred keys and never notice that the gate, in fact, is open.”


More Posts from Hammering Shield On Hermann Hesse:

Hesse On the Decline Of The West  

Hesse On Clear Contemplation And The Cloudy Mirror Of Desire

Hesse On Living A Life Of Heightened Awareness

Hesse On Facing The Abyss Within 



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