Edmund Wilson is the rarest of literary treasures– a good critic.
After reading Wilson’s illuminating work of literary criticism, Axel’s Castle, I think the author would have agreed with me and Hermann Hesse that a good critic plays a noble and important role in the history of literature, explaining the work of artists not just to the public, but to the artists themselves.
Only the lesser critics wear their costly erudition upon their sleeves as they attempt to show-off their wit and learning and to use their amateurish psychological “insights” to show us– not what is actually there in the work– but what is in THEM, the critics, what they are bringing to the table, how smart they are, how penetrating is their analysis. And those are just the critics capable of attempting positive feedback; many critics think they are being penetrating when in actuality they are merely wielding knives of negativity, slicing and dicing easy targets, ignoring the good almost always contained in even failed artistic attempts. These critics– who are the very sort that give the negative connotation to the term “critic”– attempt to raise themselves by lowering others, striking at the kneecaps of striving artists, giving a helpful shove at every artistic stumble or mis-step.
Often, one senses in these lower critics a certain desperation for respect, possibly even some professional envy against artists who have managed to make a go of creation instead of earning a living by the far easier past-time of destruction. Sometimes, one can almost feel the heat of the resentment possessed by certain worm-level critics against those artists who– for whatever lucky concomitance of time, place, and publicity– have achieved fame or fortune seemingly out of proportion to his or her displayed talents. But it is easy to prick and make deflating sport of artists puffed up by good publicists and a willing press into this or that year’s collection of Macy’s Parade balloons. It takes no genius to point out that the night sky is mostly black. But it is not just anyone who can find the constellations even when they obscured by fog and clouded judgment.
Wilson obviously (and rightly) considers good criticism an important artform unto itself. For him, the critic is someone far more noble and important than some snarky snob. In the dedication of his book, Wilson writes that proper literary criticism should be nothing less than “a history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them.” That strikes me as a bit more ambitious and honorable of a goal than that of attaining the day’s most tweeted caustic blurb.
Pater, Wilson tells us, wrote that philosophy provides a great general service to the human spirit beyond its definitions and syllogisms; philosophy can serve “to rouse” the soul, “to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation.” I get the impression that Wilson thinks good criticism could do much the same, that it is, in fact, a form or facet of philosophy.
Wilson offers us his professional opinion of what the best poetry and prose can accomplish…
“Any literary work, if it accomplishes its purpose, must superinduce in the reader a whole complex of what we are accustomed to call thoughts, emotions, and sensations– a state of consciousness, a state of mind; it depends for its effectiveness upon a web of associations as intricate, and in the last analysis as mysterious, as our minds and bodies themselves.”
Wilson, unlike just about any other modern critic or artist I’ve read on the subject, does not assert that poetry is only for those chosen few who can appreciate its “purity” and “exalted function.” He reminds us that in Classical times, in poetry such as the Georgics, poetic forms were used to tackle such subjects as bee-keeping and stock-raising. He makes the point that poets of the past used poetry for much broader purposes then we do today, writing everything from astronomical poems to poems of literary criticism– subjects which today would strike the modern reader as “unsuitable and sometimes annoying in verse.”
Wilson does not contend that the fact that a smaller percentage of writing today is produced as verse is a sure sign of the decline of civilization. And he does not assert that modern readers are just a bunch of knuckle-heads who have lost the ability to appreciate poetry, or that they are somehow unworthy it. “It is much more likely,” he states, “that for some reason or other, verse as a technique of literary expression is being abandoned by humanity altogether– perhaps because it is a more primitive, and hence a more barbarous technique than prose.” It was Edgar Allen Poe, he recalls, who predicted long ago that the long poem will likely never be popular again.