by carl wilson

A Tale of Two Philosophes, and a Dilemma


The TLS presents a lively account of the correspondence of Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which the confrontation between Nietzschean provocateur and pious liberal becomes a parable about the uncomfortable relationship between criticism and compassion. It closes with this remark from George Orwell to Stephen Spender in April 1938:

When you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for that reason that I don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.

I sympathize: It is hard to be harsh or even ironical about people one knows or has met - but rather than giving up meeting people, the only answer I see is to give up the kind of polemic that consists in treating people as caricatures embodying certain ideas. If a statement, a work of art or an action truly deserves a scathing response, its offense must be so deep that you would say the same to the person's face. Otherwise, even though intellectual brutality can be useful and especially pleasurable, it comes at too great a cost to the soul.

As Stanley Elkin (the late American novelist) put it, in a phrase I first read on Dial M that went on to haunt me throughout the writing of my Céline Dion book:

Listen, disdain is easy, a mug's game, but look closely at anything
and it'll break your heart.

Or that's what I think this week. How do others deal with the dilemma: Is it possible and desirable to be civil in private and yet be "public enemies" (as Houellebecq and BHL's collection of correspondence is punningly called), or should we shun human contact with our intellectual/ideological opponents lest it dull our rapiers? Do you find it harder to pass judgment on people's work in public or in print after you've met them, or even if you know they will be reading it?

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, January 29 at 2:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)



Sorry, dude, I should have read the academic joust you linked to.
I would've advocated a neutron device.
No, not really.
I couldn't stop laughing at the two way procto-logical self examination.
I'm having a lovely day, thank you!

Posted by nilan perera on February 11, 2009 10:05 AM



I agree with most of the above.

It's all about art: 'high', 'low' or whatever and you don't get personal because it's not about the personality.
It's a bit tricky when art gets inextricably mixed with personal identity, but once it goes public, it grows legs, walks on it's own and must take responsibility for itself.
The critic is there to provide a somewhat informed perspective, nothing more, as the appreciation of any work is highly subjective and readers/viewers/listeners must accept that as well.
My favorite critics have also been great writers and have subsequently breathed more life and dimension into my own subjectivety, but have not made me deviate from my choices.

Posted by nilan on February 11, 2009 9:22 AM



In this time of media overload, I believe a critic's job has changed. With so much “product” being foisted on the public daily, I feel that these days a critic’s job should be to act as a filter, a cheerleader and a coach. A filter: to weed through the deluge of artistic efforts out there and hip people to the ones worth checking out. A cheerleader: to encourage them to do so by extolling the virtues of said worthy items. A coach: to point out flaws in otherwise noteworthy work so the artist may take note. The severest criticism in the era of non-stop promotion is to ignore a work. Why take up increasingly valuable media territory and increasingly scarce reader attention with lengthy lambasting of inferior endeavors.
You could argue that a new Jessica Simpson release is “news” because so many people are interested, and thus it must be reviewed. I would argue that though Miss Simpson is not completely devoid of talent, a review of her CD or movie nudges out a review that might turn people on to a Juana Molina, Sharon Robinson, or Beady Belle (if you are asking who? —my point is made).
As to getting to know your subjects. … My philosophy of criticism makes it easier to be friends with people about whom I write. If we are talking about something like Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, I think that it is a good thing to know your enemies and to have healthy respect for them. Demonizing them can lead to underestimating them.

Posted by Michael Ross on February 3, 2009 6:58 AM



"I don't mean softballing, but finding an alternative language that isn't on a range between antagonism and cheerleading - a whole different spectrum."

I agree it shouldn't be one or the other- how about compassionate criticism? But that takes more space and unfortunately so much music criticism has been reduced to sound bite morsels that only the extreme flavours get through.

It also takes your time - you've got to listen more closely and carefully...

Posted by david on February 1, 2009 7:28 AM



Humanity up, criticism down.

Posted by Owen on February 1, 2009 12:03 AM



[Jeez, how did two of those get there??? Carl, could you delete one, please?]

Posted by J.D. Considine on January 31, 2009 6:18 PM



Being fairly old school, I hew to the notion that criticism should always be about the work, not the artist. That means no personal insult, no hero worship, and no worrying about how he or she will feel about what you write. If you have to be harsh, it's better to try to couch your criticism in jokes, as it will both amuse the reader and take a bit of the sting out of your dismissal. Gratuitous venom or cruelty benefits no one, and excessive praise often comes of as hollow, if not false.

Really, though, the question boils down to who are you writing for? A critic's ultimate responsibility is to the reader (and, by extension, the publication). A critic needs to be every bit as honest as those he or she writes about, and if you hedge your argument because you're concerned about how the artist will take it, you're being dishonest, even if it's only on the "white lie" level.

Argument is important, because in the play of ideas we can find truth. But beating up on people -- which, ultimately is what gets done when people are treated as "caricature[s] embodying certain ideas" -- isn't argument, it's bullying. And if you look closely, I suspect you'll find that those who prefer to vilify anyone holding an opposing view argue not in order to discover the truth but to reinforce a hierarchy -- aesthetic, political or other -- in which they stand above the others.

Posted by J.D. Considine on January 31, 2009 6:16 PM



"Criticism suffers when critics pull their punches" - my real question is whether this is true. Not, I hasten to say, that critics should suppress their criticisms. Rather, whether we can find ways of delivering them that don't have anything to do with punching. I don't mean softballing, but finding an alternative language that isn't on a range between antagonism and cheerleading - a whole different spectrum.

But I have some difficulty conceiving this, and don't want to say that all criticism should be in the form of personal narrative or poetic abstraction or something. Argument is important.

Posted by zoilus on January 30, 2009 6:11 PM



It's a tough call. On one hand, if you've ever suffered the brutality of a nasty review, it's harder to dish one out yourself knowing that the subject is a human being with likely the same sensitivities.

On the other hand, if you put stuff out there you have to develop a thick skin about how it'll be received, and criticism suffers when critics pull their punches... as arguably does art in general.

If I had to review the work of an acquaintance and thought it was crap, I'd probably take the coward's way out and get someone else to write the review!

Posted by malstain on January 30, 2009 5:27 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson