Thursday, 8 September 2011

Being Critical of Critics

This is the month that I begin my MA, and so this is the month that I am beginning to do reading for my MA and I have to tell you that things are not going entirely well.

Whenever I pick up critical texts it dawns on me that I may not be a very scholarly person. I tend to enjoy books in which words make sense, and mean things, whereas the main point of words in most criticism seems to be to make the average reader frightened and confused. Consider, for example, this delight of a sentence by Nancy Stepan:
By the 1850s, the shift from the earlier ethnographic, monogenist, historical and philosophical tradition to a more conservative, anthropological, and polygenist approach... had advanced quite far in Britain... Races were now seen as forming a natural but static chain of excellence.
SO MANY WORDS, and all of them carefully crafted to be as bamboozling as possible. It's nonsense! And that's just one sentence. Imagine this drivellous stuff going on for pages and pages, and you will understand why I after a while I begin to feel like every word of it is jumping gleefully up and down on my head until my brains run out from my ears.

I don't understand why critics think they have to make up so many technical words to get across what they mean - in practice, they're just isolating themselves from a vast majority of readers who might otherwise be interested in what they have to say. Shouldn't criticism be about, I don't know, explaining things to people?

There are exceptions, of course. Some critics do try to light up their reader's brains rather than smear the product of their own superior cerebral cortexes all over the page, and some essays have such wonderful (or hilarious) ideas behind them that I don't even care if they're expressed in a slightly confusing way.

As an example of this, please see pretty much anything written by Freud. He does have an unfortunate fondness for phrases like "libidinal object-cathexis", but he also (with an entirely straight face, which makes it even better) has entirely brilliant, totally insane thoughts that make his essays completely worthwhile.

Okay, so. Birth. Freud has thoughts about birth. According to Freud, we should see birth as a form of
castration in the mother, (based on the equation 'child=penis').
Isn't that AMAZING? The child is a penis! Of course it bloody is! If you read Freud's essays you will quickly come to discover that everything is a penis unless it is a vagina. Hats are penises. Buildings are penises. Trains are certainly penises. He's essentially one of those mad little old men who wander the streets with wheelie bags yelling at passers-by, except better educated.

The horse is a penis
But, in the main, I'm struggling with the critical mindset. I find that I don't like most of these people's writing styles, and then I feel bad for not liking them. It's very awkward. Everyone KNOWS Raymond Williams is a genius, so how can I be thinking that he is an idiot? (Bloody Raymond Williams, he is the worst of the lot. He does these twee subjective-pretending-to-be-objective value judgements that drive me nuts because of how totally random they are -  he'll just merrily state that some book is an author's "best" work, and then move on as though he's stated an obvious scientific fact. It makes my brain bleed. BEST, Raymond Williams? What do you mean by BEST? Did you TEST this theory, did you ASK PEOPLE or did you just MAKE SHIT UP OUT OF YOUR HEAD)

So this was how I was feeling when I came to nearly the last book in my pile, Walter Benjamin's Illuminations. And, oh my god, it was like I had stumbled upon an actual person writing an actual book for actual people.

I think (and this is rare for me, with critics) Walter Benjamin and I could definitely be friends. If he wasn't dead. He's not only poetically good with words, he loves using them, and (even more importantly) he loves books, in a greedy, geeky way that most critics refuse to admit to. The following passage is the best and most wonderful critical thing I've read so far:
one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it its freedom - the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
He's one of those rare people who can write about a text and (no matter what it is) make you desperate to read it - there's an essay in Illuminations about A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, which I can safely say I have never had the slightest inclination to pick up, and by the end I was absolutely desperate to rush out to the nearest bookshop and pick up the fifteen-volume set. Walter Benjamin made me want to read Proust! The man's a miracle-worker.

After all that Freud and Raymond Williams, I want to take a bath of happiness in Walter Benjamin's essays. I want to gambol through the fields with them like a person in a pastoral poem. Oh, clever and normal man, where have you been all week? Walter Benjamin proves to me that you don't have to be an ass just because you have complicated thoughts in your head. Raymond Williams I am looking at you.

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