Vladimir Nabokov, though often scathing in his literary judgments, nonetheless emphasized usefulness in his conduct as a professor. Years after his teaching career had been happily eclipsed by literary fame he recalled his approach: “I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead.” He found diagrams helpful and emphasized visualization. (“Without a visual perception of the larch labyrinth in Mansfield Park that novel loses some of its stereographic charm.”) This nicely matched his inclusion of curiosity as integral to his definition of art.
Less ego, more curiosity—less self, more other—this formula might make a good aphorism for aspiring critics, readers, and artists. Here I think of Lionel Trilling and the civility of his arguments—interesting, stimulating, and pleasant even when one disagrees. In an article about Trilling that appeared years ago in the New York Review of Books (in January 2001), Andrew Delbanco neatly spoke to what I like best about Trilling:
Trilling’s real distinctiveness, I think, is that he was at heart a teacher. He carried into his writing the classroom principle that stating any proposition without at least a hint of doubt about its validity is a form of bullying. His only dogma was that, pending further thought, all claims ought to be provisional . . .When claims remain provisional, one can pass the Fitzgerald test: “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
When claims remain provisional, one can not only hold two opposed ideas in mind and continue to function but, in the best cases, function better: more interestingly, more subtly, more artfully. It’s worth noting that the teacherly anti-bullying sensibility that Delbanco identifies in Trilling was shared by E. M. Forster, the novelist Trilling so famously admired but whose own criticism Trilling brilliantly critiqued in the final chapter of his book about Forster. Trilling preferred for criticism to be less “relaxed” than Forster’s, but he fully grasped the considerable virtues of Forster’s deliberately—defiantly—relaxed or “impressionistic” approach.
I’m partial to the latter myself, with its inherent modesty that undermines pretension while, at the same time, it remains able to intelligently articulate not only a response to a specific work but also, by extension, larger matters related to cultural values and the art form in question. Of more dogmatic critical laws and lawgivers I remain wary; I am by temperament inclined to echo Elizabeth Bishop’s advice on how best to interpret poetry: “Use the dictionary,” she told her students. “It’s better than the critics.”
Of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive, as she well knew; but the dictionary can be a great friend to those who aspire to knowledge and, eventually, wisdom—this last being an aspiration that is also essential to worthwhile criticism.
(Pictured: Lionel Trilling.)