A FRIEND OF MINE HAS A STORY ABOUT moving. Having purchased a condo a few blocks east of his old apartment, he decided to throw a book-moving party. Over the course of an evening a train of people paced through the neighborhood, toting brown bags, until his extensive collection was housed in its new abode. Then, when everyone got good and drunk, no one could resist pulling the books from their tote bags, fondling them, passing them around--and suddenly, my friend says, his new condo felt like home.
I like this story because it reinforces my understanding of books as the most seductive of domestic objects. They look like small dwellings--the very architecture of the book seems to represent this. When we read, we enter a place we have neither created nor own, and yet the images we imagine can only be constructed out of places we have ourselves previously visited. When we read, we enter someone else's dream, and yet everything we find there relates intimately to us, allows us the most personal access. The experience of reading can mimic the feeling of intimate memory, and the "I" of the narration possesses the eye of the reader.
In this seduction, literature is unlike any other art. In his 1969 essay, "The Phenomenology of Reading," Georges Poulet says, "The extraordinary fact in the case of [reading] a book is the falling away of the barriers between you and it. You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside." Poulet, part of the Geneva School of critics, believed that literary criticism could itself be literature: in the way that improvisation on music might itself create beautiful music, the critic might describe his experience of the book in such a way that the reader of the review would then experience the critic's experience. "When I read as I ought, i.e. without mental reservation, without any desire to preserve my independence of judgment, and with the total commitment required of any reader, my comprehension becomes intuitive and any feeling proposed to me is immediately assumed by me," Poulet writes. "To understand a literary work...is to let the individual who wrote it reveal himself to us in us.... Each of the works, however, while I am reading it, lives in me its own life. The subject who is revealed to me through my reading of it is not the author.... The work lives its own life within me; in a certain sense, it thinks itself, and it even gives itself a meaning within me."
Poulet's romantic dualism allowed him to imagine the critic as the ideal reader--a concept that has both lured and frustrated critics from early on. The ideal reader is willing to be carried away, to attenuate the distance between himself and the work; in short, to be interested and yet remain able to distinguish the work as an autonomous object. R.P. Blackmur's 1935 essay, "A Critic's Job of Work" illustrated the ideal reader as one who "observes facts and delights in dis-
criminations." The "utility" of any rational approach isn't cheapened should the critic have an "ulterior purpose." "Ulterior," Blackmur reminds us, "is not in itself a pejorative, but only so when applied to an enemy." He says:
"Since criticism is not autonomous--not a light but a process of elucidation--it cannot avoid discovering constantly within itself a purpose or purposes ulterior in the good sense. The danger is in not knowing what is ulterior and what is not, which is much the same as the cognate danger in the arts themselves. The arts serve purposes beyond themselves; the purposes of what they dramatize or represent at that remove from the flux which gives them order and meaning and value; and to deny those purposes is like asserting that the function of a handsaw is to hang above a bench and that to cut wood is to belittle it."
That "the arts serve purposes" higher than entertainment seems like such blatant sentimentality these days that the quote above has probably caused not a few of us to blush. Criticism, in the moneyed wake of marketing, seems less autonomous than ever, and more worthy of suspicion. We no longer believe in a collegiate core of "ideal reader" critics, only the occasional cubicle housing the grad student whose job it is to skim books and write up the enthusiastic front flap. In journalism, ironic distance devolves to sarcasm--because none of us wants to be accused of failing to recognize the subversive. Deconstruction for the masses has led to a vanishing of the concrete beneath us, so that, floating at our glowing computer terminals (with a philosophical sense of connectedness) we are only allowed to parrot or paraphrase as critics, apologizing all the while for our regressive biases.
Our biases are not what is most interesting about us. Especially now, none of us is self-contained, none of us is fully capable of rising above our difficult adolescence--but so what? Without a personal bias criticism acts merely as theory, and is not very useful to the average reader. What is more interesting is the mediation between our biases and beauty. If art realizes the utility of beauty, criticism returns it to the uncertainty of aesthetics. Even the most "objective" critic is looking for a foothold from which to leap into an argument about beauty. Good art invites a grasping, a jealousy, a desire, a perversion, from the reader. Good art eliminates the "outside" from which we usually stand and shout our disinterest.
In a 1987 New York Times article, art critic Robert Hughes explains that he doesn't purchase art, because "with contemporary artists" acquisition might constitute a conflict of interest. The writer of the article described Hughes in his loft, a space "chockablock with books and papers but devoid of art." The meagerness of this image depressed me. My own room is littered with the objects of my criticism. Beneath my bed, Saramago's The Stone Raft and Simone de Beauvoir's letters to Nelson Algren. On my nightstand, Patrick Chamoiseau's Childhood and Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. There are books blocking the mirror behind my dresser and some that I have stumbled over at the corner of the staircase. For a while I was collecting magazine photographs of the living rooms of writers I admired. Once I followed a woman for more than ten blocks downtown because she looked strikingly like the jacket photo of Lydia Davis. I knew the woman wasn't really Davis, but I wanted to pretend she was.
Clearly Hughes is afraid that if he began to collect art people might accuse him of touting certain artists he owned in order to increase the art's value. But what happens when critics feel they must curb their desire to live with the art they critique? What happens when they subject their prurient tendencies to fear of suspicion of conflict of interest? How can a critic be an ideal reader in an atmosphere where the impulse art evokes--an impulse towards communion--must be suppressed? How can the book lover trust any sort of criticism mired in the real conflict of interest of marketing? How can a book reviewer trust his own passion when he must first analyze it?
I would not have begun writing criticism if I had not thought it would give me the chance to meet some of the writers I admired. I read, I admit, not in search of perfection, but because reading shoves me towards my own writing, and when I find an author that does so I feel grateful.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, personality haunts any white space (In 8th grade, I was subjected to Mr Moore's rules for a good essay: Paragraph one, state your three points; paragraphs two, three, and four, elucidate. There were never more or less than three points, a lesson that has trinitized by aesthetic balance ever since.), but it dons the meager nightclothes of traditional critical language (Also in Mr. Moore's class we were required to keep a daily diary that Mr. Moore would read and grade at the end of each quarter. Since I already kept a journal that I would have shit my pants before allowing anyone to read, that whole year I led a double life on the page. It was my first taste of fictionalized memoir, and it was exhausting.): hold the sheet up to the light and you bear witness to the backmasking of language, the double entendres, the jargon, the subtly-angled barbs (In college, when I worked at a hospital that was also a teaching institution, I overheard doctors joking about phrases to use in letters of recommendation that sounded good but actually meant nothing: "I have never witnessed an intern with patient-relating skills like Jane's," or "Jane's attitude in the face of a high-stress surgical schedule was truly astonishing.") that broadside the purpose of criticism. I will not be so disingenuous as to call for the abandonment of objectivity altogether, but perhaps we should expect from critics not so much objectivity as pragmatism, bravado, ardor, insolence, obsession, ulteriority--in short, a purpose towards art, not for art's sake, but for the sake of the reader.