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Speak the Best Word

The excellent Berfrois (“Intellectual jousting in the republic of letters” – www.berfrois.com) posts a reprint of an essay first published in The Dial in July 1840 ‑ and remarkably apposite and up to the minute it is.

Margaret Fuller’s “A Short Essay on Critics” is short perhaps in the Victorian sense of the word -  that is it will detain you only half the morning. I cannot, I am afraid, get its essence down to 140 characters, but if you have a little time I will try to summarise it in 140 short paragraphs. No, don’t go away, a joke, a joke.

“Essays, entitled critical,” writes Fuller, “are epistles addressed to the public, through which the mind of the recluse relieves itself of its impressions. Of these the only law is, ‘Speak the best word that is in thee.’ Or they are regular articles got up to order by the literary hack writer, for the literary mart, and the only law is to make them plausible.”

Fuller finds it convenient to divide critics into three classes. The first type we might recognise, though now we would more frequently know him or her as a commentator or a columnist than a critic.

First, there are the subjective class ... These are persons to whom writing is no sacred, no reverend employment. They are not driven to consider, not forced upon investigation by the fact, that they are deliberately giving their thoughts an independent existence, and that it may live to others when dead to them. They know no agonies of conscientious research, no timidities of self-respect. They see no ideal beyond the present hour, which makes its mood an uncertain tenure. How things affect them now they know; let the future, let the whole take care of itself. They state their impressions as they rise, of other men’s spoken, written, or acted thoughts. They never dream of going out of themselves to seek the motive, to trace the law of another nature. They never dream that there are statures which cannot be measured from their point of view. They love, they like, or they hate; the book is detestable, immoral, absurd, or admirable, noble, of a most approved scope;—these statements they make with authority, as those who bear the evangel of pure taste and accurate judgment, and need be tried before no human synod. To them it seems that their present position commands the universe.

Better than these are “the apprehensive”, who “can go out of themselves and enter fully into a foreign existence”. “They reproduce the work of which they speak, and make it better known to us in so far as two statements are better than one ... They have the ready grace of love with somewhat of the dignity of disinterested friendship. They sometimes give more pleasure than the original production of which they treat, as melodies will sometimes ring sweetlier in the echo. Besides there is a peculiar pleasure in a true response; it is the assurance of equipoise in the universe.”

Best of all, however, are the comprehensive critics, who have the virtues of the apprehensive, and then some more. They can enter into the spirit of a work but also put it in its place and “estimate its relations” by their ability to “perceive the analogies of the universe, and how they are regulated by an absolute, invariable principle”. (Here, I think, I would be inclined to stay behind while Miss Fuller heads off into the universe, whose properties she seems to know more certainly than I think I do. But never mind; it gets better again):

Critics are poets cut down, says some one by way of jeer; but, in truth, they are men with the poetical temperament to apprehend, with the philosophical tendency to investigate. The maker is divine; the critic sees this divine, but brings it down to humanity by the analytic process. The critic is the historian who records the order of creation ... The critic is beneath the maker, but is his needed friend ... [he is] not a base caviller, but the younger brother of genius.

And, university literary theorists please note, “[the critic] must be inspired by the philosopher’s spirit of inquiry and need of generalization, but he must not be constrained by the hard cemented masonry of method to which philosophers are prone”. Hard cemented masonry indeed, that breaks the teeth of the innocent reader.

Miss Fuller finally has wise words for the conductors of literary reviews and contributors thereto.

... the greatest mistake in the conduct of these journals ... [is that] smooth monotony has been attained, an uniformity of tone, so that from the title of a journal you can infer the tenor of all its chapters. But nature is ever various, ever new, and so should be her daughters, art and literature ... Able and experienced men write for us, and we would know what they think ... We would live with them, rather than be taught by them how to live; we would catch the contagion of their mental activity, rather than have them direct us how to regulate our own. In books, in reviews, in the senate, in the pulpit, we wish to meet thinking men, not schoolmasters or pleaders. We wish that they should do full justice to their own view, but also that they should be frank with us, and, if now our superiors, treat us as if we might some time rise to be their equals ... [The ideal critic, finally,] will be free and make free from the mechanical and distorting influences we hear complained of on every side. He will teach us to love wisely what we before loved well, for he knows the difference between censoriousness and discernment, infatuation and reverence; and while delighting in the genial melodies of Pan, can perceive, should Apollo bring his lyre into audience, that there may be strains more divine than those of his native groves.

What can I say? Apart from being on the money about what the critic should do and what the newspaper columnist or purveyor of readymade opinion normally does do (“my prejudices again in ten paragraphs, as ordered, six hundred quid please”) it is Margaret Fuller’s eloquence that is most striking and the way this (to me unknown) writer finds such fine words to express thoughts that are deeply considered and by no means hastily arrived at.

A professional in the field once told me that in popular music the highest point of pure musicianship was achieved in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, in the United States of course primarily, but not just there. After that there was a noticeable decline. And there were material reasons for that excellence of course: the immigration of thousands of black musicians from the South to the large northern cities, the growth of radio and then dance halls, increased disposable income after the Great Depression had passed, the relative cheapness of a mass-produced trumpet or saxophone, the ubiquity of the piano etc. If the mid-twentieth century was the great era of popular music, was the Victorian age the great era of prose? Has the English language ever been used with more confidence or skill than it was then by the often leisured class who sat in their studies and took pains? Their elaborate style of course will probably not appeal to “this depraved age” (the phrase is Montaigne’s from the sixteenth century) but that should not bother us too much.

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