236. (Christopher Ricks)

What is the appeal of criticism, of reading or doing it? It must rest in beguilement at judgment itself, and at the purity of judgment, as a form of thought, which art and literature represents, and which the literature of modernity, in Flaubert, in Proust, in Kafka, has fetishized, over-determined, and ironized to a remarkable extent. The possibility of judgment itself has become the occasion for judgments of what is possible. Against such a background, criticism became zealous, and then, briefly, in universities, sanctioned by academia; it was not so much the authority of the critic’s judgment that was elevated as it was the judgment itself. It’s strange now to think of courses in literary criticism, where students are asked to learn how to criticize and are assessed on their critical judgments. But so it has been, and could be when judgment itself was held precious and when it was thought that works of art represented judgments in exemplary form; against that background, the value of literature would lie not in party-game rankings and belles-lettres quips it could inspire and sustain, but in the opportunity to enter into the process of judgment itself, and, what was necessary if that was to be accomplished, to distinguish true from false, ingenious from ostentatious. A training in literary criticism was a training in making sense of how a work judged, and when and how it judged most judiciously.

I was first attracted to studying literature for this reason; who knows what childhood turning of the mind made me keen to appreciate and survey the grounds upon which some reasons were better than others, in the fields of art, or, when young, in the world of comic books (as a collector in sixth grade, I wanted to read the ones that were best, and sought out what was held to be best, worked to see why it was), but the encounter with the rightness of literature was inseparable from the encounter with its power: that someone could thus judge things to be, and seem to judge them rightly!

The dangers inherent in approaching literature from such a perspective are obvious—the cramped evaluation preceding generous understanding, the desire to rank, to prize, and to condemn. But if literature is cherished (and understood) as judgment, then training in literary criticism is not optional; providing readings is not the same as attending to the “drama of reason” in a work, wherein reason is manifest in the tissue of judgments of which a work consists.

For most, it takes patience and practice to work oneself into appreciating a work’s judgments by way of understanding. T.S. Eliot writes that comparison and analysis are the tools of a critic, and how light the phrase compared with how unwieldy the tools: the former consisting of understanding what is entailed by a work’s implicit claim to being a certain sort of thing (or a new sort of thing), a judgment of identity in relation to a whole class of other works, a genre or mode, each attuned to a particular aspect of the world; the latter consisting of the interpretation of how a work’s specific, internal judgments contain their own circumstances and condition, their own propriety or impropriety, as the case may be. How difficult to know say when a work loses a sense of what it is and becomes less than it pretends or nothing at all; how difficult to say when ambitions are justified or when hazards redeemed, to reckon what extremes of erring are latent within any setting out of the imagination.

In my life, there are no doubt many who have worked to improve and learn how to criticize, even when the function of a university education in literature ceased to become about that. But I know of nobody for whom the activity of criticism seems to occur with the natural ease of Christopher Ricks; by that I mean that Ricks, of all critics in the last third of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, moves so easily within the acts of judgment in a work of literature as to write criticism that, leaving aside a great many matters that bear on the understanding of that work, delineates its distinguishing intellectual element.

Where, in recent posts, I’ve suggested that Ricks’ criticism is not especially open to a literary work’s judgments on history, and through history, I have not meant to occlude the compensating sensitivity to the body, the experience of the nerves and blood and flesh, which is his criticism’s ballast to luxuriating lingual loft.

Ricks’ enduring critical principle is the respect for principles as against theory, but that historical pitting of criticism against what is not criticism at all, since it is not concerned with the specific and particular act of judgment that critics takes on and up, can mislead as to what good principles can do. They are, rather, the devices, tricks, and turns by which Comparison and Analysis can be managed, none serving all comparisons all of the time or all analysis all of the time, but each serving some classes and species; there is no rule-book for when the apply them, but having them in hand gives one at least the chance of getting it right.

Ricks’ own criticism is braced by the sustaining presences of Empson and Eliot, with Leavis, Trilling, Jones, and Davie acting as animating spurs.  In Eliot, Ricks find the master of comparison, and in Empson, of analysis, though neither could sustain the activity of the one without the other. If we look for what binds Empson to Eliot (knowing full well that Empson found himself to be in some ways, whether he would or not, intellectually bound), it would be in their intense fascination with judgment itself, Eliot’s often taking the guise of a religious or spiritual preoccupation, or else that of a spiritually girded aesthete (an aesthetic ascetic), Empson’s often taking the form of an amateur psychologist, an anthropologist, the former vehemently Christian and the latter zealously atheistic, the former affecting a prose of the self-consciously scrupulous discernment and the latter affecting the blustering, colloquial brilliance of the private school enfant terrible. Ricks’ style, relishing the adjectival and adverbial more than Eliot or Empson, is his own, but the unerring attentiveness to the judgment of art is not. Where the critics all diverge is in what good judgment does, why it is worth as much as it is; for judgment alone does nothing, effects nothing; for Ricks, it is exemplary, a form of conduct in itself, and a behavior of the imagination necessary to right conduct elsewhere, but there are no guarantees and no dubious claims made to why it helps living. It is, perhaps, enough to say that judgment is a crucial part of living, and art affords us the opportunity to appreciate it and understand it, and refine and challenge it, as nothing else quite does (though as other things other ways do). Empson and Eliot would offer different answers still. Kafka’s explorations of judgment itself, the impossibility of its rightness and the necessity that it be considered right, outdoes any critic’s thought on the matter.

That judgment of a world is often, if not always, of history, as well as in history, is not, as a notion, irreconcilable with what Ricks writes, but it is foreign to it; it is not where his mind goes, but it is also not, I think he would say, necessary for appreciating the quality of a work’s judgment. We ought to know what a work is about, how it meets the demands of that subject, and that might require knowing what a poet knew about the world, or the past, and it likely will help us to know the same. But that does not mean that the success of the judgment will depend on understanding the historical horizon of its formation, or the historical horizons it implies. In response to Ricks, however, it could be said that understanding those will make for greater understanding of what any judgment—as a judgment—is; for reckoning its composition more thoroughly, and perhaps for doing greater justice as a consequence, to understanding the nature and bearing of its success.


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