The essay from which I’ve extracted the passage below is from a collection of six Rebecca Solnit essays. This essay on Virginia Woolf is the last of the collection. Had I not persisted to the end, I’d probably have decided not to read Rebecca Solnit any further, as the preceding five, though on important themes, are rather dull, lifeless things. Solnit’s essay on Woolf is wonderful, the sort of essay that lifts the day.
Woolf’s essays are often both manifestos about and examples or investigations of unconfined consciousness, this uncertainty principle. They are also models of a counter-criticism, for we often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic, I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists live deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilise, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.
A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorisation can escape detection altogether.
There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such crictism is itself great art.
This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.
Rebecca Solnit, Woolf’s Darkness, from Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books, 2014
That is indeed a wonderful quote. Pinned butterflies in glass cases comes to mind…
Yes, that butterfly-pinning which is sadly the norm that passes as literary criticism. Thankfully Woolf’s embracing and exploration of uncertainty is taken forward by writers like Rita Felski and David Winters.