Should not all who attempt to write in some form about literature, whether we grace our writing with the term criticism have these first two sentences pinned above our desks?
“When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could weld an inch of the Karamazov, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow? All great writings springs from le dur désir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation. ‘Brightness falls from the air’; five words and a trick of darkening sound. But they have outworn three centuries. Who would choose to be a literary critic if he could set verse to sing, or compose, out of his own mortal being, a vital fiction, a character that will endure.”
Hi, Anthony! I think that is comparable to many professions that circle around literature; I’ve heard that said of editors, literary translators and, now, critics. Although it may true, I find the image of the eunuch a bit harsh. To be able to criticise a work of literature in a manner of raising new perspective and, thus, maybe convince a new reader to take on a book that might not otherwise catch his eye, is admirable as well. The critic must have a bit of a writer in him to be able to produce relevant criticism. Of course, there are critics that add nothing but only destroy out of spite, it seems. I’m from Brazil and during high school we are supposed to read Machado de Assis. I love his work now, but dreaded it as a teenager because my teachers would always focus on certain textbook aspects of his writing. It was only when a professor at college gave us an essay on Machado by an American critic that I could see beyond what had been taught at school and start appreciating his writing. I don’t see a critic as a frustrated fiction writer, but a writer of another genre. Hope you had a good holiday! Cheers!
Hi Mariana, Thank you for taking the time to comment. There is often an argument with Steiner that he overstates his case, but he does so so eloquently I almost always forgive him. But I read this piece as a lament. How many writers are able to create Karamazov? Something that will live and breathe for as long as people read. Anyone that loves literature enough to be a serious critic must harbour, however deeply, such a wish. Steiner, like Sontag, both did. Very best wishes, Anthony
I agree with Mariana: a good critic is another kind of creative writer. But Steiner’s words do have some validity; at times ite can feel, when writing about another’s words, that the task is presumptuous. But as TS Eliot says, it takes a particular skill and insight to lead others to like something with ‘the right liking’. I know that kind of certitude (pomposity?) isn’t the thing any more, but it’s the tradition I was brought up in (touchstones and all that) and a hard one to shake.
I’d agree with you both, and Steiner is a terrific example of smart, well-written criticism. He wrote so many books, yet in an interview I read somewhere regretted his inability to write a book like The Brothers Karamazov. He did at least recognise that his attempts did not scale those heights. And I’m with TS Eliot and you on that type of critical tradition. It will have its time again.
Thank you, Anthony. I love this quote. It speaks to me, since I want to write more about literature (I’ve written mostly fiction up to now). It’s easy to react to Steiner with annoyance, or to feel a bit stung and wish to rush to the defense of criticism, but for me his words touch the melancholy of writing about what you love. From Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (which, if you haven’t read it, I recommend with all my heart): “Every beautiful work, or even every impressive work, functions as a desired work, albeit one that’s incomplete and as it were lost because I didn’t write it myself; in order to recover the work, I have to rewrite it; to write is to want to rewrite: I want to add myself to something that’s beautiful but that I lack, that I require.” All best, Sofia
My pleasure, Sofia. How lovely to hear from you. Coincidentally, Barthes is in my sights for next year, and I have a copy of that book. The point you make is one that Steiner makes in Grammars of Creation as well. I know the anxiety all too well of trying to write about a book you love, inevitably one fails. Very best wishes, Anthony
It’s the bitterness of a failed writer speaking. There are plenty examples of great critics becoming great writers (Umberto Eco, anyone?) and the other way round. Moreover, by reading and analysing great works of others, the aspiring writer can better develop his craft. One doesn’t exclude the other, so I see no need in such blanket statements.
Bitterness, perhaps. Steiner acknowledges deep regret that he was unable to write ‘great’ fiction.
It is hard to tell what, if anything, has changed, Please ask me again in thirty years. I can find as many reasons for despair as for hope. It has probably been this way before my time and will continue afterwards.
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