What are these things I write? What are the various cultural flash-points, aesthetic philosophies and slight, introspective discoveries put down in these pages? Am I a critic, an artist, a recycler? Am I just deflecting the act of genuine creation, articulating my own insecurity? Ornamenting the genius of others with my own glancing language is at best a clarification, at middle a desperate desire to glean inspiration from their genius and at worst an unnecessary complication. Though I try to integrate the notions of strong imaginations into my own artistic disposition, I fear my heavy reliance upon the language of others in interpreting my own experience. Living through brilliant quotation, with little annotation, makes life gleam with great novelty, but also parades the ignominy of my own thoughtlessness. So nourished am I by my “Quote Pad” that I can feel defined only by the words of others. The agon of great poets, as Harold Bloom describes it, comes from a fundamental misreading of previous poets’ work, a deep understanding eventually presents old material in a way that seems new.
Though framing my own reading (or film-watching) around aesthetic observations of great artists (Richard Powers helps me understand The Peanut Butter Falcon’s questions of recognition, Shakespeare clarifies the animating principle behind The Farewell’s moral ambiguities, Scorsese provides the ammo to embarrass Joker, etc.), I constantly worry if the critic is really an artist. Harold Bloom tells us in The Anxiety of Influence that “criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads from poem to poem.” This makes sense; the best film critics are encyclopedic film historians, not only recalling the films themselves, but their entire aesthetic universe. It is at once admirable and sad, as I continue to build an arsenal of references that are not only filmic but literary. Mallarmés lament that “Alas, I have read all the books,” is the antithetical affirmation of that very impossibility and therefore keeps me in business. I am compelled to assiduously and eternally trace lines of thought and relay the agonistic upshot of history to the art consumers of the present. That seems noble enough, but still there lies a palpable anxiety in (my) criticism, or general thought, a kind of shameful, intellectual crutch. Bloom talks about this anxiety in relation to the poet and his predecessors and delineates the “strong” poet’s process as a brutal reckoning. But the critic becomes a poet only insomuch as he writes, stylishly, a history of ideation.
Woody Allen says as much, if through comedic shorthand, when he says, “Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Yeats in “The Scholars” says something similar: “Old, respectable, bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines / That young men, tossing in their beds, / Rhymed out in love’s despair.” Even so, I’m not sure there is a decisive answer. Teachers precipitated change before the great writers they recommended did. Their erudition and literary vigor spread through my brain like a hungry flame. Film critics, too, have incited me to seek out each and every film to try to weave an intricate tapestry of referents — not idle, but constantly speaking to each other across time and space.
Perhaps there isn’t just undiluted shame in criticism, but a compounded anxiety, more than just the strong poet’s contest with his predecessor. The critic’s agonism is also with himself, with his potential lack of transcendent creativity. It seems criticism, to me, can sometimes serve as a permanent hiding spot for intellectuals, scared out of or unable to deal in the endlessly ambiguous confidence of creation. There is something more definitive about criticism. The concrete historicity of notional nerves chattering across the void, interpreted and written (ingenuously, at that), has a sturdiness built in. Though criticism has helped me learn so much about myself in relation to the world, I wonder if it is a gloss, alloyed to great thought instead of its generator.
Yet, if the critic does anything, it is add texture to a work of art. Not context, but richness. As Wilde says, critics “give form to every fancy, and reality to every mood…yet convey something of the delicate charm of chance.” In an act of translation, the critic reveals the artist, yet does not flatten him, or dissect him. He or she simultaneously makes the artist legible and complicates him. Through the critic’s ability to tether an artist’s floating notions to grand ideas of the past, he adds complexity, and does not simply hammer beauty and mystery into understanding. At least I hope so. But if you still wish to deem critics the limited wastrels of Shakespeare, Yeats, Stevens, then stick with Auden, who says, “It’s better to say ‘I’m suffering,’ than to say, “This landscape is ugly.” I’m just not sure.