Saturday, December 13, 2008

From The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal

From "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s"

[T]he novel... is a loose form, and although there is an inherent logic in those books we are accustomed to call great, the deducible "laws" which governed the execution of Emma are not going to be of much use in defining The Idiot. The best that a serious analyst can hope to do is comment intelligently from his vantage point in time on the way a work appears to him in a contemporary, a comparative, or a historic light; in which case, his opinion is no more valuable than his own subtlety and knowledge. He must be, as T.S. Eliot put it so demurely, "very intelligent." The point, finally, is that he is not an empiricist dealing with measurable quantities and calculable powers. Rather, he is a man dealing with the private vision of another, with a substance as elusive and amorphous as life itself. To pretend that there are absolutes is necessary in making relative judgments (Faulkner writes better than Taylor Caldwell), but to believe that there are absolutes and to order one's judgments accordingly is folly and disastrous... The "new critics," as they have been termed (they at least dislike being labeled and few will now answer when called), are fundamentally mechanics. They go about dismantling the text with the same rapture that their simpler brothers experience while taking apart combustion engines: inveterate tinkers both, solemnly playing with what has been invented by others for use, not analysis.


Gore Vidal's pragmatic approach to criticism—particularly the line distinguishing pretending absolutes versus believing absolutes—is immediately, but shallowly, attractive. It suggests a deference that has a tendency to slip into laziness, an unfocused intelligence that has a tendency to stoop to mere wit—this is enough for Vidal, and for many other critics who adopt his "pragmatism."

Does it really matter that a novel is "invented by others for use, not analysis," if that is even true in all cases? And where does that distinction between use and analysis lie? When do we tread too roughly on the text and turn from using it to analyzing it? And this business about "measurable quantities and calculable powers"—isn't this just rhetoric? No, actuarial tables have little place in literary work (I hesitate to say they have none since I'm never sure what Franco Moretti might come up with), but Vidal allows for comparative criticism, and I fail to see how that isn't a form of measuring a novel's qualities and calculating the scale of its powers in relation to another.

A novelist's resistance to having his work disassembled by very smart, sometimes agenda-driven critics is understandable, but it ultimately cannot be the basis of a philosophy of criticism. We must be more than "very intelligent."

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