A Critique of Criticism
But happiness and utility are possible nowhere to a man who represents nothing and who looks out on the world without a plot of his own to stand on, either on earth or in heaven. He wanders from place to place, a voluntary exile always querulous, always uneasy, always alone. His very criticisms express no ideal. His experience is without sweetness, without cumulative fruits, and his children, if he has them, are without morality. For reason and happiness are like other flowers – they wither when plucked. (Santayana, 1954:261 ).
It is to the mind of the moralist we must look to see the confluence of vision and motion. Not that such a voice moralizes, taking upon herself the mobile redoubt of the world as it has been. Rather she not only inscribes new tables of value, but refashions the tables themselves to better reflect the world as it has come to be, perhaps even within a single human lifetime or yet less. Such a being is of her time and within it, rather than taking this historical fact as a slight that one is compelled to endure, or standing aside entirely and watching the twice-disdained world pass her by. Certainly, there are moments in the life of every authentic critic wherein the world seems both distant and unhearing, where one’s voice falters at every word and at every note does waver. But as long as the thinker herself does not falter in either her sense or her stance, the waves of the world will not displace her and indeed, will gradually expose their own force to her singular counterpoint.
It is the case that many a critic will find himself lodged in this place, now that, but transience of location is not the same thing as a vision transitory and fleeting. Paul is the apical ancestor of the critical traveller, calling no place home but maintaining both his purpose and vision, while long before him, it is Odysseus who makes a mission out of regaining his homeland and the hearth within it; his mission and purpose are built into the fact that he is distant from them, and this is no different from the Pauline character later on, who is at once divorced from a heaven which is itself yet immanent. And if its imminence can be questioned, put off, unknowing of itself in its exact timing just as is the Promethean death for human beings, then nevertheless is it with us; its presence is felt not as pressentiment, for this implies temporality, but instead as the source of the vision itself.
Yet Santayana regards even visionary flights to be suspect historically on two counts, they either call to themselves a fanaticism or a mysticism. Odysseus could be characterized as the former, Paul the latter. In his single-mindedness, Odysseus narrows the scope of his heroism, which was, at Troy, kindred with the other legendary figures of the Iliad. Orpheus descends to the underworld and returns, providing the model for the later Christ, but the odyssey is suggestive of nothing more than a bestiary written in the style of a travel memoir. We admire the hero’s loyalty to his home and perhaps somewhat less so to his mate – though even his dalliances with other women are not heartfelt, on either one side or the other; Nausicaa essentially snubs him as someone who is seeking a surrogate for Penelope and in the former’s wisdom, sees through this charade as many women today are yet apt to do, though now mainly in psychoanalytic fashion, while Calypso engenders a lengthy fling but little more – but we cannot admire as much Odysseus’ willingness to sacrifice others to his reverse quest. Paul can be admired for his critical vision even if it takes too much into itself. His loathing of women marks him as more than a mentor for his ‘amanuensis with benefits’, one might smirk. Paul’s otherwise pedestrian pederasty is utterly of his time and is not truly of interest, in the same way that modern thinkers with alternate sexualities do not excite either the senses nor the insightful mind. For Paul, the entire world is what for Odysseus was simply the non-Greek world. Thus the notion of barbarism is extended, ironically, in Christianity, but all the more apropos given that this is now not a specific person on a mission, but rather the mission itself embodied in any person.
The disembodied selfhood of the mystic therefore meets the embodied missionary in the fanatic. It is more apt to suggest that both Odysseus and Paul had mystical visions toward which they steered and were steered, but were also just as comfortable maintaining their respective single-mindedness, their fanatical drives, in order to eventually achieve this mystical state. For the one, Penelope and his own estate, for the other, God and His estate. So while Santayana is correct to regard both mysticism and fanaticism as non-rational vehicles of disdaining the world and its worldliness, with the former seeking the otherworld and the latter merely a new world (or perhaps, an imagined previous one; in this, Odysseus may be charged also with a kind of oddly neo-conservative bent), it is less certain that they may be distinguished on any other grounds. Santayana gives us only rootsy exemplars which also trail off in their approach to an ideal rationality. Instead, we are going to suggest here that it is within the ability to critique the critic may be found one key to avoiding fanaticism and mysticism the both.
While the original critic excels in noting the shortcomings of others, his very success does him in regarding keeping the critical distance necessary to his own ability to engender authentic insight. As a scourge of certain forms of hypocrisy, Paul remains a good role model. As an objective source of critical insight, he often fails miserably, and not only on the subject of women. His patent anxiety remains our own, but his soteriological salve cannot be owned by the present-day. As an expression of being-ahead and of resoluteness, two of the essential structures of Dasein, Odysseus retains his relevance for each and all of us. But this hero fails in his representation of the good life, since the efforts to regain his home are all in all, and to say that he had a coterie of interesting experiences while running along is not enough to provide any ultimate balance or fulfillment. One’s very humanity is lost in both cases; the Odyssean is bereft of perspective, the Pauline absent of community. We are led to think, along with Santayana, that the well springs of life are at base irrational, and “…so its most vehement and prevalent interests remain irrational to the end.” (ibid:267).
But it is an error to impute a modernist conception of either origin or motivation to antiquity. Rather, both heroic narratives are driven on by non-rational means, and not those irrational. Irrationality can never generate a vision, only a delusion. And even the most homely sensibility that coagulates into form betrays its essence as rationally based. One’s home and hearth are the commonplace and familiar versions of one’s peace and one’s heaven. Both warm themselves to us through a sense of grace. One is the subjective non-rational and the other that objective. This is a more astute understanding of how they differ from one another and the more so, how they differ from any modernist conception of the irrational, which lacks, almost by definition, a sense of community in that the grace of sociality has departed it. It is always and ever a dreary and miserable life one encounters no matter the psychopathology at hand, no matter the serial diagnoses, which in their discursive turns eerily mimic the wanderings of the lost soul in question. Both Odysseus and Paul wandered but neither were ever truly lost, and perhaps this is the most basic and also the most important point of both narratives. Their shared heroism was that they maintained their sense of who they were and the more so, what their respective lives meant, in spite of all challenges and detours presented them.
Thus subjective non-rationality adheres well to the position of the critic. She is the voice of unquiet Ungeheuer, of a dis-ease with the world. She has enough intellectual power to have overcome mere angst, Weltschmerz, or even the structural inclination of her Zeitgeist. But in so doing, she is halted by her own sense of both rightness and righteousness. The one is authentically generated by her critical insights, but the other is an inauthentic appendage that attaches itself to brilliance due to the ego’s self-interested aspirations. This is the moment in which a critique of the critic needs to appear. Ideally, the critic herself will engage in this act, which is an expression this time of objective non-rationality. It is at once an auto-demythology, something every thinker must engage in from time to time lest his ideas get the better of both he as a person and he as a mind, but as well needs be accomplished as a manner of regaining one’s unique humanity. For the critical mind is no different from its Odyssean and Pauline archetypes. In questioning the going rate, we travel elsewhere than home and hearth, believe not in heaven and experience an absence of peace in our lives. Our ‘children’, whether human or textual, ‘lack morals’ simply due to the fact that we ourselves have called all morality into question, as we must. And while it is well known that a cardinal error of bad parenting is to make your children into a social experiment and at cost, it is equally good parenting to ensure that they do not become either the automaton or worse, the martinet. Hence the additional weight of objective non-rationality in the previous metaphysics, and the onus upon the modern thinker to translate this into a simpler objectivity which is rational but not rationalized.
What do we mean by this latter day effort? Today, we have the unique opportunity to avoid both mysticism and fanaticism, even if both forms of criticism remain in our world. That they are patent and potent dangers to it is also well known and for most of us, something in itself to be avoided. But passive avoidance will, in the end, not be enough. Such forces, in both their rightness – not as in the right as they were in antiquity – and their righteousness – regrettably, almost as powerful as their progenitors though one may gainsay that some of us are not as credulous as some of our ancestors apparently were – will overtake the cultural balance given enough time and structural stressors such as poverty and economic woes, political irresponsibility and fascism in the home and in places abroad. No, in confronting the problem of overcoming the world as it has become is, as Santayana does suggest, a task fit neither for the mystic nor the fanatic. Indeed, both of these figures in our own day makes matters far worse. A reasoned objectivity knowing of its own social location is one aspect of a better critique. But more importantly is the demythology that each critic practices upon her own efforts. We cannot leave it only to others to criticize our works. For each has his own agenda, his own mission, however worldly. And in each may be found the lesser insight of his or her respective home and hearth, and the lesser vision of that same one’s paradise. That these are necessary, as Santayana decorously declares, so that the very conception of what is moral does not disappear even if equally so, this or that moral compass must be jettisoned in lieu of the futurity of the species-essence, does not in turn make them sufficient for any authentic critique let alone demythology. The heart stays at home, perhaps, but the mind travels. The heart is content to rest within the myopic presence of love alone, but the mind is unsettled in its very being simply due to the equal presence of the imagination. What other might there be, what else might exist, what further history will yet occur, all these suggest nothing other than flight. That these movements of being need not be merely airy while at once needing not the aerie of birth and succor, mark them as specifically rational and contemporary.
In critiquing the critics, we attain the next moment. We do not regress by way of the nostalgia of a bygone homeland or childhood within, nor do we progress only through an unearthly vision of heaven and a delusion of peace at any price. Instead, let us together engage in both the dialogue of criticism and the further dialectic of critique, and do so in wholly rational and reasoned manner. In subjecting our own thoughts to both dialogue and dialectic, we participate in the hermeneutic encounter with the self. We take on the risk which the wisdom of recognizing that we do not know our fullest selves explains to us, while placing ourselves in the opened space of a world in which we discover what is absent in merely being myself and understanding no other. And our duty to that other is to perform the same demythology for their selfhood. Only in this way do we overcome the worldliness of our smaller perceptions of the fanatic and avoid the flight entire from the world in our seeking the otherworldliness of the mystic. That the critic is to be found in both mystic and fanatic should not give us pause overmuch. This is still the criticism which is necessary but by no means sufficient to the human future. Even so, though its critical insight is sound, its mystical or fanatical remedy is an illusion. Take the next step then, and allow the world to respond in kind, promoting an ongoing dialectical movement wherein the otherness of both world and others never gives in to righteousness while at once being able to recognize the rightness of the critical voice.
In that we remain a rational Odysseus, we search for a new home. In that we retain a rationally oriented Pauline sensibility, we remake the known world into its own better realm. In that we are critics we do not leap upon the fashion, but in that we are auto-critics, we yet leap into the fires of the one who’s being is resolute futurity and thus is ever wary of becoming merely consumed by the flames of its own heartfelt passions.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, religion, education, aesthetics ,health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the inter-disciplinary human sciences for over two decades.