The reason I read certain blogs is for the daily hit of irritalin they provide me, especially the Old Boys’ Blogs whose denizens are often knowing to the point of arrogance. It’s useful – and provocative – to be reminded of what I don’t want to do, what blogging need not be. Literary criticism is by its very nature judgemental, but the longer I blog, the less certain I feel. Perhaps this is why I’m blogging less and less.

For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.
(Daniel Mendelsohn, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken)

Mendelsohn is undoubtedly right, but of course ‘what we find beautiful’ is indeed subjective, and all too often those who are knowledgeable – and articulate – could do with a salutary measure of humility. Fiction is a search, not an answer – at least serious fiction.

I particularly appreciate a blogger like critic and retired professor Charles May in this regard, whose passion for literature is evident but never complacent. It’s a pleasure to exchange ideas with him, for there is always a sense of exploration, joint pursuit, essai.


10 thoughts on “Irritalin

  1. Art Durkee 15 years ago

    Thanks to you, and your other post about chic ironic bitterness, which I think is bloody insightful, I am writing up something for my own blog. It’ll be posted later.

    So thanks for the impetus, the inspiration to write something about al this for myself.

  2. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi Art, thanks for your comment. I too have since been wondering if Maugham was taking the piss. I haven’t read enough of him to tell.

    I must go over to D.G.’s blog later on and see how the ‘what is literature’ thread is getting on. The conversation was getting interesting, your comment contributing in no little degree.

  3. Art Durkee 15 years ago

    I don’t know if Maugham was being ironic, or posing. The pose is a familiar one, a disdainful one, a contrary one. A very modern one.

    Disdain and contempt are so old, they’re about as boring as can be. I disdain disdain. As you say, Lee, I wouldn’t like to place envy or disdain at the center of my literary experience.

    Then again, a lot of critics DO do that, along with their pose of elegant misery because of having to drag themselves through the slime of bad art regularly.

    I agree with Frank. Although I don’t find it that hard to write about what I like, and why. If one has learned to critique, it’s the same process of describing one’s response regardless of whether the response is positive or negative or other.

    Beauty arouses, I think. I don’t write to intentionally make beauty, but I often write in response to an experience of beauty.

    I suppose that makes me a lesser writer, since I’m not nearly cynical enough. Ah well. Life sucks, but it does go on.

  4. Lee 15 years ago

    And I keep turning over Maugham’s ideas on beauty. Does beauty really satisfy the aesthetic impulse or rather arouse it? I wonder if there’s not a parallel to sexual desire here, and simple as it may be in one sense, there’s obviously plenty to say about it altogether.

    Furthermore, if Maugham’s mind quickly wanders from a thing of beauty, is this not from a lack of stillness, an inability to be in the moment?

  5. Lee 15 years ago

    Yes, I understand that, and it often happens to me as well, though perhaps slightly less as my technical skill increases, and my confidence in my own voice – the second, however, constantly subject to reversals and crises of doubt.

    However, I wouldn’t like to place envy and disdain at the heart of my literary experience. This is where I believe humility can be of great help.

  6. D. G. Myers 15 years ago

    I mean that when I praise something, I wish I had written it.

  7. Lee 15 years ago

    What an interesting take on beauty, D.G.! I’m not sure that it’s only something beautiful I long to create, but the aesthetic component is certainly part – and probably a good part – of it.

    As to disdain and contempt, I assume you’re being ironic, but I’m not quite clear about what you mean by: ‘As for what I envy. That is what I praise.’

  8. D. G. Myers 15 years ago

    I dunno. I’m with Maugham on beauty:

    “For me no poet made a falser statement than Keats when he wrote the first line of Endymion. When the thing of beauty has given me the magic of its sensation my mind quickly wanders; I listen with incredulity to the persons who tell me that they can look with rapture for hours at a view or a picture. Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. . . . Beauty is that which satisfies the aesthetic instinct. But who wants to be satisfied? It is only to the dullard that enough is as good as a feast. Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore.”

    Give me disdain and contempt any day. As for what I envy. That is what I praise.

  9. Lee 15 years ago

    Yes, I agree, Frank, it’s easier to vent or disparage, and I speak with shame from experience: it’s something I’ve done, and still continue to do unless I’m very vigilant.

  10. Frank Wilson 15 years ago

    Mendelsohn is right, of course, but a lot of people spend their time venting about what they do not find beautiful or disparaging what others find beautiful. This is, among other things, easier than explaining why something moves you, why you think it is good, how what the artist has done causes that effect to happen.