Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday literay links - true taste is laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished

It's time for a roundup of literary links. Most people seem to use posts like this to link to other websites. Consider them all linked, in spirit.


What a shock it was to come across this passage in Dombey and Son:

"[T]he Doctor, leaning back in his chair, with his hand in his breast as usual, held a book from him at arm's length, and read. There was something very awful in this manner of reading. It was such a determined, unimpassioned, inflexible, cold-blooded way of going to work. It left the Doctor's countenance exposed to view; and when the Doctor smiled suspiciously at his author, or knit his brows, or shook his head and made wry faces at him, as much as to say, 'Don't tell me, Sir; I know better,' it was terrific." (Ch. XI)

Honestly, it was like looking in a mirror, the kind of mirror that turns reflections into descriptive passages in the style of Dickens. That is exactly how I read. If I am reading your blog, that is exactly how I am reading it.

Note how the meaning of a word changes. When Dickens calls the Doctor's way of reading "terrific," he means it inspires terror. But when I read that way, it's also "terrific," meaning "really good." Don't tell me, Sir; I know better.


I was recently, for one reason or another, looking at this famous passage from The German Ideology, about the division of labor as is and under communism:

"He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."

Meine Frau pointed out to me that, assuming the hunter uses gunpowder, Marx and Engels have covered fire, water, earth, and air. The "critical critic" produces, mostly, air.

I've enjoyed this imaginative passage since I first read it, but only now does it strike me that "The After-Dinner Critic" would be a good name for a litblog. The phrase only gets two hits (until this post gets added in), both from Google books! A golden opportunity. "The Critical Critic," also not a bad name, gets 686.


If I were collecting quotations for an Appreciationist Manifesto, I would include this one by John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Part III, Section I, Chapter 3, "Of Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Impressions of Sense":

“The second, that, in order to the discovery of that which is best of two things, it is necessary that both should be equally submitted to the attention; and therefore that we should have so much faith in authority as shall make us repeatedly observe and attend to that which is said to be right, even though at present we may not feel it so. And in the right mingling of this faith with the openness of heart, which proves all things, lies the great difficulty of the cultivation of the taste, as far as the spirit of the scholar is concerned, though even when he has this spirit, he may be long retarded by having evil examples submitted to him by ignorant masters.” (pp. 246-7 of the 1851 edition).

Those ignorant masters! This does get at the heart of what I call appreciationism - that the people that came before me are not all fools or frauds, and should be given some attention. My worry is that I am too respectful, with too much faith and insufficient "openness of heart." Well, I'm not done yet:

“But true taste is forever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished, casting its shoes from off its feet because it finds all ground holy, lamenting over itself and testing itself by the way that it finds things.” (248)

“I have seen a man of true taste pause for a quarter of an hour to look at the channellings that recent rain had traced in a heap of cinders.” (249)

I wonder if that man of true taste is J. M. W. Turner.

The phrase "Appreciationist Manifesto" gets one Google hit, to me, here, in another post about Modern Painters. Seem to be repeating myself.


  1. That's a great bit of Ruskin. It makes Appreciationism sound like such an active, engaged sort of criticism. Terrific.

  2. Now that's an interesting way to put it, and I think just right. That's why the idea is so appealing to me - it's not passive enjoyment. At it's best, appreciationism allows for restlessness, and changing tastes, and all that messy stuff. You don't just say "Isn't that nice" and end the discussion.

    I hope grading went well (and is over)!

  3. I like this description of critical activity too, from Leslie Stephen: "We are not passive buckets to be pumped into, as Mr Carlyle puts it, mere receptacles for ready-made ideas, but fellow-creatures capable of being roused into independent activity." Hear hear.

    The grading is not quite done, alas, but I was wise to save the 4th-year papers for last, as most of them are quite enjoyable to read.

  4. Thanks for the Stephens lines - I wonder if I will be able to find similar goodies in The Victorian Art of Fiction: 19th-Century Essays on the Novel, fortcoming, in, like , three days?

  5. Buddy: You keep saying "Stephens"--it's singular (sort of): Stephen. Leslie Stephen. Virginia Stephen. Vanessa Stephen. James Fitzjames Stephen. James Stephen, the Colonial Undersecretary and author of Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography. James Kenneth Stephen, whose poetry you might examine and enjoy (Lapsus Calami), and pretty good Jack the Ripper suspect. Just saying.

  6. But it's John Lloyd Stephens who explored the Yucatan!

    Thanks for the correction - maybe it will stick.