Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Appreciationist

I spent all last week admiring Edgar Allan Poe's hatchet jobs. Lovely, blood-soaked things. Joseph Epstein's latest collection, In a Cardboard Belt!, has a section forthrightly labeled "Attacks". He takes pokes at George Steiner, Harold Bloom, Mortimer Adler, Edmund Wilson, and the position of American Poet Laureate. They're great fun, and very instructive (although the piece on Wilson is a lot more complicated than a mere attack). Here's Epstein on Bloom:

“Bloom has no problem mastering the tone of authoritativeness. If he came off any more ex cathedra in his judgments, he’d be pope.” (264)

“Apart from Shakespeare, Bloom’s great culture heroes are Emerson and Freud, who, in combination, yield a gasbag with a dirty mind.” (266)

“In a profile of Bloom in the New Yorker, he is quoted as remarking, apropos of lecturing at Oxford, 'I watched the faces of my audience... and I saw blank incomprehension. I had a vision of an airplane flying over cows in a meadow.' A vision of reading Harold Bloom – my own – is of standing in an airfield and watching a cow fly over.” (270)

Epstein, unlike Harold Bloom, always goes for the joke. The piece on Steiner is just as good, but let's instead try James Wood on Steiner (from The Broken Estate):

“The less precise his prose is, the more it speaks of the importance of precision.” (145)

“George Steiner offers a parody of Europeanness while fighting a parody of Americanness.” (158)

Vladimir Nabokov called his book of interviews Strong Opinions. Here's why (quote actually from his letters to Edmund Wilson, collected in Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya):

“What are you writing now? I have read (or rather re-read) What Maisie Knew. It is terrible. Perhaps there is some other Henry James and I am continuously hitting on the wrong one?” (209)

Or this, from somewhere in Pnin:

“Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers."

Great stuff. You can hear the whish of the rapier. One thing I would like to do on Wuthering Expectations is join in with this, deflating overinflated reputations, knocking the pretentious off their pillars, returning received ideas to their senders. Slash, slash. What fun.

It will never happen. Almost never. "Know thyself," Socrates, or Heraclitus, or some be-togaed fellow, tells me. An ongoing process, but I know one thing. I'm not a Hatchet Man. I just don't have it in me. Constitutionally, intellectually, I am a softer, more pacific, creature, a respecter of authority, a reasonable re-rater of the overrated. I am: The Appreciationist.

Tomorrow, an attack on, and defense of, Appreciationism.

By quoting Epstein, Wood, and Nabokov, I am not endorsing their positions. I can appreciate both sides!


  1. Interesting! I consider myself "The Spectatorist". Maybe very close to an "Appreciationist"? I look forward to your next post on this :)

  2. Slash slash what fun indeed. I find it way easier to hack something to pieces than to praise it. It's so hard to be positive without sounding saccharine and insincere.

    I love apprecionists.

  3. I'd love to be able to write one very gory hatchet job - just once. But I also don't have it in me...well, that's not really true but I would only ever be able to attack someone so obvious it would be like throwing rotten tomatoes at spoiled soup. Oh well.
    Being an Appreciationist might he harder work in the end.

  4. Ex libris, I look forward to your week-long explication of Spectatorism.

    Raych, postive reviews have trouble with original language for praise, sure, but hatchet jobs can easily become a shtick.

    Sylvia, that's the first and only use of the word "Appreciationator" in Google history. Until now. Oops, sorry.

    Tamarind sauce and fresh lemongrass are the keys to a perfect spoiled rotten tomato soup. Lunch time!

  5. Yes, I can well appreciate what you mean in this post! Looking over the reviews I've written so far, not one of them is particularly damning. It'd be fun to try some Nabokov-style loathing at some point but I guess I tend to review books I think deserve attention. Or perhaps I don't have it in me either...

    That said, I might have a pop at Twilight some time in the future. (Gun, fish, barrel...)

  6. Guy - The books Nabokov loathes get plenty of attention. That's the fun, taking down the big cats, so to speak.

    On the other hand, I think a stylistic criticism of Twilight woule be valuable, and great fun. Do it!

  7. I just want to make mention that I'm a big admirer of Harold Bloom and George Steiner.

    Bloom is to me one of the great critics, one of the last of his time. While I may take variance with him on some things - Lord of the Rings, the later work of Herman Melville - I think his love for literature is true and admirable, and whatever one thinks of his stance, it's a powerful one. And I think his "anxiety of influence" theory is worthwhile and impressive. It works for fiction and poetry quite well

    As for Steiner, I borrowed two books of his - Tolstoy or Dostoevskt, and George Steiner: A Reader. I love the sonority, the allusive richness of his prose and voice. I think that whatever his flaws, he's a genuine intellect, one who is a joy forever. His writing on Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is very insightful. He captures the Homeric epic in Tolstoy's best works, even in the very novelistic Anna Karenina. And I think that work is a fine example of an older form of literary criticism, centered more on positive evaluations, accepting of subjective aesthetic and even moral judgments, and engaged with philosophical and religious concerns. This old criticism lends power to such a fantastic analysis of these two authors and how different and yet how similar they are.

    And as for his Reader, it's a fantastic collection of some really beautiful writing. My personal recommendations: "The Retreat from the Word," "To Civilize Our Gentlemen," "Future Literacies," and "Verse in Drama"

  8. Oh, I don't think Joseph Epstein doubts that Steiner and Bloom are genuine intellectuals! Oh no. The indictment is really stylistic and temperamental, a high value on elegance, on the light touch. Bloom is heavy.

    Steiner I barely know, so thanks for the recommendations.