It is greater to hate the world than to love it; he who loves, thereby desires, but he who hates is self-sufficient, needing nothing beyond the hatred in his own heart, and no third party.On a recent comment-thread at the Valve, I admitted that I disliked the work of Virginia Woolf. In fact, I provocatively called her 'imcompetent'. The provocation turned out to be too much for the denizens of this website. It seems, gentlemen, that I had stumbled upon a nest of Woolfophilic vipers! In the ensuing carnage I was foolishly labelled 'sexist' and 'misogynist', and accused of a 'personal failing'. Mamma mia! Bloomsbury had prevailed. A man named Rich Puchalsky, who is near-omnipresent over there, claimed that my dislike of Woolf showed the 'poverty of my approach', that approach being 'formalism':
— The Night Watches of Bonaventura (c. 1805)
Thus formalism, at least to the extent that you advocate, is an impoverished approach, because it prevents you from appreciating certain forms of literature. . . at a certain point, the consensus of critical judgement is enough.My response was as follows:
All outlooks prevent one from appreciating certain examples—and even certain forms—of literature. I would rather be discerning than blandly appreciate all things. And whatever it is you choose to dislike, I might turn around and say that your approach is impoverished because it prevents you from appreciating it.To which he replied:
But certain outlooks prevent you from appreciating more examples and forms than others. That’s why I chose the word “impoverished”—the poor person has less than the rich person.I think that many of my readers will have some sympathy with Rich's position here. The argument is couched in sadly utilitarian terms—as if Outlook A, which gave a positive valuation to 743 novels, were superior to Outlook B, which valued only 482—but assuredly there is some important thrust behind it. Rich's unstated assumption is that as your readerly abilities develop, as your intellect becomes more subtle and sophisticated, you begin to understand more and more literature—and you begin to like more and more literature. The word 'appreciate' bridges the two senses, 'understand' and 'like'. A similar argument is sometimes offered by jazz apologists—what sounds like a chaotic noise is revealed in its full delightful complexity by the ear that discerns the myriad tonal patterns therein.
But I wonder if I might tempt you with another thought.
Perhaps—perhaps—it would be just as acceptable to suggest the reverse—that the more sophisticated one becomes, the more subtle one's judgement, the fewer things one likes. Why appreciation? Why not rather depreciation? Or even contempt? Is there not as much pleasure—or more, even—in contempt, as in admiration? Does admiration not come from awe? And are we not awe-struck by the sublime, by that which we do not understand? Surely then, the more we understand a work, the less admiration we should have for it. Surely we come to learn a work, and its complexities, so as to transcend it—so as to make ourselves superior to it. The greatest of readers, then, would be superior to all books. He would despise as simplistic even Finnegans Wake. Down he would peer at the poor scuttlers in their labyrinth, chuckling faintly to himself as they busied themselves in its decipherment. What joy he would derive from his universal literary disprision!
Reader, whence comes your delight at having understood The Four Quartets? Be honest now. You say 'spiritual enrichment', or even 'the mere pleasure of the text'. But is it not rather a satisfaction at the thought of being with Mr. Eliot in a room, a small room at that, with just a few fellows, and of gazing out the window, down at the street, where the uncomprehending masses toil without rest?
How much better would it be to find yourself on a neighbouring rooftop, gazing proudly down on Mr. Eliot himself? Would you not then see the appreciant's insufferable smugness for what it really is?
Now, I admit that I am not the greatest of readers. I still admire Finnegans Wake, for instance. Oh, how I envy Mr. Joyce! He sits above me on his poenitential stool, casting down imprecations upon me in his unintelligible brogue. I lap them up, every one of them. And I appreciate 'Bonaventura'—perhaps identified with Schelling—who composed the miserablist classic Die Nachtwachen, prefacing this post. But at least I am a better man than Rich Puchalsky, who still appreciates Woolf! Do not snigger, dear reader. Perhaps there is some writer you appreciate, and would rather pretend otherwise. I was once like Rich. When I was 18 I thought The Waves a decent little bonbon, lyrical and suggestive. But then I turned 19. Does that sting? Then I suggest you get your foot on the ladder as soon as possible.
Rich cast aspersions on my ability to 'teach literature'. Well, I have a mind to impart this marvelous philosophy of depreciation to schoolchildren of an impressionable age—really to inspire them! I would have them learn by heart Hamlet's soliloquy, and recite it over and over, until they knew its every movement—how they would come to despise it! Shown a Renaissance sonnet, they would yawn, Oh! Another wittily inverted pentameter. Shown a passage from Henry James they would sigh, Ah, yet another meticulous character-portrait. Have you nothing more interesting for us? They would revel sybaritically in their grand scorn. The world could show nothing to them—and they would die content at their mastery of it. Or perhaps they would create a new literature, even more sophisticated than what we have, ripe for the contempt of the following generation. Would that be such a bad thing?
Remember, then, that your appreciation of certain books—whether Don Quixote or Notes from the Underground—is really no more than a sign of your own personal failings, your incompetence as a reader.
In my next post I shall be telling you about some books I appreciate.