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Critics Are People Too

June 7, 2020

Here are a couple of quotes I like from critics I like. I thought I would place them here on the blog as knick-knacks, objets d’art, souvenirs of my travels in reading that I can share with my guests in hopes that they too might enjoy them, uniting us in a bond that may provide some solace as we move forward into the cosmos as it endlessly expands and slowly grows cold. I have similar items, but physical, pick-upable, in my physical home, but no guests ever come, so they just sit and wait and gather the dust. At least now I have an explanation and excuse for their loneliness, which is nice. [Note to future readers: Woof. This is a reference to the isolating conditions of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, before the virus mutated and annihilated all of humanity, save for the remnant that escaped into human-canine hybridization. You can skip ahead a few months to the posts “Please God Please” and “Goodbye” and “Huh, Still Here” and “No More Bloomsdays” and “One More Bloomsday?” and “Dogmonster of Indian Flats” for more details.]

Richard Brody is my favorite contemporary film critic. Even after reading him regularly over many years I never know quite what to expect from him. His judgments are so idiosyncratic and yet never seem merely perverse or whimsical. Few critics are so like the best creative artists in their steadfast pursuit of their own unique aesthetic vision. If he has been a little less interesting over the past few years than before, maybe a touch more crassly moralistic, I blame the times. And he can write some very striking sentences. Like these three, that follow a discussion of how just a few minutes of a great movie, or book or piece of music, will ring out with its greatness, the part holding holographic the excellence of the whole. The first sentence alone gives you so much to think about, but then he hits you with the second and the third and it’s like a micro version of  the Alexander Nehamas book Only A Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, which is very good but takes considerably longer to read than this:

Synecdoche is the fundamental experience of art, the sense that a random fragment contains a lifetime of experience and suggests the depth of a soul. That’s because this is the fundamental experience of life—no one knows anyone completely, and no one comes in at the start. But the person you see for an instant and can no longer live without, and whom you can imagine spending a lifetime getting to know, is pretty much what makes life worth living.   Richard Brody

Michael Hofmann is a poet and translator as well as critic and it shows in his playfully exacting care for words. This beautiful contraption of a sentence comes from his essay collection Where Have You Been?, one of my favorite books of the last decade. The link actually takes you to a slightly different version, with the final parentheses spun off into its own sentence, presumably by some misbegotten editor now awaiting the postmortem torments of the syntactically damned. It come from a review of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. Freumbichler was Bernhard’s grandfather, a “totally obscure Austrian writer.”

It seems probable that the ‘re-evaluation of all values’ (Nietzsche) required to make one a writer took place very early in Bernhard’s life, when he decided that Freumbichler was not a talentless wastrel who made life miserable for everyone around him (which seems to me a view with much to commend it), but a misunderstood genius whose every word was worth recording; and by the same token that the world was not mostly a dim and well-meaning sort of place, higgledy-piggledy and inefficient but broadly correct and, in any case, hopelessly set in its ways, but a sinister and perverted global conspiracy that produced only deformed individuals and institutions and that should be opposed and exposed every step of the way, ideally by a grand, insouciant, terrifying, and old soliloquist (and the greatest of these, somehow, is old: master is good, but old is better, in age only is our salvation, and Bernhard, alas for himself, did not live to be old).   Michael Hofmann


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