Otiose criticism

A drawback of the Internet is that it provides an easy platform for the uninformed and malformed to broadcast their opinions to the world-at-large. Such writers forget that they have a duty both to their subject and to their readers: the duty to be informed and to understand. Lacking a coherent understanding of tradition or western civilization, these authors tend merely to emote their subjective responses rather than artfully critique shortfallings. For criticism to be of any benefit to the reader, the critic must demonstrate both an understanding of the tradition in which a particular work stands as well as an understanding of the work itself. Anything less becomes a mere expression of the critic’s preferences at best, but more likely a misleading attack on a straw man of another writer’s work. T.S. Eliot makes this point in his essay “The Perfect Critic”:

The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information . . . have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.

To illustrate this point, I turn to a lecture presented by Dr. Roger Scruton Continue reading Otiose criticism

Epistolary Foreword: April Fools!

Painting: Quentin Massys, "Ill-Matched Lovers" c.1520-25
Quentin Massys, "Ill-Matched Lovers" c.1520-25

Dear Readers,

Today is April Fool’s Day, and I am pleased to mark the occasion by presenting to you an April Fools Issue of our humble magazine. We’re not going to use this holiday to tell you jokes; we’re much too serious for that. Instead, in this installment of the Hipster Conservative, we will review books that are foolish, and whose authors might themselves be considered April Fools: everything from Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.

What is wrong with these books? What makes their authors April Fools? Lots of things. For instance, Sordello argues that The Hunger Games deals with ethical dilemmas by pretending they just don’t exist. I argue that Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius takes the easy way out by abandoning (and perhaps ridiculing) the possibility of communication about grief and tragedy. N. W. Smith argues, quite memorably, that Michael O’Brien’s Catholic end-times novel, Father Elijah, is foolish because it is not really Catholic at all. Foolish works of nonfiction, especially foolish works of theory and history, are even easier to spot: their theories are wrong; and when put into practice, their theories are destructive. Continue reading Epistolary Foreword: April Fools!

Michael O’Brien, the Catholic Tim LaHaye

Cover image of "Father Elijah" by Michael O'Brien

Father Elijah: An Apocalypse
by Michael D. O’Brien
Ignatius Press, 1997
576 pages, paperback, $17.95

It was the best end-times, it was the worst end-times. Forgive me that line. Please read on.

“It’s true that Catholics produce and safeguard true art,” I said one evening to my non-Catholic-but-Catholic-admiring friend, “but they also produce a vast amount of kitschy, tacky, pietistic nonsense. And that’s a shame.” To defend my case, I made reference to “the Catholic Tim LaHaye,” whose name I did not know, but by whom I meant Michael O’Brien and the book Father Elijah. (For those of you who don’t know, Tim LaHaye is the coauthor of the gawdawfull Left Behind series, which can only be described to those unfamiliar with Evangelicalism as an unholy mixture of Gnostic numerology and Jerry Falwell-style Zionism.)

Well, my non-Catholic-but-Catholic-admiring friend had, in fact, read that book, and informed that I had misjudged it. Sort of. My friend is a smart girl, and knew the book has deep flaws, but she encouraged me to read it anyway.

“Reminiscent of Tolstoy and Charles Williams,” wrote Thomas Howard. Being an admirer of Tolstoy and a huge enthusiast of Williams, I thought: Hot damn! Maybe I’ve misjudged this O’Brien fellow. Continue reading Michael O’Brien, the Catholic Tim LaHaye

When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review? When It’s a Review of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
Vintage, 2001
485 pages, paperback, $15

Twelve years ago, with his literary debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers may have given us a book that is impossible to review, to discuss, or to criticize. In the long war of author against critic, this is an impressive victory for the author. Everything that can be said about Dave Eggers’s book (which he nicknames A.H.W.O.S.G.) has already been said by Dave Eggers. If I exaggerate, I don’t exaggerate very much: the first paperback edition of the book contains a critical apparatus that’s more on the scale of a Norton Critical Edition than it has any right to be. The front matter—including an “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors,” a copyright page reminding us that the influence of corporations like Bertelsmann A.G. on our “daily lives and hearts” is “very very small, and so hardly worth worrying about,” and a drawing of a stapler—is 45 pages long. When I flip my copy of A.H.W.O.S.G. upside-down and look at its back cover, it becomes a different book, Mistakes We Knew We Were Making (this under-cover proudly announces not that it is a National Bestseller but that it is a National Curiosity), 48 more pages of “notes, corrections, clarifications, apologies, addenda.”

Apologies, I think, is the most apt of these descriptors. Really, these pages are more in the vein of self-deprecation—but what a self-defensive self-deprecation! You don’t even need to look further than the title to understand this: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius aspires to be just that, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It wears that aspiration on its sleeve (does anyone ever call a dust jacket a “sleeve”? I guess that pun doesn’t really work) in order to protect itself against the charge that it’s trying too hard. “Of course I’m trying too hard,” the book winks at us. “That’s what’s so funny about me.” Continue reading When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review? When It’s a Review of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Burckhardt on the Weapon of Ridicule

The corrective, not only of this modern desire for fame, but of all highly developed individuality, is found in ridicule, especially when expressed in the victorious form of wit. We read in the Middle Ages how hostile armies, princes, and nobles, provoked one another with symbolical insult, and how the defeated party was loaded with symbolical outrage. Here and there, too, under the influence of classical literature, wit began to be used as a weapon in theological disputes, and the poetry of Provence produced a whole class of satirical compositions. Even the Minnesanger, as their political poems show, could adopt this tone when necessary. But wit could not be an independent element in life till its appropriate victim, the developed individual with personal pretensions, had appeared. It weapons were then by no means limited to the tongue and the pen, but included tricks and practical jokes—the so-called ‘burle’ and ‘beffe’—which form a chief subject of many collections of novels.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (S. G. C. Middlecore, trans.), Part 2, ch. 3, “Ridicule and Wit.”