Books: The Art of Criticism: 3 Getting It Wrong
Paulin, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
F O MATTHIESSEN - a distinguished American critic of the 1930s and 40s - is fascinated by that strange, suggestive phrase "soiled fish of the sea" in Herman Melville's novel White-Jacket. He is so taken with the phrase that he cannot follow his i ntuition and hear a sceptical inner voice telling him that the Pacific Ocean wasn't polluted in those days and that therefore there must be some mistake. After all, Melville, the epic novelist and prophetic chronicler of the soul of the new American repu blic, deserves this kind of enthusiastic interpretation. And perhaps there was something in Matthiessen which felt that nature and the body were somehow filthy. He wrote an early study of T S Eliot who looked on ordinary life as "dung and death".
The craggy textual scholar Fredson Bowers was dismayed by the vulnerability of Matthiessen's judgement, though in fairness he includes a remark by one John W Nichol, who said that the "change" - "mistake" he means - does not invalidate Matthiessen's gen e ral critical position: "It merely weakens his specific example." Nevertheless, Nichol adds that such a "textual slip" could in the proper context have offered "an entirely false conception".
Is Nichol trying to argue that textual accuracy doesn't matter too much? Bowers insists that it matters absolutely, and he goes on to call William Empson a "frequent offender" because of his "careless use of imperfect texts, complicated by a more than ordinary inaccuracy of quotation". Empson, for example, mispunctuates an Eliot poem in order to praise its syntactic ambiguity, when he should have checked his quotation before hazarding an interpretation.
For the critic who went, or would go, to school with Empson, this is a salutary criticism. To adapt Baden-Powell on personal hygiene, the good critic checks his or her references and quotations not once, but several times. And the critic, like a true swell, stays in the best hotels where the finest editions are available from room service.
But supposing time and money are short? Or supposing you are stranded, like the revered German scholar Erich Auerbach in a foreign country in wartime with only a few books and an inadequate library? The possibilities for special pleading are endless, so perhaps the only thing to do is to admit it's a fair cop, guv, to whatever forensic Bowersite convicts you of error, and then try to do better. The history of criticism is littered with tiny errors, huge faux pas and comic misquotations. Wha t critic worth their salt has a clear conscience on this matter?
There is another argument, which wasn't available to John W Nichol back in 1949 when he commented on Matthiessen's boo-boo, and that is to argue for the ludic or what has been termed "the free play of critical discourse". This displaces Bowers's judicia l authority (well, let's pretend it does) and allows for what another American critic, Harold Bloom, terms "creative misprision". It's a slightly daunting, pseudo-technical term which states that all readings of literary texts - es-pecially those made byother creative writers - are always misreadings or acts of "creative correction" which empower new works of …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: The Art of Criticism: 3 Getting It Wrong. Contributors: Paulin, Tom - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: January 22, 1996. Page number: 34. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.