The Difficult Art of Counter-Criticism: Rebecca Solnit on Celebrating Complexity, Savoring the Unquantifiable, and Defying the Urge to Simplify and Contain
“There is a kind of counter-criticism that … can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination.”
By Maria Popova
“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her sublime meditation on the recognition of subtleties and interconnections at the heart of creative work. “There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” And yet in the lapse between Woolf’s time and ours, we have lost sight of our thingness and ceased seeing the pattern behind the cotton wool. Ours is an age bedeviled by the urge — an urge bearing the ominous compulsiveness of addiction — to reduce, flatten, and simplify what is more expansive, dimensional, and complex than can be easily understood. Too often, we choose this ease — the ease of reflexive reactions and instant opinions — over the difficult but nourishing work of consideration. As if the sensationalist headlines of the news media weren’t corrosive enough to the contemplative necessities of the human spirit, even our cultural commentary on such supreme temples of contemplation as literature and art has taken on the same predatory tendency to traffic in simplistic, often sadistic criticism that impoverishes the conversation and our collective conscience of nuance.
But there is another way — an antidote that, by countering these poisonous narratives, enriches and perhaps even saves our interior lives. That antidote is what Rebecca Solnit, unparalleled high priestess of nuance and intelligent contemplation, explores in a piece titled “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” found in her subversive and sanctifying essay collection Men Explain Things To Me (public library).
Solnit notes that much of our commentary on art and culture embodies a “kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent” and “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.” She points to the alternative — an alternative we frequently forget exists at all:
There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.
Solnit borrows her friend Chip Ward’s term “the tyranny of the quantifiable” and considers how we impoverish our imagination whenever we relinquish the unquantifiable for “systems of accounting that can’t count what matters”:
What can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having. The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things.
In a sentiment that calls to mind bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful case for how the naming of things confers dignity upon their existence, Solnit adds:
It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism.
With an eye to Virginia Woolf as a writer who consistently defied this tendency to reduce and contain by modeling its opposite for generations, Solnit — a Woolf, perhaps the Woolf, of our time in myriad ways — reflects:
My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings — impossible to categorize — at the heart of things.
This delicate mesh of meanings and subtleties is what Woolf meant by the pattern hidden behind the cotton wool. This, too, was what Albert Einstein had in mind when he marveled that there lies “something deeply hidden” behind the nature of things. Solnit herself offers an elegant definition of this expansive counterpoint to the contraction of certitude:
Mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.
Men Explain Things To Me is a sobering and ennobling read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Solnit on the annihilation of space and time, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, how maps can oppress and liberate, and why we read.
Published December 13, 2016