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Auden on the True Task of the Critic, What It Really Means to Be a Scholar, and Why Malevolent Reviews Are Bad for Character

“The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.”

Auden on the True Task of the Critic, What It Really Means to Be a Scholar, and Why Malevolent Reviews Are Bad for Character

In the preface of her magnificent nonfiction collection of riffs on books, the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska made a vital distinction between traditional literary criticism and her own approach to reading and writing about books. Noting her disinterest in the former (which Susan Sontag called “cultural cholesterol”), Szymborska wrote of the latter: “I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations.”

Long ago, long before I came upon Szymborska’s wonderful sentiment and found in it consolatory resonance with my aversion to classifying my own reflections on books as “criticism,” I wrote an essay for Harvard’s Nieman Reports about the critic as celebrator — about the notion of refining and elevating our shared standards for what constitutes good art by celebrating the most worthwhile examples and refusing to allot the opposite any space in our public discourse; refusing, above all, to expend energy on bile and laceration, however intellectually elegant.

I remembered that old essay recently in encountering a passage from the altogether magnificent The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (public library) by W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) — that trove of the beloved poet’s wisdom on writing, originality, and how to be a good reader, received as a birthday present from a dear friend.


Auden begins with a definition of the critic’s central animating principle and its singular psychological challenges:

If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist has to learn to be humble in the face of his* subject matter which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind of humility is much more difficult to acquire. It is far easier to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” — than to say — “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”

Auden considers six key duties of the critic to the reader, one or more of which each good piece of criticism should fulfill:

  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which Iw as hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that i have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The first three of these, Auden argues, require scholarship — a faculty both demanding and poorly understood. (Incidentally, Szymborska herself — a peer of Auden’s one generation removed — believed that to be a poet is necessarily to be a savage rather than a scholar.) Auden considers what it actually means to be a scholar:

A scholar is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others. One would not call a man who knew the Manhattan Telephone Directory by heart a scholar, because one cannot imagine circumstances in which he would acquire a pupil. Since scholarship implies a relation between one who knows more and one who knows less, it may be temporary; in relation to the public, every reviewer is, temporarily, a scholar, because he has read the book he is reviewing and the public have not. Though the knowledge a scholar possesses must be potentially valuable, it is not necessary that he recognizes its value himself; it is always possible that the pupil to whom he imparts his knowledge has a better sense of its value than he. In general, when reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations than from his comments.

(Or, as Montaigne memorably articulated this curatorial aspect of scholarship half a millennium earlier, “I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”)

The remaining three services, Auden argues, require that the critic excel not in knowledge but in insight:

A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them. Few readers, probably, find themselves able to accept Tolstoi’s conclusions in What Is Art?, but, once one has read the book, one can never again ignore the questions Tolstoi raises.

But Auden’s most pressing point deals with the critic’s moral orientation toward malevolence or benevolence. He argues that the former is moot effort, for the public life of art has a built-in self-correction mechanism — bad art perishes over time by virtue of its own badness. The critic’s role, therefore, ought to spring from benevolence and focus on nourishing the roots of goodness rather than weeding out lifeless badness. He writes:

The injunction “Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” may in many spheres of life be impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway… The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

Auden addresses the most common defense employed by the smug perpetrators of literary savagery (whose high horse, in my book, is a Trojan rationalization for the sheer sadistic pleasure they take in showing off the might with which they can rip another’s labor of love apart):

Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the badness of an author because, unless this is done, he may corrupt other writers. To be sure, a young writer can be led astray, deflected, that is, from his true path, by an older, but he is much more likely to be seduced by a good writer than by a bad one. The more powerful and original a writer, the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stimulus to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others.

You do not educate a person’s palate by telling him that what he has been in the habit of eating — watery, overboiled cabbage, let us say — is disgusting, but by persuading him to try a dish of vegetables which have been properly cooked.

With this, Auden turns to the heart of the loathsomeness of malevolent reviews:

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

Complement The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, an invigorating read in its totality, with celebrated writers on how to handle criticism, Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, and philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.

* If troubled by the gendered language of the era, find levity in Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant commentary on the subject.


Swifter Than a Bird Flies: An Astonishing Account of Riding the First Passenger Train and How the Invention of Railroads Changed Human Consciousness

“When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.”

Swifter Than a Bird Flies: An Astonishing Account of Riding the First Passenger Train and How the Invention of Railroads Changed Human Consciousness

“That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind,” James Gleick wrote in contemplating our civilizational enchantment with speed. But the most fertile seed of those habits of mind was planted by the technologies that emerged in one particular blink of a period — the first half of the nineteenth century. And the most consciousness-confounding of those technologies was the railroad, which suddenly compressed space and time in ways previously unimaginable. Until then, the limits of speed came from nature untampered with by human ingenuity — horses were the fastest mode of traversing space, pigeons the fastest medium of communication.

Everything changed when the first passenger railroad opened on September 15, 1830, furnishing the closest sensation to flying human beings had yet experienced. Nothing had reconfigured the temporal dimension of the human mind more dramatically since Galileo invented timekeeping and the reverberations of that revolution, which led to the invention of time zones, are still being felt today.

1894 color engraving titled Locomotive Engine, 'The Rocket', 1830, depicting the opening of Liverpool and Manchester Railway
1894 color engraving titled Locomotive Engine, ‘The Rocket’, 1830, depicting the opening of Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Three weeks earlier, on August 26, the British actress Fanny Kemble (November 27, 1809–January 15, 1893) — a theater sensation not yet twenty-one, who would go on to become a prolific and gifted writer — was offered an exclusive preview of this astonishing technology. Shortly after she took a ride on the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad, Kemble recounted the thrilling drama of the experience in a lengthy and spirited letter to a friend.

The letter, originally published in Kemble’s Records of a Girlhood and later cited in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (public library) — Rebecca Solnit’s incomparably illuminating account of how “the annihilation of space and time” changed our consciousness — remains the most vivid and articulate first-hand account we have of just how profoundly the railroads altered the human experience.

Fanny Kemble by Thomas Sully, 1834
Fanny Kemble by Thomas Sully, 1834

Kemble writes:

A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies… And now I will give you an account of my yesterday’s excursion. A party of sixteen persons was ushered, into a large court-yard, where, under cover, stood several carriages of a peculiar construction, one of which was prepared for our reception. It was a long-bodied vehicle with seats placed across it, back to back; the one we were in had six of these benches, and was a sort of uncovered char à banc. The wheels were placed upon two iron bands, which formed the road, and to which they are fitted, being so constructed as to slide along without any danger of hitching or becoming displaced, on the same principle as a thing sliding on a concave groove. The carriage was set in motion by a mere push, and, having received, this impetus, rolled with us down an inclined plane into a tunnel, which forms the entrance to the railroad. This tunnel is four hundred yards long (I believe), and will be lighted by gas. At the end of it we emerged from darkness, and, the ground becoming level, we stopped. There is another tunnel parallel with this, only much wider and longer, for it extends from the place which we had now reached, and where the steam-carriages start, and which is quite out of Liverpool, the whole way under the town, to the docks. This tunnel is for wagons and other heavy carriages; and as the engines which are to draw the trains along the railroad do not enter these tunnels, there is a large building at this entrance which is to be inhabited by steam-engines of a stationary turn of mind, and different constitution from the traveling ones, which are to propel the trains through the tunnels to the terminus in the town, without going out of their houses themselves.

Here, Kemble offers a testament to the nature of metaphor as an anchor for the new into the old, for the unknown into the known — this unprecedented technology, born into an alien context of its own making, had to be made comprehensible by rooting it in creaturely familiarity. Kemble writes:

We were introduced to the little engine which was to drag us along the rails. She (for they make these curious little fire-horses all mares) consisted of a boiler, a stove, a small platform, a bench, and behind the bench a barrel containing enough water to prevent her being thirsty for fifteen miles, — the whole machine not bigger than a common fire-engine. She goes upon two wheels, which are her feet, and are moved by bright steel legs called pistons; these are propelled by steam, and in proportion as more steam is applied to the upper extremities (the hip-joints, I suppose) of these pistons, the faster they move the wheels; and when it is desirable to diminish the speed, the steam, which unless suffered to escape would burst the boiler, evaporates through a safety-valve into the air. The reins, bit, and bridle of this wonderful beast is a small steel handle, which applies or withdraws the steam from its legs or pistons, so that a child might manage it. The coals, which are its oats, were under the bench, and there was a small glass tube affixed to the boiler, with water in it, which indicates by its fullness or emptiness when the creature wants water, which is immediately conveyed to it from its reservoirs. There is a chimney to the stove, but as they burn coke there is none of the dreadful black smoke which accompanies the progress of a steam vessel. This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat, was then harnessed to our carriage, and, Mr. Stephenson having taken me on the bench of the engine with him, we started at about ten miles an hour. The steam-horse being ill adapted for going up and down hill, the road was kept at a certain level, and appeared sometimes to sink below the surface of the earth, and sometimes to rise above it. Almost at starting it was cut through the solid rock, which formed a wall on either side of it, about sixty feet high.

Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830, by A.B. Clayton
Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830, by A.B. Clayton

From this descriptive account Kemble now moves to the emotive, conveying the monumental shift in human perception and sensation that the railroad was about to precipitate in the whole of humanity:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw. Bridges were thrown from side to side across the top of these cliffs, and the people looking down upon us from them seemed like pigmies standing in the sky… After proceeding through this rocky defile, we presently found ourselves raised upon embankments ten or twelve feet high; we then came to a moss, or swamp, of considerable extent, on which no human foot could tread without sinking, and yet it bore the road which bore us… We passed over it at the rate of five and twenty miles an hour, and saw the stagnant swamp water trembling on the surface of the soil on either side of us… It was lovely and wonderful beyond all words.


The carriage … was set off at its utmost speed, thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies (for they tried the experiment with a snipe). You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible, too. I could either have read or written; and as it was, I stood up, and with my bonnet off “drank the air before me.” The wind, which was strong, or perhaps the force of our own thrusting against it, absolutely weighed my eyelids down. (I remember a similar experience to this, the first time I attempted to go behind the sheet of the cataract of Niagara; the wind coming from beneath the waterfall met me with such direct force that it literally bore down my eyelids, and I had to put off the attempt of penetrating behind the curtain of foam till another day, when that peculiar accident; was less directly hostile to me in its conditions.) When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description; yet, strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security, and not the slightest fear.

Kemble ends her account by returning to her mare metaphor, proving once again that we thinking animals do indeed think with animals:

This brave little she-dragon of ours flew on… When I add that this pretty little creature can run with equal facility either backward or forward, I believe I have given you an account of all her capacities.

Kemble remained enchanted by trains. In 1833, while touring in Boston, she traveled to the city’s southern suburb of Quincy for the unveiling of the Granite Railroad, America’s first commercial railway, and recorded the experience in her journal with exuberant admiration. Well before the end of the century, railroads had transformed humanity so profoundly that the previously science-fictional feat of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days became possible.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on how the rise of railroads catalyzed the invention of motion pictures.


Bruce Lee’s Daughter Shares Her Father’s Philosophy of Learning

“Learning is discovering, uncovering what is there in us.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his timeless treatise on education and the journey of becoming who you are. Albert Einstein, in a letter of advice to his young son, argued that the secret to learning anything lies in “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” And yet the dominant Western system of education is predicated on the mindless laying of factory-made bricks via the rote memorization of information — a method impoverished of enjoyment and dismal at equipping us with wisdom in the age of information.

One of the simplest, most elegant, and most urgently necessary perspectives on fruitful learning comes from legendary martial artist and underappreciated philosopher Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973). In this excerpt from a recent episode of the altogether wonderful Bruce Lee podcast, co-hosted by Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee reads her father’s philosophy of learning, originally published in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — the trove of wisdom that gave us Lee on self-actualization and the origin of his famous metaphor for resilience.

Learning is discovery, the discovery of the cause of our ignorance. However, the best way of learning is not the computation of information. Learning is discovering, uncovering what is there in us. When we discover, we are uncovering our own ability, our own eyes, in order to find our potential, to see what is going on, to discover how we can enlarge our lives, to find means at our disposal that will let us cope with a difficult situation.

At the heart of Lee’s philosophy of learning is the essential difference of learning as limitation, in the form of static memorization, and learning as liberation, in the form of dynamic self-expansion. In another section of the book, he revisits the subject:

We do not have to “gain” freedom because freedom has always been with us and is not something to be gained in the end through strict and faithful adherence to some definite formulas. Formulas can only inhibit freedom and preformations only squelch creativity and impose mediocrity.


Learning is definitely not mere imitation or the ability to accumulate and conform to fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery and never a concluding one.

Further along in the book, Lee addresses the paradox of learning from a Zen-inspired perspective and adds an essential caveat:

Learning gained is learning lost.

The knowledge and skill you have achieved are after all meant to be “forgotten” so you can float in emptiness without obstruction and comfortably. Learning is important, but do not become its slave. Above all, do not harbor anything external or superfluous; the mind is the primary.

You can never be the master of your technical knowledge unless all your psychic hindrances are removed and you can keep the mind in the state of emptiness (fluidity), even purged of whatever technique you have obtained — with no conscious effort.

Complement Bruce Lee: Artist of Life with Lee on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem, the strength of yielding, and his never-before-seen writings on willpower, emotion, and the intellect, then revisit John Dewey on the true purpose of education, Lewis Carroll’s four rules of learning, Parker Palmer on learning as a spiritual practice, and Sister Corita Kent’s ten timeless rules for lifelong learning, beloved and popularized by John Cage.


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