Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 747

Cultural Icons on Criticism

Twain, Sontag, Bradbury, Hitchens, Didion, and more.

In researching my recent piece for Harvard’s quarterly Nieman Reports, exploring the role of the critic as celebrator, I found myself sifting through bountiful marginalia on the subject of criticism, culled from a decade’s worth of reading. Here are some favorites.

Susan Sontag in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.

Mark Twain in Mark Twain’s Notebook:

The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.

Ezra Pound in A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste:

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.

Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, Second Series:

[Critics] are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.

Bertrand Russell in A Liberal Decalogue:

Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

John Updike in Picked-Up Pieces:

Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.

Ray Bradbury, warmly irreverent as ever, in Zen and the Art of Writing:

I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end.

Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist (Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything):

Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn By Living:

If you consider that you are being criticized by someone who is seeking knowledge and has an open mind, then you naturally feel you must try to meet that criticism. But if you feel that the criticism is made out of sheer malice and that no amount of explanation will change a point of view which has nothing to do with the facts, then the best thing is to put it out of your mind entirely.

Zadie Smith in a Granta interview about writing fiction, with an insight that applies to any art and echoes Bertrand Russell’s wisdom on creation vs. destruction:

Whenever I write a novel I’m reminded of the essential hubris of criticism. When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: here are my arguments, here are my blessed opinions, here is my textual evidence, here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself. Fiction has none of these defences. You are just a fool with a keyboard. It’s much harder. More frightening.

Theodore Roosevelt in The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Terry McMillan in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do:

The thing is, the critics hate you when you become commercially successful. They look for stuff to find wrong.

Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Life in Letters :

I dont mind critisism a bit— — the critics are always wrong … but they are always right in the sense that they make one re-examine one’s artistic conscience.

Joan Didion echoes a similar sentiment in this 1977 Paris Review interview, collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4:

A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947:

I fear criticism because I fear it will destroy my spontaneity. I fear restrictions. I live by impulse and improvisation, and want to write the same way.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955:

I find in American life an excess of harshness, criticism, little capacity for admiration.

Neil Gaiman, in his fantastic advice to those embarking upon life in the arts:

Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.

And when all else fails, some modern wisdom:

Complement with more collected wisdom from luminaries on the subjects of art, science, love, daily writing routines, and the meaning of life.

BP

The Proud Surrender: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Love Letters to Edith Wynn Matthison

“This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness.”

No other form of human communication measures up to the mesmerism of an exquisite love letter, especially one that defies the romantic conventions of its age, like the stirring missives exchanged between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, or Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

In 1917, during her final year at Vassar College — which she had entered at the unusually ripe age of 21 — Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950) met and befriended British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, fifteen years her senior. Taken with Matthison’s fierce spirit, majestic beauty, and impeccable style, Millay’s platonic attraction quickly blossomed into an intense romantic infatuation. Edith, a woman who made no apologies for relishing life’s bounties, eventually kissed Edna and invited her to her summer home. A series of disarmingly passionate letters followed.

Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), these epistolary longings capture that strange blend of electrifying ardor and paralyzing pride familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.

Writing to Edith, Edna cautions of her uncompromising frankness:

Listen; if ever in my letters to you, or in my conversation, you see a candor that seems almost crude, — please know that it is because when I think of you I think of real things, & become honest, — and quibbling and circumvention seem very inconsiderable.

In another, she pleads:

I will do whatever you tell me to do… Love me, please; I love you. I can bear to be your friend. So ask of me anything… But never be ‘tolerant,’ or ‘kind.’ And never say to me again — don’t dare to say to me again — ‘Anyway, you can make a trial’ of being friends with you! Because I can’t do things that way… I am conscious only of doing the thing that I love to do — that I have to do — and I have to be your friend.

In yet another, Millay articulates brilliantly the “proud surrender” at the heart of every materialized infatuation and every miracle of “real, honest, complete love”:

You wrote me a beautiful letter, — I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. — I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. … nothing that has happened to me for a long time has made me so happy as I shall be to visit you sometime. — You must not forget that you spoke of that, — because it would disappoint me cruelly. … I shall try to bring a few quite nice things with me; I will get together all that I can, and then when you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you; I don’t talk like that to many people.

With love,

Vincent Millay

Complement with history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, then see Millay on the love of music.

Thanks, Chel

BP

How To Take a Bath: And Other Vintage Visual Guides from the Early 1900s

Steaming like it’s 1899.

The history of health is peppered with gorgeous anatomical flap-ups, strange medical art, and vibrant vintage illustrations, with a side of beautifully illustrated pseudoscience. But few come close to these vintage gems from the early 1900s, found in a French edition of Friedrich Eduard Bilz’s 1888 naturopathic medicine guide Das Neue Naturheilverfahren (The New Natural Healing) (public library). Charmingly illustrated in the familiar style of early twentieth-century medical art, they offer visual directions to various methods of curing disease, from steam baths to massage to swimming.

Complement with Fritz Kahn’s weird and wonderful 1926 classic Man as Industrial Palace.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated