This book is an attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts - especially fiction, since that is the art on which I'm best informed - and what has gone wrong with criticism. The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations - not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas -but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions - for instance those between modernist and post-modernist - that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever before to read, criticism has become trivial.
The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason that some people should not specialize in the behavior of the left-side hairs on an elephant's trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of their game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant's nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.
At least in America art is not thought capable, these days, of tromping on babies. Yet it does so all the time, and what is worse, it does so with a bland smile. I've watched writers, composers, and painters knocking off their "works" with their left hands. Nice people, most of them. Artists are generally pleasant people, childlike both in love and hate, intending no harm when they turn out bad paintings, compositions, or books. Indeed, their ambition guarantees that they will do the best they know how to do or think they ought to do. The error is less in their objects than in their objectives. "Art is play, or partly play," they'll tell you with an engaging smile, serving up their non-nutritious fare with the murderous indifference of a fat girl serving up hamburgers. What they say is true enough, as far as it goes, and nothing is more tiresome than the man who keeps hollering, "Hey, let's be serious!" but that is what we must holler.
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue - by reason and by banging the table - for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should he thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.
The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game - or so a troll might say - because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in.
Like legitimate art, legitimate criticism is a tragicomic holding action against entropy. Life is all conjunctions, one damn thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art - the best, most important art - is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain. (All the arts treat subordination; literature is merely the most explicit about what leads to what.) Art builds temporary walls against life's leveling force, the ruin of what is splendidly unnatural in us, consciousness, the state in which not all atoms are equal. In corpses, entropy has won; the brain and the toenails have equal say. Art asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution, struggling to keep the mind intact and preserve the city, the mind's safe preserve. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.
Readers are welcome to tell me whose words these are. Without research.