Caveat Lector

“A work of art is not a set of ideas or an exercise of technique, or even a combination of both. But I am strongly disposed to believe that our contemporary writing would benefit by a genuine literary criticism that should deal expertly with ideas and art, not merely tell us whether the reviewer ‘let out a whoop’ for the book or threw it out the window.”

                                                                                     –Edmund Wilson

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“The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.”

                                                          –Roberto Bolaño

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“If today the ability to read is everyone’s portion, still only a few notice what a powerful talisman has thus been put into their hands. The child proud of his youthful knowledge of the alphabet first achieves for himself the reading of a verse or a saying, then the reading of a first little story, a fairy tale, and while those who have not been called seem to apply their reading ability to news reports or to the business sections of their newspapers, there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers.”

                                                                    –Herman Hesse

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Ubi Sunt

Where are the readers?

Carry Me, Like a Child, To Riot

“I’m committed to the bitter passionate view that we live in a Byzantine period, an Alexandrian period, in which the commentator and the comment tower above the original. Saint-Beuve dies bitterly remarking, ‘No one will ever create a statue for a critic.’ Oh God, how wrong he was. Today we’re told there is critical theory, that criticism dominates—deconstruction, semiotics, post-structuralism, postmodernism. It is a very peculiar climate, summed up by that man of undoubted genius, Monsieur Derrida, when he says that every text is a ‘pretext.’ This is one of the most formidably erroneous, destructive, brilliantly trivial wordplays ever launched. Meaning what? That whatever the stature of the poem, it waits for the deconstructive commentator; it is the mere occasion of the exercise. That is to me ridiculous beyond words. Walter Benjamin said a book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader happens to come along. Books are in no hurry. An act of creation is in no hurry; it reads us, it privileges us infinitely. The notion that it is the occasion for our cleverness fills me with baffled bitterness and anger. The notion that students today read second- and thirdhand criticism of criticism, and read less and less real literature, is absolutely the death of the normal naive and logical order of precedence.”

                                                                     –George Steiner

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Foliate

“A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child’s scrawl on the fence, and the crank’s message in the market place. Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase ‘sincere and simple’—’Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere’—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: ‘Art is simple, art is sincere.’ Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”

                                                                        –Vladimir Nabokov

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Crowning

“Some fashions…flower once and then disappear, hopefully forever. Others swing in and out of style, as if fastened to the end of a pendulum. Two foibles of human life strongly promote this oscillatory mode. First, our need to create order in a complex world, begets our worst mental habit: dichotomy, or our tendency to reduce a truly intricate set of subtle shadings to a choice between two diametrically opposed alternatives (each with moral weight and therefore ripe for bombast and pontification, if not outright warfare): religion versus science, liberal versus conservative, plain versus fancy, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ versus the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Second, many deep questions about our loves and livelihood, and the fates of nations, truly have no answers—so we cycle the presumed alternatives of our dichotomies, one after the other, always hoping that, this time, we will find the nonexistent key to an elusive solution.”

                                                               –Stephen Jay Gould

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Spell Me

“What is one to do on a day when thoughts cease to flow and the proper words won’t come? One cannot help trembling at this possibility. That is why, despite the acquiescence in fate that becomes an upright man, I secretly pray: no infirmity, no paralysis of one’s powers through bodily distress. We’ll die with harness on, as King Macbeth said.”

                                                                    –Sigmund Freud

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Whips and Scorns

“Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life – the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it – can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.”

                                                                            –George Eliot

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