Rebecca West called for “a new and abusive school of criticism.” It’s still needed.

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Saving souls through litcrit

A few months after World War I began, writer Rebecca West wrote:  “Disgust at the daily deathbed which is Europe has made us hunger and thirst for the kindly ways of righteousness, and we want to save our souls.”

The New Republic, almost a year ago, reprinted her 1914 remarks, calling us to “a serious duty … the duty of listening to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner.”

So much for “kindly ways.”  West wrote, “Criticism matters as it never did in the past, because of the present pride of great writers.”

West’s prose is a little febrile, and she hopelessly confuses the mind and the soul, but in an era of anomie, her passionate outcry is refreshing:  “Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art,” she wrote.  “For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”

She continues:

“A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist.

Well, that much has changed at least.  Journalists are feeding out of dumpsters nowadays.

Nor is it due to compulsion from above, for it is not worth an editor’s while to veil the bright rage of an entertaining writer for the sake of publishers’ advertisements. No economic force compels this vice of amiability. It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.

But they do matter. The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance.”

Sleeping with the enemy

Is West’s call to arms dépassé?  We think not.  Dana Gioia wrote nearly two decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?” that in literary journals

the essays and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. If it publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them. … The unspoken editorial rule seems to be, Never surprise or annoy the readers; they are, after all, mainly our friends and colleagues.

By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books. But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments.

Robert Bly wrote in a similar vein about the same time:

We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, “I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself,” . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.”

West concludes:  “Now, when every day the souls of men go up from Finance like smoke, we feel that humanity is the flimsiest thing, easily divided into nothingness and rotting flesh. We must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom. We must give her an unsurprisable mind. And that will never be done while affairs of art and learning are decided without passion, and individual dulnesses allowed to dim the brightness of the collective mind. We must weepingly leave the library if we are stupid, just as in the middle ages we left the home if we were lepers. If we can offer the mind of the world nothing else we can offer it our silence.”

West hammers into George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.  She says nothing about the ethics and politics of sleeping with the authors she reviews.  She was Wells’s lover for a decade and bore his son.


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