Knowledge, Love, and Criticism

What does the critic love? I keep asking this because I keep getting stimulating feedback. In one instance it was suggested that the critic loves knowledge; in another, soul-searching. There is, no doubt, something to both, and, in fact, to both together. The critic is definitely driven to know and to understand. That much seems clear. And it is certainly true that knowledge in itself can be remarkably rewarding. I’m not sure that I would defend it to the death, but there is something that resonates with me in Housman’s line, “All human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” For some critics, then, the answer may be as simple as this, the love of knowledge or the love of knowing.

But those last two phrases are not quite synonymous are they (… I ask the audience that cannot hear me as I type the question)? The love of knowledge and the love of knowing — the former loves the object, the latter loves the state of possessing the object. Consider it the difference between the person who loves to contemplate the work of art, and the one who loves to point guests to the work of art on their wall. The love of knowledge would seem less instrumental, more disinterested. The love of knowing suggests to me the spirit of the pedant. That said, I believe both are recognizable dispositions and we know the difference when we encounter each case.

Setting aside the pedant, I’d readily grant that love of knowledge drives the critic. But more distinctions: what does love of knowledge for the music critic, to take one example, mean? It probably does not only mean loving knowledge about the music. Surely, it involves knowledge as a form of intimate participation with the music. (Save the Leslie Nielsen/Airplane crack.) The love of knowledge is multifaceted, it’s not simply a matter of loving information. This holds, I suspect, for critics not only of music, but also of art, literature, food, film, etc. In each of these cases, the knowledge the critic loves is in part experiential. I’m tempted to say that it is finally not a love of knowledge as we normally think of knowledge, but a love of the thing itself. The critic accumulates knowledge about the object of criticism in order to heighten and deepen the experience of the object.

But all of these instances of criticism strike me as something apart from what we might call social or cultural criticism. The critic who takes society or aspects of society as their object of criticism may also be motivated by a love of knowledge, but of what sort? The knowledge the social critic cultivates seems different than the knowledge cultivated by the music critic. It seems to lack the element of contemplative participation that music or an object of art invite. Perhaps, it is better to say that the knowledge of the social critic does not culminate in an act of contemplation.

With that last phrase I think I’ve brought into view the distinction I was struggling to articulate. For the critic of art, the accumulation of knowledge culminates in an act of contemplation. That is, it has as its goal the enjoyment of beauty. The social critic’s knowledge does not culminate in anything comparable. The culmination of the social critic’s work would seem to be action not contemplation, transformation rather than participation. Perhaps we might say that the social critic aims at goodness enacted while the artistic critic aims at beauty contemplated, and the pursuit of truth is undertaken in the service of both aims.

But there is one more consideration that may draw these two forms of criticism together. Perhaps we might also say that the critic is driven by love of self. There are two ways of construing this that track with the distinction above. The critic might be driven by self-love in the sense that they love nothing more than to see their own values and desires reflected by society. This critic loves nothing so much as their image reflected back to them. Whatever does this is praised, whatever does not is held in contempt. This critic pursues knowledge with contemplation as its aim and it is the contemplation of their own image.

Self-love, however, may also drive the critic who seeks not to contemplate their own image, but to transform themselves, to move toward some higher ideal. In this case, we may speak of a self-love that is animated by the love of something greater than the self and that loves the self in the sense of wanting what is best for the self in light of this higher ideal. Their criticism is aimed at self-knowledge for the sake of self-transformation. Their criticism is, in fact, an act of soul-searching.

4 thoughts on “Knowledge, Love, and Criticism

  1. Is “love” the right word? In some ways it is, or at least in some cases it may be, but I fear it may fuzz up the discussion, place connotations on the work of the critic that it neither needs nor deserves. I say the work of the critic because I think “work,” not “love,” is the right word. And I think the work the critic does is, as you imply, the work of knowing. (Work and love blur at some point because they both end in joy, but they still strike me as different things.) I’d argue, from this view, that the work of the art critic and the social critic actually begin and end in similar places. Both start in contemplation (if of different kinds), move through curiosity, and end in what Robert Frost called a “momentary stay against confusion” – the tentative clarity provided by knowing something. (The art critic, having completed his work, may then return to contemplate the object with a deeper understanding, but that’s not a necessary stage in the work of knowing. It’s the understanding itself that is the culmination, and the goal, and the joy, of the work.)

    I mentioned Frost because Frost is the great poet of the work of knowing, as the critic Richard Poirier describes in his book of that title (subtitle, actually). Frost wrote, “Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost: be it in art, politics, school, church, business, love, or marriage – in a piece of work or in a career. Strongly spent is synonymous with kept.” Criticism, too, becomes such a symbol when it is done well.

    1. First off, thanks for this response, it’s quite helpful.

      Speaking of “love” in this context probably does fuzz things up a bit. It’s an unwieldily word that does spin off all sorts of connotations. What I was trying to capture is something with an Augustinian flavor, something like an underlying motivating attachment or desire that compels action. To put in another way, I was trying to get at what drives the “work” — for work it is — of the critic or what inspires that initial act of contemplation. Why do we do it? I agree that understanding itself can be seen as the culmination, goal, and joy of the work. But I do wonder whether it might not be, for some critics at least, a penultimate end. It may even be that the drive to understand is compelled by motives that remain opaque to the critic, but I don’t want to tread down that path too far.

      That said, your distinctions bring further clarity to this running exploration. And those are terrific lines from Frost you’ve brought to bear on this question. “Strongly spent is synonymous with kept,” “momentary stay against confusion.” Excellent.

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