Criticism and Pleasure

“Le plaisir de la critique nous ôte celui d’être vivement touchés de très belles choses.” — Jean de la Bruyère
I’m not quite sure how, in tenth grade, a copy of La Bruyère’s Les Caractéres came into my possession. My best estimate is that someone picked it up in a sale bin at the Pitt Bookstore (the center of my youthful universe, at that point) and gave it to me for my birthday or for Christmas. I do remember transcribing Aphorism 20 from the “Ouvrages de l’Esprit” portion of Les Caractéres with my shiny new black Rapidograph (bought in a stationers’s in San Sebastian, I think) into the notebook in which I had taken notes during my summer studies at the Lycée Maurice Ravel in St Jean de Luz, France. If memory doesn’t deceive me, I was sitting in Mrs Palumbo’s classroom, Room 372 at Taylor Allderdice High School, and I was reading La Bruyère during the time left over after I had finished one or another exercise for English class. I inscribed the words in my notebook, then methodically memorised them for safekeeping in my heart.
I can’t account for why I remember that moment so vividly, or why that particular aphorism stood out to my teenage imagination. The moment and the aphorism have stuck with me, though, first through the gauzy romanticism of adolescent assent, then through the seething crucible of early adult renunciation, even to this morning, after twenty-plus years as a card-carrying biblical critic (while I should be continuing my work on the article about the Mountain Goats, allusion, and biblical hermeneutics).
“The pleasure of criticism deprives us of that of being deeply moved by beautiful things.” There’s a certain populist appeal to that premise, a resistance to analysing — “The temptation / To take the precious things we have apart / To see how they work / Must be resisted for they never fit together again” (Billy Bragg, “Must I Paint You a Picture?”). In seminary, I often heard — and probably used, myself, on occasion — the trope of dissection; once the body is fully autopsied, one knows its insides well, but the subject is no longer alive.
But I also learned, in seminary, to appreciate the beauty of interpretive analysis when it’s done well. The luminous insights that I’d never have appreciated apart from a learned reader’s guidance suddenly mattered greatly to me, and amply warranted my pursuing a career in biblical forensic medicine. I embraced, for a (short) while, the ascetical antiseptic rigour of my vocation as a defining virtue. The pleasure of criticism may deprive us of the delight in unanalysed beauty, but the gain is worth the cost.
Pretty quickly, though, I began resisting the idea that the two were mutually opposed. I knew of brilliant interpreters (some of them my teachers) who did not compromise their critical faculties even as they wrought captivating exegetical and theological interpretations. Even more, though, I felt an implacable determination that I mustn’t allow La Bruyère’s aphorism to constrain the bounds of my hermeneutical practise. It takes learning and failing and trying again and getting it somewhat right-er and trying again and again and again, and devoting oneself to honest critical inquiry (not just setting up stages for the display of one’s own disciplinary wonderfulness) and to the restless pursuit of interpretive beauty. But it can be done; and if I be not judged successful myself, at least my efforts point toward a trajectory on which others might accomplish that of which I fall short.
Last night, at a Bible study group based at the cathedral, we spent two intense hours making connections, testing possibilities, observing resonances and harmonies, delighting in the wonders of a couple of paragraphs from the Book of Acts. This morning, I listened to “Cobra Tattoo” (beware pop-ups and pop-behinds; didn’t used to be so spam-infested) while I traced the way John Darnielle weaves Genesis 3 with Isaiah 14 with Matthew 3//Luke 3. I was deeply moved.

2 thoughts on “Criticism and Pleasure

  1. I wholeheartedly agree Akma; in many ways, I find that criticism actually leads to more creativity in response rather than a dulling and death-dealing dissection! It’s not too dissimilar to the creative friction that occurs when writing a poem and choosing a form. The form gives the creativity something to push up against, some resistance which, in turn, leads the writer along paths down which they might not have ventured otherwise….

  2. Dr. Adam, I am reading “Preaching and the Other: Studies in Postmodern Insights: By Dr. Ronald J. Allen. You are quoted frequently. Thought you might want to know.
    Rev. Jim Adams
    Prestonsburg, KY USA

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