What makes a cultural critic great? Whatever else you think, add this: a cutting voice.
Let me explain.
Krinein, the Greek root from which "criticism" evolved, shoots us a dual literal and metaphorical clue to what we want. In its prime physical sense, it means to "cut apart" or separate. Metaphorically, it signals "to distinguish" in a broader sense. The second dimension trumps the first in elite definitions of cultural criticism, but not for working critics.
Matthew Arnold's view in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864) remains a locus classicus in high-minded takes on the trade: The critic's task is "to know the best that is known and thought in the world" and, by "making this known, to create a current of fresh and true ideas." Through that activity, audiences can prepare for important new art, "the promised land, toward which criticism can only beckon."
Expertise, fine taste, firm judgment, aesthetic leadership—so many see the skill set. The critic becomes an impresario of culture, what Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye, in his salad days of the 1950s (before the University of Toronto began messing around with his legacy), described as "the pioneer of education and the shaper of cultural tradition." Critics should be establishment players in the sense Wesley Shrum Jr. described in his Fringe and Fortune: The Role of Critics in High and Popular Art (Princeton University Press, 1996), "not objective referees of the best and worst, standing outside of the art world and judging its output, but participants in a stream of discourse that defines the cultural hierarchy."
All well and good. No critic objects to flattery of the species as an intellectual avant-garde whose watches are, in Sainte-Beuve's crisp image, "five minutes ahead of other people's watches." But what about that "cutting apart," with stiletto if necessary?
The lines critics repeat to one another don't come from the lame copy that newspaper editors order up for "10 Best" lists and similar holiday tripe. They're harpoons like Dorothy Parker's "Theodor Dreiser / Ought to write nicer," Stravinsky's precis of Leonard Bernstein—"a musical department store"—or Yeats's judgment that Wilfred Owen was "all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick." When journalistic pooh-bahs hire or assess critics, they go by the critic's affiliation (a second-rate New Yorker critic is still a New Yorker critic worth stealing). The cliché-laden "general reader" follows suit, asking with a whine, "Where are the Edmund Wilsons today?," as if finding another such hippopotamus could save us.
Critics don't ask that question, or invoke such criteria, because they, like Mencken, know criticism to be "prejudice made plausible"—not to mention funny—sentence by sentence. They revere the rapierlike voices around them—James Wolcott, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman before Islam brought down his joke quotient. In that company belongs a remarkable Castle in the air, the endlessly venting, bad-girl/good-girl author of The Professor and Other Writings (Harper, 2010).
Looking back at the year in criticism between hard covers, one finds lines lingering in the mind, and not a few belong to Terry Castle. Her images of Susan Sontag as "sibylline and hokey and often a great bore," a "bedazzling, now-dead, she-eminence." Her self-portrait as a "japing, naysaying, emotionally stunted creature," the "Spoiled Avocado Professor of English at Silicon Valley University."
For those unfamiliar with Castle, her bland-voice position is Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. Her book-flap credentials on The Professor vaunt her as "the author of seven books of criticism, including The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993), and Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women and Sex (2002)." She's also the editor of an important anthology, The Literature of Lesbianism (Columbia University Press, 2003). Those feats are how she snared her chair. But if only some of our male scholar/critics possessed the cojones—oops, 2010 word of choice is junk—to write as this so-called lesbian scholar does.
When her "Desperately Seeking Susan" (reprinted in the new anthology) first appeared, in the London Review of Books, sister and brother critics reveled in mad astonishment at Castle's raw honesty about Sontag, the latter's "constant kvetching: about the stupidity and philistinism of whatever local sap was paying for her lecture trip, how no one had yet appreciated the true worth of her novel, The Volcano Lover, how you couldn't find a decent dry cleaner in downtown San Francisco."
Castle's own self-grasped pathology ("Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer") makes the essay a masterpiece on the anxiety of influence in intellectual life. Yet deftly woven in, with all her other jewels of insight, is the superb, ruthless, spot-on assessment of Sontag as a "great comic character," one with whom Dickens, Flaubert, or James "would have had a field day." For Castle, "the carefully cultivated moral seriousness—strenuousness might be a better word—coexisted with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby absurdity. Sontag's complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery, and seductive acting out."
How many other bull's-eyes await one here as Castle plants flags in critical territory she discovers herself! Sample her meditation, in "Home Alone," on the "autoerotic" fascination of "Shelter-Mag Land," a "place in which other people are edited out, removed from the picture, both literally and metaphorically, so that one is free to project oneself, for ever and a day, into the fantasy spaces on view."
Is travel criticism a genre? In "Sicilian Diary," writing of the catacombs of the Convent of the Capuchins, outside Palermo, Castle, like all great critics, hooks her impressions to charged piecemeal description:
"Imagine all of Balzac's characters come to life—the whole roiling human comedy—then instantly dead again. Not only dead, but in the skankier stages of dissolution. Skulls that aren't quite skulls yet, Still Too Much Going On. Faces with expressions. Vestigial hair and teeth. Gaping eye sockets, some with dried-up black-currant eyes. Many of the corpses appear to be screaming; their lower jaws have dropped open or come off altogether. Others seem to be laughing (or at least cocking a snook). The Capuchins—quite a lot of them—wear big ropes round their necks signifying penance."
Throughout The Professor, Castle's fabulous, scabrous, frequently unprintable outré voice—call it the higher potty mouth—practically electrocutes the reader. "My Heroin Christmas" riffs on the life of Art Pepper, the late alto saxophonist and "life-long dope addict of truly Satanic f—k-it-all grandeur." Simultaneously, the piece introduces us to our fragile, antsy narrator, successor to the San Diego high-school kid who resisted serious drugs "out of fear that I would be the inevitable freak-with-no-friends who would end up curled up for life in a psychotic ball, or else splattered in ribbony pieces, having flung myself through a plate-glass window."
As elsewhere, Castle's rollicking, digressive, autobiographical sprints end up headed toward critical consciousness. She expands on how her "sheer Southern California white-trash fellow feeling" toward Art Pepper turned her into a Pepper junkie, propelling her to go mano a mano with East Coast jazz critic Ben Ratliff, whom she finds sniffy toward "both the junkie melodrama and the whole comico-grandiose Pepper persona." In "Travels With My Mother," about a trip to Santa Fe, N.M., with the octogenarian responsible for many of Castle's neuroses, reminiscence mutates into tart commentary on how we talk about art. When Mom reveals herself as an Agnes Martin aficionada, Castle admits, "My snob-self is frankly stunned at this unexpected display of maternal hip: It's as if Wally and Charlie, my dachshunds, were suddenly to begin discussing Hans-Georg Gadamer."
Castle is self-indulgent and rambly and intermittently nasty—and who cares when those phrases wake you up as if some waterboarder dunked your head in a pail to announce the next session? There's Condoleezza Rice, spotted at the Stanford Shopping Center, "smoothly circumnavigating the potted ferns and splashing fountains, a well-dressed zombie on a mission." In her showpiece title essay, Castle guides us forward from her high-school self, when the "idea of sex with a woman, of 'having a lesbian lover,' was simply unthinkable, like living alone at the North Pole or deciding to become a lycanthrope." The bulk of it, sure to mesmerize all academic readers, takes us through her affair, as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, with a sadistic professor. In it, she's typically both hilarious and incisive about art and culture that pass her way, such as the album Living With Lavender Jane, by Alix Dobkin, the "radical lesbian propaganda in folk-song guise" of her 20s, when Castle, in her own view, was "such a twatty little Simone Weil wannabe."
Is this criticism? Despite no quick thumbs up or down? No four or five stars awarded so readers can decide what to consume? No bite-sized versions of her judgments for the Weekend Guide?
It is—en passant criticism at the highest level. In Castle's hands, moments of autobiography produce sophisticated aperçus, sharp thoughts about cultural life, scholarly identity, and career ennui. Any number of personal matters that less-bold critics would elide can be the spur—Castle's troubled intestines; hostility to her psychotic stepbrother; a longtime, private fascination with World War I. (Such moments frequently trigger Castle's critical impulses as well, such as when she "read up on butch lady-ambulance drivers" to better understand Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness.) In "My Heroin Christmas," the now senior professor concedes about one difficult period: "I was tiring of the 18th century. For 20 years it had been my academic meal ticket. But I seemed to be twisting, torquing away from it. Starting to like it only when it got marred and eccentric, a kind of broken, perverse, junk rococo. Singerie. Pockmarks. Freemasonry. Chess-playing automatons. Ultracreepy things like Marat's skin diseases."
If this is the higher potty mouth, bring it on. Castle remarks at one point that "the tenderness between lesbians and straight men is the real Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name." OK, love me tender. For any gourmet of cultural criticism with an unabashed taste for truth, this is the prime-cut book of the year.