Monday, February 23, 2009

What do you mean you never heard of Dick Minim?

Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expence. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critick.

I hope it will give comfort to great numbers who are passing thro' the world in obscurity, when I inform them how easily distinction may be obtained. All the other powers of literature are coy and haughty, they must be long courted, and at last are not always gained; but criticism is a goddess easy of access and forward of advance, who will meet the slow and encourage the timorous; the want of meaning she supplies with words, and the want of spirit she recompenses with malignity.

This profession has one recommendation peculiar to itself, that it gives vent to malignity without real mischief. No genius was ever blasted by the breath of criticks. The poison which, if confined, would have burst the heart, fumes away in empty hisses, and malice is set at ease with very little danger to merit. The critick is the only man whose triumph is without another's pain, and whose greatness does not rise upon another's ruin.

To a study at once so easy and so reputable, so malicious and so harmless, it cannot be necessary to invite my readers by a long or laboured exhortation; it is sufficient, since all would be criticks if they could, to shew by one eminent example that all can be critics if they will.

-- excerpt from Samuel Johnson on Dick Minim, The Idler. No. 60. Saturday, 9 June 1759

7 comments:

Henry Gould said...

This is bracing, but ultimately too cynical...

Eliot had an antidote for the vanity of critics : facts.

Facts are the best thing that, accd'ng to Eliot, a critic can offer a reader. & they are not that easy to come by (not as easy as opinions, anyway). One has to know the background of the piece of writing. The place it holds among the author's work. the meaning of the text, in context. Facts. This takes a lot of patient, diligent homework. Scarce commodity when the wind of Glib is blowing.

Anonymous said...

Henry Gould wrote:

>One has to know the background of the piece of writing. The place it holds among the author's work. the meaning of the text, in context. Facts.

This seems an odd thing to say, Henry. Sure, one wants to know as much as possible about who wrote what, and when and where.

But "background," "place," "context," these are hardly "Facts." The *meanings* of these are what highly trained critics (with solid preparation in literary periods, genres, and their histories) endlessly *argue* over, and to the benefit of untamable poetry.

Or maybe I'm misunderstanding your point... Could you give us an example, in poetic criticism, of how a higher "factual" disposition trumps what you call "opinion"?

Kent

Henry Gould said...

No major point here, Kent. I'm merely saying that, in the general run of things, the critic helps the reader by providing a factual, introductory background. The grounding in facts provides a foundation for the critic's evaluations, & for the reader's own interest.

Just pointing out a positive, to counter this pretty negative satire on critics in general.

Anonymous said...

>Just pointing out a positive, to counter this pretty negative satire on critics in general.

Well, Henry, you know that Sam Johnson... A completely unreasonable man!

:~)

Kent

Henry Gould said...

He's being a great critic, here - of himself. It's very funny!

Don Share said...

"Great"?? I thought we just settled that whole greatness thing!! :)

Henry Gould said...

Don, it was settled long ago. Greatness is when you slop coffee all over your shirt.

"Oh, GREAT..."