Critical Digressions

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Perusing the bargain shelf at the Harvard Bookstore this weekend, we picked up a bruised copy of the Kenneth Peacock Tynan’s biography and found ourselves charmed yet again by the man, his persona, and the caliber of his critical output. Hailed as “the greatest theater critic since Shaw,” Tynan is up our alley: an intellectual dandy. He had the following pinned above his desk: “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.” We appreciate his aphorisms, observations, worldview: “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”; “The buttocks are the most aesthetically pleasing part of the body because they are non-functional. Although they conceal an essential orifice, these pointless globes are as near as the human form can ever come to abstract art”; “Art and ideology often interact on each other; but the plain fact is that both spring from a common source. Both draw on human experience to explain mankind to itself; both attempt, in very different ways, to assemble coherence…”

Tynan_1 Of Tynan, a commentator once wrote, “He was the sort of character every era needs to polarize opinions and sort out its prejudices.” As we attempt assembling coherence here, we muse: where is today’s Tynan? We are unfamiliar with contemporary theater critics but Tynan’s heirs in literary criticism, Dale Peck and James Wood, either bark or bite, and their legacy is uncertain. Peck, the enfant terrible of contemporary literary criticism, has already been swallowed up by the earth, much like Rumpelstiltskin. And the venerable Wood, who has become of the most important critics today, could prove to be a fad. (After all, presently, postmodern prose is out and Henry James and George Eliot are in.)

Altogether, they really don’t compare.

So who in recent memory polarized opinions and sorted out our prejudices? Edward Said perhaps? Since Said’s demise, the landscape of discourse seems oddly barren, doesn’t it? Of course, Said was marginalized by mainstream media a long time ago. And now the likes of Bernard Lewis – the half-witted dinosaur – lumber through the corridors of power while the feted jackass, Thomas Freidman, passes gas for wisdom. Perhaps our expectations are too high. And perhaps we digress, attempting to straddle ideology and art.

Skywalker_1 Actually, our beef with contemporary criticism and discourse has to do with something more mundane, our other weekend activity: a coerced viewing of the horrible “Revenge of Sith.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times – arguably one of the most important film critics today – gushes: “This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That’s right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it’s better than ‘Star Wars.’” This assertion, ladies and gentlemen, is not only preposterous but irresponsible: whether we like it or not, film critics are today’s public intellectuals. We’ve had beef with Scott before but this time our inner thinking man shudders: Scott doesn’t know the way and can’t drive the car. Our sensibilities cohere with Anthony Lane’s: “The general opinion of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes…True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion. He continues: “it takes a vulgarian genius such as Lucas to create a landscape in which actions can carry vast importance but no discernible meaning, in which style is strangled at birth by design, and in which the intimate and the ironic, not the Sith, are the principal foes to be suppressed. It is a vision at once gargantuan and murderously limited, and the profits that await it are unfit for contemplation. Lane is no Tynan but he sure sticks it to Scott.

Perhaps the age of intellectual dandies and public intellectuals has come to pass: Capote, Vidal, Mailer, in this part of the world; Josh, Manto and Sadequain, in mine; and, of course, Tynan and Said, who straddled divides. It seems that in our coarse times, we have to rely on our own sensibilities.