what’s the good of criticism?


In 1846, Charles Baudelaire wrote a little essay called “What is the Good of Criticism?” This is a question that virtually every critic asks herself at some point, and that some have answered with hopelessness, despair, even self-loathing. Baudelaire didn’t think that criticism would save the world, but he didn’t think it was a worthless pursuit, either. For Baudelaire, criticism was the synthesis of thought and feeling: in criticism, Baudelaire wrote, “passion . . . raises reason to new heights.” A few years later, he would explain that through criticism he sought “to transform my pleasure into knowledge” a pithy, excellent description of critical practice. Baudelaire’s American contemporary Margaret Fuller held a similar view; as she put it, the critic teaches us “to love wisely what we before loved well.”

By “pleasure” and “love” Baudelaire and Fuller didn’t mean that critics should write only about things that make them happy or that they can praise. What they meant is that a critic’s emotional connection to an artist, or to a work of art, is the sine qua non of criticism, and it usually, therefore, determines the critic’s choice of subject. Who can doubt that Edmund Wilson loved literature—and that, to him, it simply mattered more than most other things in life?

more from Boston Review here.