Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

Maisonneuve to publish Dale Peck's last ever negative review

Introduction to The Man Who Would Be Sven, forthcoming in Maisonneuve No. 8

body { font-family: georgia, times new roman, serif; font-size: 0.9em; color: #404040; line-height: 1.5em; } P { font-size: 1em; line-height: 1.5em; margin: 8px 0 14px 0; } h1 { margin: 5px 0; font-size: 3.5em; line-height: 1.1em; } h2 { font-size: 1.2em; margin: 2px 0; } h3 { margin: 2px 0 10px 0; line-height: 1.1em; } P.text-align-right { text-align: right; } P.text-align-left { text-align: left; } P.text-align-center { text-align: center; } P.font-weight-bold { font-weight: bold; } P.font-style-italics { font-style: italic; } This is the introduction to The Man Who Would Be Sven, a feature article forthcoming in Maisonneuve's April/May 2004 issue and Dale Peck's last negative review - ever. --- 1. It’s like rain on your wedding day…  Here’s criticism’s trade secret: you can find meaning in anything if you look hard enough. Contemplate a work of art and patterns inevitably emerge, echoes, resonances, allusions which can be brought out and amplified through exegesis, the interpretive conceit by which a critic simultaneously deconstructs and rebuilds, unveils and augments another writer’s metaphors, another writer’s vision. Part attention to detail, part science, part Vulcan mind meld, exegesis allows a critic to enter and extend the context of a work of art, whether it be through the useful reductions of Sunday book reviews, the half millennium of minutiae that have accumulated to make Shakespeare “The Bard,” or revelatory reappraisals in the manner of D.H. Lawrence’s resuscitation of the writing of Herman Melville. It’s the latter efforts that tend to capture our attention, but it’s important to remember at the outset that exegesis is only incidentally or latterly concerned with aesthetic quality. Its uncritical methodology can no more tell the difference between Hollywood Wives and The Iliad than a microscope’s lens can, on its own, distinguish between a drop of Jackie Collins’ blood and a drop of Homer’s. For that you need the discerning—what Susan Sontag has called the “defending”—human eye. In “Against Interpretation,” Sontag attempts to fine-tune the critic’s attention, arguing for a paraphrasis that reveals “how it is what it is” (the “it” in this case being a work of art), rather than “what it means.” There’s an unstated moral faith in this paradigm that the critic, like the scientist, will use his genius in the service of good—that the reviewer in the Sunday book section doesn’t have a bias for or against the writer under consideration—but right now I want to constrain my focus to the methods rather than the goals or “results” of criticism. For, putting aside questions of taste (on the part of the critic), vitality (on the part of the text), and, most importantly, motive (on both sides), exegesis stands as a recorded fantasizing, a written, orderly elaboration of the same process by which any reader enters a story and claims it for him- or herself. And even as we keep in mind Sontag’s only slightly sarcastic admonition that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art,” we must also remember that it is, in the most basic sense, how people read. Some readers see the history of Western civilization in Ulysses, others find it equally animate in an issue of the X-Men, and, though questions of taste and vitality come up in both instances—not to mention motive—you can’t say either party is wrong. That’s the secret. The trick (what you might call keeping the secret) is performing a bravura act of imaginative interpolation with a straight face. For example: “I’ve dropped my Brain,” writes “Amherst’s Madame de Sade” —a.k.a. Emily Dickenson, as Camille Paglia christened her in the unexpected critical bestseller Sexual Personae. Paglia went on to declare, “We hear a muffled thump, like the paperboy hitting the stoop with the evening edition.” [SP 625] For Paglia and critics like her, a poem or story (or piece of art or other artifact) is less object than touchstone in the vast cultural subconscious, and she takes advantage of this to push her readings beyond traditional limits of authorial intentionality or historical chronology. Exegesis at this level is less interpretation than parallel narrative, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if it expands a text’s impact or diffuses it through too many tangential, anachronistic, esoteric associations. Or, to put it another way, whenever I see a critic taking such liberties I’m not sure if I’m in the presence of genius or insanity, but I sure do laugh a lot. Which is, I’m pretty sure, the intention: among other things, the humor of a Paglia or Wayne Koestenbaum or Dave Hickey makes conspicuous the subtle, easily ignored dramatic irony that informs all criticism. The idea that art—an enterprise whose primary function is to reveal the members of a culture to themselves—cannot be understood by that culture without Virgilian assistance would seem, on the face of it, absurd, and this particular brand of exegesis, while often way off the mark (if not simply off the wall), nonetheless acknowledges its supplemental relationship to the text in question; its humor is inviting, yet also invites its own dismissal. How sad, by comparison, is the critic who seems unaware of the inner workings of his own profession, who acts as if he is the only one who sees Waldo in the picture and can point him out to you. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sven Birkerts.
Peck's full 11-page review of Birkerts' work will appear in Issue No. 8 of Maisonneuve, available March 12th.