No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.
Johnson has no illusions about criticism’s ability to fix or cure. Critics are to writers not as doctors are to patients but as bearded ladies are to trapeze artists—another, sadder act in the same big show.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Mr. Johnson's Critical Wisdom
Apropos the last post, consider Adam Gopnik's recent summary of Samuel Johnson's "philosophy" of criticism: