Let's Get Critical

The literary media's apology for the critic, and humanities in general, shows that we are a far cry away from the time when Lucilius wrote a satirical epigram that is as much critical as it is a work of art, which we shall come to.
In George Orwell's "Confession of a Book Reviewer" not only does he write that most books that are published should be ignored, and that books "that seem to matter" should be given very long reviews, he also writes that, "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are." But instead a devaluation of standards evolves whereby most everything is amorphously "good"as reviewers would not be gainfully employed if they were to honestly resort to their curmudgeonly opinion that most writing is slop.
At least in this scenario, there is the professional critic, whom the masses today seem to rail against. Such antielitism was also known to the ancient Greeks, who were known to ostracise even some of their best citizens. A century ago in Russia, Pushkin wrote of the masses who rejoiced at reversed values, the high being denigrated as low, the strong being portrayed as weak, and people who rejoiced when the slightest imperfection was found in their superiors.
To be "higher" in rank or dignity is to cultivate some expertise in a field and to be ethical, the whole point being that mankind seems to get on best in civil civic units. Education was ruined when instead of presenting lessons to be learned, it asked students for their premature opinions or presented theory without epistemology. There is no place for the superior there - which is not the same thing as declaring that there is nobody to learn from. People who decry the value of standards seem to me like people who either did not have or benefit from good mentors.




The value of the artes liberales is to free one from, for example, being bound to money, to give a general education, the only possession which cannot be lost (ἀναφαίρετον κτῆμ᾽ ἐστὶ παιδεία βροτοῖς). What is more, the value of this education is often seen in dialectics, i.e. the discourse of minds that do not agree. One learns to value other opinions and perhaps enjoys the sparring - providing that one has first learned good sportsmanship. I think one of the thinker's or critic's roles is to engage, if not provide the final word on a given subject. We would be ill-advised, too, to forget the charismatic pull of the good critic: this cannot be replaced by a mob unrefined by custom.
This week, I read two articles on letter-writing etiquette and was astonished at the defiance of convention, which, it seems, is to be employed only at the risk of being misunderstood by those who have never been taught properly or gone through a learner's dictionary. That the commenters to those articles could not agree on any standards reveals that "understanding from a context" is rendered impossible, there is no context that people can agree on. This threatens the very nature of philology, history, and even the sciences, insofar as truths are to be deciphered.
This is the age of the comment, not criticism. (People say I'm too didactic, but it is the critic who strives toward such terse types of statements: the apothegm that has sifted through ideas for those that turn us away from disease.) I shall end, below, where I began: with Lucilius' epigram which reveals the poet's criticism of other writers, including criticism of a critic, all nicely contained within a few lines.
I still haven't translated it for myself, but noted quite a few differences in the various translations I consulted. Also, while Lucilius is known for using 'Grecisms' it is not entirely clear to me why his epigrams seem to be entirely in Greek.




J. W. Mackail's 1890 version seems the most popular, entitled: "Grammar, Music, Rhetoric." It reads: Pluto turns away the dead rhetorician Marcus, saying, "Let the dog Cerberus suffice us here; yet if thou needs must, declaim to Ixion and Melito the song-writer, and Tityus; for I have no worse evil than thee, till Rufus the critic comes to murder the language here."
It was that last line that drew me to the verse to begin with - but I will have to write about it another time, suffice it to say, "murder the language" are strong words, little criticism written today, even in satire, exercises such strong sentiment.
Here is a version, from 1918, by W.R. Paton, which does not end as forcefully: Pluto will not receive the rhetor Marcus when  dead, saying, " Let our one dog Cerberus be enough  here ; but if thou wilt come in at any cost, declaim to Ixion, Melito the lyric poet, and Tityus. For I  have no evil worse than thee, until the day when  Rufus the grammarian shall come here with his solecisms."
A third, 1895 translation by James Williams, rhymes: Pluto rejected at his gate The soul of Mark the advocate; "No, Cerberus my dog," quoth he, "Will make you pleasant company; But if within you needs must go, Practise on poet Melito, And you shall have, if he won't do, Tityus and Ixion too. You'll be to hell the sorest ill Of all that hell contains, until There come to us worse barbarisms When Rufus speaks his solecisms."
Mackail observes that "the rhetorician, the grammarian, and the musician are balanced, in a studied disarrangement, by Cerberus, Tityus, and Ixion." Both Ixion and Tityus were both banished and punished: Ixion tied to an ever-moving burning wheel, and Tityus stretched and tortured by vultures. Cereberus is of course the many-headed dog which guards the underworld.
I do not know how that verse would have been received. I have far more reading to do before I have an idea. But as far as criticism is concerned, reminding readers that language can be connected with death and punishment and that language can be abused, even if in a satire, are ideas that we may wont to consider anew today. This is our life! What are we doing with it, who are we listening to - such questions are evoked in Lucilius' six lines.



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