Speaking of malevolent, arrogant men who have ruined many mornings, Leon Wieseltier needs to take a vacation from real life, or finally announce that he is God. I’ll vouch for him either way, dead or alive, because I don’t believe in God. He is more arrogant than I was at 25, and that’s saying a lot.
I here limit myself to his Atlantic review of A.O. Scott’s book, Better Living Through Criticism. This review is the most pompous text I’ve read since I forced myself through Tacitus because Erich Auerbach urged me to.
Leon is the middlebrow equivalent of Antonin Scalia. I hope to meet him some day, and tell him this to his face. On that occasion, I want to say as well that I hope he will writhe in Hell with Tony—Scalia, not Scott—where they can exchange pronouncements about they way things are supposed to be.
Leon begins and ends with Rilke, who was notoriously useful, but also stupid, along with D. H. Lawrence, about the sources and consequences of art as such. They believed it was life-changing, a kind of Kantian imperative—“The essential function of art is moral,” Lawrence intoned, “not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation, but moral”—or it was pointless. They were wrong. So is Leon.
Scott’s book is a meditation on what it means to be a reader and a critic, of books or movies or whatever, at a moment in human history when everyone can be. What is the point, why do you get paid to do it if everybody on the planet does it? As I understand him, Scott claims that the critic is the person who completes the author’s argument, whether that is conveyed without obvious apparatus, as narrative—in a story, say, or a movie—or by the serious, rhetorical intent of the academic writer. The critic is the person who discovers and explains the surplus of meanings most of us won’t find in whatever we’re reading or watching or minding.
Scott also insists that this surplus can be found, and measured, almost anywhere you look. The task of the critic is to seek it out, not to assume that it’s produced only in certain highbrow precincts, where an inherited stamp of approval already lets you pretend that you know how to separate the good from the bad—the high from the low.
Leon lives in and for that separation, where elevation and elocution are the insignia of seriousness. Listen to him, speaking from somewhere on high, as if he’s a pretender to the throne of the snot we try to remember as a poet because most of what he said as a critic was foolish, or cruel, or stupid. That would be T. S. Eliot.
“When it comes to the question of what bearing the lower realities of American culture should have upon its higher ambitions, Scott regularly acquiesces in too much . . . The fight for the integrity of aesthetic experience is not over. Scott is not a fighter, he is man on the scene.”
Now parse these sentences with me. The “lower realities”? What can that mean? The ones Leon doesn’t care to observe or indulge, like, say, the Super Bowl, or hip-hop, or popular music in general, the conversation you might hear and the insight you might find on the street—the stuff of everyday existence, what he calls the commonplace? How can you separate yourself from this plane of existence if you intend to express or amplify the possibilities of life as such, as people actually live it?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge had something to say about that plane of existence: “One of the cardinal objects in poetry consists of faithful adherence to such characters and incidents as will be found in every village and its vicinity.”
Leon disagrees. He wants us to know that those lowly characters and incidents neither intersect nor interfere with what he calls art and criticism. He wants us to know that he, at least, has been able to rise above this world, and to judge it from the Scalian heights afforded him by distance from New York City.
The “integrity of aesthetic experience”? Since when was there just one way into or out of any work of art? Doesn’t the experience of modernity, and modernist art, reside precisely in their incalculable echoes, how they multiply as they move us? When painters could sail away from the safe harbor of hushed religious ardor and begin to worship the most mundane objects—we call that still life—they freed us all from the comforting complacencies Leon thinks we still need.
Leon excels at removing himself from the fray, rising always to a God-like vision of the fallen world we inhabit. In the second paragraph of this execrable review, he uses “Perhaps” as his exit sign and his phony plea for the reader’s trust. Listen now. He’s praising Rilke and condemning Scott. He’s anointing himself a saint in the church that consigns itself to relevance in the next life, when the masses have better manners and reading skills.
“Perhaps there is nothing ridiculous, after all, about grandeur and consecration and transcendence and a single view of the world. Perhaps one should not return unchanged from a museum. Perhaps a decision does have to be made.”
Perhaps Leon is entirely ridiculous because he does not merely wade, he wallows in such idiocy. Perhaps Leon needs to shed the costume of grandeur and consecration and transcendence—he’s not the fucking Pope of Art, and neither is Rilke. Perhaps Leon should stop going to museums. “Perhaps a decision does have to be made”?
By whom, Leon? How did you evacuate these premises? This is the Wieseltierian procedure, you see. It reminds me of the much better critic James Wood, who speaks of indirect discourse in the 19th-century realist novel. But Wood speaks of fiction, how it works. Wieseltier absents himself as he accuses Scott of writing non-fiction that makes many decisions, not just one on behalf of “a single view of the world.”
Who exactly stands convicted, then, of “methodological shiftiness”? A. O. Scott, who is almost too honest about his intellectual origins and destinations—the guy who makes you uncomfortable by telling you he’s unsure of where this ship is headed, or Leon Wieseltier, who stands there telling you the Titanic will never sink, even as it floods?