I would like to share with you, something great I learned today:
“[Virginia] Woolf is calling for a more introspective version of the poet Walt Whitman’s ‘I contain multitudes’, a more diaphanous version of the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘I is another’. She is calling for circumstances that do not compel the unity of identity that is a limitation or even repression. It’s often noted that she does this for her characters in her novels, less often that, in her essays, she exemplifies it in the investigative, critical voice that celebrates and expands, and demands it in her insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep coming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.
“Woolf’s essays are often both manifestos about and examples or investigations of this unconfined consciousness, this uncertainty principle. They are also models of a counter-criticism, for we often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic, I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists live deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilise, to render certain and define the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.
“A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorisation can escape detection altogether.
“There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.
“This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.”
For the full essay, please see: “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” by Rebecca Solnit, The New Yorker, April 24, 2014. The essay was originally composed in 2009 and later included in Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books, 2014. More details are here.