1.18.2009

But sometimes it is the critic who counts...

When I was in high school, my dad encouraged me to memorize this famous excerpt from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
I must have been fifteen then -- a sophomore. I don't remember any specifics, but I'm guessing this was my dad's way of telling me to "cool it" with the criticizing. Among my dad's other favorite pearls:
  • Persistence and determination alone, are all that matter (the original was "Persistence and determination alone, are omnipotent," but I learned this one at age 9, and dad must've figured that was a pretentious word). --Calvin Coolidge
  • Whiners and complainers are a detriment to society. --source unknown, possibly an original
  • Look, if you're facing a difficult decision, just ask yourself, "Is it the right thing to do, or not?" --certainly an original
  • We'll just outwork'em. --also an original

Small wonder, then, that I grew up to have a low tolerance for criticism... I suppose the only surprise is that I happen to be a critic-by-profession myself. And certainly there's some Freudian psycho-babble that accounts for that apparent act of rebellion.

Of course, as my title suggests, I've learned to believe that, sometimes, it is the critic who counts ("Hey, we should stop waterboarding people, stop bombing civilians, start helping hurricane victims sooner, and let people fuck & marry who they want to!). But I have simultaneously taken care to nurture an ongoing interest in the epistemology of the process of criticism: rather than "simply" asking what is wrong or right about a certain act or artistic production, I bother myself with questions about precisely how I know that criticism is warranted. In this way, I have assured myself that even if I am a critic by trade, I'm not only a critic... I try to be a critic who is slow-on-the-draw with his red ink and commentary. Talk about a sure way to repel a potential readership.

Here's the point: I admit that when I was 15, a sophomore, I thought memorizing Roosevelt's speech was simply something to do -- I didn't wonder at all why my dad suggested I memorize anything at all, not to mention this excerpt in particular. A lifetime later, I suspect my dad was prescribing just the medicine he thought I needed at the time. Or maybe he was prescribing just the medicine I needed at the time. Question: What do I (or "society") gain, if anything, when I willfully refrain from criticism? Was my dad just sick of hearing me talk?--or was his advice wise and useful?

In my twenties I developed the habit (literally!) of biting my tongue. Is it a bad psycho-symbological habit?

3 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

As you suggest, there is a point where criticism becomes activism, where you are no longer simply slashing and burning another's field, but rather planting seeds in your own. This is where criticism stops being primarily aimed a an.other, and comes home to the self.

Biting your tongue sounds painful. But there is probably something to be said for sparing others a lashing. KB often remarked that "words are fists," so there might be something compassionate to silence, right?

Of course, to offer a bit of Freudian psychobabble, there are plenty of sadists out there. They're all desiring a beating.

Speak away.

Casey said...

Ah.... very interesting psycho babble, Wrangler.

Doing good by satisfying the desires of a sadist by injuring them. I love it.

Casey said...

Thought: a follow up post titled "How Criticism becomes Consensus"