Of all critics possibly the most irksome is the visceral. He won’t tell you why something is great, he just knows when he sees it, or more precisely, when he feels it. Along these lines we have Emily Dickinson, better-known, of course, for poetry than criticism: “If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Or most famously, A.E. Housman: “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that my razor fails to act.” Experience has taught me never to use a phrase like “shaving of a morning.”
Such remarks are useless as criticism. They emphasize not the bristling face or the exploding head but the I, I, I. Look on my exquisite sensibility and despair. Anatole France, an arch-impressionist (with and without the hyphen), once defined criticism as “the adventures of a great soul among masterpieces.” Unfortunately the adventures are rarely very rigorous, and the great soul the reader is obliged to take for granted.
Now it is true that aesthetic appreciation is physical, at some level, but this says nothing about the quality of the art. People react as powerfully and viscerally to bad art as good. Housman was the greatest classics scholar of his time and a very popular poet, though not to my taste. When his skin bristles at some line from Euripides, I’m willing to take his word for it that it’s pretty good. But Joel Siegel swears, for publication, that every third movie he sees gives him goosebumps, and what grounds have we to doubt him? We might theoretically hook Housman and Siegel up to a monitoring device and check their respective palpitations; I have no confidence that in such an experiment Medea would prevail over Top Gun.
Terry Teachout, a distinguished critic who surely knows better, unaccountably sets out to adventure among masterpieces in his review of Mark Morris’s ballet V, even quoting Housman with approval. V is a “masterpiece,” Terry is sure, for five reasons, none of which has anything to do with what happens on stage. He is “immediately involved,” he “realize[s] that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing,” he is not bored, he is “anxious,” because “what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong”; and when he finds that this something, whatever it might be, does not go wrong after all, his “eyes filled with tears.” This is all so refined that I nearly forgot that I began the piece knowing nothing of ballet and ended it in exactly the same state. Tell you what, Terry: if I give you the great soul, will you promise, next time, to talk about the ballet?