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Harpooner on a Tightrope (Illustration by Jerry Murley)


by Jerry Murley

Each era broods within it irritant particles: those disposed or compelled to criticize, either out of their very nature or because of their logical perceptions of the relationships in their era. Whether critics are born or made is within the scope of science, not art.

A critic must be swift of foot, lest he be swept away by the raging currents of opinion and everyday events which threaten to wipe his mind – and will – clean of all filthy doubts and threats. This tendency may be enhanced at times by the wish of the critic himself to accomplish the same end and return to that happy animal state of complicity.

The critic really prefers not to speak at all, but when by some misfortune he falls to the clutches of conversation, he is called upon to explain himself. What took more than a lifetime to conclude, he must elucidate in a few minutes or pages, preferring to verbalize tersely, without concern for life or limb, assuming always that his hearer might have more intelligence than ever he has had evidence to expect.

What a vile, repugnant, comedic creature he is, as he screeches his eerie bewares. His protest is an activity as meaningless as its subject. As he squirms and wriggles like a live frog run-through with a coathanger, roasting over a hot fire at a boy scout camp, his real longing is to be murdered for the Good before a crowd of sycophants.

The critic is the enemy of all: doctrine is anathema to him. Though at his best in action, his traditional weapon is the written word, but he ever regrets that his position appears there to be defined, frozen in time, limited.

There was a time, one supposes, when criticism was accepted philosophically but not socially; now, however, in our mass culture, the reverse is true: critics are socially tolerated and philosophically neutered. Plainly, today's mercenary critics aren't critics at all; why the very act of critiquing indicates a want of discrimination. The critic has become a player in theatre; the result of which is that the ingenuous artist, the willful eccentric, is the only bona fide critic.

For the critic, at the bottom of the mud, the only way to move is to slide and the only direction is sideways. So my best advice to you is to step out or check your pockets when a critic's around: he's been hacking away at your shade tree for a very long time.

All that tripe aside, the true everyday critic obliterates by simply ignoring.

But don't unguardedly content yourself with the confining threads within which I have clothed the critic. Here, ask counsel of Mr Swift:

"Now, 'tis certain, the institution of the true criticks, was of absolute necessity to the commonwealth of learning. For all human actions seem to be divided like Themistocles and his company: one man can fiddle, and another can make a small town a great city, and he that cannot do either one or the other, deserves to be kick'd out of the creation. The avoiding of which penalty, has doubtless given the first birth to the nation of criticks....

"...A true critick, in the perusal of a book, is like a dog at a feast, whose thoughts and stomach are wholly set upon what the guests fling away, and consequently, is apt to snarl most, when there are the fewest bones.

"...For it hath been observed both among antients and moderns, that a true critick hath one quality in common with a whore and an alderman, never to change his title or his nature...."

(From Section Ill of "A Tale of a Tub" by Jonathan Swift, Oxford Edition)

*Previously published in PINCH, May 1977, Memphis, TN.

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