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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Critic as Artist

Thursday, March 16th., Les Sablons.

Yesterday I finished the second part of "Sacred and Profane Love". The book so far is over 6,000 words longer than I had anticipated, and I think the second part is rather better on the whole than I expected it would be when I started it.

I have read Oscar Wilde's "Intentions", and found it really very good, better than "De Profundis". As someone who sees himself as both an original writer and a critic, the idea of 'critic as artist' appeals strongly to me. Wilde is too severe on 'realism', reflecting his own thoroughly Romantic character and style.

Originally published in 1891 when Wilde was at the height of his form, these brilliant essays on art, literature, criticism, and society display the flamboyant poseur's famous wit and wide learning. A leading spokesman for the English Aesthetic movement, Wilde promoted "art for art's sake" against critics who argued that art must serve a moral purpose. On every page of this collection the gifted literary stylist admirably demonstrates not only that the characteristics of art are "distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power," but also that criticism itself can be raised to an art form possessing these very qualities. The heart of the collection is the long two-part essay titled "The Critic as Artist." In one memorable passage after another, Wilde goes to great lengths to show that the critic is every bit as much an artist as the artist himself, in some cases more so. A good critic is like a virtuoso interpreter: "When Rubinstein plays...he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely...made vivid and wonderful to us by a new and intense personality. When a great actor plays Shakespeare we have the same experience." Also included are: "The Decay of Lying," in which Wilde takes to task modern literary realists like Henry James and Emile Zola for their "monstrous worship of facts" and stifling of the imagination; "Pen, Pencil, and Poison," a fascinating study of art critic and murderer Thomas Griffiths Wainewright; and "The Truth of Masks," on the use of masks, disguises, and costume in Shakespeare. For newcomers to Wilde and those who already know his famous plays and fiction, this superb collection of his criticism offers many delights.

I read also in "The Importance of Being Ernest", and found that admirably witty.

The French are a "stuffy" nation; but they do hang their bedding out of the windows in the morning to air. This is more than can be said of the English.

I go to Paris tomorrow with some regret. I could easily become a countryman completely. I am now 38, and it occurs to me that I am still trying to find a style of life which suits me. Sometimes I think I am made to be a countryman (or at least could embrace that persona), and yet the life of the city calls me. In a way I suppose that with my English provincial roots (and what roots they are!) I am not really suited to settle in any of the patterns of life which my ideas suggest as being appropriate. Perhaps I have outgrown the possibility of contentment.

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