It is worth noting, furthermore, that such accuracy [of feeling] and elegance [of proposal in literary criticism] belong only to the very few. The entire notion of research in modern letters is vitiated by the evidently false postulate that tens of thousands of young men and women will have anything new and just to say about Shakespeare or Keats or Flaubert.

Real Presences, George Steiner

It’s difficult to know what to make of a (masterful) literary critic aiming his lance at literary criticism as an enterprise. It certainly requires a great deal of self-confidence!

Steiner’s thought experiment in this book, of a world without secondary criticism, where all criticism of the arts is in some sense immanent, embedded, is fascinating, though. The first chapter does point at the kinds of secondary criticism that might meet with approval by the author’s artistic values, however–works in which the critic does not pretend to any kind of objectivity and in which he or she becomes implicated in some deeper, artistic way for the success of the critical work.

Agree or no, it is a principled attack on secondary criticism, unlike, say, Nabokov’s penchant for trashing literary translators (who are not named Nabokov) without setting up real, attainable criteria by which to condemn their work. (“This is the first English translation of Lermontov’s novel. The book has been paraphrased into English several times, but never translated before.”)

Happily, I find Steiner generally stands up to Steiner’s own rigorous standards for criticism!

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