You may know the phrase from Kierkegaard, “Love, that lenient interpreter.” I had occasion to use it as the title of an essay some years ago that expressed my disfavor with biographers who fixate on flaws and hidden motives and indiscretions in a writer’s life, often to the neglect of the text, and often, when the text in fact was read closely, to the neglect of what might be of value in it — what we might learn from it (other than mistakes to avoid), or what we might come to love in it, or marvel at, something overlooked, perhaps, in our previous readings. As I read Thoreau or Kierkegaard the last thing in the world I’d seek out is an occasion for unmasking or for revealing a scandal, intellectual or otherwise. Perhaps this approach to matters philosophical and literary and intellectual is a minority voice. This occurred to me as I read a concluding expression of gratitude in a fine overview of a recent book on Terry’s blog, Vertigo. He was passing on appreciation of a recent study of W. G. Sebald. Terry loves (or values or can’t do without) Sebald’s work — not because it ‘makes him happy’ (how could it!) but, I’d guess, because it brings him — brings us — closer to reality, closer to life, than we would ever get without it. Here is what he writes:
” I am extremely grateful for, and I know I’ll never read either of these [Sebald] books again without saying a silent “thank you” to Osborne for opening my eyes to a new way of looking at them.”
I quote this because I’m happy to have confirmed my conviction that among the many styles of review and critique and exploration, we need a criticism permitting gratitude for the text in view. There must be some texts we love like a garden landscape or a sea view or a child happily at play — where, in response, we have no impulse to unmask or dwell on imperfections or flaws or to put into play abstractions or some elitist critical machinery. Can’t we crow a new dawn, with Thoreau’s chanticleer? Why think that frank appreciation, gratitude, praise, and joy are out of place in ‘serious’ readings of texts? In acknowledging our gratitude, directly or indirectly, we perform a valuable public service, or at least expose a bit of our souls for friends. We preserve and pass on what we find worthy in the life of books and art. And if gratitude seldom is so frankly avowed, it can nevertheless subliminally animate our accounts and expositions and explorations, reminding us that that there still exist for we who rummage in books objects and moments to unstintingly praise.