L et me take up the way generosity in criticism can culminate in praise.
I’ve taught literature and philosophy for years. My job is in part uncontroversial: to pass on knowledge and the skills of critique, and to add to accumulated knowledge through research. But the core of my vocation is more complex, and for some ears, quite controversial.
I try to pass on a sense that decency in adversity, imagination in crisis, seeing the bitter-sweet in love, avoiding mob reactions, feeling tender toward children, resisting evil — and many other good things — are worthy of knowing and exploring. They are worthy of existential mulling, absorption, and taking in.
I want to display not just love of knowledge but love of the world and its good things, including basic decency; and I want to display my despair at, and to display my care to correct, unnecessary suffering; and I want to display revulsion at evil.
Just above is a portrait of dignified subjects of dust bowl emmiseration. It’s taken by Walker Evans, a WPA photographer who worked in the era of FDR. It can be found in a book with accompanying elegant prose by James Agee, aptly titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. We are to look at the family above as praiseworthy and meriting fame.
In teaching I aim to instill faith that at least some of the artifacts of varied cultural traditions, like the work of Walker Evans, are gems well worth knowing, making famous, preserving and praising.
We know in our bones absolutely those unforgettable times and places where human decency shines.
In the humanities we are curators of the soul, curators of works of the soul, curators of community, and of the worthy works of community.
I pass on tools of analysis, critique, and appreciation. Critique separates the wheat from the chaff. It’s a kind of uncovering, exposing, and unraveling. I unmask the false or pretentious (often a relatively easy job) and I try to recover forgotten or dimly remembered works of genius (often a harder job). I try to unravel or expose the workings of worthy art, literature, and philosophy. Critique needn’t only provide “gotcha” moments.
Tools of critique can unveil strength, decency, and beauty. I reach for destructive critique only when needed.
Constructive critique is a respectful, loving unveiling: lifting up a photograph, poem, or sonata of passion, suffering, or joy, and making their passion, suffering, or joy better known. I am a curator of the soul. Generous critique folds into our task as curators. That task is laced with gratitude and charged with bringing the forgotten or abandoned to light.
I’d like to know more musical theory. Its analytic, critical tools can help me better appreciate — better praise and celebrate — Bach. I’d like to know the ways of Japanese culture and language to better appreciate, celebrate, and praise Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.
The Roosevelts, a Ken Burns PBS special now available in Netflicks, merits praise for its affirmation of personal decencies and of commitments to the common good. Basic civility, of course, works in landscapes that exude true horrors.
There’s nothing to praise about abject poverty or the carnage of war. Living cheek-by-jowl with all that we admire in the presence of Eleanor, Franklin, and Teddy are racism, antisemitism, and proto-fascist populism. Their dark shadows sometimes rub off.
But through it all there are — so we hope– sustaining chords in their lives that can be recalled – should be recalled — in full applause, affirmation, and wholehearted gratitude. Then we rise above an excess of irony, scoffing, condescension, or belittling judgment.
The fruits of debunking are often bitter, sometimes necessarily bitter. But bitter fruit needn’t be all we find at the table.
We can cherish those moments, however rare, when we can rise in simple and deeply felt pride at just being human. Such moments create bonds of solidarity across differences and create faith in the future. In the full affirmation of decency we also find strength to forgive — or at least to suspend fixation on petty foibles, or at least to avoid the paralysis brought on by fixation on horrific acts only.
The triumphs of decency merit circulation and applause
I remember the moment that all the delegates to the founding meetings of the UN in London rose to applaud Eleanor Roosevelt, who had shepherded them to unlikely consensus. Whether or not we like the UN we can take pride in her dignified and decent presence.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be exposed to so much in the PBS series that might have been pictured otherwise — might have been told in another, less affirmative voice, eliciting a viewer’s despair, shame, anger, or condescension.
It is part of the moral genius of this documentary that none of this is given air time.
[This post appears as the final section of a longer essay on decency in politics — I juxtaposed the decency of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt (as Ken Burns and his colleague Geoff Ward depict them), with the shocking and dangerously blatant indecency and baseness of Donald Trump. See http://zeteojournal.com/2016/10/01/politics-death-threats-decency-roosevelts/ ]