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27 Jan 2009

On criticism – Earlier today, I read a comment written by a friend of mine on an internet forum I frequent. The comment was: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, become critics.” When I was younger, someone very close to me whom I respected and looked up to said something similar: “Those who can’t do, teach.” I must admit that this comment has haunted me for years, even though I know it was said in a very specific context and wasn’t aimed at me. The same goes for the above comment on critics—again, very specific context, not aimed at me. But the idea behind both of these comments really bugs me, and I thought I’d finally get it off my chest.

“...the act of creation is not necessarily rational, while the act of analysis is entirely rational”

Fundamentally, what is expressed in these comments is the idea that artistic creation is a constructive act and therefore positive, while criticism is a destructive act and therefore negative (I’m going to use the metaphor of art and criticism here, but the ideas apply to teaching as well, with a few modifications). To be more precise, though, criticism is a deconstructive act—that is, it involves breaking a whole down into its constituent parts for further examination—rather than a destructive act. Mention the word “deconstruction” to most sane individuals, though, and their eyes glaze over, so I’m going to use the term “analysis” instead. This is the dichotomy with which we are dealing: the act of creating something and the act of analyzing that creation.

The relationship between these two acts is a complicated one. Creation can exist without analysis, but analysis owes its existence to creation—if there were no artistic creation, there would be nothing to analyze. Thus it seems only natural to assign creation the superior position in a hierarchical relationship. Unfortunately, when one term in a pair becomes superior, the other naturally becomes inferior, and that is precisely what has happened with creation and analysis. We assume that everyone would aspire to the superior, and if they are engaged in the inferior it is only due to lack of merit,ability, or motivation. (Interestingly enough, this parallels the attitudes toward interpretation and translation at my school, but I will save that discussion for another day.)

There is one catch to this way of thinking, though: creation and analysis are entirely different acts, and being good at one not only does not guarantee that you will be good at the other, it can even act as an impediment to being good at the other. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t talented artists who are not also talented critics, and vice versa, but individuals possessing equal measures of talent in both areas are rare.

Allow me to give a concrete example of the difference between the two acts at hand. Last summer I taught a practical translation course to a small group of students at the Korea Literature Translation Institute. By “practical translation course” I mean that we did not focus on theory (although we did discuss it), we took an actual work of literature and translated it piece by piece. Each week the students translated a section and sent it to me a day or two before class, and then during the class (each session lasted four hours) we would discuss their translations. Halfway through the course we had a translation camp, where everyone from the different sections (we had Chinese and Japanese translation sections as well) got together for a few days of seminars, discussions, and large quantities of alcohol.

One of the events planned for the camp was a meeting with the authors of the works we were translating. My students were very excited about this opportunity, and I told them to think about questions they might want to ask our author well before the session. They took on this task with relish. What might the author have meant by this particular turn of phrase? What exactly did she mean by this juxtaposition of words? As I listened to them discussing their questions, I realized that they might be hoping for a bit too much. I warned them that simply having access to the author didn’t mean that they were suddenly going to get all the answers.

The session began, and the authors introduced themselves and gave brief talks. Then it was time for questions. I was quite proud of my students—teach of them asked a question. Yet even though they each addressed specific points in the text that had given rise to intense discussion, the author’s answers were subdued. I don’t remember specifically what she said, but the gist of all her answers was: “I can’t tell you exactly what I meant by that, I just wrote it as I felt it.” Needless to say, my students were disappointed at not getting the answers they had hoped for.

It wasn’t the author’s fault, though. Yes, there are some authors who will analyze their own work, but ultimately the act of creation is not a rational act. When we create a work of art, we may follow a set of rational rules or principles (say, certain ideas about color and light when painting, or basic grammar in writing), but those rules or principles are simply a starting point—the real creation happens elsewhere. Writers in particular talk of a “muse.” In Greek mythology, the muses were spirits who inspired artistic creation, and I think the continued fascination with this idea is due to the feeling that something inspired comes from without rather than within. When we write a particularly good passage (or what we think at the time is a particularly good passage), it seems impossible that it could have come from us, so we attribute it to an external source. Characters often seem to take on lives of their own, or things happen in the story that surprise us. How could we be surprised if we’re the ones doing the creation? The answer is that creation is not always the result of a rational thought process, especially when that creation is “inspired” (in fact the word “inspire” means “to breathe into,” as God breathed life into Adam).

Analysis, on the other hand, is entirely rational. When a translator reads a work of literature, he or she reads it in a way that no other reader does. Most readers of literature are in it for enjoyment or for the literary experience. The translator, though, must take apart the work of literature, analyze exactly what makes it literature, and then preserve that literariness while putting the work back together again in another language. The layman may admire a well-crafted watch, seeing grace and beauty in the whole of its precise workings, but the apprentice watchmaker must take the thing apart and learn how each of those pieces contributes to the whole—what makes it tick, and tick so well. The apprentice watchmaker then attempts to duplicate the watch using the parts available to him or her. This is just a metaphor, of course—I know nothing about how watchmakers learn their craft—but it aptly describes what the translator does.

Writing, of course, is nothing like making a watch, and it is perfectly acceptable for a writer to say, “I don’t know why I wrote those exact words, they just felt right.” I have experienced this myself as a writer of fiction. But it is oh so frustrating for a translator to hear this in reply to a specific question. I had experienced this before, though, which is why I warned my students about it. Of course, they had to learn for themselves, but now they know that the author is not some mystical key that will unlock a work of literature and suddenly make everything clear. If that were the case, literature would be much drier than it is—I think it speaks to us so because it transcends the individual, even the author, to some extent. (Clarification for lit-crit types: I don’t fully buy into Barthes’ “death of the author” idea, but I also don’t think that the author is the ultimate key to a work.)

But I am wandering off course. To reiterate my point: the act of creation is not necessarily rational, while the act of analysis is entirely rational. In other words, the two acts require two different types of thinking. This is what makes literary translation so difficult—we must go from the rational analysis of the source text to (at least to a certain extent) non-rational production of literature in the target language. In the more general terms of creation and analysis, one person may do both, but they will be using different thought processes for each act. Writers who analyze their own work throw a switch in their brains, distancing themselves from the act of creation and taking a colder look at what they have created. Critics who write will do the opposite—and may find themselves falling prey to the snares they themselves have criticized in the work of others.

My ultimate point, of course, is that one act is not necessarily superior to the other. Yes, analysis depends on creation, but that does not make it inferior. If anything, the two exist in a symbiotic relationship. Many artists may vehemently deny this, seeing critics as nothing more than a nuisance, but when we look at any art as a whole, this truth becomes apparent. Creation provides an object for analysis, and analysis deepens our understanding of the field, fostering further creation. I said above that without creation, there would be no analysis, but without analysis, creation would grow stale. Analysis provides a foundation on which art as a whole can build to new heights.

All this being said, I can still understand the sentiment behind these comments. You’ll notice that such comments are rarely made when the analyzer in question is an esteemed individual. No one, for example, would tell Roger Ebert, “Those that can’t do become critics.” But there are plenty of so-called critics who seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture, of the symbiotic relationship between creation and analysis. It seems that they exist solely to tear down the work of others, and in this case what they do is indeed destructive, not deconstructive. But because what they are doing appears to be analysis, we lump all valid analyzers in with these pretenders, and that does a great disservice to all the real critics.

This is just a cursory treatment of the subject, of course. More could be said, but I think (hope) I’ve made my point. Next time we’ll move on to deeper pastures—I have completed the first draft of the long-promise entry on prayer, but I want to let it sit for a few days. Although I think I am getting the hang of writing and posting in one sitting, that entry is not something I want to rush through.

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