Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Generosity of Children

Berkeley, August 28, 2019—
LANGUAGEHAT TELLS ME that Alexander Gavrilov, in an interview, told a Russian blogger
It was at that moment that I grasped the difference between the reading of children and adults. Children are generally much more generous readers. I have the fixed idea that a book is created by its reader almost to a greater extent than by its writer. I have often heard adult readers say something like “There are no really good books left, it’s all crap, it was a lot better before.” At that point the reader is admitting that he no longer has the substance that makes all books magical in childhood.

As usual, a lengthy stream of interesting comments follows LanguageHat's post, many of them suggesting that what happens is that as they grow older children learn critical discrimination. Perhaps that "substance" (a word LanguageHat considers carefully in his translation [from Russian] of Gavrilov's comment) is in fact innocence.

This brought me back to last night's after-dinner conversation, when I was asked why I no longer care to write criticism. Criticism, well practiced, enlarges its subject — but at the expense of framing it within a construct built of the critic's accumulated experiences. And, let's face it, taste. When I write about a Mozart opera the opera Mozart composed begins to disappear behind the opera I have just seen performed, as my mind rambles from it within a landscape of other Mozart, other opera, other even further experiences that come to my mind, all of them wanting attention and needing shepherding if they're not to clutter the view entirely.

And, of course, the older I get, the more experiences and memories, even if the memories come less readily to mind when wanted.

I have tried always to be two people: a critic and a child. The critic thinks, reads, listens, discusses, expresses. The child looks, listens, asks questions. Too soon he becomes himself critical.

So a critic's farewell to criticism is a step in the process of restoring childlike generosity, or innocence. As we prepare to go elsewhere let us efface our presence here. I don't mean entirely: I'm taking care to leave a record behind. But I'm eager to give up the active pursuit of framing reality, thus lessening it, by insisting on my own view of it. It's time, instead, to empty my mind.

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