Praise of Minimal Criticism

A problem shared by social science research and literary criticism is how much to say about the voices that are … what? Text, data, stories, material, sources–each of these words implies a different response: texts and data are to analyzed; sources are points of departure, to be elaborated; stories, at least on my account, are to be responded to. A central problem of the project of vulnerable reading, which this blog is trying to figure out, is how to write in dialogue with, rather than about. It goes back to what I recommended in 1995 in The Wounded Storyteller. How do we think with stories, rather than thinking about them. The dialogue is two sided. On one side is a work of literature, maybe Shakespeare, not as a text but as partner in conversation, to which you leave space to talk back (apologies for that syntax, which I can’t immediately improve). The other side of the dialogue is your reader, who also deserves space to talk back.

All of which is why I respect how the eminent critic Harold Bloom chose to write his King Lear: The Great Image of Authority (2018), in Bloom’s “Shakespeare’s Personalities” series. What’s worth noting is how little of the text (as in words and column inches on the page) is Bloom’s words. It’s more measurement work than I’m up to, but it would be interesting to count both what proportion of King Lear Bloom quotes–I’m guessing at least half–and what proportion of Bloom’s book is quoted Shakespeare; I’m guessing more than half. Bloom’s primary critical method–call it his late style of criticism–works by representing Shakespeare in chunks that Bloom has chosen, interspersing those with minimal commentary, and thus slowing down our reading, calling on us to see and hear as we have not before. What matters is not his ideas but our seeing and hearing Shakespeare. This is pedagogy without ego. It’s also elegant publishing by Scribner.

At the most crucial junctures, Bloom steps back, choosing silence. After quoting the reconciliation scene in Act IV, when the rescued Lear wakes in Cordelia’s tent and recognizes her as he returns to himself, Bloom simply says, “We are at the limits of art. Even Shakespeare never surpassed this. The love of daughter and father reaches absolute expression.” Then he allows himself this bit more: “I sometimes think that all of Shakespeare moves toward a reconciliation scene, one that would be total and transcendent.” Thus he lets Shakespeare be. No interpretation, just his own admiration bordering awe. Bloom allows his readers their own intimacy with this moment, their own form of reconciliation. He enables them to feel a measure of what he allows himself to feel.

The idea of the writer allowing him or herself to feel, and thus enhancing the reader’s feelings, would still be regarded as a niche enterprise in social science; in medical scholarship, it would require editorial gestures of containment. In the 1970s feminist sociologists especially became rightly concerned with honouring the voices of those whom they studied; the shift in anthropology to more participatory forms of research reflected the same ethical awakening. Today, humanities in healthcare struggles against the pervasiveness of the dichotomy between professional and patient, knower and known, active and presumed passive. What’s gained or lost in this struggle may be what defines this work. I would love to read a journal article about illness experience that just stops and says, as Bloom does, ‘we are at the limits’. That would be honouring the stories of the ill. And yet Bloom is always with his reader, guiding us, opening for us.

Bloom’s model is only one way of practicing dialogue in writing; consistent with the idea of dialogue, there is no last word. I am also grateful for those scholars who say a great deal more, filling in historical and textual details. But there’s a purity to Bloom’s approach that is deeply moving to me; a respect. He makes the ending of Lear, on the page, more emotionally resonant than I have found excellent stage performances to be, because–I think–Bloom gives me more space to feel. It’s minimalism in the finest sense of achieving so much more with so much less.

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