Monday, May 20, 2013


What is it that makes smallness lovable? That bigness should be impressive is understandable. We all respect Mount Everest as the world’s highest, and Mont Blanc as Europe’s highest mountain. The Nile impresses us as the world’s longest river. The tallest building (in Dubai, as I recall) takes the breath away. The longest novels, by Tolstoy, and even more so, Proust, hold us in awe.

Yet even weirder forms of bigness command our respect. When Georges Perec contrives a whole novel without the letter E in it, we wonder at so big an achievement, even though it serves no valid purpose. Big too is the number of frankfurters devoured in competition in limited time (hot diggedy dog!), an essentially gross achievement, but eliciting a left-handed admiration.

Someone has the largest number of Impressionist paintings in private possession; someone else the largest number of matchbook covers from the world’s restaurants, amazing even if not worthy of museum exhibition. Currently, a production of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival features the largest number of pinball machines simultaneously onstage, garnering inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records, awesome even if a greatness of questionable worth.

Still, a greatness predicating wealth or resourcefulness is enviable and therefore also admirable. The size of those presidential heads on Mount Rushmore commands respect, perhaps as great as the achievements of those heads of state. But awe is not tantamount to affection, such as we have for small things. Why?

Why do we all love puppies and kittens, often much more so than full-grown dogs and cats? Ditto babies, so winning that even mighty politicians will stoop to kiss them? And indeed most babies are cute as all getout, yet once grown up, rare is the politician who would kiss any one of them.

So what is it about smallness that we find so fetching? Why do even some boys like dolls? But not all small ones, e.g., dwarfs and midgets, are lovable, even if they’re not as nasty as Swift’s Lilliputians. Toy poodles and bichon frises, yes; Yorkies, conceivably; but definitely not Chihuahuas and some other portable breeds, whose very owners I reprehend.

Smallness scores, I think, in several ways. One is through aesthetics, as in the case of certain small dogs. Sometimes it is through cleverness, as when a sizable text is engraved on the head of a pin. Often it is the miniaturization of something big: a tiny piano, say, whether it works or not. A tiny snail, not being a reduction, does not impress, but a tiny hippo or rhino, whether live or a mere stuffed toy, does. It is an implicit cleverness, whether artisanal, or on the part of nature. Or an explicit cleverness, such as a flea circus, but who would be impressed by a non-artiste flea?

Or it may my be a sense of our superior power that endears a tiny, fragile thing, as long as it isn’t repulsive or vicious. A wild rat, certainly not, but a tame, white, laboratory one, why not? The fondness may be a form of patronization, of perhaps unconscious condescension.

But aesthetics are important. A ladybug or dragonfly appeals; a cockroach repels. A sparrow leaves us cold; a hummingbird does not. A toucan or booby, yes; a common starling or pigeon, no. Rarity also figures in this.

Of course, we like miniatures; something large reduced to toy size. A tiny car or train or whole railroad; a doll house with teensy furniture; in short, something we can play with. The teddy bear rather than the grizzly.

Littleness translates as daintiness. We admire small teeth not just for their whiteness, but also for their delicacy, their pearliness. The epithet “little” readily suggests lovableness. Thus a wife, regardless of her size, becomes “the little woman” at least in regions as yet unconquered by feminism. So a beloved New York mayor became known as the Little Flower. So we say “Good things come in small packages,” however much Fedex and UPS may disagree.

Thus, altogether, little children have become idealized., and Lewis Carroll, that platonic pedophile, becomes enamored of little Alice Liddell. Thus child actors become adored by adults—the Michael Jackson syndrome. The characters in children’s books be are beloved even by grown-ups, and are often not merely kiddies but actual dwarfs.  Never in children’s books are giants or giantesses fair and fine; of course, there is also the occasional nasty dwarf in the fairy tales, but outnumbered by the Tom Thumbs or Petits Poucets, not to mention Puss in Boots and Snow White’s merry companions.

Small is lovable even in miniature paintings; why else would they have been invented—surely not to economize in canvas or paints? Whereas giant frescoes may prompt admiration, charming miniatures elicit affection. As do small characters in paintings. I don’t know how much the Infantas loved their dwarfs, but we just love a Velazquez Infanta. Is there a warmer. more loving term than “cute,” except when pejoratively applied to an affectation? Surely not. Small is beautiful.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


The recent, glowing obituaries of Roger Ebert raise the question in my mind about what makes a good critic, which Ebert hardly was. What gives the question some importance is the possible influence of the critic on a certain art, in this case principally drama, though with relevance to all the others.

The perfect critic, obviously, cannot exist. There are too many differences in taste that no single critic, however astute, can subsume and satisfy. Probably preferable is the one who reaches out to educated, but not overeducated, readers. In the past, this would have meant graduates of a respectable institution of higher learning, but even among Ivy League graduates there were striking differences.

Thus a degree in chemistry was and is different from one in literature, but even within the latter, one in Romance languages was very different from one in Slavic languages, to say nothing of English, a sort of omnium gatherum for optimistic future dilettantes.

Still, let us settle on the notion that a good critic would excel at three things: thinking, taste and style in a three-pronged approach—just one or two of which virtues won’t suffice. Let me explain.

Good thinking is the ability to determine whether a play (or novel, or film) makes sense. But sense in a work of art is very different from sense in, say, physics. Or even history, where respectable practitioners will disagree about whether Gladstone of Disraeli was the better prime minister, whether the Athenian or Spartan commanders were better strategists. There is no litmus paper that can incontrovertibly decide.

Good taste is a totally unscientific criterion. A respectable drama critic like the late Clive Barnes preferred Neil Simon’s plays to Bernard Shaw’s. I find that absurd. But how do I prove that, in this instance at least, my taste is better than his? Is preferring the plays of Lanford Wilson more tasteful than preferring those of Sam Shepard? Only in extreme cases  is taste demonstrable; say, in preferring Shakespeare to Tourneur or Massinger.

Now style. The theater critics of the New York Times have manifestly better style than that of reviewers for some marginal provincial publication. But however they may champion (as they sometimes do) some trendy, trumpery nonentity, of what value is their eloquent encomium? No one will dispute hat their style is superior to that of some fellow on the Mudville Clarion, but is that enough?

Yet in America today’s two main drama critics of the Times are the nearest thing to theatrical arbiters, if you discount such TV pundits as the late Roger Ebert. But how does one become a main drama critic at the Times? These chaps know how to write, which is for what the publisher or editor picked them.  But said publisher or editor proceeded on the basis of mere style; it is too much to expect those journalistic powers that be to have personally inspected the garbage crowned by proficient prose or the superior work left unappreciated by labile taste and insufficient thought. But the No. 2 or 3 reviewer is never promoted to No. 1 when that post becomes vacated. The successor is always chosen from among some other successful megalopolitan reviewers, American or British, proving that even style is not as important as imported prestige.

Assuming, though, that style matters over thought and taste, what does this really mean? If I may use a tennis analogy: the stylist is like the player who has a terrific forehand (style), but not much of a backhand (taste), and definitely not much talent for volleying. Yet there are all round tennis players (I’ll throw in even lobs and overheads), but no such all round critics to speak of.

But let us get to the problem of how the best possible critic is made. Orator fit, poeta nascitur, as the old saying has it: the rhetorician is made; the poet is born. Still, even if the critic, like the poet, is innately gifted, there are acquired qualities. What truly develops him is good reading, not only in his field but also in related others. This may be acquired partly through education, but must also feature intellectual curiosity. Responsible reading should encourage not only emulation but also refutation: one learns through both approval and rejection.

Experience, too, matters—enormously. For a drama critic, this means seeing as much theater as possible, but also reading the fine plays, mostly classics, many of which remain unproduced or unrevived. Important, too, is seeing theater in more than one’s own country, which, of course, presupposes knowledge of foreign languages. But it also predicates good, inspiring teachers, and demands, however costly, travel. And it also means good human contacts and intellectual exchanges, and willingness to learn from them. No knowledge of any kind, however seemingly remote, is totally dispensable.

But, clearly, learning from the great critics of the past is of the essence. These may be as universally recognized as Aristotle and Longinus, but may also be best known merely nationally. For English speakers, this means the likes of Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin and Pater, Beerbohm and Shaw. For readers of French, this might include Taine, Lanson and Brunetière, and, more recently, Albert Thibaudet and Paul Valéry. It would certainly include, besides such full-time critics as the great Sainte-Beuve and Rivière, some all-important part-time ones like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Gide, Camus and Sartre. Forgive me for skipping more recent ones, structuralists or semiologists, whom I find unreadable.

In the German Realm, there are Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and the Schlegel brothers, but also some writers better-known for other things, such as Loerke, Benn, Mann, and Brecht. Among  even more recent ones, I mention Hans Egon Holthusen, Berthold Viertel, Friedrich Torberg, and Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

Among the very recent whom I have read with profit, I signal Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald, though none of them is that much concerned with drama, but all are very useful all the same.

However all along, as among some of the above, there have been occasional forays into criticism, or even dramatic criticism, by those of whom one might not necessarily think of as so inclined; take, for example, the poet Heinrich Heine, among whose superb prose writings there is much of interest for critics. Or so, currently, with the writings of the brilliant poet-essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

The sad thing is that criticism is considered a minor art, and, to be sure, by some of its current practitioners it is not even that. A real problem is that to be fully appreciated, it requires also some knowledge of it subject. However compelling Jacques Barzun may be about Stendhal, if you haven’t read Stendhal you may not even want to read Barzun’s essay, let alone be able to fully appreciate it. Even the wonderful Walter Pater is remembered more for a few quasi-poetic bravura passages from his book about the Renaissance than for his fine criticism as a whole.

Criticism, admittedly, lacks a certain oomph. Although Oscar Wilde’s critical essays are as dazzling as his plays, if there weren’t for the latter, the former would be paid scant heed. Even the most magnificent modern dramatic criticism—think Kenneth Tynan, who wrote as well as any novelist or playwright, is unlikely to make it into the classrooms alongside of, say, Coleridge or Yeats, and they too more likely for their poems.

I wonder how many of you will bother even reading all of this. After all, it’s only about criticism.