AGAINST CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
EPISTLE TO DOCTOR CYNICA (INTERNET PHYSICIAN)
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
My Dear Doctor Cynica,
I am honored to receive your public remark criticizing my fine Internet essay, “GRAMMAR”.
I am unable to find your name listed in the Directory of Physicians. I suppose you are using a pseudonym or an alias, as is the practice of the Anony Mouse Family. Since I am unable to reach you after your indelicate grammatical operation, I am herewith framing your impertinent critical remark along with my impetuous response thereto:
“Although you obviously have talent as a writer, I think you could have said what you were trying to say in a much less pretentious manner. This was not at all easy to read, and I am a highly educated person who has occasionally been guilty of playing sesquipedalian myself. One of the tenets of good grammar is to avoid verbiage. If I may quote William Safire (THE grammar authority): ‘Many of us like to stretch the minds of our readers, introducing them to the big menu behind the list of daily word specials, but all too often we practive polysyllabicism because we want to show off. Lookame, I got this prodigious vocabulary.’ Choose the word that says precisely what you mean and your prose will be less cumbersome and much more readible (not to mention enjoyable). Good luck!” (sic)
First of all, I congratulate you on your dissimulation I mean “dissimulation” in the psychiatric sense: “the ability or tendency to appear normal when actually suffering from a disorder: a characteristic of the paranoic.” (American Heritage Dictionary).
That, together with your underlying pretention to the literary throne, conspicuously qualifies you to lay down your stethoscope and take up the pen that is, after you have improved your handwriting so that somebody can read it. Already, at this stage of your development, it is difficult to ascertain whether you are a pompous ass or a master of irony, an idiot-savant or a perfect mime, a complete fraud or a pernickety pedant. But one thing is clear: you might do a lot less damage as an author to reader’s minds than as a physician to their brains for, in the latter case, the injury would be irreversible.
In any event, your pursuit of grammatical glories might cure you of the great defect of High Education nowadays: the arrogant narrow-mindedness that makes you believe that, if you do not understand something, it must be someone else’s fault, namely, the author’s. This is really the common defect of bad toilet training: the studious student thinks his toilet is the only throne in town, that it raises him to the most exalted summit yet he does not know the true nature of his productions, so dizzy has he become, with his nose up in the air, breathing his own gas.
Therefore, if you are to progress to Grammar’s true realm, you must climb down from your toilet and broaden your education. You must descend from your imperial tripod and study your trivium at the real trivium, on the mean streets, particularly at the crossroads where robbers and thieves lurk. You must descend from your throne and examine the logjam you have created, then go beyond the putrid prejudices you have acquired at random.
For example, take your blind faith in William Safire as “THE grammar authority”. He is an authority in the narrow sense, however, as you should have gleaned from my brilliant essay, I speak of Grammar in the broadest sense, of the best that has ever been said about everything. I can include only one of Safire’s statements in that category: he said a fence should be erected around your state to keep the weirdoes therein.
No, Safire is not THE authority on grammar. Quite to the contrary. He is your created imposter. H.L. Mencken is the real authority. Since you are given to criticism, you might want to examine his distinction between bad and good critics, set forth in his ‘Footnote on Criticism’ (THE AMERICAN SCENE).
The bad critic “writes because he is possessed by a passion to advance the enlightenment, to put down error and wrong, to disseminate some specific doctrine….This is true, it seems to me, only of bad critics, and its degree of truth increases in direct ratio to their badness….It is almost universally held that the thing is a brother to jurisprudence, advertising, laparotomy, chautaugua lecturing, and the art of the schoolmarm.”
On the other hand, “the motive of the good critic who is really worth reading…is not the motive of the pedagogue but the motive of the artist. It is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world….Everything else is afterthought, mock-modesty, messianic delusion….”
Mencken goes on to speak of his criticism of one of my favorite authors, Theodore Dreiser, saying that he has little interest in Dreiser’s main ideas:
“What then, was my motive in writing about Dreiser so copiously? My motive…was simply to sort out and give coherence to the ideas of MR. MENCKEN and to put them into suave and ingratiating terms, and to disclose them with a flourish, and maybe with a phrase of pretty song, into the dense fog that blanketed the Republic.” (emphasis added)
Dense fog, indeed! In case it is still too dense, Doctor Cynica, Mencken means to say he used Dreiser’s writing as a perch from which to sing his own song. To further clarify this point, I refer you to Miguel de Unamuno’s short story about a physician who loved to write, ‘The Madness of Doctor Montarco’.
Doctor Montarco was a good medical practitioner, nay, almost a perfect one, who took up writing fantastic stories to relieve himself of the burden of prosaic pretentiousness, but his patients believed that a good doctor would confine his writings to medical subjects, that Doctor Montarco’s fantasies proved him incompetent to practive medicine, therefore they gradually deserted him. But the good doctor, despite the threat of imminent poverty for himself and his family, kept writing. His motto was ‘All or Nothing’. He would express himself in full or not at all. His writing of the thoughts people think but do not dare to express eventually landed him in a madhouse, where a Doctor Atienza speculated on whether Doctor Montarco was really mad or not.
“It wasn’t madness,” Doctor Atienza diagnosed. “But now they have succeeded in making it turn into madness. I have been reading his work since he has been here and I realize now that one of their mistakes was to take him for a man of ideas, a writer of ideas, when fundamentally he is no such thing. His ideas were a point of departure, mere raw material, and had as much importance in his writing as earth used by Valasquez in making the pigments had to do with his painting, or as the type of the stone Michelangelo used had to do with his ‘Moses'”
And thus, Doctor Cynica, I am using your bad criticism of my Grammar as grist for my own mill, as a platform to sing yet another song, despite the fact that you did not understand my song to Grammar, and chose to blame me for your misunderstanding.
I realize you might have believed you were honorably enaged in well-intentioned “constructive” criticism when you appended your Comment to my essay. Please know, then, that I fully sympathise with THE greatest grammarian, Mencken, on that very subject, which he pontificated upon in his ‘Footnote on Criticism’ as follows:
“In all history there has never been, to my knowledge, a single practitioner of any art who, as a result of ‘constructive’ criticism, improved his work….I cannot recall a case in which any suggestion offered by a constructive critic has helped me in the slightest, or even actually interested me. Every such wet-nurse of letters has sought fatuously to make me write in a way differing from that in which the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, impels me to write: that is, to make me write stuff which, coming from me, would be as false as an appearance of decency in a Congressman….Constructive criticism irritates me. I do not object to being denounced, but I can’t abide being schoolmastered, especially by imbeciles.”
Finally, in closing, I must say that I believe the above will be particularly instructive to you both in your effort to maintain your god-like status as a physician as well as your struggle to become an author. However, with that forewarning in mind, I adjure you, Abandon your physical practice for the metaphysical, make your independent bid for the Mad House, and let bad critics remain damned to the hell they live in.
David Arthur Walters
Miguel de Unamuno, ABEL SANCHEZ and other stories. Trans. Anthony Kerrigan, Chicago: Henry Regner, 1956
H.L. Mencken, THE AMERICAN SCENE, a Reader. Ed. Huntington Cairns, NY: Knopf. 1965
H.L. Mencken, TREATISE ON THE GODS, NY: Knopf, 1930