If I'm ever found to be channeling it will be Paul de Fortia, Lord of Piles. Actually, it will be the whole mishpoche, since the Fortias were thought to be Jewish. There was Paul de Fortia, the seventeenth-century sailor and swordsman who might have inspired Dumas' d'Artagnan. There was Roger de Piles, the seventeenth-century art critic. And then Paul de Fortia again, probably an earlier relative, who in 1627 killed in a duel the son of the poet François Malherbe, provoking a mediocre artist to write the one great poem he had in him. Sometimes I feel as if I'm channeling a Jewish French-speaking art critic with a rapier for wit and a readiness to use it to provoke artists to greatness, at the risk of life. Theirs, preferably...
It's not my fault, I was raised that way. In 1626 Cardinal Richelieu of France banned duels; nine years later he chartered what was to become the Académie Française. Both of Richelieu's actions are consciously related: no longer would class distinctions be enforced by the monopoly on skilled violence, but by one's skill at manipulating the French language. This is still true of French cultural and political life; in America it hasn't quite caught on.
It's important to remember that the skills required in a literary engagement are originally the skills involved in rapier fencing. Still, new rules are needed beside those handed down, and the first rule is, nobody gets hurt more than is necessary. Baudelaire, the daddy of all art critics and a fencer to boot, wrote that a poorly-planned attack is like a gun that goes off in your own hand. So, for the benefit of my friend Jules, who seems intent on hurting himself before anyone else does, here are a few, basic rules for art-critical engagement:
A critic is not a hit-man, but their functions may overlap. My mentor, the artist Paul Freeman, once explained to me, when I was complaining about someone: "Hire a hit-man. Hurt him bad. Then let everyone know who's responsible." He was wrong about the last part, and the first. First, you have to be your own hit-man. Third, never let on what's behind your hit, readers will think you're biased and it'll blow up in your hand. Your task is to prove that the artist is your worst enemy because he's a lousy artist, not the other way around. As Edna St. Vincent Millay put it, "There is, I think, in these poems of mine against [T. S.] Eliot nothing which could be considered abusive: they are merely murderous."
Don't try to use the art to get to the individual. In the unlikely event that your worst enemy happens to be a great artist, it'll come back to haunt you.
Protecting one's self, physically or emotionally, takes precedence. In fighting as as in art, it's what distinguishes the skilled professional from the enthusiastic amateur.
Baiting is not incidental to criticism; it's the very essence of criticism. You write to provoke a response: a positive response, a negative response, a response from your audience, or artist, or from the man with the sword; best of all, a response from the buyer.
Always rise to the bait. Make a point of it. The one exception: if your opponent's so strong it would be suicide. Not responding postpones a reckoning, and that can sap your energy for years.
Think carefully what you want to provoke, and how. Criticism is like fencing and street brawling in this also: the first one to lunge is the one first to lose.
Avoid the straight-out value judgment. This tips your hand and misses your opponent: in fencing as in art criticism it can mean instant death.
Avoid gratuitous witticism. Fancy swordplay (the kind you see in movies) is a different skill from the other kind. Playing to the gallery can be dangerous if it leads you to take your eye off your goal.
On-target wit can hit more than one target. You can focus on your audience and your opponent simultaneously, often on radically different levels. Polysemy is part of Rhetoric.
Never take on someone because he or she is weak. Take them on because you have a point to make. The fact that they're weak makes your task easier; it doesn't dispense you, or entitle you.
No one's asking you to like your audience or your artist. But if you don't know what they think or feel you can't anticipate their reactions, and you're dead. Practice empathy. At some point it will become a natural, until your writing floats above its subject, revealing without judging. Then, like an oyster, you'll begin to make pearls out of whatever tiny specks of shit have gotten under your shell. Good luck.
[1/25/2006; revised 1/21/2013.]
- Paul Werner
Rules for Jules