Commentary: John Simon, Clive James and the future of criticism in our culture

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John Simon and Clive James died on the same day, Nov. 24 — Simon at 94, James at 80. Two prominent English-language critics of the modern era, they wielded enormous influence in their respective cultural spheres. But the reactions to their deaths could hardly have been more divergent.

While James, a critic, writer and television broadcaster who left his native Australia to find fame in the U.K., received encomiums for the catholicity of his taste, the splendor of his wit and his evangelical passion for the life of the mind, Simon, the Yugoslavian-born polymath who was long enthroned at New York Magazine as a theater and film critic, was remembered less for his razor-sharp prose than for his vitriolic glee, his attacks on actors’ physical flaws, his sometimes shocking political insensitivity and his penchant for acidulous put-downs and puns.

Twitter wasn’t exactly in a mournful mood when word of Simon’s death broke. Artists recollected the artillery sent their way with the bemusement of veteran soldiers recalling the circumstances of their battlefield medals. Jokes about Barbra Streisand’s nose, Elizabeth Taylor’s weight and Liza Minnelli’s everything were dredged from the archival swamp. Withering remarks about nontraditional casting and an unforgivably hateful comment spoken by Simon at the height of the AIDS epidemic resounded in a kind of purgatorial ceremony.

Those recounting this noxious history came not to punish Simon but to bury his mold of critic. If his death marked the end of an era, then good riddance. I wasn’t moved to take up his cause, to defend his expansive erudition, to pay homage to his exact use of language or to praise his beautifully manicured journalism.

To be completely candid, I found Simon’s intellectual posturing, rarefied vocabulary and grammarian cavils trying. His degrees from Harvard may have lent breadth to his cultural range but they didn’t deepen his relationship to the art he was appraising. His learning made him pompous rather than wise.

Yes, he was a savage truth-teller, who considered no cow sacred. But his antipathies, a source of eternal confidence (just as they erroneously were to the insufferable title character of Molière’s “The Misanthrope”), revealed the limits of a sensibility that wasn’t just shocked by the new but often disgusted and enraged by it. When asked if I wanted to write an appreciation of Simon last month, I demurred. I had no interest in speaking ill of the dead then, and I have no interest in dancing on a grave now.

What compels me to write at all is the sense that the deaths of Simon and James are important markers in an epochal shift in the role and place of criticism in our cultural life. I haven’t been exactly bullish about the prospects of my profession, but the obituaries of these two titans have strangely given me hope that higher values will endure even as certain outdated practices and prerogatives are interrogated and discarded.

The value that concerns me most is “authority.” In a society that has come to devalue expertise and that has fanatically embraced the false notion of democracy (as articulated by writer Isaac Asimov) to mean that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,” sagacity itself can seem under attack. But the roasting that Simon received on Woke Twitter has to be weighed against the eulogies for James, another straight white male with an elite education who made his name through the regular spouting of cultural opinion.

But the vehemence against yesterday’s martini-swilling, sport-coat-wearing taste-makers can lose sight that criticism is a discipline, not easily mastered.

The notion of the critic as judge imperiously issuing pronouncements from on high has for logical reasons become associated with a form of white male privilege. The practice of criticism has been dominated for too long by a demographic group that hasn’t felt the need to question its assumptions or entitlements.

I’m a collector of criticism anthologies, and I’m often stunned by the sentiments I find in these volumes, even by writers I admire, such as the film critic Stanley Kauffmann. In the fall, I was teaching a seminar at the California Institute of the Arts on Shakespeare onscreen, and in looking up Kauffman’s review of director Grigori Kozintsev’s 1971 “King Lear,” I was stopped in my tracks by the description of Lear’s daughters: “But the Goneril looks like Edmund’s ancient aunt, and if sane, could hardly have expected to hold him; the Regan is grotesquely fat and has a bosom that would stop a Sherman tank; the Cordelia has a face like a round piece of dough ready for the oven.”

If Kauffmann had more deeply engaged with the film, I might have overlooked his blithe male chauvinism. I don’t believe in condemning writers from earlier eras for not living up to our standards, but the old boys’ club attitude that Simon balefully crystallized pervades the criticism of his time.

For reviewers like Simon writing a generation or more ago, multiculturalism was perceived as a muzzle. Politically correct earnestness, the great bugaboo, was supposed to lead inexorably to a lowering of standards. Once, in a keynote address, Simon warned that if we don’t come to our senses about nontraditional casting, “We’ll soon have wheelchair actors playing Romeo.”

Critics like Simon considered themselves cultural standard-bearers, guardians of aesthetic beauty and truth, who were chosen by their brilliance, or so they assumed. Intellectually formidable as they were, they showed little capacity for reckoning with the historical forces that made them gatekeepers.

The backlash against this school of critics is, if anything, belated. But the vehemence against yesterday’s martini-swilling, sport-coat-wearing taste-makers can lose sight that criticism is a discipline, not easily mastered, requiring an iron temperament, an autodidactic drive of omnivorous range and the penury of years of practice. The field is no more egalitarian than the arts. Excellence remains an aristocracy: Great reviewers are nearly as rare as great artists. The conditions that allow for this greatness are ripe for reexamination, but nuance is often the first casualty in these politically charged battles.

The pitchforks and torches of Twitter, the cancel-culture flash mobs, the worst excesses of identity politics threaten at times to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Judgment itself, the act of making distinctions, of recognizing originality, of elucidating form (and formlessness), sometimes seems to be held in contempt. But this is precisely why I was heartened amid all the scrutiny of Simon’s checkered record to be reminded of what an elegant stylist he could be. Many even who were still infuriated by his meanness couldn’t help acknowledging that at his best this prodigiously learned critic could choreograph the most breathtaking arrangements of perfectly poised sentences.

Criticism survives not in its verdicts but in the vividness of its language, in the way it preserves in prose an ephemeral art form. This is fortunate for Simon because he got so many things wrong.

He obviously loved the theater. I last saw him in November at the end of a marathon Broadway preview of Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance.” Simon’s unbreakable theatergoing habit testified to his dedication, but a lifetime of plays and musicals only seemed to confirm what he already knew he disliked.

Feel the scorn of these opening sentences of a review of two one-acts by Adrienne Kennedy, one of the most influential African American dramatists since the 1960s: “What does the playwright Adrienne Kennedy have going for her? First, she is black. Second, she is a woman. Third, she writes symbolism, lousy symbolism, but anti-realistic, which, to impressionable and politically correct souls, spells Magic Time. Boldness, originality, poetry — all this from a black woman from Cleveland. Oh, the wonder of it!”

But let’s turn away from Simon the reactionary crank and visit with Simon the ardent fan. Here he is paying homage to Cherry Jones in the 1995 Broadway revival of “The Heiress,” a rave so lush that Jones later told Playbill she thought she was hallucinating when she read it:

“We needed a Catherine like Cherry Jones, whose long-shining, awesome talent should finally be obvious to even the most dense. She can turn translucent as John Lee Beatty’s fine, diaphanous set, and so let us see into her innermost self, where conflicting impulses nag away at each other until repressed but luminous humanity bursts dazzlingly forth, only to be finally and irrevocably squelched. Miss Jones does wonders with the minutest movements, the subtlest inflections, and can act even with her cheekbones. Just her range of ‘yes’es is prodigious and shattering: Not since Joyce’s Molly Bloom has anyone got such mileage out of that humdrum monosyllable. This is a performance to feast on.”

A critic may become widely read by ridiculing Anjelica Huston’s face, but he will be remembered for what he loves. For in conjuring greatness in descriptive writing that rises to the occasion, he is borne aloft by the art he has rescued from the abyss.

Speaking of rescues from the abyss, at my bedside these days is James’ tome “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts,” an encyclopedia of lyrical essay on figures from the 20th century that in the author’s estimation provide a common ground for literacy. “What I propose is a sum of appreciations that includes an appreciation of their interdependence: a new humanism,” James affectionately writes.

“Cultural Amnesia” is a much less divisive project than Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon,” which came back into heated conversation after Bloom died in October. A professor of Falstaffian wit and shrewdness who changed my thinking about Shakespeare, Bloom spent the last few decades of his life at war with what he saw as the political hijacking of literary studies, the reduction of the “aesthetic to ideology.” But today we want critics who are capable of contextualizing their interpretive positions — who recognize that no one, not the scholar who meditates on Milton all day or Milton himself, operates outside of history.

“To philosophize is to learn to die,” observed Montaigne. To practice criticism is to teach us how to live more deeply through art. Self-scrutiny is a prerequisite for the job. Simon’s old-school approach was haughty and hermetic, regardless of what he was reviewing. James, who wrote as well about high culture as he did about popular culture, extended a communal embrace that didn’t relax standards but found ways of recalling sublimity even when pointing out dreck.

The erudition of these men cannot be denied. The question is: To what end was their learning placed? A critic is assigned to appraise and compare, to set down official verdicts. But that is not the ultimate task. Criticism requires more humanity than connoisseurship. The mask of superiority must now fall off for true authority to flow. James would call this progress.