I’ve always had a sort of inferiority complex about art, film and literary critics. They seem so often to find great merit and meaning in works that struck me as pretentious crap. Yet I took it for granted that I must be missing something — in the works themselves or perhaps in my own innate ability to interpret art.
Thus I was down on myself for years, having never read many of the literary classics. But too many times in school, when forced to read what were purported to be “masterpieces,” I was bored out of my mind by them.
I guess I failed to look past the pages-long descriptions of shifting weather patterns, fine indoor furnishings, and ominous land formations — the far too subtle gestures and turns of phrase — failed to appreciate the “symbolism,” the “irony,” and the “allusions” behind it all, which supposedly elevated these seeming snoozers to true works of art.
For me, real art is about truth. And truth is neither subjective — nor holographic, i.e. subject to endless, extensive metaphor. Either the characters are strikingly real and the story compelling and inevitable, or it just isn’t true art.
A perfect example is Moby Dick — possibly the most overrated novel ever written. Truly, a literary apocalypse.
And many critics in Melville’s time hated it too:
“[A]n ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”
But, both then and now, perhaps in an attempt to show off their more learned sense and sensibility, critics have attempted to convince us that this long, literary cat turd is in fact a masterwork — no matter its bizarre, 200-page detour from a weak narrative about a whale hunt into an exhaustive exposition on whales and whale hunting generally.
And so this has become a litmus test for me — a test of others’ critical pretentiousness. Anyone who claims to have even enjoyed Moby Dick — let alone found it to be a work of great art — is himself missing something critical.
The metaphorical forest for the trees.