The Man Who Would Be Sven

Part attention to detail, part science, part Vulcan mind meld, exegesis allows a critic to enter and extend the context of a work of art, whether it be through the useful reductions of Sunday book reviews, the half millennium of minutiae that have accumulated to make Shakespeare ?The Bard? or revelatory reappraisals in the manner of D. H. Lawrence‘sresuscitation of the writing of Herman Melville….

[W]henever I see a critic taking such liberties Im not sure if Im in the presence of genius or insanity, but I sure do laugh a lot. Which is, Im pretty sure, the intention: among other things, the humour of a Camille Paglia or Wayne Koestenbaum or Dave Hickey makes conspicuous the subtle, easily ignored dramatic irony that informs all criticism. The idea that art?an enterprise whose primary function is to reveal the members of a culture to themselves?cannot be understood by that culture without Virgilian assistance seems, on the face of it, absurd, and this particular brand of exegesis, while often way off the mark (if not simply off the wall), nonetheless acknowledges its supplemental relationship to the text in question; its humour is inviting, yet also invites its own dismissal. How sad, by comparison, is the critic who seems unaware of the inner workings of his own profession, who acts as if he is the only one who sees Waldo in the picture and can point him out to you.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sven Birkerts. —Dale Peck

The Man Who Would Be Sven (MaisonNueve)

Ouch! A choice quotation from Peck: “[Birkerts] can take the tiniest premise and stretch it out like a child smearing that last teaspoon of peanut butter over a piece of bread, unaware it’s spread so thin that it no longer has any taste.”

I know Birkerts best as a bibliophile digging in his heels against the tide of digital culture, but Peck presents him as a kind of neo-modernist resisting the tide of postmodernism.

Can’t resist adding this one… “The sentences grow simultaneously more turgid and cliché-ridden, all of which serves to obscure the fact that he is for all intents and purposes talking out of his ass.”

I feel guilty for enjoying this essay so much… While I disagree with his mistrust of technology (which has lessened in recent years) I find him invaluable as a cultural critic who reminds me that I can get carried away in all that is (to me) so obviously wonderful about the Internet. But it is pleasant to read, in Peck’s analysis of some of Birkerts’ more complex allusions, another reminder of the need for clarity, even in intellectual essays.

Okay, one more quote…

His work, lacking even the take-it-or-leave-it premise of the significantly wackier readings of avant-garde theorists like Paglia or Koestenbaum, calls to mind the Talmudic and Biblical connotations of exegesis, in which rabbinical scholars and priests attempted to channel their congregants’ faith by means of interpretation of the scriptures, much of which interpretation claimed to be as divinely guided as the words it supposedly explained. This is exegesis of the give-a-man-a-fish kind. Its purveyors do not want to teach anything, lest they find themselves out of a job.