“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly. Here are some key quotes from that piece:
“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it. That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”
“When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet.”
I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”. However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.
First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’? I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning. What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into three categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.
Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling. It is how we know we are alive.
And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us. We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history. That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values. We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out. These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well.
It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories. Civilization is a story. Religion is a story. Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories. There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones. (A Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous. There is no ‘right’ story. Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.
This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well. The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning. In some ways, we want that. We find it exciting. But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative. To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace. Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning. When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego. Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out. My energy is renewed, and I am at peace. (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ. Awareness is the first step!)
“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.” We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times. Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others. For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity. May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!
– Priscilla Galasso