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How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays

1. The words critic and critical, which tend to leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth of contemporary American culture (“Don’t be so critical!”; “Everyone’s a critic!”), are derived, indirectly, from the Classical Greek word krinô, “to judge.” The noun that comes from that verb, kritês, simply denotes a person who makes judgments—this being another word that provokes a certain anxiety today. (“Who am I to judge?”; “Don’t be so judgmental!”) For the Greeks, a kritês could be any number of things: an arbitrator in a dispute; a historian (who, according to one Greek author writing in the second century A.D., must approach his raw data in the manner of an interrogating judge in a legal proceeding); an interpreter of dreams; or one of the aesthetic referees who judged the fiercely competitive theatrical competitions held each spring in Athens. The playwright Aristophanes liked to interrupt the action of his comedies in order to make flattering appeals to this or that kritês watching the show. Not infrequently, he won. Critic, then, is a word with a rich and suggestive pedigree. As, indeed, are other words derived from krinô, words like criterion (a means for judging or trying, a standard) and—a word that you might not have suspected is even remotely related to “critic”—crisis, which in Greek means a separating, a power of distinguishing; a judgment, a means of judging; a trial. For what is a crisis, if not an event that forces us to distinguish between the crucial and the trivial, forces us to reveal our priorities, to apply the most rigorous criteria and judge things?

2. Civilizations, too, can be “read.” (And judged.) It says something significant, for instance, about the Greek conception of the mind and its activities that hidden in the very old verb oida, “to know,” is a fragment of an even more ancient word, id-, “to see.” (It’s the vid- in video.) And it might well say something meaningful about the Greeks and their understanding of the complicated and perhaps inevitably tragic relationship between art, which gives meaning to life, and death (which gives meaning to life in a different way) that the name of that shining god of Art, Apollo, is so closely linked to the verb apollumi, “to destroy.”

3. But to my mind Williams’s haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something about the nature of the critics who judge those works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.