‘Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism, Ltd.’
J C Ransom, “Criticism, Inc.”
It’ll be the second time that the Head of Department has asked me to speak on this with fourth year literature students. A Shakespeare scholar, tall and quick to smile, Jonathan Gil Harris’s text messages on both occasions are characteristically kind and helpful: would I please speak on ‘creative and critical writing’ to fourth year literature students? I say yes, even though I am made nervous by the request. Gil Harris is Chair at the Department of English and Creative Writing. He is asking a ‘Creative Writer’ – and not a literary historian, for instance – to speak about the ‘Creative-Critical’ to future literary critics. I cannot help thinking of the tradition his action – both his choice of subject for my talk, and his choice of speaker – belongs to.
I keep thinking of an opening line. It is as if I were a standup comedian. On the third Wednesday of a very cold North Indian January, I enter the classroom and ask– ‘Are you feeling creative or critical right now?’
I see Gil laugh. He’s in the fourth or fifth row, sitting behind the students, who laugh with him.
When he asks me to speak to a fresh batch of students this semester, I behave like a comedian again. I cannot repeat my opening line, I tell myself. I cannot sound stale, even as I wonder whether ‘creative’ or ‘critical’ writing is ever stale, and whether opening lines are repeated in either. And then I decide on the line – my opening line will be about the line: ‘Is the line a creative or critical thing?’ It will be online this year. Otherwise I might have behaved like a stuntman drawing a line on the white board behind me.
The line belongs to art as much as it does to poetry, and, again, as much to what the post-industrial education economy has begun calling ‘critical writing’, where one is asked for one’s ‘line of argument’. Yesterday, my mother, a former school teacher, tried to teach my two-year-old niece how to draw a straight line. The result is below:
Gil’s text message had come around the same time, and, as I watched her doing her ‘iji biji’ – Bangla for nonsense doodling, scratching paper with pen – I wondered which category this might fall in: ‘creative’ or ‘critical’. Adulthood was a moment of categorization – of everything, objects, relationships, experiences; even the money one put into the bank was categorised on the basis of their life as ‘savings’. Was a ‘savings account’ less ‘creative’ than a ‘term deposit’? Something happened to me after reading Gil’s message. Everything I did after that became annotated with that question about its categorisation.
I hadn’t been keeping very well, and after I’d got home, I lay in bed – it was the practice of trying to recover from exhaustion. Was this a creative or critical decision, and was this a creative or critical desire, this need for rest, to ease the creases of the spine? The notebook on which my niece had ‘cut’ ijibiji lay next to me. In them were notes I had taken from watching interviews on YouTube – of the film director Mani Kaul, of the actor Pankaj Tripathi, and BBC4 documentaries on Japanese art. In between them were my niece’s drawing of lines. They were not straight lines – arcs, unfinished circles, dizzying spirals, way-lost smudges. What were these – creative or critical pieces? And had their presence in the notebook, amidst serious thoughts, turned them into something else?
Line, circle, arc. Where did they belong in the tradition of critical thinking? They belonged to so many spaces: as much to Klee’s canvas (and The Pedagogical Sketchbook) as they did to Powerpoint presentations in corporate meetings. No one had asked that question about the creative and critical of painters or musicians. Sa pa sa – which tanpura player has ever been asked whether that was a critical musical phrase or a creative one? I use sa pa sa as an example deliberately. These notes are meant to be in the background, giving a home to the singer’s voice as it moves between other temporary homes. The sense of ‘being’ creative or critical is, in my understanding, meant to be a hum in the background, one that must exist without causing awareness of its existence. That consciousness will distract from the real focus of writing, like the awareness of wearing glasses might affect looking – thinking – and it will not be difficult to detect: the parody of thought or writing, like an act of mimicry.
Later, on Facebook I found people posting this message:
If you get this, you are a critical thinker.
I walk into a bedroom.
There are 34 people. I kill 30.
Now how many people are in the bedroom?
I made the calculations in my mind, and, wondering whether my answer was right or wrong, I assessed myself: was I a ‘critical thinker’? At that very moment – and this is not fiction – there was an email alert on my phone: someone had asked me to speak at a webinar in the capacity of a ‘creative writer’. It wasn’t important who I was, but who did I want to be – a ‘critical thinker’ or a ‘creative writer’?
If one were to consult a census based on their residential certificates, the primary difference between creative and critical writing might be one of locus, both of origin and of where it comes to rest. ‘Creative writing’ presumes the presence of something like a writer’s table or studio, something a little more relaxed than the habitat of ‘critical writing’, which is perhaps imagined as more laboratory-like. Is the writer’s table creative or critical? Is home creative or critical? To assign categories to writing – and consequently to thought, for writing is only a form of thinking – is to believe in critical writing as workplace-writing or workplace-labour. I think that there might also be a difference in the way the work-clothes for both are imagined: ‘loose, flowing clothes’ versus the surgeon’s coat. In the end, however, it is where the writing is published that seems to establish the nature of the writing: critical writing goes to research journals and creative writing to magazines that publish poetry, fiction, essays. It’s a bit like the categorisation of people in an airport: EU, Non-EU, US, Other Passport Holders.
At the heart of this distinction lies a new – and by now institutionalised – hierarchy that those who created it do not want to acknowledge. It comes from academia, from its growing distrust – and even rejection – of anything that cannot be put in a system of calibration. ‘Creative writing’ is imagined as amorphous, slippery, of unfixed and uncertain location. With ‘critical writing’, on the other hand, we are sure of its residency: the head, though we actually mean the brain. All institutions are wary of the heart: the nation state, the family, the school and university, the workplace. It is fluid and, like fluids, disobedient. The brain, on the other hand, is like an animal in a zoo: it is caged inside the skull. Academia, like insurance companies that will cover brain surgery but not heartache, has come to privilege the critical over the creative through a similar logic.
All of this might implicitly be related to the idea of ‘theory’.
I’ve sat through presentations by PhD students, where, at the end of nearly every talk, a professorhas asked, ‘But what is the theory behind this?’ I’ve never heard the mask, ‘What are the emotions that made you embark on this research project?’ Emotions – and here we cannot forget the old association of women with emotions, and men with the intellect – and the body seem to be immaterial to the ‘critical’ project, unless, of course, they can be codified into a theory of affect.
Anything that cannot be fit into a ‘theory’ isn’t ‘critical’ enough in the intellectual barometer – its opposite is the ‘poetic’, a word which is used with an intonation of the pejorative. The poetic is baggy, and, like the heart, it can accommodate everything: the continents and its people, the planets and beyond. The head, on the other hand, seems like a water tank with limited storage capacity, or, even better, a hard disk with fixed GB storage. Its circuits are seemingly predictable, unlike the imagined waywardness of the heart. ‘We believe that the provenance of the first, poetry, is at once mysterious and formalistic, and that the second, thought, is related to our rational faculties,’ writes Amit Chaudhuri in The Origins of Dislike. ‘This understanding of the head and the heart and their effects and functions is faulty, as T S Eliot reminds us in “The Metaphysical Poets”: ‘Those who object to the ‘artificiality’ of Milton or Dryden sometimes tell us to ‘look into our hearts and write’. But that is not looking deep enough; Racine or Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.’ Eliot attributes it to what he calls a ‘dissociation of sensibility’:
it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet… A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes… In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered …’
I am tempted to date the Creative-Critical dissociation and consequent professionalisation of that distinction to this essay.
‘Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown,’ wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil. I invoke Nietzsche to remind ourselves that what we call philosophy is, in the end, as much a negotiation with one’s emotions as it is with one’s intellect – the reason one cannot choose to become a philosopher of the kind of school that one might want to. There is little space for voluntary action there, as much as there is in who we come to love. Love is as creative as it is critical, philosophy as it is pragmatism. The love of wisdom, the ‘philo’ in philosophy – is wisdom a creative or critical category, or, to use Nietzsche’s words ‘voluntary’ or ‘involuntary’? The ‘critical’ is imagined to be in the realm of the voluntary and the ‘creative’ of the latter.
The effect of this on pedagogy has been momentous – it has led to a curriculum that leads to a head-heavy understanding of man. It has consequently sneaked into most aspects of our life, including the manifestation of class – those we call illiterate or uneducated are those who have been deprived of a formal education and the technology of reading and writing. The fact of their being educated by life, by the heart and its conspiracies, is lost on us. The heart can be in a ‘critical condition’, but it cannot be a ‘critic’. Its workings are, to use Nietzsche’s word again, ‘involuntary’ – pedagogy, particularly critical writing pedagogy, aims to keep the involuntary outside its gate, like say, it has, in Julius Caesar-manner, kept dreams outside the building of critical writing. The Interpretation of Dreams must be studied for ‘critical thinking’, but the dreams that make us wake up in the middle of the night must be packed off into the ‘Creative Writing’ shelf. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is an institutionalised conspiracy to keep out the seemingly uncontrollable and the seemingly irrational from the premises of what constitutes critical thinking, a form of gatekeeping and a creation of hierarchy that has been repeated over the last half century by functionaries of the university system. How can there be critical writing without a head? University departments, too, must have a ‘Head’. (How wonderful it would be to call someone the Heart of the Department instead of its Head!)
We need to remind ourselves that this shift of power and the consequent imbalance between the creative and the critical happened because of certain forces. Up to even the nineteenth century, the creative artist was considered superior to a critic, even though the word wouldn’t have been as oft-used as it has been in the last hundred years. This owes both to linguistic and literary history. Creativity comes from the Latin term ‘creō’, ‘to create, make’. ‘Critic’ and ‘critical’ come much later, in the 1580s – ‘censorious, inclined to find fault’; the sense of ‘important or essential for determining’ is from c. 1600, originally in medicine; ‘of the nature of a crisis, in a condition of extreme doubt or danger’ is from 1660s; that of ‘involving judgment as to the truth or merit of something’ is from 1640s; that of ‘having the knowledge, ability, or discernment to pass judgment’ is from 1640s; ‘pertaining to criticism’ is from 1741.
The word ‘creative’ came into being long before ‘critical’. It was used for God who could create the world out of nothing, ex nihilo. God as creator is a cliché, but god as critic? How many times have we heard that, if at all? This might have begun with the two being slightly antithetical – to create meant something positive, to be critical implied a fault-finding temperament. The words ‘critic’ and ‘critical’ began to find life around the same time as the Humanities was acquiring a skeleton as a discipline. It was a word for a temperament and a technology that could diagnose, even self-diagnose, what was wrong with us. Because it seemed to come later chronologically – even though no creative act can be divorced from the critical: even God’s act of creating the world was an act of criticism, the exploration of the possibility of creating something that did not exist at all, was a commentary on the lack – it might seem that the creative preceded the critical. But this is only as lame as the idea of the woman being created from the body of man, a system that has been used to indict the one who came second chronologically. So, for centuries, we’ve seen the critic’s role to be slightly parasitic, dependent on the creative writer. This condescension shown towards the critic, visible, for instance, in Arnold’s words – ‘the critical power is of lower rank than the creative’ – was, at first, resisted, and then mimicked by institutionalized critics, like all discourses of power are. The spotlight and the glamour of the ‘creative writer’, a phenomenon that has done literature more disservice than good, would be punished by the ascription of ‘creative writing’ being ‘easier’ than ‘critical writing’. It was now the critic’s turn – the ‘critical’ turn, to borrow their phrase.
But how does one distinguish creative writing from critical? Students often tell me that it has to do with the use of ‘I’, with the critic’s hesitation in taking responsibility in the way the creative writer does – the responsibility of the ‘I’. The creative writer, whoever that is, does not seem to shy away from that responsibility – quite the opposite, for they rush towards the ‘I’, from where everything is known to emanate. The ‘I’ determines the form – it is the ‘I’, after all, that gives form to ‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’ in Leaves of Grass, and it is the ‘I’ that gives structure to ‘I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, …’ in Robinson Crusoe. The ‘I’ is not ‘we’, nor is it ‘you’ – the voice gives the form. Just as ‘we’ gives form – ‘We the people of India’ in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution gave the document its form; as it did to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: ‘The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Why have we kept own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. … To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves.’ The suspicion of the ‘I’ marks academic writing. The directness of ‘we’ disturbs its skin. Is the ‘I’ and ‘We’ creative or critical? Is the Indian Constitution and A Thousand Plateaus any less a creative document than it is critical?
What do the ‘I’ and ‘we’ do in Leaves of Grass, Robinson Crusoe, the Indian Constitution, and A Thousand Plateaus? The ‘I’ and ‘we’ argue. For, an argument, which is the coming of writing into existence, is not a preserve of the critical project alone. The octet in the Italian sonnet is called an ‘argument’; the nineteenth century novel often had an ‘Argument’ as short preface. As Amit Chaudhuri says in an interview, ‘Yes, writers are always in a state of argument. Writing itself is a form of argumentation. When you write something, you reject a whole range of things as part of a dialogue with yourself and your traditions.’
Almost as an extension of where the creative and the critical must live and emerge from, there is the distinction between argument and agreement, as if the former were an act of reason and agreement a function of the heart. What do they know then, how much the heart argues! There’s also the eliding of the senses in the way critical writing is imagined or tamed. In trying to show the fallacy of such a distinction, I’d like to juxtapose two texts by two writers separated as much by time as they are by genre. The first is The Five Senses by Michel Serres – the French thinker refuses to make a distinction between genres because genres work on the principle of the heightening of one sense over the others. The five senses work in us simultaneously, without one being privileged over the other, after all. The second text is a short verse from Raghavanka’s The Life of Harishchandra (Murti Classical Library, in Vanamala Viswanatha’s translation), a Kannada epic written around the 13th century. When the king refuses to marry the holatis to protect caste purity, the anamika women say this:
The ears that enjoyed every note of our music are not defiled;
the eyes that feasted on our shapely form are not defiled;
the mouth that acclaimed our art is not defiled;
the nose that smelled the fragrance of our bodies
wafted by the gentle wind is not defiled.
How is it that only our touch is defiling?
How is it that, among the five composite senses,
one is superior and the other four inferior?
Both Serres and Raghavanka, the philosopher and the poet, are saying the same thing: to not privilege one sense over the other, and, by implication, not one genre over the other. Is it possible to make a distinction between the creative and the critical here?
All writing is an argument. Our footnotes and endnotes, institutionalised by the Critical Writing bureaucracy, area record of that argument, of conversations with those who have had thoughts on the subject before us. T S Eliot, in both The Waste Land, and his essays, particularly in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “The Metaphysical Poets”, is doing exactly that: he is entering into a conversation with texts and writers who have preceded him, across time and linguistic geographies, he is using their thoughts and the language of those thoughts to further his argument. The Waste Land is as much ‘critical thinking’ as The Sacred Wood is.
It needed a child of the Renaissance to remind us that ‘no man is an island’. Where is John Donne saying these words? He is saying them in a sermon – yes, inside a church, speaking to a congregation, making an argument there. No man is an island. No text is an island either. Man comes from man, and texts from other texts. Every text is a response to some other text, whether that is done consciously or not. We have not been trained to read John Donne’s poems as argument, for we rarely see a poem beyond its aesthetic playground as critique, but notice how this line in his poem “The Good Morrow”, where the lovers wake up beside each other in the morning – ‘my eye in thine, thine in mine appears’. It is a revolutionary line in the history of love poetry in the English language. The perspective of the Petrarchan tradition is being dismantled in front of us – from looking up at the ‘beloved’, as Petrarchan lovers did in their idolatry, to two lovers, a man and a woman, who have woken up together in bed: they are at the same eye level. This is how the creative and the critical come together – organically, without self-consciousness, without pomp and show, often in a passing metaphor or wayward phrase, without the necessary apparatus of ‘I shall argue …’.
Wordsworth and Coleridge were doing the same in The Lyrical Ballads. Its Preface is an argument for the kind of poems that will follow; in the poems are an argument and restlessness for the ideals of the French Revolution to be incorporated into English poetry. The poems are their act of criticism, their protest against the ‘research gap’, writing not about kings and queens and national heroes but about the mad mother, the idiot boy, thieves and vagrants, as Wordsworth did, or about unseen and ghostly creatures like Christabel and Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner, all of these ‘to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure’.
The Modernists did that too – writing about Mrs. Dalloway and Stephen Dedalus and Paul Morel as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and D H Lawrence did – but carrying it further, into other genres. What Roland Barthes would say many decades later, about using the novelist’s voice in other forms and genres, Virginia Woolf was doing much before – inventing Mrs. Brown in one essay and Shakespeare’s sister in another. Refusing to behave like good employees of the genre they had inherited, they became trade union leaders arguing for the right to new lives of the genre. In trying to make their arguments, they used two things that the serious men of the universities have now banished from ‘critical writing’ – what they have pejoratively called the ‘anecdotal’, an ascription that owes to a nascent masculinist understanding of the world, for the woman’s style has often been condemned as anecdotal (Nietzsche’s use of autobiography as philosophy is a refutation of this, of course); the other is humour, again something feared by the serious people of the Humanities (and the State, who fear comedians more than the judiciary), who believe that Science is without humour, and the Humanities must strive for the same, thereby keeping themselves away from a tradition of satire, irony, and laughter that produced some of our best thinkers. I’m thinking of Birbal and Gopalbhar and Punch.
From Birbal and Gopalbhar and Don Quixote we know that all writing – and thinking – is a product of conversation. Two foundational texts, of two different cultures – Plato’s The Republic and the Bhagvad Gita – are structured in the form of conversation, as dialogue, as argument. Is the Gita creative or critical text? And The Republic?
The creative, the modernists remind us, is something that cannot be diminished. But can the critical be diminished? Diminishing a work to its synopsis, reducing it to its blurb, to listicles, as the culture of paraphrase now imposes on us, is to deny both the right of existence of the work itself. (If we have a blurb, why do we need to read the book?) The word I’m looking for is ‘poetic’ – it is often used to distinguish between the two. There is a history of suspicion around the use of the term – ‘serious’ critics will take offense if their writing is called ‘poetic’, equating it to ‘impressionistic’; the poet-critic will take umbrage as well, for not being deemed ‘intellectual’ enough. To make these divisions, between the creative and the critical, between poet and critic, between creative writer and scholar, and then try to bring them together, to the background sound of Humpty Dumpty (‘Could never put Humpty together again’), is a bit like the magician who saws through a human body in a box, and then, puts the severed pieces back together. The truth, as we know, is that the body was never chopped at all. It was only an illusion for us to be impressed by the magician, to validate the ticket money to ourselves. I think the analogy is true of writing – there never was a severance between the creative and the critical until one went to university and was asked to choose between the two. The trigger was commercial: separation of departments, of theorists and practitioners; power; more jobs; more students; corporatisation of writing by branding it. The subterranean energy of the Creative-Critical movement, now being reinvented and repackaged, is a corrective measure as much as it is an empowering one. Not creative or critical but creative and critical. For criticism and lyricism are not antithetical in nature.
I began with an epigraph from J C Ransom’s essay “Criticism Inc”. Ransom identifies three categories of people who could become critics: ‘the philosopher, who should know all about the function of the fine arts (but) … his theory is very general and his acquaintance with the particular works of art is not persistent and intimate, especially his acquaintance with their technical effects; ‘the university teacher of literature, who is styled professor, and who should be the very professional we need to take charge of the critical activity … but he is a greater disappointment … Professors of literature are learned but not critical men’. The third is ‘the artist himself; … but his understanding is intuitive rather than dialectical—he cannot very well explain his theory of the thing’. And yet, Ransom, like Eliot before him, writing this in 1937, chooses the practitioner: ‘It is true that literary artists, with their command of language, are better critics of their own art than are other artists; probably the best critics of poetry we can now have are the poets’. Creative-Critical, Inc., an enterprise that we see emerging today, is perhaps only a call for the rehabilitation of literature and its practitioners to literature departments, from where they were evacuated — or banished — after the ‘sociological turn’.
And now I’m not even sure whether what I have written is a creative or critical piece of writing.
‘An excerpt from this essay was first published in Los Angeles Review of Books on November 10th, 2020.’