The Humility of the Critic

Question: Can critical judgment decide a work’s fate?

\r\n

Gary Giddins: Well, first of all, the work is never tied to the judgment. "Moby-Dick," widely criticized. If you go back and read the reviews that Melville got in the early 1850's, these are not stupid people for the most part. They are actually put off by what they consider to be this young man's pretentiousness and daring to write a Shakespearian novel. We don't have that same problem. But it did take, what? Seventy years for "Moby-Dick" to find, as a professor from Columbia named Raymond Weaver, who started writing about it in the early '20s, right around the time they discovered the manuscript at ****. It's only since then that "Moby-Dick" has become this mammoth work in our literature.

\r\n

And everybody knows that Vincent Van Gogh couldn't sell a painting and that Thelonious Monk for many years was considered a charlatan, and Cecil Taylor was considered a charlatan and all that kind of nonsense.

\r\n

Question: Can criticism be as enduring as art?

\r\n

Gary Giddins: Very little criticism has proven to be enduring. So, it really has to be essential. I mean, Aristotle, yes. Some of his criticism is enduring. Johnson is read by English majors like me. I mean try to find an inexpensive copy of “Lives of the Poets.” It's not easy. It's not—for a long time, you couldn’t find a decent edition of Boswell's “Life of Johnson.“ 

\r\n

Matthew Arnold's criticism isn't read anymore, Eliot's is not widely read anymore. There are very few—Wilson, I think because so many of us grew up with him and find him to be an extremely important American writer, but look how many years it took for the Library of America to put out two volumes of Edmund Wilson, who founded the Library of America. It was his idea. And this was a great source of embarrassment to the editors of the Library of America, but criticism didn't sell. They put out two volumes of Henry James' criticism. Brilliant stuff. They put out Edgar Allen Poe's criticisms. Criticism is a hard sale. Most people aren't interested in reading it. 

\r\n

So, I think it's mostly critics that read classic criticism. But to my sorrow, and I've had this conversation a zillion times, even my colleagues don't read classic criticism. And my feeling is that if you don't do that then you're not really practicing your craft. That's how you learn how to do it. You don't learn how to write about jazz just from listening to jazz. You learn how to write by reading the great writers and how they worked, the great music critics.

\r\n

Now, one of the essential books that I always recommend to anybody who wants to write about, or even think about music, is Slominsky’s Dictionary of Musical Invective. It's a collection of quotes by critics over the last 250 years that are just so totally off base that they are hilarious. “No one will ever listen to Beethoven’s Third Symphony because it's 40 minutes long, and who will ever listen to a 40-minute symphony?" Beethoven’s response was to write a 90-minute symphony. But when you read those reviews in the context of their period, these are not stupid people; they're simply reflecting the tastes and the limitations of that period.

\r\n

But Slominsky’s is a book you should have on your bookshelf just to keep you humble. Humility is a very important trait in a critic.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Can criticism be as ageless as art, or is it inseparable from its time and place? Gary Giddins takes a tough look at his own profession.

Videos
  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.