That oughtta curl a few toes in soft academic shoes (and maybe tent a few other robes) out there. This essay extols the virtues of reading aloud in a group WITHOUT using your critical mind. This is something I struggle with (even while reading silently). I hate not being able to turn off the critical brain. But after 25 years of reading, writing, and teaching poetry, I find it very difficult. Same thing happened to me with the theatre: I can’t even go to a fun show with seeing the blocking, lighting choices, directorial interferences, actor posturing, etc. All that’s left to me is film. So if you know how they get all those people inside the flat box in my basement, please don’t tell me.
Praise isn’t a thing we literary academics tend to excel at. Weaned on the likes of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, our critical minds are wired to “problematize” not praise. Here, we are trained to say, is how this particular text is complicit in this or that insidious ideology — or, somewhat more positively, how it helps us critique an ideology, or a form of oppression or inequality. And who can blame us? We live in a country where the less affluent 50 percent of the population now possesses around 1 percent of its wealth, and each successive week seems to bring a new instance of racialized violence. Not to critique these ills, as they become visible in literary texts, would amount to self-delusion.
Yet we are left, many of us critics, with a deep-down impulse to praise, and the above formula does little to sate this need. If we are only going to “interrogate” literature (that favorite word!), why read at all, much less devote our careers to these works in spite of all the pressures, monetary and otherwise, that scream at us to stop and turn around? Critique is a fundamentally negative gesture, and as one’s default readerly mode it leads to a kind of attrition. At the end of the day we all need to eat — and praise may be the first step toward attaining sustenance, the utterance of thanksgiving before the feast. A world transfigured by praise is one worth living in — and, crucially, one worth renovating, endeavoring to reform. Praising it, we impose on ourselves a degree of humility and receptivity to others and their gifts, to nature with its superabundance of beauty and wonder that cries out to be cataloged and shared. We remind ourselves that humans can be remarkable during a time when being human is so frequently cause for shame.