The Mental Kitchen

W.H. Auden – Harper’s Magazine

Excerpts from a piece that appeared in the Readings section of Harper’s in Dec. 2007.
Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first a real ove of works of art, and inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is requires; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection ins always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their own prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.
The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enought to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it…
… In the course of many centuries a few labor-saving devices have been introduced into the mental kitchen — alcohol, coffee, tobacco, Benzedrine, etc. — but these mechanisms are very crude, liable to affect the health of the cook, and constantly breaking down. Artistic composition in the twentieth century A.D. is pretty much the same as it was in the twentieth century B.C.: nearly everything has still to be done by hand…
… Propaganda is the use of magic by those who no longer believe in it against those who still do.

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