Walter Pater, the 19th century critic, had a novel idea for criticism: it should prioritize, first and foremost, what is touching and beautiful about a work of art. To point out the shortcomings of a work is a waste of time. Of course the work is lacking. It is the job of criticism to trace out where it fulfills, and ask why.
What thou lovest well remains, said Ezra Pound, and the rest is dross. What thou lovest well cannot be reft from thee. To love well is the obligation that our love demands of us.
When asked why he drew grotesqueries, Aubrey Beardsley answered that it was because “beauty is difficult.”
Beauty is difficult. It hides, and is easily camouflaged. It can be bootlegged, hijacked, stolen and broken and sold. It is profoundly and hopelessly subjective.
But beauty is also necessary and redemptive. It is the world's only claim on our impossibly subjective, alienated existence. Beauty is complicated and often ridiculous and, where it is real, always deeply rooted.
We grow into this world divided, scattershot, fragmented and unwhole. But if we can trace out the liniments of all of those things we most and truly love, mark our affections, take the temper of our enthusiasms: we might find a pattern, and thereby discern our truest selves, unified and whole. In our affections we might trace the footprints of God.
I'm a professor of English and Humanities at City College of San Francisco. I've read, researched, written and thought about this stuff most of my life. And lived a bit of it, too.