Judgements on Authors

When reading the work of others, and considering reviews of your own work, distinguish between opinion and echo.

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In endeavouring to estimate a remarkable writer who aimed at more than temporary influence, we have first to consider: What was their individual contribution to the spiritual wealth of mankind? Had they a new conception? Did they animate long-known but neglected truths with new vigour, and cast fresh light on their relation to other admitted truths? Did they impregnate any ideas with a fresh store of emotion, and in this way enlarge the area of moral sentiment? Did they, by a wise emphasis here and a wise disregard there, give a more useful or beautiful proportion to aims or motives? And even where their thinking was most mixed with the sort of mistake which is obvious to the majority, as well as that which can only be discerned by the instructed, or made manifest by the progress of things, has it that salt of a noble enthusiasm which should rebuke our critical discrimination of its correctness is inspired with a less admirable habit of being?

This is not the common or easy course to take in estimating a modern writer. It requires considerable knowledge of that they have themselves done, as well as of what others have done before them, or what they were doing contemporaneously; it requires deliberate reflection as to the degree in which our own prejudices may hinder us from appreciating the intellectual or moral bearing of what on first view offends us. An easier course is to notice some salient mistakes, and take them as decisive of the writer’s incompetence; or to find out that something apparently much the same as what they have said in some connection not clearly ascertained had been said by somebody else, though without great effort, until this new effect of discrediting the other’s originality had shown itself as an adequate final cause; or to pronounce from the point of view of individual taste that this writer for whom regard is claimed is repulsive, wearisome, not to be borne except by those dull persons who are of a different opinion.

Elder writers who have passed into classics were doubtless treated in this easy way when they were still under the misfortune of being recent—nay, are still dismissed with the same rapidity of judgement by daring ignorance. But people who think that they have a reputation to lose in the matter of knowledge have looked into encyclopaedias and histories of philosophy or literature, and possessed themselves of the duly balanced epithets concerning the immortals. They are not left to their own unguided rashness, or their own unguided pusillanimity. And it is this sheeplike flock who have no direct impressions, no spontaneous delight, no genuine objection or self-confessed neutrality in relation to the writers become classic—it is these who are incapable of passing a genuine judgement on the living. Necessarily. The susceptibility they have kept active is a susceptibility to their own reputation for passing the right judgement, not the susceptibility to qualities in the object of judgement. Who learns to discriminate shades of colour by considering what is expected of them? The habit of expressing borrowed judgements stupefies the sensibilities, which are the only foundation of genuine judgements, just as the constant reading and retelling of results from others’ observations through the microscope, without ever looking through the lens one’s self, is an instruction in some truths and some prejudices, but is no instruction in observant susceptibility; on the contrary, it breeds a habit of inward seeing according to verbal statement, which dulls the power of outward seeing according to visual evidence.

On this subject, as on so many others, it is difficult to strike the balance between the educational needs of passivity or receptivity, and independent selection. We should learn nothing without the tendency to implicit acceptance; but there must clearly be a limit to such mental submission, else we should come to a standstill. The human mind would be no better than a dried specimen, representing an unchangeable type. When the assimilation of new matter ceases, decay must begin. In a reasoned self-restraining deference there is as much energy as in rebellion; but among the less capable, one must admit that the superior energy is on the side of the rebels. And certainly one who dares to say that they find an eminent classic feeble here, extravagant there, and in general overrated, may chance to give an opinion which has some genuine discrimination in it concerning a new work or a living thinker—an opinion such as can hardly ever be got from the reputed judge who is a correct echo of the most approved phrases concerning those who have been already canonised.

Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), known as George Eliot, was an author and poet. She was best known for her novels including Middlemarch.

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