Some answers

–Virgil Thomson, the composer, put it that “a good critic does not voice opinions, he describes; if his description is succinct, accurate and imaginative, the opinion will automatically shine through.” What is this (hardwired?) desire or compulsion to evaluate or be answerable, even when confronted by description?[1] Better yet, what is it that I am missing when describing and evaluating with no lapse in between?

One thing avoided is the question without an answer to evaluate. When Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet, says “the questions that I am willing to discuss are all unanswerable,” how would he know an unanswer if he saw it, let alone evaluate it as such? When poet, Dylan Thomas asks, “What is the metre of the dictionary?/The size of genesis? the short spark’s gender?/Shade without shape? the shape of the Pharaoh’s echo?,” why would any answer be wrong, even were none evaluated?

A child asks, When does the weather begin? If there is a lapse between describing and evaluating, it would be as if we are delaying completion in the sense of an answer completing a question. But what is in between incomplete and completion? “Rehearsals”? But what if it’s only ever rehearsals, as in: Weather never really starts, does it?

–The Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, wrote to a correspondent, “you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author. There’s not a single question answered in Anna Karenina or Eugene Onegin, but they are still fully satisfying works because the questions they raise are all formulated correctly.”

But what is a correctly formulated question? Answer: One that enables more answers. (smile) Tim Page, writer and critic, recorded the following conservation with John Cage, the composer:

Cage once told me of a lesson he learned from Arnold Schoenberg, who taught him counterpoint while he was still living in Los Angeles. Schoenberg kept asking for yet another answer. “Finally I said — not at all sure of myself — that there weren’t any more solutions,” Cage recalled. “He told me I was correct. Then he asked what the principle underlying all the solutions was. I couldn’t answer. This happened in 1935 and it would be at least fifteen more years before I could answer his question. Now I would answer that the underlying principle of our solutions is the question we ask.” 

This notion that better questions provoke many answers—not the same thing as writing a work that refuse to be answerable to its readers—turns out to be a good thing for a people enjoy giving small answers to perplex the Big Questions even further. “Whose asking?” shot back philosopher, Sidney Morgenbesser, when pressed to prove the existence of his questioner. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” led Morgenbesser to reply: “If there was nothing you’d still be complaining.” “Nothing is everything that doesn’t happen at this very moment,” Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, tells us; well, not exactly: “A thing is a hole in the thing it is not” (Carl Andre, artist).


[1] “The difference between desire & compulsion/Is that one is wanting, one is warding off” puts the late poet, Lucie Brock-Broido, in her The Master Letters.

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