Neil Marshall

 

THE VETERAN CRITIC

MARSHALL'S SHORT PIECE sums up Greenberg the omnivorous critic. He judged everything, always, and with unique candor. The observations about his manners (and their lapses, sometimes appalling) is revealing. Greenberg once remarked that he'd recently been reading Emily Post, and throughout his life he insisted on protocols -- in restaurants, for example, he'd inevitably take charge of seating: boy girl boy girl -- just as he corrected grammar and usage.

-- TF

ON VETERAN'S DAY it makes sense to remember those who fought in all sorts of battles, including the Art Wars, and to consider the idea of the veteran also, someone who fought bravely, showed great courage, and learned to live with all the wounds suffered in combat. Immediately the great critic Clement Greenberg, as much as certain artists, comes to mind. He lived an impossible life, excelling in a difficult, obscure, and inane literary genre that has only rarely been understood in certain times and places that have yet to include North America. He outlived almost all of his contemporaries, drinking every one of them under the table, and smoking to the end. All art is a flirtation with insanity. The mode of flirtation is irrelevant. When Clem lay dying in the hospital, in a private room, a middle aged woman who paints landscapes slipped through security with a hammer and a nail in her purse, and one of her paintings tucked under her arm. Choosing her moment carefully when he would be alone, she rushed into the room, whipped out the hammer, drove the nail into the wall facing his bed, hung the painting, and asked him what he thought of it. As this story was related to me, he said it wasn't bad. Apocryphal though such cases of Clementia may be, this has the ring of truth. He never shied away from making a value judgment. Partly because of his reading, Kant particularly, but also from his own experience he knew, too well perhaps, how judgments are immediate, and how little we consciously have to do with their instant formation. Also it was part of his combativeness, part of the decision "to be somebody" as he put it, that made him so engaged. T.S.Eliot was his most important formative influence, and he got away with as much as he did by assuming a literary persona in the manner of Eliot. When he chose to deploy them his manners were exquisite, and I often wonder how much of this too derived from Eliot, in addition of course to his own background (read for example Virginia Woolf's account of having tea with Eliot, and you get some sense of what I mean, or Edmund Wilson's description of taking Eliot to dinner; as for Wilson's influence too little has been made). He was good too at the inversion of manners, which is to say deliberate rudeness, the performance of calculated embarrassments and humiliations being a particular specialty. The devastating portrait painted in Florence Rubenfeld's biography has yet to be factually refuted, and this is where his hagiographers, as few as there are, do him a disservice. Vastly complex to the point of being a total mess, and sensitive to the point of brutality were all part of the mix bound together by total sincerity. His essay "Feeling Is All" pretty well sums up his conviction that the unguarded display of emotion that esthetic judgment demands simply goes with the territory, regardless of consequences. The astonishing drug abuse detailed in the Rubenfeld biography near the end of his life has yet to be publicly denied but I personally know of no one who believes it. Some of this or that usually socially if it was going around, would probably be more accurate, and in any case we need to get rid of the prudery on such matters. The drug and alcohol abuse had consequences and they are part of the picture, but this takes nothing away from his achievement. Remembering is not an isolated thing. It is a drawing in of the past and making it a part of our moment. While it involves evaluation, remembering in itself implicitly valorizes. I always enjoyed talking with Clem and look forward to visiting him again sometime soon.

-- Nov 11, 2000. 
© Copyright 2000, Neil Marshall. Any reproduction in whole or in part is strictly prohibited
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