Is the Critic a Parasite? On A. O. Scott’s ‘Better Living Through Criticism’

“Our drive to create originates in — and compensates for — a primal feeling of alienation, of lostness in the universe and confusion about our identity,” New York Times film critic A. O. Scott writes in Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. If the title here implies self-help (and it wouldn’t be the first such book inspired by Rilke’s final injunction in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”), the tone of the above suggests pop psychoanalysis. Scott goes on: “Frequently aligned with that sense of our original inadequacy is, somewhat paradoxically, a perception of our subsequent decline.”

Of course, this idea — that we’re spurred to create art or write criticism by way of our subconscious lacks and remainders, as well as our historical belatedness — will ring familiar to anyone who has read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, which is, at the end of the day, a far stranger book than Scott’s, but one whose central themes are marked here on nearly every page. Literary and philosophical Romanticism, the antitheses and deep likenesses of art and criticism, Emersonian individualism, the appeals to an inner (and, in Scott’s case, better) self: all of these are in both books. Still, if Bloom’s writing has the gross but not always un-charming appeal of a wine-greased, hot-tub lothario, Scott aims more for the “cool but not serene dad” or “with-it youngish professor.” Or, the New York Times movie critic.

It’s probably too obvious to mention, but Scott’s longtime stint as a critic for the Times does animate most of the book’s moving parts, of which there are probably too many. At its worst, Better Living skitters on the surface of “debates” about criticism that appear to have been generated in an online comments section, and Scott often writes as if he seeks to recondition an angsty online troll. And he admits as much; it takes only a couple of pages before he brings up his hilarious feud with Samuel L. Jackson, who called for his job after he gave a mixed review to The Avengers. This is to say that Scott’s “primal feeling of alienation,” the impetus behind his writing and critical art, is less a matter of an anxiety of influence about great art and criticism of the past, and more a Bloomian swerve against the frustrations (and joys) of being a weekly critic for a major newspaper.

To this end, the book is threaded with a series of dialogues with an imaginary interlocutor, a sub-literary “character” that Scott has invented in order to negotiate his loneliness as a critic. If I had to guess at the identity of “Q” — the name given to this character, who speaks with Scott’s “A” — I’d say he’s probably a college freshman, and the resulting vibe of these sections is of an intro class (taught by Scott) wherein insurmountably huge themes are met with Socratic coolness and pop-culture savvy. Their titles give them away — “What is Criticism? (A Preliminary Dialogue); “Self-Criticism (A Further Dialogue)”; “Practical Criticism (Another Dialogue)”; “The End of Criticism (A Final Dialogue)” — and I would almost have preferred to excise them altogether, creating a more pamphlet-like book out of the much stronger, extended essays.

It’s in these essays where Scott finds his better, inner critic, and he mostly does so by combining a sincere erudition, one that undergirds his film criticism but is constrained by its incidental populism, and a worldliness that obviously comes from working hard at his job. In essays like “The Trouble With Critics” and “The Critical Condition” (by far, I think, the best of the lot), he breathes the struggles of criticism into the reader. Instead of repackaging the isolationism of academia or the glibness of online writing, he acknowledges the paralysis that criticism both causes and promises to resolve:

This state of wondering paralysis cries out for criticism, which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as a gatekeeper to our besieged sensoria. There is only so much time, so much money, so much cognitive space, and we might require some help in using it wisely. The irony is that criticism produces its own surpluses, reproducing itself in such rapid profusion as to seem more like a cultural waste product than a vital nutrient, adding to the disorder it is supposed to clear up.

Elsewhere, Scott more than once extols art’s power to “free our minds” — in a book that is basically a confession of loneliness about his job, he even describes this freeing power as the “job” of art. Once that job is done (it’s never done), he explains, it’s the role of the critic (everyone) to “figure out what to do with that freedom.” If this is true, criticism is very much a form of parasitism, an art that feeds on the original energy of great novels, films, and performances. The critic is a parasite.

But Better Living Through Criticism is paradoxically squared against this claim. In a passage on George Steiner’s Real Presences, a contentious work of theo-criticism, Scott finds an opponent in the writer who argues that “criticism is a pernicious, parasitic growth on the mighty trunk of human creativity.” On the contrary, Scott writes that “criticism, far from being a minor, petty, secondary art, is in fact larger than the others. There is more of it, its scope is wider, its methods more eclectic than any of its rivals. It encompasses all of them, and compels them all to serve its needs. It is not parasitic, but primary.”

I’ll admit that something about Scott’s paradox of the critic bothers me. If the critic’s job is to help figure out what to do with the freedom engendered by art, he would seem to be secondary, more limited, parasitic. Is this such a terrible thing? Maybe the loneliness of the American critic stems from his obsession with freeing minds, which quickly become isolated monads.

Perhaps we should instead admit that the critic is a parasite, and then we could acknowledge that he plays an indispensable role in his ecosystem by translating, feeding, and, yes, producing waste. After all, as Michel Serres reminds us in The Parasite, a great work of philosophical criticism, the original, pre-biological meaning of the word parasite is “one who eats at the table of another.” The critic and the artist eating together, untroubled by their freedoms. What’s so lonely about that?