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Nonetheless, as a hard-working writer and inspector of schools, he embodied “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. He was remarkable for the extent of his reading across the cultures of Europe, the depth of his perceptions, his engagement with society, and the eloquence of his expression. He felt that the poet had a special insight into the heart of a civilisation. Do any contemporary poets feel the same? Or do we now turn for this to novelists? Is it possible that we are not sure where the heart of our civilisation is? It was he, incidentally, who inaugurated with the scientist T.H. Huxley the “two cultures” debate in its modern form.

Arnold’s nearest relative in Britain in the next century was T.S. Eliot, who encapsulated the worries of a shattered Europe in images of the desert — a “handful of dust” rather than Arnold’s “naked shingles of the world”. His breadth of literary knowledge was similar to Arnold’s; some of his phrases, too, have entered the language, and he too did his best to keep aspects of the classical heritage alive in our literature. He could title an essay, without any of the irony we would read into it today, The Man of Letters and the Future of Europe.

Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948), is, not surprisingly, a dour and depressing book. It has none of the buoyancy of Culture and Anarchy, but as well as defining culture with far greater care than Arnold, Eliot makes many perceptive, mostly disillusioned points. He criticises Arnold for over-praising “intellectual ability without the more human attributes” which is “admirable only in the same way as the brilliance of a child chess prodigy”. He said that a civilisation cannot simultaneously produce great folk poetry at one level and Paradise Lost at another (proved since?); that cultural disintegration may ensue upon cultural specialisation (likewise); that culture at the upper group level breaks into fragments, each representing one cultural activity alone (indisputably so). He felt, above all, that Arnold failed in religious vision. He had already written his masterpiece, Four Quartets, charting his own semi-mystical path through the debris.

But Eliot had lost touch with the zeitgeist in the Quartets — few were and are able to follow him. George Steiner, writing In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture (1971), found himself unable to understand how Eliot could feel the way he did just after the Holocaust. For his part, he introduced us to the word Kulturpessimismus, and his views (backed up by the vast expanse of his reading and cultural reference) have had more influence on the next generation of critical writers than Eliot’s. This group, which included Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Clive James and John Berger, demonstrated brilliance, ambition, breadth of knowledge and interest, and in some cases a sparkling handling of the essay form.

Of these, instinct leads me to dwell briefly on Amis, whose subject-matter ranges from life in America to numerous writers of varied provenance and types from Cervantes to Larkin. He is so eloquent and insightful about his subjects that he often seems a better critic than novelist (though in the latter capacity he has offered scathing depictions of some of the murkier alleyways of our times).  Comments like the following in The War Against Cliché (2001) suggest what he might have become as a critic:
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Richard Biron
April 17th, 2017
10:04 PM
One name rather too quickly dismissed in this interesting piece was Terry Eagleton, whose brilliant book ‘Culture’ (published last year) wasn’t mentioned (it isn’t nearly as leftist as some of his writings): and whether you agree with his politics or not, he is a scholarly and perceptive critic.

April 4th, 2017
5:04 PM
Both Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling deserve a mention in this article. A great read.

Jerry Kavanagh
April 2nd, 2017
10:04 PM
No critic today can match the erudition, the linguistic brilliance, and the experience of John Simon.

April 2nd, 2017
11:04 AM
Wonderful article. And special credit for mentioning James Woods. Woods was the last of the independents. Just read how he was treated by the n+1 crowd (all Yale graduates) and you will quickly see that independence has been replaced by company men doing company business. We're in a tough spot in the U.S. because most 'critics' are alumni of some elite academic institution and thus only praise works that come from same institutions. When was the last time you read a real critique of a Yale or Harvard author? They won't allow it. And now they are all stuck in the feedback loop of their own praise.

Louis Torres
April 1st, 2017
6:04 PM
"Great creative [cultural] critics"? You neglected to mention Jacques Barzun. Louis Torres,Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts and Editor, A Jacques Barzun Compendium -

March 31st, 2017
10:03 PM
Western society is now post-western, having abandoned inherited standards in aesthetics, in personal, social and business morality, in manners, in language use and public discourse, in a sense of the spiritual, in its concept of the human person, in the ethics of war. Ideologues on the left and power brokers on the conservative right have legislated against the instincts of commonsense. We walk in a wasteland.

March 30th, 2017
8:03 PM
This is a fascinating topic, and such people are surely missed. The current criticism most people rely on comes from websites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes who just aggregate large numbers of opinions. There aren't enough figures who can stand out from the crowd and articulate a view.

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