Critical Mess

In my capacity as a theater critic, I every so often pounce on innocent writers and directors, and demand that they "produce works of `originality.'" At the same time, as a writer, I labor under a constant suspicion that whatever I write has been written before - by somebody else, or by myself (memory is not what it used to be).

That unoriginal dilemma haunted me until I stumbled, by accident really, on a short essay entitled "Dreams," penned by Jerome K. Jerome, who is best known for his novel "Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of a dog)" (1889) and its sequel "Three Men on the Bummel" (1900). Yes, Jerome (1859-1927), who praised idleness and raised it to an art form (he was the editor of "The Idler" and published two collections of essays entitled "Idle (and further) thoughts of an Idle fellow") was a very industrious writer, with several novels, plays and innumerable essays to his name.

Anyway, "Dreams" starts with a dream: "The most extraordinary dream I ever had was one in which I fancied that, as I was going into a theater, the cloakroom attendant stopped me in the lobby and insisted on my leaving my legs behind me." It turns out that "people complained that they could not get to and from their seats comfortably, because other people's legs were always in the way," and that is something I do encounter in my night job as a theater critic.

But Jerome's raconteur (and a marvelous and charming and funny storyteller he is) rambles on, until he reaches that rather original conclusion that "The human mind can no more produce an original thought than a tree can bear an original fruit."

That statement is illustrated by a personal experience: He was once inspired by the Beauty of Nature, and as he had always thought of himself as someone who had worked for the ordinary, everyday reader - decided that he ought to do something to improve the literature of his beloved country. He wrote an essay, and was so proud of his achievement that he showed it to a critic friend of his. To his considerable surprise, the critic praised his knowledge of classical writers, and offered to point out whom he was quoting for each of his ideas - until then presumed by him to be the height of originality.

The narrator declines the offer. "I said I would take his word for it, and would rather not see the passages referred to. I felt indignant. `If,' as I said, `these men - these Platos and Socrateses and Ciceros and Sophocleses and Aristophaneses and Aristotles and the rest of them had been taking advantage of my absence to go about the world spoiling my business for me, I would rather not hear any more about them.' And I put on my hat and went out, and I have never tried to write anything original since."

He goes on to recount another dream: "I dreamed a dream once. (It is the sort of thing a man would dream. You cannot very well dream anything else, I know. But the phrase sounds poetical and biblical, and so I use it.) I dreamed that I was in a strange country - indeed, one might say an extraordinary country. It was ruled entirely by critics."

These critics were rather severe to their fellow artists-countrymen. Citing originality as their main criterion, they advised all artists, in whatever field, not to waste their (and the critics) time. And therefore the writers turned to hoeing potatoes; the painters turned to painting houses. "One man had written a play. I asked what the critics had said about him. They showed me his tomb."

As the number of artists sharply diminished, the inhabitants of the country came up with the idea that the critics - who were in danger of becoming jobless - should pass judgment on them. And the critics stood up to the task, eagerly. "So, when a man built a house, or a farmyard hen laid an egg, the critics were asked in to comment on it. They found that none of the houses were original ... they criticized the birds for their hackneyed style of singing, and the flowers for their hackneyed scents and colors. They complained of the weather that it lacked originality - (true, they had not lived out an English spring) - and found fault with the Sun because of the sameness of his methods. They criticized the babies."

And that proved to be their undoing: "`Oh! Look here, we've had enough of you and your originality' said the people to the critics, after that. `Why, - you - are not original, when one comes to think of it, and your criticisms are not original. You've all been saying exactly the same thing ever since the time of Solomon. We are going to drown you and have a little peace.'

"`What, drown a critic!' cried the critics. `Never heard of such a monstrous proceeding in our lives!'

`No, we flatter ourselves it is an original idea,' replied the public, brutally. `You ought to be charmed with it. Out you come!'

So they took the critics out and drowned them, and then passed a short act, making criticism a capital offense."

And before coming back to his original dream, the one about the legs in the theater, the narrator sums up. "After that, the art and literature of the country followed, somewhat, the methods of the quaint and curious school, but the land, notwithstanding, was a much more cheerful place to live in, I dreamed."

And by the way, Jerome's dream about "The Critics," written in 1889 and first published in The Illustrated London News was translated into Hebrew in 1914 by my grandfather, Israel Elyahu Handelzalts. He could not have imagined then that one day, his grandson would become a fairly unoriginal critic.