Skip to content

HL Mencken on critic as catalyst

I propose the substitution [in Joel Springarn’s phrase “Creative Criticism”*] of “catalytic” for “creative,” despite the fact that “catalytic” is an unfamiliar word, and suggests the dog-Latin of the seminaries.

I borrow it from chemistry, and its meaning is really quite simple. A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps too other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism.

But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

H. L. MenckenCriticism of Criticism of Criticism

*Joel Springarn isn’t mentioned in Wikipedia’s entry on New Criticism, despite his 1910 lecture, The New Criticism, seemingly coining the phrase and setting out an early version of the movement’s principles.

1 thought on “HL Mencken on critic as catalyst”

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...