Deconstructive Criticism

It was on just such a morning as this that Cullen first hatched his unwholesome, unconscionable, and not wholly unattractive plan. Winter days here on the Cape–with their unrelieved gray of sea and sky, damnable damp and chill, and empty pleasure domes–can inspire desperate schemes and Cullen is, by nature if not always by circumstance, a desperado.In fact, the recent dismissal of my latest novel had led me into desperation myself– psychological, matrimonial and, most regrettably, financial. Imagine, then, my reaction upon turning from my brooding, solitary, and occasionally angry flute concert for the noncommittal sea to find Cullen perched on the seawall, wrapped in a disreputable morning robe, and offering invidious commentary.

“Jean Paul Rampage, I presume?,” he sneered affably down a few yards of patrician nose rendered erose by gallons of spirits, dozens of slammed doors, and countless fists of be horned husbands, perplexed producers and avenging angels.

“Very droll, Cullen,” I replied, rather embarrassed to have had an audience for my musical over-reaching, “Surely even an amateur can attempt Bach uncritiqued here on this–until recently–solitary beach?”

“Occasionally Bach, but more Offenbach,” Cullen was unrelenting as usual, “Shouldn’t one wear a bathing suit while practicing bathos? Surely overblowing need not mean overblown? Pray continue…’Tales from the Vienna Sausage’, perhaps. Or maybe ‘Eine Kleine Nicht Music’?

I shifted my bulk uncomfortably. “What can I do but practice, Cullen?”

“What, indeed? Practice should make one, I believe, perfect–not perverse,” Cullen surveyed me like a headmaster, probing my frayed garment of feigned indifference. “I can only point out that, by subtle mannerisms of which you are totally unconscious (though they are glaringly obvious to me) that my analysis of your Euterpian endeavors has unsettled your spirits and made you defensive.”

“Good defenses make good neighbors,” I grumbled, wistfully envisioning the beach between my cabin and Cullen’s ringed with concertina wire. “Especially when the neighbors are offensive.”

“Only if one takes offense,” Cullen clipped out in his best angular, Anglish manner, “Actually, old chub, your performance was quite adequate considering you are an amateur restricting your airs to a lonely stand of sand. But that is totally beside the point.”

The idea that Cullen might have a point to grind gave me a moment of queasy dread. After seven years of seasonal neighborship with the cadaverous madman, I had learned a healthy aversion for the gambits spawned in that thatched skull. And try to keep them from intruding into my own humbler, if handsomer, head. No doubt some dire game was afoot–Cullen was almost sparkling as he perched there, his predator’s eyes alight. As I usually find his play fairly banal, I ostentatiously refrained from asking the intricacies of his latest idiosyncrasy. A feeble omission–the subject had already, in some way, been broached.

“The point,” Cullen blandly continued, “Is that my unsolicited comments did little to illumine. Nor to clarify, expand, expound, explicate, or express. I have done nothing for the arts, nor the scholars, nor the listeners, nor even what little might have been done for the music itself. Yet I have made you feel bad. Perhaps adversely affecting your next performance, due to your doubtless decrease in self-confidence.”

“Only on the unhappy chance that you might be around to hear me.”

“Granted, my concern would diminish if sheer proximity were not forcing me to listen,” Cullen admitted, “But my point is that I, as an artist, think that you, as an artist, are reacting incorrectly to the way others react to your reactions to the world. In short, you have a crippling attitude towards criticism.”

“Cullen, I have a crippling attitude towards critics. It is easy for you, doing your show business folderol. I have to live with–and worse, by–the opinions of those vultures. Cripple them all, I say. Let them read my books in traction, try to type with steel hooks, fumble for their programs with plaster appendages, take weeks hobbling back to their dens of slander after each performance. Break them on the wheel. Crush their perfidious fingers.”

“You could do with a more constructive attitude,” Cullen counseled.

I was getting uneasy about the direction Cullen might be taking but, in a moment of temporary instability, decided to further clear up my attitudes anent the critical structure, academics, culture vultures, reviewers, pedants and pundits.

“Cullen”, I began, packing up my flute and shifting my short but ample frame into a more serious lecturing position, “Those who dabble in the art and science of writing without actual talent are like young boys who, without having the skills to compete, make detailed study of athletic endeavors; memorizing the numbers of points, the dreary statistics, the weights and heights and salaries of hundreds of athletes and even endowing stadiums full of hulking young thugs–all without being able to run five yards without cardiac infarctions. Such individuals are capable of plausible rhetoric, but not comprehension. They ‘interpret’, thus stealing the meat from between the jaws of talent. Those who actually CAN write and turn to anything as venomous as criticism are leeches–a plague of blood-sucking parasites, non-living and non-productive, who exist by absorbing the living material upon which they obscenely feed. This lack of divine substance is reflected in their lives with are, without exception, sterile and decadent. Trapped in a void of creative spirit, they hack up the works of genuine artists, whom they hate and fear, worship and despise. They try to cut us down to their own pitiful size so they can eat us.”

I paused for breath, “I hope that makes my position clear.” Cullen sat motionless, fixing me with his steely eye.

I coughed. “Other positions are available, of course.” I was searching my memory for any notice that Cullen had ever gained from the activity I had just denounced. He continued his baleful gaze.

Then, “Right,” he clipped out, “A great many of our colleagues would endorse, even expand on, those sentiments. Some might deal in some way with critics whose reviews are favorable, but I think most would respond as you have, many with comparable bombast and fervor. Now think, my boyo.”

Being told to think by Cullen generally meant being ordered to absorb his own twist of logic, so I steeled myself to resist. “Have you ever given any thought to this theory of criticism, itself placed before by a critic?”

He was standing now, pacing in front of me, his tattered cloak swirling around him like leaves in a storm. “The idea that critics are actually the culmination of the creative act, the method by which or various efforts are measured, the priests that justify our ways to the voracious public, without which they would never comprehend the workings of gifted old heads such as our own? Gad, stop gagging, man! Short, stout, complacent men are rendered hideous by such displays.”

“Cullen!” I frothed, “Critics are perverts, thieves, assassins and rapists! They seize the living flesh of our creations, set them upon the sterile soil of their own arid imaginations, and starve them out of existence. If I were God almighty and had just created the firmament and land, had made seas to roll by cliffs of darkness, a critic would not approve, but use this to make insights into my character. They would find that a sea is not a sea at all, just so poorly done it looks like a sea instead of something much better they would have done if they’d felt it worth the bother. They thwart us like the villains who once reared freak babies in bottles for the sideshow.”

“But what about the adventure, man?” Cullen swooped over and grabbed my shoulder, “What about the suspense? Don’t you enjoy the thrill of waiting until after publication to find out what you really said and thought and did?”

“Cullen, I know what I said beforehand, or at least what my agent and publisher decided I’d said.”

Cullen seated himself again, staring around himself like Lear, “We have an impasse here,” he growled darkly, “The critics insist they are vital, the artists are equally adamant that they are defilers. It seems that there is no hope for reconciliation–too much animosity and intransigence. But we must eliminate this schism.”

From the word “schism” my mind flew to “schizoid” then to “schizophrenia”, then to the recollection that Cullen’s past included dallyings in psychology–either as an inmate or an analyst or something of that general stripe. Thus I assumed that there lingered in the back of his jackanapes mind some sort of therapeutic approach to this problem. How wrong I was. Blithely assuming that I would be delivered a sermon on arcane mental theories, I laid my head on the block. “What would you propose towards that end, good Cullen?”

“Well,” the axe whistled down, “I should think that the answer is to kill them all.”

When I had regained some sort of composure he continued, oblivious to the half-hour of logic I had babbled at him. “There is no hope for reforming them, correct?” That part, at least sounded reasonable.

“We can’t very well amend the artists, now can we?” That, too, seemed as close to lucidity the man ever cared to tread. “And the critics would sooner die than relinquish their avocations–the more so since they are also their vocations. The sensible thing to is to put the whole lot out of our misery.”

Such would Cullen use the word “sensible”. Somehow, as always, I gave him my halfhearted assent. As always, I would play along with him. And he would play me along. Curiosity has killed wiser cats than I and, I must admit, a quick scan over a stack of reviews on my desk did much to persuade me to at least “look into” Cullen’s plan.

In fact, in turned out that said plan was already well underway. I had known for some time of the huge convention that would bring together in one room in Manhattan virtually every major drama and literary critic unworthy of the name. Cullen’s scheme had been hatched upon learning of it and his preparations, as I was soon to find, were already well under way and characteristically immaculate. We motored (the way one moves in a Jaguar Saloon like Cullen’s) out to a remote camp in the woods to join a group of equally miffed writers, the cadre of Cullen’s crusade to rid our lives of criticism.

Squads had been designated, helicopters hired, blueprints analyzed, tasks deployed, communications established. We comrades-in-arms were outfitted with Cullen’s Hollywood tastes in weaponry–Israeli submachine guns, Swedish assault rifles, black-bladed knives, nattily tailored camouflage jump suits. I had never before taken that term so literally as to imagine actually jumping–much less out of aircraft–but soon learned better than to put it past myself or the infectious mood at Camp Cullen. Not that it was easy to infect a middle-aged dumpling like myself. I felt like a guerrilla in the mist and told Cullen as much.

“Terror incognita, eh?” he breezily replied. “Nothing to it. We merely tap the innate human instincts for aggression and regression. And what is art, after all, but a fusion of the two?”

So I remained to be swept up in the ambience of arms and man. I found myself synchronizing watches, Karate-chopping defenseless boards, firing silenced machine pistols, and applying burnt cork facials with the rest of the civilized malcontents. A few purists questioned the need for the cork and jungle camouflage when assaulting a target in Manhattan, but such was our mood by then that we shouted them down, tearing off our headbands to cheer when Cullen insisted. “It’s true our mission is urban,” he told us, looking very urbane himself in spiffy cammies and cocked beret,” But there is no substitute for proper costume. Production values are vital to the √©lan of any production.”

We were with him to a man, sweeping through weeks of marksmanship, pushups, obstacle courses, and underwater demolition. Cullen was everywhere, beaming inspiration among us and polishing the slightest detail. Struggling at strangling a dummy with a length of piano wire, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“I find the E below middle C the most satisfactory,” Cullen chirped, “Though some prefer a higher, more supple string, there is the risk of it breaking in the field. I think mind the wisest choice.”

Thus Cullen and his wisdom. But admittedly, we progressed under it. Soon we were sailing through the strenuous militarism with the sweaty, causal snap of a Broadway rehearsal. The show was coming together as we learned our moves, our lines, and our motivations. From a collection of motley emotion-mongers, we were emerging a hard corps of killers. Everywhere was displayed the determined development of clench-toothed snarls, sudden jubilation in spewing out great hails of bullets, revelations of hidden talents for athletic mayhem. Cullen glowed. We perspired.

I actually became so caught up in our road company blitzkrieg that I hardly noticed the calendar’s steady progress towards what Cullen termed “D-Day”, which we cheerfully interpreted as signifying D-ranged. But with only two more days to go, (more punctiliously, at what he termed “H-Hour minus 48”) Cullen ceased the training and declared us a fit and fatale as we would ever be. Certainly as we would ever be again. From that point on, we concentrated entirely on the details of our actual penetration into, revision of, and withdrawal from the convocation of contumely.

The plan itself, amazingly enough, was quite workmanlike and simple–though inevitably complicated by the those doubtfully necessary quidities of rendezvous, radio contacts, rappelling teams and synchronized movements that Cullen so enjoys. We would embark in helicopters from an airport in suburban New Jersey of all places, land on the convention center roof, slip through the building’s negligible security, enter the balconies above the awards ceremony, mow the malefactors down in windrows, then swiftly leave through the kitchen halls and elevator. Clean, surgical, and effective.

Still, I’d known others of Cullen’s plans and by the time we’d finally assembled on the D-signated day, I was feeling apprehensive. Being surrounded by uniformly dressed fellow authors–and Cullen, naturally, togged up to the M Minute–calmed me somewhat, but as we boarded the helicopter (and more so as it lifted off the ground) I found my anxiety heightening correspondingly. By the time we were chopping over the City skyline like a tropical disturbance my heart was tripping a fandango and my face growing red and bulging. My comrades-in-arms rather enjoyed this effect, expressing trust that it was victory I was flushed with and terming my colorful condition “Apoplexy Now”.

I was far from soothed when Cullen stood up by the gaping door and, struck a caesarian pose, and broke a grim grin to announce, “Break a leg.”

Martial to a man, the vengeful chorus responded with a shout of, “If not a neck!” Then the helicopter touched down and we were out and about it.

Once off the roof, everything fell into the surreal but oddly comforting rhythms of a dream one has had before. We proceeded down stairwells and through tunnels, all in the odd hup-hup place-switching associated with SWAT teams on television. There was no untoward incident, no shock of discovery: we all reached our posts in good order, confirmed by our synchronized chronometers.

At that point it was obvious just how ubiquitous were Cullen’s leadership and attention to detail. It had fallen on me to enter through the kitchen, thus eliminating that egress and incidentally insuring that none of the help made an uncued entrance during our final act. I had barely tasted a slab of pate with caper sauce, filched of a plate intended for the unappreciative maw of a critic, when Cullen popped up in front of me like a camouflaged Punch to flick a drop of sauce off my tunic and tap my stomach with an admonitory finger.

“The coup de foie gras, eh?” he admonished, “Armies may travel on their stomachs–but, like wines, some stomachs travel better than others.”

He strode towards the ballroom doors, but spun in a commanding commando pose to say, “At any rate, from what I hear of the chefs in this house, you’d be better to avoid mixtures and sauces and stay with fresh, simple ingredients.”

The chefs glared daggers, if not cleavers, at his back. I shrugged to show that I didn’t necessarily share the opinions of the top command (also that I was holding a machine gun). Then he was off to see his wizardry, leaving me to herd the scullery help into the walk-in cooler and guard the door against those attempting early exits.

Part of the genius of Cullen’s scenario was an emphasis on mowing the critics down in the doorways and it was extremely gratifying to think of them bolting for the exits as hastily as they ever claimed to at a premiere, only to find the portals choked with the bodies of their fellow vermin, forcing them to clamber over the mounting piles of carrion or turn back into a withering rain of lead. I would have liked to watch it all from the gallery, perhaps with a few cries of “Bravo!” and “Author!” but my post in the kitchen prevented my witnessing a scene I have since heard recounted with relish by several masters of anecdote. We also serve who only stand with the waiters.

As it turned out, a surprising number ignored the marked exits (let alone the “Employees Only” signs) and tried to escape in my direction. My first kill might have given me qualms, had it not happened to be a particularly porcine columnist for the literary supplement whose mastication of my latest opus I could quote you verbatim had I the stomach for it. I can only pray that the swine regretted his choice of both words and orientation as I gunned him down in his Guccis; I remain unrepentant. I found myself explaining, as I cross-hatched black and white tuxedos with almost Japanese patterns of tiny red explosions, that one has to do what one has to do. And therefore to come on, and make one’s day.

It was all over very fast (the salient purpose, I suppose, of rapid fire weaponry). I had no sooner dispatched my final foe to that ultimate critique that awaits us all (and nicked some cunningly frosted truffles from an abandoned dessert cart) than I heard Cullen’s code knock at the locked fire door and opened to admit him and the cheery sight of a convention hall reduced to charnel house.

“Ah,” he beamed, “The roar of the grease gun, the smell of the crowd.”

The rest of the players were exuenting through the door, flushed with accomplishment and bonhomie. As we trooped through the kitchen and out the service hall, I lagged behind a second to let the cooks and waiter off ice and nab a slab of baked Alaska I couldn’t help but notice earlier.

As we stepped into the alley outside, the excruciatingly synchronized bus, its signs suggesting that it carried extras for “Miss Saigon”, pulled up and we filed aboard and were gone. Not without much cheering, slapping of backs, and singing of good fellows and happy days redux. It was all over, including the shooting, and the bus was stocked with a more than adequate buffet and far, far more than the traditional ninety nine bottles of beer. Our acclaim for Cullen knew little restraint; our thirsts and appetites none at all. How many armed uprisings have rid themselves of oppression in a single action?

But, despite Cullen’s magnificent conception–the entire idea spangled with breathtaking originality and sewn with surprise, the execution precise and painstaking, the esprit de corpse of our associates crisp and uncompromised–one of those infuriating opening-night flaws cropped up. An UZI projectile (“slug” in the parlance of the work itself) had only grazed the head of a mealy-mouthed sycophant from the “Times”, though it produced a great deal of blood and an extremely deathlike appearance. He evidently (as reconstructed from his later report) fell into a mass of palm foliage and thus eluded the attention of those delivering the coup de grace. He was found alive and revived.

Thus it was, as though some stern Hellenic fate had conspired against us, that I was confronted, while sprawled fashionably in Cullen’s capacious study for a shrimp and cheese brunch with champagne and “the papers”, with a review of ruthlessly abusive style that exposed the particulars of our raid and analyzed its failure. Never mind that we had done for all but one of our tormentors, the verdict was icy and all-encompassing. The accidental sparing of one reviewer’s life was seized upon as a symbolic portrayal of the poverty of the general experience, taste, virtuosity and even conviction on the part of the anonymous authors of the whole fiasco. “After all,” the review augered on, “Freud has made clear the nature of what we call accidents.”

As I read I was inundated by the brute, obvious truth that had eluded me in the sweep of Cullen’s enthusiasm and mania; a classic example of conservation of dementia. We had changed nothing and never could. Nature abhors even so felicitous a vacuum as a dearth of pundits and pedants. Of course there would already be a rush to promote to full tenure the critical faculties of copy boys, coffee girls, janitors, and toilet-sweepers. Already the scum would be rising in whatever reservoir of rabble the journalists dredge to recruit their numbers. Hadn’t much of the problem been that critics need no other qualifications than their own opinions, the cheapest coin available in the intellectual market?

I instantly saw that there would be more criticism and “dialogue” over our attack, discussions increasingly knowing because the writers were not contaminated by any first hand experience. Our techniques would be dissected by experts who had no more seen a firearm than film reviewers have ever seen a camera or boom mike. There would be some rebutting and head butting as the new-fledged parasites jockeyed for position in the derogatory derby, but very little controversy–one can hardly expect murdering critics as an artistic statement to draw many rave reviews. Eventually they would settle back into their ruts, pouring scorn on more conventional works. Even my flickering hope that our raid might serve as a deterrent to the new degeneration of vipers flickered out as I asked myself why anyone would fear for a life devoted to savaging and scavenging the dreams and pleasures of others. With a shudder of dread, I passed the review over to Cullen, who had been pursing his lips over some obscure ranting in the financial section.

His eyes burned with the cold blue flame of hell as he read, his cheeks flushing, his knuckles white. Finally he laid the paper aside, first carefully folding it, and rose. I quaked to think of what he might engender. “I suppose I have no choice in what I must do now,” he said through rigid jaws.

“And pray, what would that be, gentle Cullen?” I asked, surrendering myself to some ghastly denouement.

“A bit obvious, isn’t it?” Cullen intoned,. “I’m canceling my subscription immediately and writing the editor what I suspect will be a fairly percussive open letter.”

Back To Writing Samples Index