Master of Critique

“It is told of Sigismund, King of Rome, that when someone pointed out a grammatical mistake he had made in a speech, he answered, ‘I am King of Rome, and above all grammar.’ And he went down in history as Sigismund super-grammaticam. A marvelous symbol! Every man who knows how to say what he has to say is, in his way, King of Rome. The title is royal and the reason for it is imperial.” 

Fernando Pesoa, The Book of Disquiet

My middle school literature teacher had a very particular voice, raspy, and nasally which I can still hear clearly. It always quivered as it struck with memorable gravity upon one of her many well-worded insights, like the wobbling arrow as it meets its perfection in the bullseye. She was incredibly keen, and incredibly wise. It was her voice that was the first I remember employing as an in-house proofreader and critic. When I was editing something I’d written, testing its depths and beating it senseless, I read with her voice in my head. When it sounded natural, when the right words were rightly emphasized in her tone, I knew I was getting somewhere.

It’s an important role to give someone, the disembodied orator who drifts in the forehead, to assign a master of critique. I sometimes imagine a little figure, a safety inspector knocking on a line of words like potentially precarious pillars. Other times it’s a swirling, quivering scarf of water, as if a masterful force were trying to press a puddle of words into a vigorous, emphatic jet. Other times it’s a teacher, a friend, voices of insight visiting from abroad. We probably all have a troupe of editors who enter when we must critique ourselves—mentor, teacher, parent, friend. Someone who can pronounce our triumphs with pith and pride, declare our pillars safe or hazardous, and wring out the soggier sentiments. When I gave that voice to my middle school teacher, it was not because I deemed her the quintessence of taste, but rather because she allowed me to see something in myself, to find my focus and sink deeper. For, with the master of critique, those people whose opinion matter to you, their voice always drops away in the end and you hear your spirit fire like a cannon in every word. 

I began writing for Die Bärliner in the first semester of my first year and editing in the first semester of my second year. As an editor, I’ve thought back to my own critics, the ones who’ve stayed around and continue to find their way back center stage when I edit myself. I have tried to lend my voice to writers, use my notes to poke, fold, crumple, and shape the page into a playground. The aim in my re-presenting a writer’s work in my register, to speak it back to them, is to allow them to identify what they are (for sometimes I make a favorable suggestion that brings them closer to their intention) and what they are certainly not. I like to edit in discussion, playfully, with the ultimate goal of getting the writer closer to the great well-worded insight that only they could present. 

It is impossible, in the capacity of this humble school blog (and in my own capacity), to usurp the writer’s interior magistrate who has probably long reigned. I’ve had the pleasure of inhabiting and learning many worlds as an editor for the blog, and brushing past the perceptible influence of those faceless orators who guide each writer. In the few weeks I correspond with a writer, I aim to offer a new, interim architecture in which to house their work. To do this, I must find their focus. What do they want to say? I sink into this first. How do they want to say it? I say want because editing entails recognizing the world the writer desires to express, and measuring the distance between this image and the image they are actually presenting in their writing. How can we bridge this gap? How can we convince? How can we fortify this writing so that its reality is not just stable but unquenchable

The writer’s job is to name the thing, put the phenomenon into words and bring it into reality. A good writer and a great writer will have the solidity of detail in the thing they name, it will have a good and new name and yet be the same as it always has been; it will have the vibrancy of presence, and, in the greatest of great cases, the mark of a thing loved by its creator. In editing, I try to see the name and feel how it pulls me into the writing. Then—the far more difficult task—I attempt to identify how it might absorb me newly back into the world.

I call this task (privately, to myself) deepening the shadows. To deepen the shadows does not mean to enhance some blacker undertone of writing or to give it a substantial, battling duality, nor to grant it the harmony of light and dark. Rather it is to find in the writing its strength and certainty to double itself in a flatter, colorless form; to confidently, powerfully block out the sun and yet also cast a meager portrait of itself upon the ground. To deepen the shadows is to allow the work to have more than just an ideal dimension. 

As I try to describe it now, as I’ve never attempted before, I see it is, ironically, far more of a I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of thing than something that can be justly articulated. I know it relates to how our literary creations live out their lives smaller once read, half-interpreted, and taken into the world. When I read and feel some vague recognition of this very fact within the writing (and I do not mean irony!), when I can sense the work’s pleasure of being an object in the world, a pleasure of its mortality, I know that piece casts a shadow. The writing is not just the writing but the way it lives (sometimes flatly) inside us. If anyone knows what I’m talking about, tell me—I’d like to know myself.

         Though I’ve served a skimpy goulash of final reflections here in my farewell, I say at last goodbye to Die Bärliner and thank you to all the Kings of Rome I have had the great pleasure of working with.

1 reply on “ Master of Critique ”
  1. Vala Schriefer’s exploration of the concept “Master of Critique” provides a captivating perspective through the anecdote of Sigismund, King of Rome. The tale of Sigismund’s response to a grammatical correction, declaring himself “above all grammar,” serves as a powerful symbol. Schriefer beautifully connects this historical episode to the idea that eloquence and effective expression make one a sovereign in their communication realm. The notion that every individual proficient in conveying their thoughts becomes a metaphorical “King of Rome” is thought-provoking, highlighting the regality of effective communication. Schriefer’s blog encourages reflection on the significance of articulation and the imperial power it holds in personal and collective discourse.

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