On Doctor Zhivago (An Open Letter to Nicola Chiaromonte)

On Doctor Zhivago (An Open Letter to Nicola Chiaromonte)

Dear Nick:

When I read your piece in Partisan Review [Winter 1958] on Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago I was struck by your enthusiasm for the novel (I had not yet read it), and puzzled by the fact that your very great fervor—I think you used the word “reverence”—did not communicate itself to me. Rather I wondered, after reading your article, “But why is Nick so enthusiastic?” And it occurred to me then that your enthusiasm for the book must be in excess of your admiration for it.

Since then I have read Doctor Zhivago and, as it happens, I, too, am enthusiastic about it. But let me make this quite clear; I do not greatly admire the novel. I like it, I was touched by it, I would like others to read it. Certainly it is one of the most interesting novels that has appeared in many years. But it is as certainly not a great book; I do not find it great either as a work of art or as a document. So I find myself in the same position that you must have been in when you wrote your article on Pasternak. My liking for this book is a personal fact without significance for literary judgment; it is an accident of my own intellectual history; there is no reason why it should influence anybody else.

I am assuming of course, that I agree with you—or you with me— about there being a distinct difference between enthusiasm and admiration. But maybe I am wrong on this point. Maybe for you they are the same. In that case I must presume to disagree with you. Enthusiasm for a work means a warm feeling for it—as one might have for a woman, without expecting anyone else to like her. But literary judgment requires not only warmth but coldness: a certain detachment. When you are judging a work of art you often have to curb your inclination to praise it. In a way, you are like a judge at a beauty contest: you can’t go overboard for one girl because you personally find her more likable than the other contestants, you have to have some objective norms in mind; in any case, you have to think of the good looks of all the other girls who are participating, and not merely of the specially intriguing looks of the one contestant you would like to vote for. Let me put it more strongly: a man in love with one of the entries in a beauty contest is the last person one could expect to judge fairly.