George Orwell once observed that applying the same standards to such ``really decent novelists'' as Stendhal, Dickens, Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, and most contemporary writers is ``like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants.'' Critics, he added, don't do this, because it would mean having to throw out most of the books they get for review. Well, George A. Panichas, the obscure critic and teacher from the University of Maryland, may be one of the few people around still tending a spring-balance of the type Orwell had in mind.
Dr. Panichas calls himself ``a dissident critic,'' by which he means that he dissents from the character, direction, and purpose of most contemporary literary criticism. He worries out loud about ``a kind of trivialization of human experience that characterizes so much of contemporary literature.''
Our best writers -- ``Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy'' -- have abandoned the struggle with great moral issues and concentrated instead, he says, on developing ``journalistic habits of mind'' that are ``non-meditational'' and deal in ``instant analysis rather than involving themselves in a reflective process.''
Contemporary criticism, he argues, has walked the same road.
Panichas considers this fact a central crisis of modern civilization, ``because literature is the world of the imagination . . . and when we have the death of the imagination, then we have what Simone Weill calls the complete triumph of `the empire of might.' ''
Panichas has produced two volumes of criticism that carry this line of reasoning forward, both of them largely concerned with the lowering of literary and social standards since World War I. He has edited several other volumes, among them, ``The Simone Weil Reader.'' Unlike his other books, this one was noticed and favorably commented upon by the reviewing press. He is also the author of ``The Burden of Vision: Dostoyevsky's Spiritual Art,'' a passionately argued thesis that Dostoyevsky's last five nove ls sprang from a lifelong religious quest.
The title of his first critical volume, ``The Reverent Discipline,'' sums up his self-assumed role as a keeper and exponent of sacred texts.
For all the number of words he has had published, Panichas is treated by the academic and the critical community (in the words of conservative political essayist R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.) ``like a black man in the South in 1924.'' Tyrrell credits him with giving ``an injection of energy and, I think, a breadth of learning'' to ``Modern Age,'' the conservative journal Panichas has edited since 1984. But, he adds, the editorship of ``Modern Age'' isn't likely to springboard Mr. Panich as into national prominence.
Although syndicated columnist George Will told the Monitor, ``I know the magazine and have for 20 years,'' almost no one else contacted by this newspaper does -- even if, as Mr. Will puts it, ``these things have an ideological resonance that many of the resonators don't realize.''
As he sits for an interview in his modest College Park, Md., apartment, Panichas seems unconcerned with acquiring any public ``resonance.'' Nor does he put on the airs of a cognoscente. He has, instead, the manner of a simple man of some intellectual accomplishment and overriding modesty, as he talks briefy about his own Massachussetts upbringing in ``a strict family'' that ``felt children should be kept close at home.'' He did most of his schooling in New England, but then went to England to do his mas ter's thesis rebutting the nascent view of D. H. Lawrence as a ``proto-fascist.''
Lawrence occupies a prominent place in Panichas's pantheon of great writers. He quotes him often (``Always consider the tale, never the teller of the tale, who may be a dribbling liar,'' for instance), and calls ``Women in Love'' the greatest novel of the century.
He uses the Lawrence quote, ``There is a principle in the universe, toward which man turns religiously -- a life of the universe itself,'' in his own ``Burden of Vision.'' This same book finds Dostoyevsky saying, ``The Holy Spirit is a direct conception of beauty, a prophetic consciousness of harmony and hence a steadfast striving toward it,'' and later: ``I am a frightful hunter after mysteries.'' The movement toward a central, perhaps benign, cosmic mystery is basic to his vision, and the
vision of the authors he loves.
Panichas says he himself is a hunter after ``works that place you with a tiger in a cave . . . [that] imperil your whole being, assault your moral sensibilities . . . and make you more vulnerable.''
``Contact with Myshkin [principal character of Dostoyevsky's novel, `The Idiot'] is lightning contact with the eternal, and readers of the novel can never be the same afterward,'' he writes. Panichas's own searches for ``lightning contact'' led him straight to Dostoyevsky, who lies far outside his field of study -- literature and society between the two world wars -- except insofar as Dostoyevsky's prophetic sense captures the dilemma of the modern era.
Dostoyevsky embodies the essential elements that Panichas longs to see in contemporary literature: a burning vision, and a willingness to struggle with the burdens of prophecy.
``Dostoyevsky is in his own way a visionary genius, a creator who represents in his work the acme of mystery and miracle in the modern world,'' Panichas observes. ``He represents the deepest insights into the sacred . . . and the profane. He gives us both.''
Robert Louis Jackson, professor of Russian literature at Yale, and an author of books on Dostoyevsky, says he respects Panichas's work ``a good deal.'' But he faults him with being ``too absolutist'' in casting Dostoyevsky in the role of a religious seeker and prophetic writer. ``There's a lot of internal contradiction in Dostoyevsky that is not easily reduced to a [single] message.''
If Dostoyevsky doesn't have a single message, George Panichas does. That message is that ``a spiritual bankruptcy'' has overwhelmed our literary life. ``The center cannot hold, here. Anarchy is loosed upon the world,'' he says, paraphrasing Yeats. Even Norman Mailer himself says that the problem he has is the problem of the novelist today; and that is we find it difficult to locate a center of values.
``The critic should be able to distinguish'' when there is ``no spirit inside'' contemporary writings, Panichas argues, and be willing to contrast them with ``Melville's moral sense at work.''
``Melville is possessed of the moral imperative,'' he says. Panichas himself seems possessed of the same imperative. At least he's determined to seek it out. And when he doesn't find it, to ask where it went.