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A New Yorker essay has put me in mind today of style as a form of "substance abuse." John Lanchester in an essay entitled "High Style: Writing Under the Influence" (1/6/03), addresses what he calls "the discourse of recreational drug use." Although Lanchester employs what he calls the "barbaric" but sometimes "useful" dialect of "contemporary critical theory," his essay nonetheless interests me because, though I'm, like Emily Dickinson, "an enebriate of air and debauchee of dew," I do sometimes drink when I'm not otherwise splitting my occasional posts. For the sharp tools of my own literary style — facts especially, as Aldo Leopold has said — do demand sobriety.

Should you wonder, here's Lanchester's prime literary example — Jean-Paul Sartre in The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960):

But it should be noted that this regulatory totalisation realises my immanence in the group in the quasi-transcendence of the totalising third party; for the latter, as the creator of objectives or organiser of means, stands in a tense and contradictory relation of transcendence-immanence, so that my integration, though real in the here and now which define me, remains somewhere incomplete, in the here and now which characterise the regulatory third party. We see here the reemergence of an element of alterity proper to the statue of the group, but which here is still formal: the third party is certainly the same, the praxis is certainly common everywhere; but a shifting dislocation makes it totalising when I am the totalised means of the group, and conversely.

Well, if you say so, Mr. Sartre! Of course, passed by his hard-working New Yorker fact checkers, Lanchester's view is itself more fairly, subtly, and rightly presented: "There are a number of valid responses to these arguments," he writes: "They sure don't make public intellectuals like they used to. Another might be: I'm not sure Sartre's arguments constitute more than a footnote to his work in 'L'être et le Néant.' A third might be: What was he on?" The answer, it appears, is "corydrane, a form of amphetamine," Lanchester avers, "mixed with, of all things, aspirin."

Although I hardly wish to dispute Lanchester's claim, as you read his essay, ask yourself how Sartre's stylistic "alterity" — to borrow Sartre's language — precisely marks a more serious form of philosophical substance abuse? For taken in the larger "totalising" context of Western thought, it might be said, as old Styles might say, just "substance abuse" Aristotle-Aquinas style — meaning: Sartre doesn't much care for you dear reader rhetorically, nor for that matter, logically, for God, either. As for Sartre, well, Lanchester does find the goods on the guy.

Meanwhile, Lanchester's rhetoric and logic are clearly uppers.

  · Absolut Clarity ·

After writing this post, I needed a drink.

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