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· From Substance to Style: G. H. Lewes Takes on Immanuel Kant ·

I've the task here of introducing students to Immanuel Kant. You can imagine their groans: "What," they ask, "was this dude really on?" "You expect us to understand him?"; "We mean, like, 'He's boring!'" While I sympathize, I feel at least compelled to induce some into believing, even as the French sometimes say: "Le style le moins noble a purtant sa noblesse" — "The least noble of styles has nevertheless its own nobility." Most students scoff: "Don't give us that stuff; the French even eat their greasy fries with a fork!"

So what of English speakers? Well, we're of course betwixt-and-between, typically adopting Kant's essentially smart intellectual substance while necessarily abusing his style. Consider the mid-Victorian writer George Henry Lewes. His The Principles of Success in Literature (1865), published in The Fortnightly Review, catches well the spirit of Kant's words while abusing his often drab style. Take this from Lewes' sixth chapter, "The Laws of Style":

The aims of Literature being instruction and delight, Style must in varying degrees [Lewes writes] appeal to our intellect and our sensibilities: sometimes reaching the intellect through the presentation of simple ideas, and at others through the agitating influence of emotions; sometimes awakening the sensibilities through the reflexes of ideas, and sometimes through direct appeal. George Henry Lewes, 'The Laws of Style,' Representative Essays on the Theory of Style, ed. William. T. Brewster, New York: Macmillan, 1913, 229.

Lewes' vocabulary, "intellect" and "sensibilities," "ideas" and "emotions," is lifted, of course, right from Kant's three great classic critiques of reason, practicality, and judgment, but used in the direct service of literature, not of philosophy. Yet as to Kant's own prose style, Lewes himself disparages it as do most of my smart students. Take this brief passage from Lewes' fifth chapter, "The Principle of Beauty":

Bacon, . . . having an opulent and active intellect, spontaneously expressed himself in forms of various excellence. But what a pitiable contrast is presented by Kant! . . . not simply unwise, he was extremely culpable in sending forth his thoughts as so much raw material which the public was invited to put into shape as it could. . . . he might have been induced to recast it into more logical and more intelligible sentences. George Henry Lewes, 'The Principle of Beauty,' Representative Essays on the Theory of Style, ed. William. T. Brewster, New York: Macmillan, 1913, 223-224; below, 222.

Before you gloat with my students, however, do at least consider this happy exchange from Friday afternoon's English 101 class:

Styles to the Class:

I spent a whole hour arranging my words in the passage I shared with you yesterday.

A Student to Styles:

Well, you've got too much time on your hands.



To which G. H. Lewes' reply is:

Styles to the Class again, quoting Lewes:

[M]en who will spare no labour in research, grudge all labor in style; a morning is cheerfully devoted to verifying a quotation, by one who will not spare ten minutes to reconstruct a clumsy sentence.

Whether researching or writing, I do have, it seems, Lewes' point made expressly for my own style.

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Posted by Styles on January 11, 2004 02:39 PM

Your student's comment had me LOL. And I'm not a Little Old Lady, which is what that acronym stood for before on-line writing.

That sharp distinction between the influence of the mother and the influence of the father is thematic in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, where the mother's family are farmers (settled folk) and the father's people are vaqueros (wandering folk).

Posted by John on January 14, 2004 06:33 PM

Thanks, everyone, for some nice binary distictions here. May I add another, in regard to Lewes on Kant? Here at Rowan U., where we fancy ourselves expert on applied communication (i.e., journalism, advertising, public relations, tech writing, radio-tv-film production, that sort of thing), we faculty divide ourselves into two groups based on the amount of grease and its print-making cousin, ink, used in our teaching: 1) dirty fingernails, or 2) clean ones. Happily for me, I have one hand of each. Nevertheless, you may be pleased to know, Styles, that my colleagues with ten dirty fingernails — or the metaphorical equivalent thereof — are most highly regarded here.

Best, everyone!

Posted by Mary Lee Donahue on January 15, 2004 08:19 PM


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