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· Presidents' Day Thoughts on Christopher Lasch's Plain Style ·

I've been reading Christopher Lasch's volume of writing advice, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Printed for graduate history students at the University of Rochester (1985) and published in paperback by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2002), the book lives up to its apt title. I heartily recommend it.

Plain Style, edited with a helpful introduction by Stewart Weaver, catches well the late historian's political savvy. Christopher Lasch, author of books like Haven in a Heartless World (1977) The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), addresses the fuzzy imprecision of public discourse today, going to the heart of rhetorical-political concerns George Orwell raises in his great "Politics and the English Language."

According to Weaver, Plain Style "is something of an essay in cultural criticism, a political treatise even, by one for whom directness, clarity, and honesty of expression were, no less than for George Orwell, essential to the living spirit of democracy." Weaver's allusion is no mistake, for Lasch holds to Orwell's belief that, as Orwell's own "Politics" makes clear, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" — that "an effect can become a cause . . . A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."

To second Orwell's claim, I thought to share Lasch's sharp styling of the thought in one spirited paragraph from his third chapter, "Characteristics of Bad Writing" — a paragraph entitled "Abstract Language":

 · Christopher Lasch · Abstract Language   Bad academic writing [Lasch writes] avoids concrete (literally solid or coalesced) words and phrases as assiduously as it avoids the active voice, and for the same reason: it seeks to convey an impression of scientific precision, of painfully acquired learning and scholarship, of Olympian detachment from the commonplace facts of everyday life. It prefers phenomena to things or events, socialization to growing up, orientation to position or location. Abstractions are often indispensable, of course (as are forms of to be). Sipped in small amounts, they may even have a slightly intoxicating effect, not inconsistent with verbal clarity. Over-indulgence, however, leads to slurred speech and eventually destroys brain cells. Christopher Lasch, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, ed. Stewart Weaver, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, 78; Weaver, above, 3-4.

Lasch's own happy take on Orwell tells. Beyond one tipsy academic, though, it's worse to see America's sober-sided politicians from the President down reeling so clearly now under the inebriating influence of such abstractions as "The Axis of Evil" and "Strategic Outsourcing." You'd maybe think that they would foreswear such stuff, rhetorically as well as politically.

A justly temperate nation might, I would suggest, ask them to try.



Posted by
Mary Lee Donahue on February 17, 2004 01:35 PM

Following the unmasking six years ago of the incoherent academic spaghetti that was being passed off as intellectual jargon, it is charming to see that "Axis of Evil" gives shivers, and that, like everything else these days, is all Bush's fault.

H. L. Mencken had little good to say about university education 75 years ago. He was wildly optimistic, it turns out.

Posted by Gary on February 22, 2004 07:02 PM

If I read you right, the special sauce for such spaghetti I sniffed in the wind last June.

Posted by Styles on February 22, 2004 11:32 PM

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