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· Encouraging Simplicity: Denis Diderot on Style ·

My latest marked a departure last week, in that I leaned on local lore to teach America's "Other Washington" a lesson. I thought Finley Hays — like other Loggers on the Pacific Slope indebted stylistically to Mark Twain — might have a thing or two to teach our political leaders.

I didn't say so, but I had in the back of my mind an apt quotation from Denis Diderot:

 · Denis Diderot · C'est que le bon style est dans le coeur; voilà pourquoi tant de femmes disent et é comme des anges, sans avoir appris ni à dire ni à écrire, et pourquoi tant de pédants diront et écriront mal toute leur vie, quoiqu'ils n'alent cessé d'étudier sans apprendre.

Although I know only ironic pedants knocking recent efforts to make French Fries into Fresh Cut Fries would employ French here, as old Finley might say, there is nothing lost in translation:

The truth is that good style is found in the heart. Hence the reason why so many women talk and write like angels, without ever having learned either to talk or to write; and why so many pedants will talk and write badly all their lives, though they have studied ceaselessly, without learning a thing.

"When Professor Gilbert Murray," as F. L. Lucas writes in his fine book Style (where I found Diderot's passage),

confesses to sometimes wishing that the inhabitants of University towns were rather more like Polynesians, I know what he means. But at this point prudence enjoins silence. . . . My point is merely that the sophisticated (ready though they may be to suppose so) do not necessarily express themselves better than the simple — in fact, may often have much to learn from them. F. L. Lucas, Style, New York: Collier Books, 1962, 32-33.

This should not be construed, of course, as any endorsement for politicians merely simple-minded.


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