Today's thought speaks for itself. In the few days leading up to this holiday I've given thought, I'm afraid, only to school and home tasks needed to reach this good day somewhat out of breath. But with my schoolwork done and my home chores begun, I've at least the time now to reflect on this happy American day itself.
Thanksgiving! An interesting term, particularly in light of philosopher Martin Heidegger's famous 1954 book, What is Called Thinking? What's central here is the spin he gives therein to thinking and thanking as reciprocal concepts. I give you from his text three short paragraphs:
The "thanc," as the original memory, is already pervaded by that thinking back which devotes what it thinks to that which is to be thought — it is pervaded by thanks. When we give thanks, we give it for something. We give thanks for something by giving thanks to him whom we have to thank for it. The things for which we owe thanks are not the things we have from ourselves. They are given to us. We receive many gifts, of many kinds. But the highest and really most lasting gift given to us is always our essential nature, with which we are gifted in such a way that we are what we are only through it. That is why we owe thanks for this endowment, first and unceasingly.
But the thing given to us, in the sense of this dowry, is thinking. As thinking, it is pledged to what is there to be thought. And the thing that of itself ever and anon gives food for thought is what is the most thought-provoking. In it resides the real endowment of our nature for which we owe thanks.
How can we give thanks for this endowment, the gift of being able to think what is most thought-provoking, more fittingly than by giving thought to the most thought-provoking? The supreme thanks, then, would be thinking? And the profoundest thanklessness, thoughtlessness? Real thanks, then, never consists in that we ourselves come bearing gifts, and merely repay gift with gift. Pure thanks is rather that we simply think — think what is really and solely given, what is there to be thought.
What is there to be thought today is, of course, what, beyond the turkey and trimmings, we all have as our essential Being, Thoughtfulness and Thankfulness together. A Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I found an impressive essay Wednesday exploring the frontier, the frontier "between politics and culture, between continental Europe and the Anglosphere," as its author writes, "between academia and journalism, left and right, history and reportage." Author Timothy Garton Ash essays still another theme, however, one exploring what he calls "the literature of fact" or, better, how a fact can be deduced verily, he claims, from the style of literature.
Although I don't want to repeat Ash's essay (you can read it here), his concern for what he calls "veritas" seems today an apt subject, since that term I've adduced already. What I have in mind is Ash's particular use of literary style as a test of truth, as this passage makes clear:
If we find witnesses accurate on things we know, we are more likely to believe them on things we don't; but sometimes, there is little that we can know or check. What test works here? The best I can come up with is the quite unscientific litmus of veracity. Do we feel, as we read the text, that the writer is making what Orwell, in praising Henry Miller, called "a definite attempt to get at real facts"?
For me, the model of such veracity is Orwell's own Homage to Catalonia. Actually, Orwell got some of his externally verifiable facts wrong — not least because most of his notes were stolen during a secret police search of his hotel room in Barcelona. But we never for a moment doubt that he is trying to tell it exactly as it was. And when we reach his plea of veracity at the end of the book, it is the very opposite of Theroux's.* Orwell writes, in that wonderfully plain, conversational style that he worked so hard to achieve, "In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events." In effect, he says, "Don't believe me!" — and so we believe him.
Veracity is revealed in tone, style, voice. It takes us back to the artistic reasons for defending this line. You can often tell just from internal, stylistic evidence when a writer has strayed.
You can of course supply your own examples, maybe recognizing that curious form of judgment epitomized best in Cardinal Newman's apt phrase, "A Grammar of Assent." If it's unfamiliar to you, its logic is simple: in an insufficiency of data there emerges a developing sufficiency of informal detail marking (but not verifying, strictly) the discernable shape of the verifiable still: what Ash calls the "line" to be defended. And of course his conclusion follows: we may reasonably find — and assent to — in literary style, at least an emerging local equivalent (grammatically) of a less strict but partially verifiable insight into substantial truth.
But as that's poorly styled, E. B. White may say it better (though I'm afraid, like Orwell, I've lost my references — and you may thus rightly question my veracity): "Facts have an eloquence all their own."
But of course, as Ash claims, "so too does style."
*Ash is here questioning a previously-cited passage from Paul Theroux:
Paul Theroux's travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, which is full of amusing incidents and wonderfully entertaining dialogue, concludes with an elaborate plea for its own strict, reportorial accuracy. He describes in detail the four thick notebooks in which he wrote things down as they happened "remembering to put it all in the past tense." On this railway trip through Asia, he writes, he had learned "that the difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy — how sad that I could not reinvent the trip as fiction." At which I found myself thinking, "Well, you did, you did." Perhaps I am wrong, but even the production of four weather-stained notebooks containing words identical to those on the printed page would not dissuade me, for the invention can come at the moment of recording.
Marianne Moore has given me my title. I've alluded to her before, but she deserves direct quotation since my subject today is compression, well illustrated in her clever, short poem
To a Snail
If "compression is the first grace of style,"
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, "a method of conclusions";
"a knowledge of principles,"
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Given the value of compression — Miss Moore's quote comes from Democritus — I thought to share an apparently true story from Harvard University, though I'm a bit doubtful. (Anyone who knows the story of "veritas" there should, of course, be a skeptic.) But regardless, the anecdote is amusing.
Students in a Harvard English 101 class were asked to write a CONCISE essay containing four elements: religion, royalty, sex and mystery.
The only "A+" in the class read:
"My God," said the Queen, "I'm pregnant! I wonder who did it?"
Alas, I don't have any A+ essays in the sets I'm reading today — at least by Hahvahd standards.
Electro-Magnetism. Yes, you heard me right, electro-magnetism — the mysterious but mathematically-formulated, exactingly-controlled energy powering our literary relations here at · You Got Style · I think about it often in November, especially when the winds I last wrote about threaten to break the lines linking my machine to yours. Tricky business that, as old Ken Lay would say, and my late dad, who once proudly wore a 50-year IBEW pin as a lineman for the Pacific Electric Railway — where he said, quite properly, "Red Cars" (L. A. style). He also knew how to say, "Hot stuff."
I got to thinking about all this while I was writing Under the Weather Tuesday. You'll recall I was doing a deliberate double-take on weather/whether and a subtler, single-take on rafters. Although I felt like apologizing — even writing first, "Forgive my puns. I couldn't resist." — I decided to drop my sad pleading and, with the authority of James Clerk Maxwell behind me, stand up plainly and honestly for some electro-magnetic juice delivered straight. Maxwell, you say — literally or figuratively? Literally, though it's still, as you'll see, very tricky business.
What I have in mind is the witty first paragraph to his essay "Are There Real Analogies in Nature?" Included in Campbell and Garnet's 1882 biography of Maxwell, it remains a good literary-philosophical supplement to his more famous A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Although Maxwell's scientific equations aren't my subject, his speculations in that essay seem in some ways their equal, especially in the wisely affirmative answer he gives to his essay's leading question (not surprisingly given Maxwell's Scottish-Presbyterian style, the answer has a nice moral tinge — slightly shaded by Kantian reflections on the larger methodological-scientific questions that prompt it). In any event, since my present interests are stylistic, I'll just cite Maxwell's witty (I think you'll agree) first paragraph. The subject is the reciprocal relation of puns to analogies.
In the ancient and religious foundation of Peterhouse there is observed this rule, that whoso makes a pun shall be counted the author of it, but that whoso pretends to find it out shall be counted the publisher of it, and that both shall be fined. Now, as in a pun two truths lie hid under one expression, so in an analogy one truth is discovered under two expressions. Every question concerning analogies is therefore the reciprocal of a question concerning puns, and the solutions can be transposed by reciprocation. But since we are still in doubt as to the legitimacy of reasoning by analogy, and as reasoning even by paradox has been pronounced less heinous than reasoning by puns, we must adopt the direct method with respect to analogy, and then, if necessary, deduce by reciprocation the theory of puns.
Although I don't want to reciprocate the transposition here — by going astray into deconstructive excursions into catachresian takes on Paul de Man, say — it seems worth noting that, stylistically speaking, Maxwell's text seems to be onto something. In any case, as mine has expressly that aim, I thought to conclude with a good short story, one brought to my attention earlier this week in a widely-shared punny email. Slightly edited for dramatic emphasis, I give you
Taco-Bell Liver & Cheese
Three handsome L. A. dogs are walking down Whittier Boulevard when they chance to see a beautifully enchanting Poodle. The three dogs fall all over themselves in an effort to be the first to reach the lovely creature, but all end up arriving in front of her at the same time. The three are speechless before her beauty, slobbering all over themselves — hoping for just one enticing, encouraging glance. Aware of her charms and of her obvious effect on the three would-be suitors, she decides to be kind, telling them:
"The first one who can use the words 'liver' and 'cheese' together in an imaginative, intelligent sentence can go out with me."
The sturdy, muscular black Lab speaks up quickly and says,
"I love liver and cheese."
"Oh, how childish," says the Poodle. "That shows no imagination or intelligence whatsoever."
She turns then to the tall, shiny Golden Retriever and asks,
"How well can you do?"
"Um. I HATE liver and cheese," says the Retriever.
"My, my," replies the Poodle. "I guess it's hopeless. You're just as dumb as the Lab."
She then turns to the last of the three dogs and says,
"How about you, little guy?"
The last of the three — tiny in stature but big in fame and finesse — is the Taco Bell Chihuahua. He gives her a sly smile and a quick wink and, casually waving to a passing Red Car, says to the Retriever and the Lab:
"Liver alone, cheese mine."
"Hot stuff," my dad would say. "Tell me, how much do we owe?"
I was under the weather, as the cliché has it, this last weekend, wheezing my way through the Veterans' Day holiday, but thankful I wasn't more literally than figuratively under the weather down South. Bad tornadoes there. But, alas, this morning I chanced to awaken to some winds of our own, gale winds howling and blowing in from the Pacific as they do in November, across a well-named Gale Street fronting my house — one built two years after the big Columbus Day storm of 1962. When I'd bought the place in 1986, I'd asked the seller about the rafters: "Oh," he replied, "they're doubly strong; just look." This morning, I'm afraid, I heard them creak.
In any event, I hope you're not feeling either figuratively or literally "under the weather" today, and here to express my hopes — summer-style, on the bright side of dark — I thought to excerpt a famous passage from Mark Twain. Though its plot-significance in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is tragically sad, at least for anyone who can ignore the unfolding story, the style is also in some ways descriptively pleasing, even comically so. Tragi-comic, let's call it, weather-style.*
Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten [Huck writes in Chapter IX]; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest — FST! it was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs — where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.
*N. B. In quoting Huck in · You Got Style · know that I'm not fully satisfied with anybody's glib word about rafters. You never know when, "down the sky toward the under side of the world," a storm might turn your holiday into a Columbus Day or a Veterans' Day whether you like it or not.
· Saddam Hussein's WMD and J. Robert Oppenheimer's Style ·
My title today links an odd pair. It's prompted by the unanimous Security Council vote today urging Saddam Hussein, immediately and unconditionally, to stop production and development of supposed weapons of mass destruction. But it bears, more importantly, on a more famous and more significant American producer and developer of such weapons, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
As Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer offers me occasion today to reflect on the much larger meaning of the new UN resolution, for what I have in mind, beyond Saddam Hussein's bluffing and George Bush's blustering, is Oppenheimer's justly famous definition of style:
The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique to politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style. It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively but not absolutely; it is style, which in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find a harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us and the regard of the views, sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.
I would simply hope that world leaders — but most especially Bush and Hussein — recall today Oppenheimer's words, for they offer a reasonable, stylishly sane resolution here stopping just short, you might recall, of another of Oppenheimer's famous sayings: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
One hopes that point will be no leader's last thought.
At last I broke out of my trivial pattern above, although I'm worried still about my three spaced periods. What convention, I ask, determines the trivial set we call ellipses marks — some divine revelation or some human convention? To have broken free does help, however, although I'm afraid I've today another set to share.
They came, trivially, from a friend's e-mail:
Small minds discuss people.
Average minds discuss events.
Great minds discuss ideas.
For the moment their meaning is at least patently clear to me:
People: Three Classes of Students.
Events: Tests and Papers Given in Each One of Them This Week.
Ideas: My Now Having to Do Simple Justice By Them.
So what of their Added Fourth & Fifth Dimensions?
We are all, indeed, small, average, and great at once!
Obviously, I'm stuck in a rut, if only trivially so, or should I say titularly? I'm referring to my recent titles, Metaphors \ Methods \ Models, I \ Eye \ Aye, and, now, For \ Four \ Fore! Each one is, I suppose, trivially warning me to keep alert to the matter of redundant form — or even reiterative function. In any event, I think I'll soon desist.
Partly by way of his wife Gjertrud Schnackenberg, the accomplished American poet, Nozick was in 1981 invited to give the Walter C. Schnackenberg Memorial Lecture at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. As I had known Dr. Schnackenberg and had just read Nozick's new book, I thought to drive the eighty miles from home to Tacoma to attend it. As I recall, just before the lecture began, we two chanced to eye one another in the lavatory as philosophers even must, and, with so apt an opportunity — both of us standing at the urinals relieving ourselves — I tentatively began:
"Er, I was wondering if you might care to say something — you know — about the footnote at the bottom of page 557."
He laughed — breaking into a broad smile — "Oh, that's an academic joke."
"Aye, that's," I said, "just what I thought."
So you're asking, what's the joke or the larger point? Well, since philosophy is mostly, as Alfred North Whitehead claims, "a footnote to Plato," I've thought to indicate its Platonic essence representationally — though you're of course free to doubt it.
In his previous two pages of Philosophical Explanations, Nozick had outlined an impressive fivefold scheme of broad ethical theory — nihilism, realism, idealism, romanticism, and realizationism (roughly his own position) — when, with an ironic grin, he happily drew one conclusion: "Unlike Lewis Carroll's cheshire cat, which disappeared leaving its smile, this disappearance of [realist] values did not even leave behind its (salient) value." Then, I'm happy to report, he added his footnote:
The listing of five possibilities about our relationship to value, as well as the further responses to the decline of realism, forswears one frequently traveled route to intellectual influence: devising a classification of three character types, via which people could puzzle over where they and their mates fit, categorize their friends, understand different social interactions, and play parlor games. Thus we have had Freud's oral, anal, and genital; Sheldon's mesomorph, endomorph, and ectomorph; Reisman, Glazer and Denny's inner-directed, other-directed, and autonomous; Reich's Consciousness I, II, and III. Dyadic classifications (such as introvert, extrovert) have less interest, while quadratic ones apparently are too complicated for most people to keep fully in mind, which is why there is no holy Quadrinity.
You should appreciate the pleasure I took that evening and, indeed, take again tonight, recalling (this All Saints' Day) the ever-so-very-ideal nimbleness of Nozick's witty-wise mind. Perhaps even the Triune God is enlarging the Plurality of Divine Being tonight, saying, "For, Four, Fore! Robert," as they consider other matters avocationally in still greener pastures of the Great Beyond.
In any case, you might see that Nozick's footnote is more than a psychological-sociological-cultural-ethical-philosophical matter of mere style. It might just possess Real Substance.