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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Extreme Unction ·

If you're looking for religion today, you've come to the wrong place. My title implicitly says as much already. Only wine happily escapes the pejoratives of an "unctuous style" — certainly not preachers, undertakers, and others given to lubricious applications of high spirits. And I should know.

I pressure-pumped shingle oil on my roof Saturday. Ugh! Talk about extreme unction and dirty hands! The experience was doubly compounded by Coppertone Sunblock #15, too. Even Dialectizer would have trouble doing justice to my "redneck."

Which is why I thought to share a short poem from Down Under. You'll appreciate Jeffrey Sears' aptly high umbrage — like mine, Saturday — at what he calls Rubbery Words.

Think of what modern petrochemicals have done for such substances today and you'll understand.

Meantime, I've a new category to start called "Diction."

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· Dirty-Hand Style: Henry David Thoreau ·

Although I was educated in a library, I was raised — or more properly reared — in a garage. Written for students, that sentence is a particular favorite, and I thought to share it. It catches something of my "summer style" here.

Like Thoreau who recommends manual labor as a way of knocking palaver out of writing, I've been at that work recently, knocking out enough to have been silent or just invisible lately. Since submitting grades (I won't bore you with details), I've been "garaging" myself, and also garaging old pickups, too. Last night I drove to Snoqualmie Pass to trailer home my son's 3/4-ton Ford. Literally pulling an all-nighter from summit to sea — with eyes fixed on a heat guage — does concentrate the mind. I'm happy to say the rescue went well, with my son with a new part to find, his younger brother with a radiator to fix, and me with a good story to tell. Obviously, others will emerge in time.

Today I thought to share Henry Thoreau's take on a theme that has, since September, been alluded to much. In Wetting a Line \ Whetting the Points and Metaphors \ Methods \ Models, I'm afraid I left Thoreau's words mostly unattributed. So for those still awake I thought to cite them fully:

 · Henry David Thoreau · Men have a respect for scholarship and learning [Thoreau claims] greatly out of proportion to the use they commonly serve. We are amused to read how Ben Jonson engaged that the dull masks with which the royal family and nobility were to be entertained should be "grounded upon antiquity and solid learning." Can there be any greater reproach than an idle learning? Learn to split wood, at least. The necessity of labor and conversation with many men and things, to the scholar is rarely well remembered; steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one's style, both of speaking and writing. If he has worked hard from morning till night, though he may have grieved that he could not be watching the train of his thoughts during that time, yet the few hasty lines which at evening record his day's experience will be more musical and true than his freest but idle fancy could have furnished. Surely the writer is to address a world of laborers, and such therefore must be his own discipline. He will not idly dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before nightfall in the short days of winter; but every stroke will be husbanded, and ring soberly through the wood; and so will the strokes of that scholar's pen, which at evening record the story of the day, ring soberly, yet cheerily, on the ear of the reader, long after the echoes of his axe have died away. The scholar may be sure that he writes the tougher truth for the calluses on his palms. Henry David Thoreau, 'On Style,' Modern English Reader, Robert M. Gorrell, Charlton Laird, and Ronald Freeman, eds., New York: Prentice-Hall, 1970, 247.

If you recall, it was my chore to split wood last December, but it's my task now to get down and dirtier with compost and concrete, grease and sawdust, and, yes, words and phrases, too. But I'm tired, I'm afraid. For in alluding at 4:30 a.m. to Homer's "rosy fingers of dawn," I fell into the sort of "palaver" Henry David Thoreau warned me against. Then again, being "grounded in antiquity and solid learning" may just be my way to style, pace Thoreau.

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· Here, Here: Where Have You Been Now? ·

I spent last week away attending to academic essays on literary style "Back East." As I've said, academics make much of the view, adduced directly last week even, that style is sometimes more important than substance. Now while I have never held to that view, I am still intrigued by those who do so, as well as by those who don't. For there's something to be said for both.

For example, here's a short piece of writing showing how both are reciprocal. Its apparent subject is a "stylish" take on Henry David Thoreau by a student:

It would be another age-of-reason novelist, Henry David Thoreau, who consequently shows that style is more important than substance. In his novel Walden, Thoreau wrote with such beautiful academic prose that — even reaching a poetic voice throughout the novel (although the book is one of many of the somniferous school of literature) — it is still considered to be in the American literary cannon of literature, thus showing that style is more important than substance.

Don't you think that even "substantively" charming? By taking a novel approach to Walden, the student has marked the end of modern American schooling, providing us a "somniferous" acquaintance with literature which even "cannon" fire can't really disturb. Of course, the irony is that students themselves are now quite capable of saying so, stylistically and substantively.

Which is maybe why "Rocket" firing was the real news last week — Roger Clemens going 300 in The Bronx Friday.

Naturally, I was glad to be there.

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· Cheap Tickets from Track to Field: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda ·

Funny Cide's showing at Belmont Saturday put me in mind of another, luckier race some years ago at Churchill Downs. Writing in an essay called "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda," a bright student — a Vietnam veteran, quick of wit and wise of word — happily marked his lucky day in this stylish sentence:

I leaned on the rail near the finish line at Churchill Downs and waited for the race to start because I knew the horse I picked would win even though my "sure things" had never finished better than second but "Jeanne's Faith" loved mud and the odds were indeed in her favor and they were off and I yelled "C'mon Jeannie Baby!" and she broke on top with her stiff-legged gait and left the rest of the pack far behind and won going away and a $200 bet would pay $3800 so I took my soggy ticket to the two dollar place window where I collected $11.40 and went to the bar in the clubhouse and ordered a double bourbon.

Last Saturday, Roger Clemens' loss in Chicago put me in mind, too, of the student's point: that our holding even wrong tickets — on Friday the 13th, say — can occasionally make luckless days lucky:

It is easy for us to view the past subjectively [he writes]. Instead let us consider it objectively, as a part of our existence, like rocks and trees, wind and rain. . . . Preoccupation with the past can be a type of slavery, with coulda, woulda, shoulda as overseers. By looking toward the future, the haggard and hopeless coulda, woulda, shoulda fade away, replaced by the three new and untarnished personages, filled with anticipation and hope, of can, will, and shall.

I'm happy to report that bleacher seat I bought in April for Friday's Yankees game in the Bronx now seems right. Even "cheap tickets" can mark Roger Clemens' 300th win.

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· Tradition and the Individual Talent: Aristotle Does the Blog ·

It's official. Languagehat has found clear reference to Weblogging in Aristotle's Metaphysics. Although not definitively checked yet, it's clear from the style — noted in Style as a Test of Truth — that we might give grammatical, if not logical, assent to his discovery, and rhetorically, I'm sure even Aristotelians would agree: the text seems genuine. Here is Languagehat's find.

All the same, as we have said, the causes and principles which they describe are capable of application to the remoter class of websites (topoi tou histou) as well, and indeed are better fitted to these. But as to how there are to be updates, if all that is premissed is the Linked and the Unlinked, and Present and Past, they do not even hint; nor how, without updates and change, there can be generation and destruction, or the activities of the links which traverse the web. And further, assuming that it be granted to them or proved by them that blogs (blogoi) are composed of these factors, yet how is it to be explained that some are lesser, and others greater? For in their premisses and statements they are speaking just as much about virtual as about mathematical objects; and this is why they have made no mention of markups (anasemeia) or links or other similar phenomena, because, I presume, they have no separate explanation of virtual things. Again, how are we to understand that number and the modifications of number are the causes of all being and updating, both in the beginning and now, and at the same time that there is no other number than the number of which the universe is composed? Because when they make out that Opinion and News are in such and such a region, and a little above or below them Controversy and Disharmony or Flames, and when they state as proof of this that each of these abstractions is a number; and that also in this region there is already a plurality of the magnitudes composed of number, inasmuch as these modifications of number correspond to these several regions,?is the number which we must understand each of these abstractions to be the same number which is present in the virtual universe, or another kind of number?

Here are the context and reader comments, too; I can't help today but note my comment:

Ethos, Pathos, Logos, Tragos, Blogos.

Incapacitated by emotion some have dropped letters here — L's, I think (ogos, bogos) — but certainly you've honestly provided us the authoritative, virtual text.

To which Languagehat replied: "I mean, some people seem to think blogging started with Caesar."

That constitutes, I believe, a Tip o' the Hat.

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· Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style ·

The so-called "Sage of Baltimore" prompts my post today. As I've been busy teaching — attending here, as he would say, fruitlessly to "natural" ignorance — this late-inning post (my term ends June 20th) defends my liberal do-goodism against Mencken's sadly conservative take on it. For I've in mind, from his well-named Prejudices, Fifth Series (1926), Mencken's essay "Literature and the Schoolma'm" — a brisk but sadly benighted attack on the utter uselessness of one's teaching style. What can I say?

I do love the way Mencken begins, though:

 · H. L. Mencken · With precious few exceptions, all the books on style in English are by writers quite unable to write. The subject, indeed, seems to exercise a special and dreadful fascination over schoolma'ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates. One never hears of treatises on it by George Moore or James Branch Cabell, but the pedagogues, male and female, are at it all the time. In a thousand texts they set forth their depressing ideas about it, and millions of suffering high-school pupils have to study what they say. Their central aim, of course, is to reduce the whole thing to a series of simple rules — the overmastering passion of their melancholy order, at all times and everywhere.

Mencken has, I admit, a flair for words, and we must agree: we are all in his debt for his truly impressive work, The American Language (1921). But when Mencken takes on my students — "They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly" and "They cannot think clearly because they lack the brains" — forgive me, but I detect the passing of a noxious fascist gas on my favored topic. And not surprisingly, Mencken links it here to taxes:

Trying to teach it to persons who cannot think, especially when the business is attempted by persons who also cannot think, is a great waste of time, and an immoral imposition upon the taxpayers of the nation. It would be far more logical to devote all the energy to teaching not writing, but logic — and probably just as useless. For I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all — at any rate by school teachers. It is not acquired, but congenital. Some persons are born with it. . . . They constitute, I should say, about one-eighth of one percent of the human race.

There you have it. Nowadays we often hear Menken-like echoes in the thought of Rush ("Always to Judgment") Limbaugh and of Bill ("No Spin") O'Reilly. Like him such wanna-be thinkers also claim: "there is nothing mysterious about the written language; it is precisely the same, in essence, as the spoken language. If a man can think in English at all, he can find words enough to express his ideas."  H. L. Mencken, 'Literature and the School Ma'm,' Stoddard Malarkey ed., Style: Diagnoses and Prescriptions, New York: Harcourt, 1972, 147-149.

As if manly "expression" were style's essence.

"Please someone, pass me a gas mask."

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