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· Such a Woman — Anniversary Style ·

My wife and I are celebrating our 37th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, I thought to revise and extend my remarks, as they say in the "Other" Washington, by citing a famous passage from Luce Irigaray's "The Power of Discourse." Although I cannot altogether agree with her Lacanian presuppositions, she nevertheless comes off quite well. Even feminists might agree.

This "style" or "writing" of women tends to put the torch to fetish words, proper terms, well-constructed forms. This "style" does not privilege sight: instead, it takes each figure back to its source, which is among other things tactile. It comes back in touch with itself in that origin without ever constituting in it, as some sort of unity. Simultaneity is its "proper" aspect — a proper(ty) that is never fixed in the possible identity-to-self of some form or other. It is always fluid, without neglecting the characteristics of fluids that are difficult to idealize: those rubbings between two infinitely near neighbors that create a dynamics. Its "style" resists and explodes every firmly established form, figure, idea, or concept. Which does not mean that it lacks style. Luce Irigaray, 'The Power of Discourse,' This Sex Which Is Not One, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1985, 79.


Naturally and properly, we're off on a holiday, and I thought to say as much here. Cheerio!

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· Engendering the Science of Style ·

Israeli scientists have had some success in quantifying differences between men's and women's writing styles recently. "Imagine, for a second," writes Clive Thompson in the Boston Globe (7/6/03), "that no byline is attached to this article. Judging by the words alone, can you figure out if I am a man or a woman?"

I was intrigued by Thompson's "He and She: What's the Real Difference?" because, in A Writing Teacher's Blog last June, John Lovas properly identified me as a male writer, "based on tones." But Thompson's piece identifies yet other criteria. Moshe Koppel, Anat Shimoni, and Shlomo Argamon of Israel's Bar-Ilan University, Thompson writes, "found that the single biggest difference is that women are far more likely than men to use personal pronouns — 'I', 'you', 'she', 'myself', or 'yourself' and the like. Men, in contrast, are more likely to use determiners — 'a,' 'the,' 'that,' and 'these' — as well as cardinal numbers and quantifiers like 'more' or 'some.'"

Naturally and properly, I was intrigued by Thompson's article. So trying their test informally on my own "This" Again — Thoreau "Revised," I concluded, to my surprise, that I was perhaps more like a woman there. But then again, since I identified "my wife" as "such a wife," maybe I'm a man, too. After all "this is," as Thoreau writes, my "father tongue," by "heroic," readerly revision.

Well, I'll let you decide. By the way, if you need more science on such matters, I'd suggest Hara Marano's fine Psychology Today article, The New Sex Scorecard. Some of you might even care to run "Hara" through the Israeli style-cruncher. Obviously, I'll have more to say on this theme.

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· "This" Again — Thoreau "Revised" ·

Recently I've been dirtying my hands, though my style has hardly been improved. Not that I'm apologizing for lack of posts. "When there's work to do, there's work. First things first," as my wife says. "Writing can wait."

Which comment explains why I just thought — considering Thoreau didn't have such a wife — to return to his words today. But I fear recent references, This — By Accident — July 4th and Dirty-Hand Style: Henry David Thoreau, left the mistaken impression that Thoreau's style was but a product of simple dirty-handedness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Thoreau tried to leave that literary impression, readers inquiring into his real work know otherwise. As an artist, he was an inveterate reviser.

Thoreau's impressive "Reading" chapter from Walden; or, Life in the Woods best makes my point. Although Thoreau lived life "in the Woods," he wrote, quite naturally, in the house. But "naturally" here is the wrong word. For Thoreau was committed himself as an artist to the "transcendence" of nature, and nowhere is his nature-to-art move better made than in his chapter Reading, in which he expressly drafts a comparison of ordinary speech to artful writing. For him, the comparison is significantly figured as a kind of heroism:

The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits . . . To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak. [Emphasis mine.]

I have emphasized one sentence and one word to stress my point, namely, that Thoreau's own writing is object of such high, heroic attention. Lest we think Thoreau's writing itself exempt from any necessary revision, I would solicit reading of the very original of the passage I cited two weeks ago in Dirty-Hand Style. It's Thoreau's early journal style you should notice.

I find that whatever hindrances may occur I write just about the same amount of truth in my Journal; for the record is more concentrated, and usually it is some very real and earnest life, after all, that interrupts. All flourishes are omitted. If I saw wood from morning to night, though I grieve that I could not observe the train of my thoughts during that time, yet, in the evening, the few scrannel lines which describe my day's occupations will make the creaking of the saw more musical than my freest fancies could have been. I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one's style. One will not dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before the night falls in the short days of winter; but every stroke will be husbanded, and ring soberly through the wood; and so will his lines ring and tell on the ear, when at evening he settles the accounts of the day. Henry David Thoreau, H. D. Thoreau: A Writer's Journal, Laurence Stapleton, ed., New York: Dover, 1960, 10.

Of course, I'll let you decide which passage is better. I just wanted to "settle accounts," as Thoreau himself suggests, on his laborious work however so "husbanded."

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· This — By Accident — July 4th ·

I noticed on the board outside my office Tuesday the phrase "Define Reality" and below it, in cryptic, sophomoric challenge, the word "This." Sometimes going with the task of teaching philosophy, such remarks mysteriously appear here, and I welcome them. They give me in summer needed relief from hard chores like shed cleaning.

Thoreau again comes to my rescue. Do you know it was on July 4th that, as he writes in Walden (1854), he took up his famous pond-side abode "by accident"? I've always loved Thoreau's phrase, "by accident." Thoreau knew well enough he was ironically declaring, both literally and literarily, his own independence, but, sadly, what readers sometimes miss in Where I Lived, and What I Lived For is his reason for saying so. For we should recall that he had refused purchase of the old Hollowell place, and so remarks, then, later in his chapter, more generally of this fact:

The present [Walden] was my next experiment of this kind, which, I purpose to describe more at length: for convenience, putting the experience of two years into one. As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.

Thoreau's actual experience of "not buying the farm" in life he converts, in Walden, of course, figuratively into the larger experiment of "not buying the farm": that is, not yet dying. Happily, with substantive wisdom, he dwells soberly on this truth:

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we can call reality, and say This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamppost safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities, if we are alive, let us go about our business.

This I know: "mine" tomorrow is getting down and dirty with that shed again. "By accident," of course, I celebrated July 4th by emphasizing "this" fact today.

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