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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Marked with the Cross of Literary Criticism ·

I've been incommunicado recently, marking tests and papers in my three classes. Though often dull, the work earns my academic keep and of course keeps some of my students — suffering, struggling, and complaining — semi-sharp. Stylistically, it always takes regular grinding on the old blue pencil, yet sometimes it gives me a good occasion for real learning.

Take today's lesson. A student reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, A Tale for Children," had a basic problem — one we discussed in conference. Though marking Marquez's point by reading his tale as saying something about abusive, careless treatment of the old, she delineated his point by speaking not directly about Marquez but about our nursing homes and hospices. So I had to mark the simple difference between literature and life, between Marquez's writing indirectly about life, but she, alas, not quite directly about "A Very Old Man."

Then hitting her head with her hand, she brightened: "I get it. Like all those children's stories I write, his story has a moral, but I have to go in reverse, from the moral backwards to the story, not the other way around. Still, it's the same point."

On the day after Ash Wednesday, I'd hope you would get my point:

We have to ask, critically, who's getting marked by whom. Criticism's cross, I mean to say, is maybe even our own to bear.

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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.

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· My Unfashionably "Carlylean" Take on Sartorial Elegance ·

I have yet to nod even slightly in the direction of fashionable style — I mean, of course, sartorial elegance, literally (as well as metaphorically) understood.

Today's post isn't much likely, I'm afraid, to mend that omission. If you saw me here — now an aging graduate of Red Green's School of Fashion Design, West Campus — you'd laugh at my sad threads. Imagine a pair of woolen Acorns warming my feet, a Bangladeshi-stitched Forest Trails shirt over my shoulders, a Canadian-knit KellySport fleece vest under that, and a ratty REI turtleneck under my old, "locally fashionable" Pendleton plaid. I mean, apart from chilly fishermen on peninsular rivers hereabouts, I warm to the idea of sartorial splendor about as well as steelhead do to frozen bait. You can see why I was rejected at Red's U.S. campus near Brainerd (a bit north of Garrison Keillor's wonderfully idyllic Lake Wobegone), Minnesota.

Well, I got to thinking today about my unfashionable handicaps, especially inasmuch as Friedrich Nietzsche once observed — on the philosophical subject of clothing — how even Adam and Eve's threads can bear metaphorically upon language. Now that got my attention.

 · Friedrich Nietzsche · Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things [Nietzsche writes]. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept "leaf" is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the "leaf": the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted — but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model [my italics]. Freidrich Nietzsche, 'On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,' Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1990, 891.

Now Nietzsche is too much given here to brevity to weave what, Platonically speaking, seems the pattern likely to make his very threads fashionable. So I got to hunting about in my library for a non-Nietzschean model, when suddenly I spied Thomas Carlyle. Of course, I know he's not in style today, and I know his book Sartor Resartus is to California's Rodeo Drive what Red's design school is to New York's Fashion Institute — "The Tailor, Retailored" — yet Professor Teufelsdröckh's text might serve as one likely original of Nietzsche's thought (composed, ironically enough, in the quaint old German university town of Weissnichtwo).

'Language is called the Garment of Thought [Carlyle's Diogenes Teufelsdröckh writes]: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), what is it all but Metaphors, recognized as such, or no longer recognised; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colorless? If those same primitive elements are the osseous fixtures in the Flesh-Garment, Language, — then are Metaphors its muscles and tissues and living integuments. An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: is not your very Attention a Stretching-to? The difference lies here: some styles are lean, adust, wiry, the muscle itself seems osseous; some are even quite pallid, hunger-bitten and dead-looking; while others again glow in the flush of health and vigorous self-growth, sometimes (as in my own case) not without an apoplectic tendency.'

I should note before literally heading out the door now to a steelhead dinner at my son's, how in Thomas Carlyle's own editorial analysis of Teufelsdröckh's style, Carlyle rightly marks — "as in my own case," too — yet another difference. Please, at quote's end, do at least fill in the blank with one of your own choosing.

 · Thomas Carlyle · In respect of style our Author [Carlyle writes of Teufelsdröckh's writing style] manifests the same genial capability, marred too often by the same rudeness, inequality, and apparent want of intercourse with the higher classes. Occasionally, as above hinted, we find consummate vigour, a true inspiration; his burning thoughts step forth in fit burning words, like so many full-formed Minervas, issuing amid flame and splendour from Jove's head; a rich, idiomatic diction, picturesque allusions, fiery poetic emphasis, or quaint tricksy turns; all in graces and terrors of a wild Imagination, wedded to the clearest Intellect, alternate in beautiful vicissitude. Were it not that sheer sleeping and soporific passages, circumlocutions, repetitions, touches even of pure doting jargon, so often intervene! On the whole [______] is not a cultivated writer. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus and Heroes and Hero Worship, Everyman's Library, No. 278, London: Dent, 1908 [1965], 22; above, 54.

"Und so weiter," Nietzsche would add.

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· My Half-Nietzschean Take on Brevity ·

"It takes less time to learn to write nobly," Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, "than to learn to write lightly and straightforwardly."

Since writing my last post I've been thinking about Nietzsche's claim, especially since the ending of "We Hold these Truths" on the First-Person Plural took some time to write. For most of the week I tried, mercurially but methodically, as I sometimes tell students, to move my slippery adverbs and shifty pronouns into substantively significant, and still stylish, juxtapostion. Finally, I heeded President Lincoln's advice: "It is fitting and proper that we should do this," as you may have seen in my result.

But Saturday night I essayed another take on Lincoln's theme by trying out a friend's latest teaching trick: "Turn off the monitor," he tells his students. Indeed pointing to their keyboards alone, he suggests writing for a change blind — "in the dark!" "Well," I thought, "why not? Mine is but a Nietzschean variation on the keyboardist's sentence, 'Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country!' So go for it!"

Here's what I wrote in just four minutes:

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. We have the chance now to undertake the job the nation has prepared us for. It's hardly the time to do otherwise. What would the nation say if we were to renege on our duty? It's abundantly clear that if we don't take up the challenge now, we will succumb to the sad temptation to avoid forever that patriotic task for which we have so long been prepared. Mark my words: This is the day. This is the hour. This is the year. We can do no less than our ancestors have done already, dedicating our lives to bringing everyone the joys of freedom, the riches of enterprise, the pleasures of art, and the clear, honorable challenges of service. Now it is our turn. Rise up Men (and Women) of America! It's time to come to the aid of your . . .

"I'm on quite a roll," I thought. "In just minutes (just as my colleague suggested), 'I've found my voice' — 'fluid,' 'rounded,' 'full,' 'profound,' 'indeed maybe decisively brilliant.'"

"And darkly, fulsomely bathetic, too!" I had to confess.

But I remembered, then, Nietzsche's aptly personal, perfectly-styled ambition to craft his own famously difficult, light, straightforward prose:

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what other men say in whole books — what other men do not say in whole books. Freidrich Nietzsche: Jon Winokur, ed., Writers on Writing, 2nd. ed., Philadelphia: Running Press, 1987, 23; above, 112.

And I remembered, too, my own recent post's quite analogous conclusion:

Properly speaking (sotto voce), it is our [my] challenge.

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