· 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:
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.
This should not be construed, of course, as any endorsement for politicians merely simple-minded.
The Aims of Education Address occurs tonight at The University of Chicago. If you're perhaps unfamiliar, it's a fall tradition, part of student orientation, given annually in Rockefeller Chapel by Chicago faculty stirring intellectual ambition in the young. Having read many of Chicago's best — their College published a handsome collection in 1997* — I envy fresh young minds there. I could profit from stirring oratory myself.
But I am rather stuck at home reading, without even the print version of the essay that, in 1916, prompted the university's academic tradition: Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education (1929). It's still a thoughtful text. Its triple demarcation of learning's stages — up to sixth grade, then twelfth, then beyond (Romance, Precision, and Generalization) — alone justifies its study.
You may already be familiar with Whitehead's peroration, but what interests me is rather his seldom-included addition, wherein he introduces us, through Style, to something larger, Power.
Finally, there should grow the most austere of all mental qualities; I mean the sense for style. It is an aesthetic sense, based on admiration for the direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste. Style in art, style in literature, style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. . . .
Here we are brought back to the position from which we started, the utility of education. Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of mind.
Although I like Whitehead's concluding sentiment — well and rightly quoted in English composition handbooks — it is not, however, his last word on education's stages. Clearly, we can see as much in what he adds:
But above style, and above knowledge, there is something, a vague shape like fate above the Greek gods. That something is Power. Style is the fashioning of power, the restraining of power. But, after all, the power of attainment of the desired end is fundamental. The first thing is to get there. Do not bother about your style, but solve your problem, justify the ways of God to man, administer your province, or do whatever else is set before you.
I do like his advice, and urge folks to follow it, suggesting also that they ask along with Whitehead: "Where, then, does style help?"
In this, with style the end is attained without side issues, without raising undesirable inflammations. With style you attain your end and nothing but your end. With style the effect of your activity is calculable, and foresight is the last gift of gods to men. With style your power is increased, for your mind is not distracted with irrelevancies, and you are more likely to attain your object.
Not bad advice — not just for the young, but also for the young-at-heart.
· The A & P of Style: Location, Location, Location ·
At a wedding reception recently, I chanced to converse with a young man studying to become a paramedic in Alaska. When told he needed an A & P course (Anatomy and Physiology II) unavailable at home, I remarked slyly that a radiologist friend's med-school teacher in Iowa City, Iowa, was seen last selling real estate in Washington. After smiling, he warmed to my point, that A & P had perfectly served my friend because, using X-ray, CAT, or MRI technology, his is an art of precise location.
In a way, if you think about it, so is style's. Adjusted to the real estate of sentences, the old slogan of "Location, Location, Location" nicely fits. After all, Jonathan Swift once defined style as "proper words in proper places," and the coordinating axes of grammar, rhetoric, and logic triply apply. Here, we might say, the larger "A & P" of style finds its proper dwelling, though I wouldn't want to get very Heideggerian about it — tomographically, geographically, or topologically.
Which is why I thought today to share a brief passage from the Scot Hugh Blair. You may recall him as the author of Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters (1783). Skilled in the craft of exacting stylistic analysis, Blair took special interest — in Lectures XX through XXIII — in the work of Joseph Addison. As I've already noted Addison, I thought today to focus on the last paragraph of Lecture XX, wherein Blair happily marks a contrast between Addison's two fine concluding sentences and a poorly-styled alternative. It's clearly a matter of location.
I have in this paper, by way of introduction, settled the notion of those pleasures of the imagination, which are the subject of my present undertaking, and endeavored, by several considerations, to recommend to my readers the pursuit of those pleasures; I shall, in my next paper, examine the several sources from whence these pleasures are derived.
Then adding his analysis, Blair continues:
These two concluding sentences afford examples of the proper collocation of circumstances in a period. I formerly showed that it is often a matter of difficulty to dispose of them in such a manner as that they shall not embarrass the principal subject of the sentence. In the sentences before us, several of these incidental circumstances necessarily come in — By way of introduction — by several considerations — in this paper — in the next paper. All which are with great propriety managed by our author. It will be found, upon trial, that there were no other parts of the sentence, in which they could have been placed to equal advantage. Had he said, for instance, "I have settled the notion (rather, the meaning) of those pleasures of the imagination, which are the subject of my present undertaking, by way of introduction, in this paper, and endeavored to recommend the pursuit of those pleasures to my readers, by several considerations," we must be sensible that the sentence, thus clogged with circumstances in the wrong place, would neither have been so neat nor so clear, as it is by the present construction.
Which helps me now to the ever-trivial moral of my story: to wit, that if you ever find yourself in the "wrong place," well, Move, Unclog Those Arteries, and, of course — if possible — Get Some Style.
· Toward a Definition of Style: Clarity, Emphasis, Tone, Rhythm ·
Jacques Barzun's The Modern Researcher (5th ed., with Henry F. Graff) includes a chapter — "Clear Sentences: Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm" — defining the term Style. I've thought to quote two paragraphs to prepare the ground for an analysis of some successively revised sentences also included. Together, Barzun's several passages offer stylish words for some substantive reflection.
Everyone's mind [Barzun writes], however eager it may be for information, offers a certain resistance to the reception of somebody else's ideas. Before one can take them in, the shape, connection, and tendency of one's own ideas have to yield to those same features in the other person's. Accordingly, the writer must somehow induce in that other the willingness to receive the foreign matter. He does so with the aid of a great many devices which, when regularly used, are called the qualities of his speech or writing.
These qualities go by such names as: Clarity, Order. Logic, Ease, Unity, Coherence, Rhythm, Force, Simplicity, Naturalness, Grace, Wit, Movement. But these are not distinct things; they overlap and can reinforce or obscure one another, being but aspects of the single power called Style. Neither style nor any of its qualities can be aimed at separately. Nor are the pleasing characteristics of a writer's style laid on some preexisting surface the way sheathing and plaster are laid on the rough boards of a half-finished house. Rather, they are the by-product of an intense effort to make words work. By "making them work" we mean here reaching the mind of another and affecting it in such a way as to reproduce there our state of mind.
With these two paragraphs in view, I have thought to cite Barzun's revisions of a sentence analyzed successively in the clear interests of "Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm." Only twelve words long, it marks a tightening vision — a movement of mind if not precisely towards Anatole France's single-minded goal of Clarity (D'abord la clarté, puis encore la clarté, et enfin la clarté: "First, clarity; then again clarity; and, finally, clarity"), then toward Barzun's more multi-valent definition of Style. For Barzun's aim is the difficult "inducement" of foreign matter, and his schoolbook example (drawn perhaps from his own education), of a domestic reflection of and on substance. In any case, below are his successive revisions, listed with his precise analyses blocked, truncated, and paraphrased for easy, intelligible reading.
Original Sentence: The wind blew across the desert where the corpse lay and whistled.
Analysis: The sentence is a howler, for we all laugh at how the short phrase "and whistled" makes the corpse whistle a sad, solo tune. Yet adding a comma after "lay" won't help, since we realize that our comma would just make the whistling but an afterthought. So the problem is, as Barzun explains, that "the parts that occur together in the world or in our mind" are not united.
Revision 1: The wind blew across the desert and whistled where the corpse lay.
Analysis: This is better, since the parts are so united, and our sentence is "no longer comic." But now, as Barzun says, the blowing wind seems to be "whistling" just near the corpse. So yet again.
Revision 2: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where the corpse lay.
Analysis: As Barzun now claims, "we have the limbs correctly distributed — no front leg is hitched on to the hindquarters." But say it aloud, he notes, and "it leaves the voice up in the air, and with the voice, the meaning, because the emphases are off beat." Simply, the stresses fall flat. So yet again.
Revision 3: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where lay the corpse.
Analysis: Now we've gone backwards since, in positioning the verb "lay" before the noun "corpse," we have learned that "to defy idiom is to lose force." As Barzun explains, "to sound natural we must stick to 'where the corpse lay.'" So yet again.
Revision 4: The corpse lay in the desert, across which the wind blew and whistled.
Analysis: This is evidently a new route in the desert, as Barzun notes, the product of some frustration — if perhaps the "best [draft] yet." We discover, though, that the stiffness of the "about which" suits "a description of scenery rather than that of a lonely death." So yet again.
Revision 5: The corpse lay in the desert, and over it the wind blew and whistled.
Analysis: This alternative is frankly "too weak for this gruesome vision," Barzun claims. As a compound sentence, it "separates what the eye and ear bring together in the mind. We have dismembered and reconstructed without success." So yet again.
Revision 6: Across the desert where the corpse lay, the wind blew and whistled.
Analysis: Finally, Barzun writes, a two-part periodic sentence gives our topics proper stress. Indeed, "its suspensive opening phrase does not monopolize the emphasis we associate with beginnings," and its "second part . . . completes its own meaning by finding a main subject and verb," with our desert wind whistling. We catch, so to speak "The Spirit of Style."
So what then of Substance? It is little more than the "real things" we have so much in mind today: the thematic words sadly reverberating in Iraq: "desert," "wind," and "corpse." Soon, of course, they'll be beyond anybody's proper "revision."
Clearly, this is the foreign matter others, and events, are "inducing" us to see.
· 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.
My last entry on punctuation has prompted a related thought on reading. The image at right is not, however, its immediate occasion.
Indeed, Bennozo Gozolli's St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul — the tenth of seventeen famous frescoes in Sant' Agostino Church in San Gimignano, Italy, 1465 — is not here properly its apt expression or, better, visualization. Neither, for that matter, are Gozolli's depicted characters — St. Augustine and his intellectual friend Alypius — even the immediate subjects of my thought. Rather, they are Alberto Manguel and Stylish (my wife and intellectual friend), who, some years back in an extended review of Manguel's A History of Reading, wrote this intriguing paragraph:
We also take for granted that most adults read silently. But imagine seeing for the first time someone reading silently rather than orally. That is what Saint Augustine describes in his Confessions when he sees his master, Saint Ambrose of Milan, reading silently. According to Manguel, Augustine's description is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature. Augustine, a professor of Latin rhetoric, found himself — reportedly in 384 A.D. — unable to ask Ambrose the questions about matters of faith that were troubling him, because, as Augustine explains, when Ambrose was not eating a frugal meal or entertaining one of his many admirers, he was alone in his cell, reading. Augustine describes the strange observation: "When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still." Manguel explains that not until the tenth century does silent reading become usual in the West.
My thought is simply this: just as we learned in the West gradually to mark words with visible writing spaces, so gradually we learned (as in the two scenes "depicted" and "described" above) to observe related reading silences. Both, of course, may just be twin aspects of a definition of style, appointed spaces and appointed times — marked, we might say, for reflection. I don't quite know what to make of them, save perhaps to recall E. B. White's famous dictum on writing: "Writing is an act of faith," he said, "not a trick of grammar." I think old St. Augustine would agree.
Style is a difficult term, clearly in need of definition. From the Latin stylus, its root suggests a "sharply pointed writing instrument." Though adequate, that definition is limited at best. It's true, of course, that Style is a writing instrument — a quill, pen, and even MT-powered computer — but the term extends as well, and even more importantly, to the writer, reader, and meaning. No writer has made that point better, I think, than J. Middleton Murray.
Murray's classic The Problem of Style (lectures delivered at Brasenose College, Oxford, in the summer of 1921) is handy here, and I note therein this interesting passage:
We may make a little clearing in the jungle by considering the way in which the word Style is commonly used. I think that I detect at least three fairly distinct meanings; they appear in these three sentences. First, "I know who wrote the article in last week's Saturday Review — Mr. Saintsbury. You couldn't mistake his style." Second, "Mr. Wilkerson's ideas are interesting; but he must learn to write; at present he has no style." Third, "You may call Marlowe bombastic; you may even call him farcical; but one quality outweighs his bombast, his savagery, and his farce — he has style."
Murray naturally goes on to explain the sentences, delineating what is often depicted as the ethos, pathos, and logos of style's rhetorical triangle. Style is, as Buffon writes — adding some needed French orthography — l'homme mêmé: "the man himself." Again, it's a "teachable" technique — "only properly applied to the exposition," as Murray thinks, "of intellectual ideas" (though that's debatable). And last, it's a more "absolute" notion, referring to a quality which "transcends all personal idiosyncracy, yet needs — or seems to need — " Murray claims, "personal idiosyncrasy in order to be manifested. Style," he writes, "in this absolute sense, is a complete fusion of the personal and the universal."
That's heady stuff, but it delineates the point well enough — at least for today. Maybe triangulates it.