Pacific Northwesterners are lucky folks, having hereabouts the largest new-used bookstore in the world to wander in. It is called Powell's, known in Portland as "The City of Books." Powell's occupies an entire city block, and with 1,000,000+ books in nine rooms on four floors, "once you visit," as they say, "you won't want to leave."
This happened to a portion of my philosophy class recently. A wise administrator gave my class permission to do a short field trip there, and a good choice it was, for as we left I heard my students agree: "Best field trip ever." That is maybe heartening news today with so many plugged into their I-Pods, for books are in some ways, still, "equally technological."
Jack Goody once famously said "Literacy is the technology of intellect" — a wise judgment partly stemming from the old Baconian saw that "Reading maketh a full man." You may perhaps recall Francis Bacon's essay
STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores [Studies pass into and influence manners]. Nay, there is no stand or impediment in the wit but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man's wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores [splitters of hairs]. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers' cases. So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.
Happily, as we left I noticed no real defect of mind in my own students. For over a meal later in another Portland landmark — The Old Spaghetti Factory — I overheard a pair debating the fate of World Federation Wrestling under Vince McMahon. Though I was about to mention Roland Barthes' great essay on professional wrestling, in Mythologies, I desisted, with some apt Baconian principles perhaps partly in view. Sometimes heated participation in the ring does beat cold theory in print.
Besides, I'd induced one of them to buy a book to supplement his favored music major, Frank Conroy's Body and Soul. For the human arts are, all — don't you think? — really of a piece.
I don't think I mentioned our trip to Texas. Stylish and I spent spring break in Bandera, "The Cowboy Capital of the World," taking in sights in Houston and San Antonio, Kerrville, Fredericksburg, and Austin, too. Returning two weeks ago last Saturday, we have been busy teaching since.
Ironically, Texas teaching framed our trip from first to last. Initially passing through some dairyland enroute to SEA-TAC, we got word of Barbara Bush's plans to donate — through her son Neil's IgniteLearning company in Austin — COWs (Curricula on Wheels) to Houston's Independent School District. You may have seen the story. Meant partly for Katrina victims, the family largesse looks suspiciously like a clever tax gimmick — and it may just smack of Bushism, too (corporate cronyism).
We didn't reflect on it more till, visiting later in Texas's Bob Bullock State History Museum, we saw in Austin a COW being rolled in for public presentation. Well, you can imagine our surprise: that the thing (pictured at right) was being brazenly displayed in public suggested a better teaching tool I can show a bit more modestly in print — Bill Perry's famous 1963 essay, "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts." I thought to define its two essentials.
Perry himself calls his piece a study in "Educational Epistemology," turning on the bovine concepts of "cow" and "bull." Here are Perry's definitions:
Cow (pure): data, however relevant, without relevancies.
Bull (pure): relevancies, however relevant, without data.
To cow (v. intrans.) or the act of cowing:
To list data (or perform operations) without awareness of, or comment upon, the contexts, frames of reference, or points of observation which determine the origin, nature, and meaning of the data (or procedures). To write on the assumption that "a fact is a fact." To present evidence of hard work as a substitute for understanding, without any intent to deceive.
To bull (v. intrans.) or the act of bulling:
To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of data if one had any. To present evidence of an understanding of form in the hope that the reader may be deceived into supposing a familiarity with content.
Today, reflecting on the clan's claims to leadership, I'm wondering if, in public as well as private, the Bushes have somehow got "cow" and "bull" together in a way better recognized, rather more neutrally, as "The Bum Steer."
In any event, to the Georges, Neil, Jeb, and, of course, Barbara, here's my slightly more literal, semi-pictorial version.
"Writing almost killed you, and the hard part was making it look easy."
Roger Angell's New Yorker piece, Andy, on his stepfather E. B. White's prose, includes this sentence. I begin with his judgment for my students' sake, should they confuse ease of writing with ease of reading. It puts me in mind of Richard Sheridan's quip, "Easy writing makes vile hard reading," logically the regrettable obverse, and its all-too-frequent result.
Angell's own apt effort shines through in honor of White's limpid style, and his celebrated capacity for disciplined, pains-taking, ever-demanding work.
White's gift to writers is clarity [he writes]. . . . Clarity is the message of "The Elements of Style," the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers — the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian — through the whichy thicket. "Write in a way that comes naturally," it pleads. "Do not explain too much." Write like White, in short, and his readers, finding him again and perhaps absorbing in the process something of that steely modesty, may sense as well the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up on their page, and finding contentment with that writer's life.
You can hear in these words — those of "adoption," as I'd call them — Angell's own acknowledgement of a quite natural identification with "more than ten million writers" like him, all of whom have profited from his stepfather's example.
He was a demanding worker [Angell adds]. He rewrote the first page of "Charlotte's Web" eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, "to let the body heat out of it." Then he wrote the book again, enlarging the role of the eight-year-old girl, Fern, at the center of its proceedings. He was the first writer I observed at work, back in my early teens. Each Tuesday morning, he disappeared into his study after breakfast to write his weekly Comment page for The New Yorker — a slow process, with many pauses between the brief thrashings of his Underwood. He was silent at lunch and quickly went back to his room to finish the piece before it went off to New York in the afternoon mailbag, left out in the box by the road. "It's no good," he often said morosely afterward. But when the new issue turned up the next week the piece was good — unstrained and joyful, a snap to read.
Would that we all wrote so well, and worked so hard.
I'm heeding Senator Kerry's call that we all come together. His defeat, if a disappointment yesterday, marks a wider victory for the happy resilience of American political democracy. In conceding the election, Kerry noted correctly "the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together." In doing so, he marks our traditional line of duty in American politics — to speak up and, next morning, to get up and then go duly about our business.
But lest we think our business is nothing more — always after merely counting up votes — I thought to cite someone who knew otherwise. It is Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience. As the great issue of his day was slavery, just as the fight between liberty and security is of ours — and of defending one against the other — Thoreau caught perfectly the difficulty of a more genuine, authentic suffrage in America.
Here's a passage prompting the main claim from Thoreau's introduction:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.
You can hear in that passage the stylish, authentic voice of someone who cared much about the fate of his country. That Thoreau didn't vote is, from my point of view, a clear failure, but that he knew voting was not the sole duty of American politics is quite refreshing.
Oh, in the clear interest of unity yesterday, I decided to make a "favicon.ico." Bookmark YGS and you may see it (Right, Left, and Center) as · You Got Style · Do carry on!
· Twain, James, Mencken, and the Colloquial Style ·
I've been reading Terry Teachout's biography of H. L. Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. Noting his achievement in crafting a colloquial style, Teachout claims Mencken's primary model was Mark Twain, "the perfect model — perhaps the only possible one — for the racy prose with which he would make his name":
How he stood above and apart from the world [Teachout recalls Mencken saying in Happy Days, his memoir], like Rabelais come to life again, observing the human comedy, chuckling over the eternal fraudulence of man! What a sharp eye he had for the bogus, in religion, politics, art, literature, patriotism, virtue! What contempt he emptied upon shams of all sorts — and what pity!
Since I have abused Mencken's prose — in Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style — I've thought to modify my claim by noting here (quite plainly in the interest of fairness) that Mencken might also have chosen as his secondary model Henry James.
Now don't get me wrong; I understand that Mencken once sneered at James's writing:
Isn't it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases [he asked]? Doesn't it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? Isn't it 'crude, untidy, careless,' bedraggled, loose, frowsy, disorderly, unkempt, uncombed, uncurried, unbrushed, unscrubbed? Doesn't it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn't it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely?
My clue comes from chapter three of Richard Bridgman's book, The Colloquial Style in America (1966), "Henry James and Mark Twain." Bridgman rightly defends the view that, in its dialogue at least, James's prose shines with stresses, repetitions, and fragmentations commonly characteristic of American colloquial speech. The difference between Twain and James, of course, remains Twain's substantive reference to things, and Henry James's to consciousness, but stylistically, as Bridgman himself notes,
despite such persistently opposing views, we can justifiably assert in the formal characteristics of repetition, interrupted phrasing, isolation of the word, accentuated peculiarities, and patterns of sound Henry James and Mark Twain corroborated and re-enforced one another's efforts. Each arrived at his stylistic peak through the faithful management of dialogue, followed by partial or wholesale importation of colloquial features into the narrative prose. Each dramatically advanced the movement toward an American prose by his efforts to purify the language of the tribe.
It is perhaps interesting to claim that H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language (1921), might himself have been merely half-inspired. For as Teachout himself admits (p. 75), "Mencken's inability to find anything but hot air in Henry James indicates the limits of his education as exactly as it does the breadth of his ambition."
But again, as hinted above, Mencken didn't really care for the cool, airy reflections of "bucolic college professors."
I just finished motorcycling 2200 miles through parts of Canada and the American Northwest. Though my wife rode part way, I rode solo when she spent a few days traveling separately with five childhood friends. Both together and alone, we saw landscapes rivaling the ones John McPhee brilliantly records in his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Annals of the Former World. McPhee's book, centered broadly on I-80 across the United States, I recalled Tuesday when, in Clearwater, British Columbia, I happily found myself reading over breakfast his 1997 New Yorker essay, "Silk Parachute." It memorializes his elderly mom. I thought "Yes. Mother Nature! That's McPhee's theme, one Tough Dame, for sure."
I don't mean to be disrespectful of McPhee's mom or Mother Nature. But if you're familiar with "Silk Parachute," as well as McPhee's The Control of Nature — and his many other pieces on things "natural" — I think you will understand my literary take. For I was detoured by a forest fire above Kamloops, BC, reading stylish sentences like these:
When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur. It is extremely difficult to single out one or two, impossible to remember any that exemplify the whole.
It has been alleged that when I was in college she heard that I had stayed up all night playing poker and wrote me a letter that used the word "shame" forty-two times. I do not recall this.
I do not recall being pulled out of my college room and into the church next door.
It has been alleged that on December 24, 1936, when I was five years old, she sent me to my room at or close to 7 P.M. for using four-letter words while trimming the Christmas tree. I do not recall that.
The assertion is absolutely false that when I came home from high school with an A-minus she demanded an explanation for the minus.
It has been alleged that she spoiled me with protectionism, because I was the youngest child and therefore the most vulnerable to attack from overhead — an assertion that I cannot confirm or confute, except to say that facts don't lie.
Today my own memories are like those of my wife — but a road blur. But it's been alleged, as this photograph attests, that we've been traveling from the Icefields Parkway in Alberta to the Columbia Gorge in Oregon through worlds Nature is proud of. I'm not absolutely sure, of course, because we've not been everywhere, but our roads were surely good.
By the way, today would have been my Mom's 100th birthday and Mom and Dad's 61st anniversary. I thought you should know.
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.
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."
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.
· 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:
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."
You may recognize Samuel Johnson's famous phrase on the prose style of Joseph Addison. From the final paragraphs of his Life of Addison, it marks the spirit of Addisonian prose — a style of the "middle" sort, Johnson claims, one might say one of the middle class, too:
His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace; he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendour. . . . Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.
Though Johnson's is hardly Addison's style, it marks the clear shape of the man's happy achievement. Together with Richard Steele, Addison of course virtually invented the daily journal essay. His Tatler and Spectator essays from 1709 to 1712 led readers through London coffee houses with "Starbuckian Wit" — to city wags, wits, and Whigs of interest. I've particular fondness for one Tatler piece, #158. Bookish Tom Folio therein abuses "those who talk of the fineness of style, and the justness of thought, or describe the brightness of any particular passages; nay, though they write themselves in the genius and spirit of the author they admire, Tom looks upon them as men of superficial learning, and flashy parts." There's nothing like getting to the nub of things fast.
To read Addison's Tatler-Spectator essays, you can find complete sets at The Spectator Project. Tatler requires the DjVu download, but you will be up and running soon. Check out #155 (v. 3, p. 221) for an early version of InstaPundit. Addison's Upholsterer always prompts a laugh.
ANew Yorker essay has put me in mind today of style as a form of "substance abuse." John Lanchester in an essay entitled "High Style: Writing Under the Influence" (1/6/03), addresses what he calls "the discourse of recreational drug use." Although Lanchester employs what he calls the "barbaric" but sometimes "useful" dialect of "contemporary critical theory," his essay nonetheless interests me because, though I'm, like Emily Dickinson, "an enebriate of air and debauchee of dew," I do sometimes drink when I'm not otherwise splitting my occasional posts. For the sharp tools of my own literary style — facts especially, as Aldo Leopold has said — do demand sobriety.
Should you wonder, here's Lanchester's prime literary example — Jean-Paul Sartre in The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960):
But it should be noted that this regulatory totalisation realises my immanence in the group in the quasi-transcendence of the totalising third party; for the latter, as the creator of objectives or organiser of means, stands in a tense and contradictory relation of transcendence-immanence, so that my integration, though real in the here and now which define me, remains somewhere incomplete, in the here and now which characterise the regulatory third party. We see here the reemergence of an element of alterity proper to the statue of the group, but which here is still formal: the third party is certainly the same, the praxis is certainly common everywhere; but a shifting dislocation makes it totalising when I am the totalised means of the group, and conversely.
Well, if you say so, Mr. Sartre! Of course, passed by his hard-working New Yorker fact checkers, Lanchester's view is itself more fairly, subtly, and rightly presented: "There are a number of valid responses to these arguments," he writes: "They sure don't make public intellectuals like they used to. Another might be: I'm not sure Sartre's arguments constitute more than a footnote to his work in 'L'être et le Néant.' A third might be: What was he on?" The answer, it appears, is "corydrane, a form of amphetamine," Lanchester avers, "mixed with, of all things, aspirin."
Although I hardly wish to dispute Lanchester's claim, as you read his essay, ask yourself how Sartre's stylistic "alterity" — to borrow Sartre's language — precisely marks a more serious form of philosophical substance abuse? For taken in the larger "totalising" context of Western thought, it might be said, as old Styles might say, just "substance abuse" Aristotle-Aquinas style — meaning: Sartre doesn't much care for you dear reader rhetorically, nor for that matter, logically, for God, either. As for Sartre, well, Lanchester does find the goods on the guy.
Meanwhile, Lanchester's rhetoric and logic are clearly uppers.
An op-ed piece in The New York Times prompts my post. A creative writing teacher makes a case for our memorizing and reciting poetry in public school. What has attracted me to her piece, "A Lost Eloquence," is the example Carol Muske-Dukes makes of her own mother, "who can recite, by heart, pages and pages of verse by Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Dickinson." She writes:
She is 85, a member of perhaps the last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations by rote in classes dedicated to the art of elocution. This long-ago discredited pedagogical tradition generated a commonplace eloquence among ordinary Americans who knew how to (as they put it) "quote." Poems are still memorized in some classrooms but not "put to heart" in a way that would prompt this more quotidian public expression.
Muske-Dukes' recollection has put me in mind of my own father's example. Though he didn't get a high school education "on the prairie of North Dakota during the Great Depression," he did get, on the prairie in Alberta during World War I, schooling enough to make an elementary difference. I recall with delight his reciting Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal" over his morning breakfast — this when his short-term memory from multi-infarct dementia was nil. During his last three years with us (till 88) Dad "quoted" just enough to make a good case for Muske-Dukes' larger implication, perhaps best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Quotation and Originality":
We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.
Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.
Of course, Carol Muske-Dukes recommends here what Emerson only observes, that, indeed, "we all quote."
Over the holiday weekend I read Nickolson Baker's U & I: A True Story (1991). A book of one-hundred-and-seventy-nine pages, it marks in impressive, if exasperatingly obsessive, often meandering detail, Baker's imaginary "friendship" with John Updike. It slyly wraps Updike's lifework, as Baker writes there, in "crisscrossing strips of rivalry and gratefulness over an armature of remembered misquotation," detailing in long and very stylishly-crafted sentences Baker's desire for (and dread of) Updike's well-earned literary "mastery." For example, he well describes Updike's peculiar knack for finding right words in short occasional forms:
I wanted so much to have the assured touch, the adjectival resourcefulness, that Updike had in all his occasional writings; for though early on he eloquently disparaged the "undercooked quality of prose written to order," the truth was that some of his finest moments were to be found in the aforementioned introductions, award-acceptance speeches, answers to magazine surveys, the last sentences of reviews (like the one that leaps blurb-driven, to memory concerning Nabokov's Glory: "in its residue of bliss experienced, and in its charge of bliss conveyed, Glory measures up as, though the last to arrive, far from the least of this happy man's Russian novels" — terrifying mastery!), prefaces to his own writings, dedications (like the one that I think about all the time, in Problems and Other Stories, to his children, which includes the phrase "with the curve of sad time it subtends" — imagine him applying high school geometry to the mess of his own divorce in such a perfect figure!): those incidental forms that induce his verbal tact to close around some uncomfortable chip of reality even as it reaches to reawaken our dulled sense of why certain conventions (like book dedications) or stock phrases (like "last but not least") exist and what limber life can be found in them; those forms whose mastery seems to me to be more convincing proof of the spontaneity of true talent, its irrepressive oversupply, than any single masterpiece is; and forms which for emulous younger writers can be more important as objects of study than the triple-deckers they besprinkle, because they are clues to the haberdashery of genius, its etiquette, its points of specific contact with recognizable obligations of life, independent of some single lucky choice of subject that bigger forms such as the novel demand.
Baker possessed the gift, I recognized, to assess Updike's career whole, not only in his narrative work, but in the little jobs of his everyday life. But then I noticed (more disturbingly) Baker's confessed negligence as a reader — his precise, but curiously careless admission that among Updike's thrity-plus books, he had read then "most or all" of just eight, "more than half" of six, "less than half" of four, "fewer than twenty pages" of five, and "fewer than five" of five — and, presumably, none of the rest.
That set me to thinking: might not Updike himself — in one of those occasional forms Baker's says he's mastered — might not this same U have himself replied in kind to this I's self-confessed literary negligence? At first, of course, I checked the net, quickly finding a short interview (scroll down half way) expressing Updike's admitted "liking" there for Baker — as "a younger writer with a real gift and vocation," perhaps a little "pedantic" but with a curious, "Bakeresque precision." But Updike's (parenthesized) laughter reminded me of Baker's own advocacy of library-, not just net-sleuthing — so I immediately went off to my own local library (a Carnegie public library) to find, indeed, a handy, hardback copy of Updike's Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991). Checking to see if Baker's obsessive "Hobby Horse" as well as his stylistic meandering was Shandean — after Laurence Sterne's great novel — I directly found there Sterne's name in the index and, after three dry runs — on page 848 — also this undated but intriguing quotation from The New York Times Book Review — "as to 'important' books one has never been able to finish reading" (my emphasis):
Like many an autodidact I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it. With considerable pleasure I devoted a youthful summer to reading through Don Quixote; in my early twenties I made my blissful way, over several years, through all of Remembrance of Things Past. War and Peace, Portrait of a Lady, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Iliad, and The Odyssey all in their season fell to the buzzsaw of my reading. I had every expectation of relishing Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. My taste ran to prankish books, British books, and books of pivotal importance in the history of Western thought. Tristram Shandy, modernism's first masterpiece, triply qualified. Had I not, furthermore, read through Ada and Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, thus somewhat straddling the case? I remember well more than one summery occasion when my increasingly tired-looking Modern Library edition of Sterne's facetious, mind-addling classic was hauled down from its shelf into the sun and shade; once I took it with me to a week alone on Martha's Vineyard, thinking to force the issue. Alas, even the boredom of utter solitude was no match for the boredom that poured in waves off the chirping pages of this particular great book. I made it as far as page 428, a half-faded bookmark tells me; but, like Scott on his return from the South Pole, I did not quite have the stuff to complete the job. I should have eaten the sledge dogs, like Amundsen.
I can't help but see in the "blissful" way his "buzzsaw" reads through "the case" — in fact "straddling" Nabokov's "Ada" on the one hand and Boswell's "Life of Johnson" on the other — the long and short of Updike's "terrifying mastery!" (all the way to page 428). Subtract 179 from 428, and you'll see who still thinks he plays Amundsen's #1 to Scott's #0 in this short, "odd job" of polar trekking here.
Naturally, should someone doubt my take, just call U or I for the definitively right "factual" answer, though I may still be right stylistically.
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.
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?"