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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Veepstake Styles: Family Resemblances from the Rigging Shack ·

Last night I took in the vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. I heard it first on radio — then TV. Frankly, there wasn't much difference. It was like Darth Vader going up against Luke Skywalker, though depending on your party, roles can, of course, reverse. I thought family resemblances mattered more at last.

Consider Gwen Ifel's asking Cheney how the men differed. Jabbering on about similarities, Cheney said, "My grandfather never finished high school," while John Edwards added, "And I'm the son of a millworker." Well, as Buffon says, if style is the man himself, why this macho ID shifting?

The reason is simple: the substantively educated (politicians, especially) know they haven't much low-life style. Take me: though I'm "Styles the Logger," I admit (on my About page here) that I'm not "The Real Thing." So, what is? I'd suggest Finley Hays.

Here's his "Foreward" to Finley's Rigging Shack (1996) — a set of short columns from Loggers World from 1966 to 1979 — catching better than I can the "low-life point" of last night's debate. Running commentary is but "high-life delineation."

 · Finley Hays, High Climber, by Eldon Olin · When we started our 'word processor' was a manual desk model Olympic typewriter. The cost was about $140.00 for this machine. We graduated from there to IBM electric models and from there to a Macintosh Computer that cost over three grand. Same man, same words but more expense. I write about logging and loggers. That is what I know the most about and that ain't much. I don't know as much as I think I do because things change rapidly and what you knew last year may be, and often is, obsolete this year . . . and therefore worthless.

"The fact of the matter is," chimes in old Darth Vader.

I have found a way around this by declaring myself a "Logging Historian". This is an enviable position. Many of the men I've worked with have gone to that Heaven specially prepared for Loggers. Thus when I write about those 'miserable old days' there are not too many who can dispute my memory or writings. This allows a freedom to writers in their eighties. I am often asked to give speeches about Logging and how it used to be.

"We have a plan," notes young Luke Skywalker.

The more I learn about the old days the more I distrust Historians generally. They are always talking about a slice of time that is incorrectly remembered, falsely documented and wrongly guessed at. If you take this to mean I'm not to be trusted you made a shrewd guess. But then I'm the best you've got. Me and men like me. Our memories are true although they are often in conflict with each other. We tend to get the names wrong, to remember ourselves as heroes and mighty men of the woods. The truth often is that we couldn't find a good job and had to go to the woods. There are some of us who selected logging as a career. Most of us got there because that's where we got our first job. During the following years many of us were always looking for a safer and more comfortable occupation. Some of us became machine operators, saw filers, mechanics and such so we could get out of the blistering sun and the freezing wet weather to protect our bones and our attitudes. Most loggers of long duration did try other work from time to time.

"I'll drink to that," winks old Yoda.

Many of us had our careers interrupted for several years by one of the several wars we've lived through. Finley Hays, Finley's Rigging Shack, Bend, OR: Maverick Publications, Inc., 1996,

"And which one," smiles Styles Stylechoice, "has the last word here?"*

*You might note the low imprint — Maverick Publications — of Finley Hays's book.

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· Standing Firm on Ceremony ·

We've been into wedding work recently and realized, two nights ago, we had rehearsal-dinner invitations left to do. Though no big deal (they can of course be delivered verbally: "Hey, folks, let's all run over to The Greatgood Place for a brew"), maybe for prudence' sake — or propriety's — we decided, rightly, I think, to stand firm on ceremony.

A conservative decision but one fit well to the liberal tradition, too. Indeed, as we're having a Lutheran wedding presided over by a Dr. (a cell biologist happily into her second Rev. career), and by a lay Catholic deacon blessing the day a bit more sacramentally, we reasoned, quite naturally: "Yes, the ceremony demands the right balancing of two traditions, yet maybe without full deference to either." So who should pop up here to confirm our choice but the sagey Russell Kirk, whose The Conservative Mind (1953) includes this paradoxical word happily fit to our circumstances:

A man should be governed in his necessary decisions by a decent respect for the customs of mankind; and he should apply [Kirk claims] that custom or principle to his particular circumstances by a cautious expediency. . . . Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements; but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Eliot, 7th Rev. Ed., Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 1985, 37, 38.

So how did Kirk shape our invitations? Simply by reminding us to apply custom or principle "expediently" to particular circumstances. For as we employed trial and error on our own, we considered them quite serially: two real folks asking real guests on a real day to a real place in real time for some real food — beer, wine, salad, bread, lasagna, spumoni (plus toasts, talk, jokes, and gifts) — and then we thought, "Hey, we have some real Stylechoices here (left-to-right, say), a fine couple (Suave and Savvy), and some good writing to do! Let's go for it!"

But then our headaches began. Should we be Mr. and Mrs. Styles Stylechoice, or just Styles and Stylish Stylechoice, and with, or without, the two lovely Gracearts (Holy and Grail), whose soon-to-be Dr. Savvy daughter — her seldom-used first name is Nordicsmart — is, well . . . "betrothed" hardly seemed the word for her, much less "fiancée." Stylistically, we were simply overwhelmed!

Then matters temporal intervened ("'Half after' or 'half past' what?" I asked. "Let dinner do the talkin'," my wife suggested, rightly objecting to "o'clock."), plus attendant spatial matters: "Do we want a map, Styles?" Stylish asked me. "Ask Suave, maybe Savvy," I smartly replied.

Well, we finally settled on an invitation — not "right" or "left" — but "down the middle":

Styles and Stylish Stylechoice
request the pleasure of your company
at the wedding rehearsal dinner honoring

Suave & Savvy

Friday the twenty-eighth of May
Two thousand and four

The Greatgood Place
111 Middlebrow Avenue
Ourfinetown, Washington

We trust even if you're uninvited you might also enjoy our food for thought.

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· Birthday-Baseball Triple Play ·

You might recall that two days ago was this site's first birthday. Last September, with Wetting the Line, Whetting the Points, I began my takes on style and have been at them since, happily and productively. I thought to add that it was my birthday Sunday, too, so I thought to celebrate with a John Updike passage triply fit to my also taking in the season's last Seattle Mariners' game.

So how did it go? Just great! The M's beat Oakland 9 - 3, Jamie Moyer collected his 21st win, and Edgar Martinez — "Poppy," as we call him — may have batted in his last game. "It doesn't get any better than that," as I told my son, but since I have seen Roger Clemens pitch his 300th, and read John Updike's Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, I have known, of course, that occasionally it does.

Updike's great passage recounts Ted Williams' last time at bat. "Understand," Updike recalled of that magical September 28, 1960, "that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will," but this "was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future."

Updike's two paragraphs describing Williams' achievement are gems:

There it was [he writes]. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass, the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished.

 · Hurriedly, Unsmiling, Head Down · Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs — hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted ''We want Ted'' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.

I told my daughter-in-law Sunday, "If Edgar hits a homer" — it was the bottom half of the 8th — "he's almost sure to retire. If he doesn't, certainly we'll know soon." And so we're waiting.

Forgive me, but stylistically and substantively, this is one 60-year-old "Poppy" speaking.

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· Syttende Mai: L. A. Style ·

 · Norwegian Lion ·

 · Norwegian Lion ·

Shielded here by Norway Lions, I'm celebrating Syttende Mai. Today is Norwegian "Independence Day," May 17th, famous for political-seasonal liberation — a day marking relief from Denmark's rule in 1814 and, of course, from winter's annually. If you've ever experienced hard and cold, you may — even if not Norwegian — celebrate.

They do, you know, even in L. A. The Half-Norwegian (On the Mother's Side) American Bar Association held their bash yesterday; I wish I had been there. A full-Norwegian myself — but a non-lawyer Angelino — I honor them, although I wasn't smart enough in fleeing L. A. (moving to the Pacific Northwest) to discover that Northwest cold does take its toll on Norskies fondly recalling soft Mediterranean warmth. But for such loss, "abundant recompense," as Wordsworth writes.

Like my childhood reading. In a book still widely read now called Snow Treasure, I learned at my Mom's insistence about kids sledding by jack-booted Nazi invaders — with Norway's gold bullion cleverly hidden under sled blankets. Impressive 1950s reading. Though I'm sorry Mom hid much from me whenever she talked Norwegian, the book's illustrations "jump-started" my learning. Though I still don't know the language, I am sharpening the style.

Speaking of style, my in-law Uncle Arnülf had it. Long Harbor Master of Haugesund, he once thanked the captain and crew of an American war ship, in perfectly eloquent English, for Norway's liberation. His style was sharpened by hauling Caribbean bauxite to American East Coast ports. The torpedo that hit his ship was, among the hundreds that sank others, only a dud. (By the way, his wife — back in Norway — could not reach him and his emigrant siblings for five years.)

Do you know that Norway sent more folks per-capita to America than any other European country — itself half-Norwegian — but one, Ireland?

Which raises the difficult issue of the Vikings. Well, all I can say is, we seem to be forgiven today. At least that's how I read, as I think you should, this very stylish speech by Superior Court Judge Lawrence W. Crispo, an Italian-American member of the L. A. bar raising a double aquavit to Norway's Two Independence Days.

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· May Day! May Day! ·

Today's post is brought to you, guardedly, by the letters PC. They stand for "Politically Correct" — rendered perhaps more meatily by the better phrase, "Philologically Crippled." You can be the judge today. It is a good day for truth.

In a recent review of the new Diane Ravitch book, Merle Rubin asks:

What do dinosaurs, mountains, deserts, brave boys, shy girls, men fixing roofs, women baking cookies, elderly people in wheelchairs, athletic African Americans, God, heathens, witches, owls, birthday cake and religious fanatics all have in common? Trick question? Not really. As we learn from Diane Ravitch's eye-opening book "The Language Police," all of the above share the common fate of having been banned from the textbooks or test questions (or both) being used in today's schools.

Although I don't want to stretch Rubin's point from the April 28th L. A. Times, Rubin's ending does mark Ravitch's importance:

Lucid, forceful, written with insight, passion, compassion and conviction, "The Language Police" is not only hair-raisingly readable but deeply reasonable. It should be required reading not only for parents, teachers and educators, but for everyone who cares about history, literature, science, culture and indeed the civilization in which we live.

Might Ravitch, though, approve of my citing one of those "elderly people in wheel-chairs" — one able to speak to "the civilization in which we live"? Nancy Mairs, say?

First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are "handicapped" and "disabled." I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I'm not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People — crippled or not — wince at the word "cripple," as they do not at "handicapped" or "disabled." Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger. Nancy Mairs, 'On Being a Cripple,' 75 Thematic Readings: An Anthology, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, 522.

Now the harder question: Would Nancy Mairs approve of my saying now: "Yeah! And who doesn't 'swagger'? Why, those desert-fried, cookie-baking educationists I once trashed for layin' down sad 'barbaric yawps' on the roof-tops of the literate world with (what's it called?) God-awful athletic fanaticism! You know, heathenish, forked-tongued mountaineer wannabes, full of verbal aspiration, owl-eyed and bird-brained — all fixed to witch's tits, degenerate dinosaurs mostly, with 'brave' fronts and 'shy' behinds."

As the old Norwegian Logger says, it's May Day.

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· Head, Hands, and Heart: Lincoln the Writer ·

One-hundred-and-thirty-eight years ago Abraham Lincoln died. Shot April 14, dead April 15, Lincoln is in one way still with us. For Good Friday, of course, is the day he was assassinated, and tonight, as Christians world-wide anticipate the coming of Easter, we can do him the justice of examining, if not his 1865 assassination directly, then indirectly his uncanny way of anticipating it. One essay, "Lincoln the Writer," in Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory, offers one way of doing so, for it raises the related question of Lincoln's style.

In his own day, Lincoln's prose [Barzun writes] was found flat, dull, lacking in taste. It differed radically in form and tone from the accepted models — Webster's or Channing's for speeches, Bryant's or Greeley's for journalism. Once or twice, Lincoln did imitate their genteel circumlocutions or resonant abstractions. But these were exercises he never repeated. His style, well in hand by his thirtieth year and richly developed by his fiftieth, has the eloquence which comes of the contrast between transparency of medium and density of thought. Consider this episode from a lyceum lecture written when Lincoln was twenty-nine:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic of anything of its length that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man by the name of McIntosh was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

 · Lincoln's Life Mask and Hands, Bronze Cast, 1886, Glessner House Museum, Chicago, Illinois ·

Notice the contrasting rhythms of the two sentences: "A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short." The sentences are very short, too, but let anyone try imitatiing their continuous flow or subdued emotion on the characteristic Lincolnian theme of the swift passage from the business of life to death. Jacques Barzun, Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1971, 66-67.

I am not trying to make Lincoln Christ-like here, but only noting, in marking the memory of his stylistic achievement, the coincidence of his assassination. I first thought of this while singing the old refrain last night — "Let my people go" — to "Go Down, Moses." Indeed, I think that as Lincoln was penning McIntosh's case, he was grasping therein the cases of others he would later emancipate. It was a matter not only of style but of substance: a point grasped, in 1863 — clearly, forcefully, and eloquently — even in the midst of Civil War. It was, historically, an application of head, hands, and heart to his best work.

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· Space and Transcendence in Bach's Fantasia in G ·

You might recall the imagined high note I ended on two weeks ago. In Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator, I fancied a metaphorical "tenor" (foot)noting his "vehicular ride" on an ordinary escalator through the third movement of a musical sonata. The form, of course, was my thought not Baker's, so my idea employed Baker's The Mezzanine effectively to transpose "notes" in virtual space with a still larger, deeper significance. Today I thought to mark such "notes" directly — indeed, in musical form itself.

 · Johann Sebastian Bach ·

Actually, since I can only represent the "sounds" indirectly, I'm forced here to be metaphorical, especially so since the musial thought I've in mind is actually my son's, and the "note" he would mark is a profounder one of J.S. Bach's. What I particularly have in mind is a brief essay written in appreciation of Bach's Fantasia in G (perhaps Bach's greatest organ work). What captured Suave's imagination, however, is only found in the score, not in the sound of Bach's work, and so I'm permitted a wider meditation on themes and variations fit to the still larger space of Bach's own musical imagination. For the theme is space itself — and how music marks its very transcendence. You'll see that very idea expressed in Bach's music.

Insofar as it depends on the related concepts of boundary and limit, the word space seems to suggest the reciprocal ideas [my son writes] of expansion and contraction. Metaphorically, we can perhaps see as much in music. When a performer employs rubato to make a steady beat more flexible and interesting, he actually makes the music more understandable by expanding or contracting upon the representational limits of the composer's score, drawing the listener's attention to what we call musicality — to the very essence, that is, of live performance. The printed score can only suggest it.

Likewise, in order to make the most of the spaces of our lives, we must also expand and contract our sense of existence, weighing and considering especially our sense of freedom and responsibility. Personal and social realities are ever changing, always flexible. Bound by spaces we inhabit, we struggle to maintain balance between what is possible and what is impossible. But the very things that are possible can be defined only through the bounds we set on the imagined worlds we choose to live in. To lead a full life, a satisfying life, a human being must strive to transcend the many personal spaces he occupies, expanding his chances, opportunities, and possibilities in life.

Although I cannot fully represent the scope of Suave's essay — which turns successively from music to photography to literature to life and to music again — its concluding paragraph catches perfectly the essence of the point (the stylistic "note") both he — and I think Bach and Baker, too — would suggestively sound. Indeed, you might even hear it in Bach's music.

We must learn to travel [Suave continues] in a new dimension of space, an intellectual dimension. That dimension has never been better or more artfully represented, I think, than in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I am thinking particularly of his great organ work, Fantasia in G. It is a magnificent piece, exploiting all the intricately complex resources of the instrument. Opening with a playful toccata-like figure, it slowly develops into a methodical five-voice Grave section, gradually crescendoing to a shaking thunder, where it falls off abruptly into a serene, reflective meditation. Whenever I listen to this piece, I am ecstatic. It is today my favorite piece. But what most fascinates me about it is not necessarily heard, but rather seen. Bach wrote in the score an impossible low B in the pedals, a half step below the range of the instrument then or now. I learned this on the dust jacket of my recording; Claire van Ausdall, commenting on that low B, wrote: "It is not so much a case of Homer's nodding, one suspects, as of the composer's contrapuntal vision momentarily effacing such earthbound restrictions as the limits of a mere mechanical boundary." Bach's reaching to that low B, pushing at the boundaries of musical space is, I would add, still very much with the space of music itself. For in reaching beyond the space of his instrument, he is, I like to think, approaching there the more mysterious essence of music itself.

You should know that as I've been writing this, I've been listening to my son's own fine music. He's practicing for a Valentine Day's piano concert. One work, triply distant from the Fantasia in G, is Bach's great Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004 — called "Chaconne" — arranged for left hand by Johannes Brahams. But on whatever instrument — and by whatever hand — it goes ("Andante," say), marked also in Suave's essay, "only by the grace of God."

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· The Long and Short of Nicholson Baker's U & I ·

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:

 · Nicholson Baker ·

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. Nickolson Baker, U & I: A True Story, New York: Random House, 1991, 25-26; above 59, below 30-31.

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):

 · John Updike ·

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. John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, New York: Knopf, 1991, 848-49.

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.

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· A Punny Thing Happened on the Way to . . . ·

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."  · Pacific Electric Logo ·

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.  James Clerk Maxwell, 'Are There Real Analogies in Nature,' in Lewis Campbell and William Garnet, Life of James Clerk Maxwell, London: Macmillan, 1882, 235-44.

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?"

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· Metaphors \ Methods \ Models — Dirty-Hand Style ·

If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that three times in these posts I've alluded to the subject of dirty hands. I thought to reflect today on the subject, and the seeming inconsistencies in my three takes.

You may recall in Wetting a Line \ Whetting the Points that I first approved of Thoreau's view that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing. I still believe that, yet in Jacques Barzun "Takes On" Wayward Educationists, I confessed, I'm afraid — somewhat contradictorily — my regret in not literally "washing my hands" of educationists' styles. Now if you're like my philosophy students, you're likely asking with Martin Heidegger some question like this: "Hey, what gives?" since I ignored in Gardening and Writing the Point-Defiance Way how Marianne Binetti's style is, necessarily, if also insufficiently so, dirty-handed too. I mean: "How are you ever going to garden otherwise?"

So as not to be evasive, I'm going to go straight to right stuff on this question and cite Thomas DeQuincy, the great English writer and — in his treatise Style, published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1840-41 — a thoughtful student of style. DeQuincy focused on "pursuits" he thought "favorable to a culture of style" — that indeed "force[d]," he believed, "that culture . . . drawing much from our own proper selves, [but] little (if anything) from extraneous objects."

DeQuincy marks for us, it should be noted, an important philosophical difference, one drawing on a Kantian vocabulary implicitly tuned to such concepts as subjectively- and objectively-defined pursuits — that is, those drawn between ordinary common sense on the one hand, and modern science on the other: wherein a topic like "dirty hands" is considered metaphorically stylish in literature, but methodologically not in science. Although I admit it is a helpful distinction, I would add, too, it is indifferently spelled, in either case, "dirty hands" — and so may model, explicitly, like my italicized words, a slipperier, still more important truth.

My point turns on DeQuincy's common, but I think too-simplistic assumption that

[a] man who has absolute facts to communicate from some branch of study external to himself . . . is careless of style; or at least he may be so . . . for what he has to communicate neither readily admits, nor much needs, any graces in the mode of communication; the matter transcends and oppresses the manner. The matter tells without any manner at all. Thomas DeQuincy, Style, in William T. Brewster, Representative Essays in the Theory of Style, New York: Macmillan, 1905, 142.

Although initially tempting, DeQuincy's main assumption fails here since, though a scientist may of course find his point in matter, he must nonetheless communicate it still in words. Indeed, one of the most celebrated dirty-hand stories in history illustrates my point. Dr. Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, the Hungarian discoverer of microbial pathogens, failed at first to report his discovery and so, for a time at least, lost public credit for it (although his discovery did happily save many lives, as anyone familiar with the story knows). But my real point lies deeper, for it can be argued that Dr. Semmelweis's reticence came not so much from his literary shyness as from a deep, subtle, stylishly philosophical understanding of the point of scientific discovery: namely, that it is less a matter of finding any "matter" as such than a "method" by which that matter's existence can be suggested but never proved per se (or an sich, as Kant would say).

What's called the Hempelian model of the scientific method explains as much. Attributed to philosopher Carl Hempel, it turns, simply, on the analysis of logical inference in scientific inquiry, wherein the results grasped by its research must rely on invalid formal arguments (on affirming the consequent, to be precise), yielding practical benefits but revealing theoretical traps, too. So whenever good scientists report results, they usually say: "The data suggest [but don't 'prove'] the matter in hand." So in a manner of speaking, we have, in such phrasing, scientific style modeled — though Semmelweis had it, of course, in the extreme.

In extremis, indeed, if you followed my link above, for you know he finally died of the "matter in hand." So in a manner of speaking, not only did he show that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing, but suggested, too, that not till we discover "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'" — to borrow a different Marianne's words (Marianne Moore's in "Poetry") — can we ever hope to learn how to knock the "palaver" out of our lives. Perhaps that's the matter Thoreau also had in mind.

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· Dialectizer ·

Those of you who have seen Doonesbury's Blog-strips will recall the one on the blogger's penchant for clever, messed-up punctuation. Of course, I found it amusing, since I've tried my best to oblige even here. Messing with punctuation, I sometimes think, is the essence of style. But words are no less important.

Requires   No   Work

It so happens I've just learned how to mess with words wonderfully, and as I've been harping on that theme a while (as the artfully difficult grace of style) I thought to share — though I must confess it requires no work and may thus be doubly suspect. In any event, here's the impressively clever "Dialectizer."

Just Click-'n-Clack your way through my site as you will — but please, will someone tell Tom and Ray Magliozzi I'm sorry they're not listed yet.

Here's · You Got Style · in




   Elmer Fudd

   Swedish Chef


   Pig Latin


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· Points on Style's Triangle ·

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."

 · Style's Rhetorical Triangle ·

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."  J. Middleton Murray, The Problem of Style, Oxford UP, 1922, 4-6.

That's heady stuff, but it delineates the point well enough — at least for today. Maybe triangulates it.

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