Friday, August 07, 2009

The harsh style

For this Commonplace Blog’s precedent-setting two hundred and fiftieth post, I want to say a few words in defense of the harsh style.

It is the style most commonly associated with the philosopher and premier New York intellectual Sidney Hook, who has been described as a “take-no-prisoners debater whose style was deliberately confrontational“ and “deliberately provocative,” and whose “insistence that every battle be fought and every wrong righted made him a fighter.”[1] Because of this “engagé style,” Hook was “always willing to reenter the fray, to revive debates with countless political foes, and to have the final word.”[2] Although not as graceful as Orwell’s, his prose style was similar, exhibiting a “refusal to obscure his position with sodden words, turbid syntax, coy simulation of balance, or self-protective ambiguity.” His motto could have been “Have logic, will argue.”[3]

As the invocation of Orwell should suggest, the harsh style is first cousin to the plain style. They share a genetic predisposition, inherited from their ancestors the anti-Ciceronians and anti-Petrarchans, for clarity and exact statement (which are, of course, the same thing). The harsh style demands clarification, and knows there is a critical difference between clearing the air and freshening it. Where the plain stylist is content to speak definitively and to the point, the harsh stylist goes further, excoriating amiable blandness and sumptuous qualification. He is the sworn enemy of anything that menaces clarity and exact statement, whether it be accredited confusion, folk mythology, self-satisfied blunder, or political ideology.

Some other harsh stylists include:

• C. S. Lewis, who realized that polemicizing on behalf of Christianity would require that language step down from the pulpit and get into the streets.

• Gilbert Ryle, who did not merely attack philosophical error, but—to use his own word—abused it.

• Stanley Fish, whose entire career has been devoted to redefining literary criticism as a mode of argument rather than deferential appreciation or the rehearsal of pass-along certainties.

• Anyone who ever wrote for the old Partisan Review or Commentary, including—to speak only of previous generations—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, William Barrett, Diana Trilling, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, Robert Warshow, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Midge Decter, and Norman Podhoretz.

It is no accident that so many harsh stylists are Jews. Judaism is a religion without catechism or dogma, and as a consequence, the Jewish tradition places great value upon loud-voiced and teeth-baring debate—as long as it is a makhlokhet leshem shamayim (“a dispute for the sake of heaven”). As long as a dispute is for the sake of heaven, there are no restrictions on “tone,” no code of manners, because how is it possible to be too aggressive and discourteous for the sake of heaven?

What, though, according to the rabbis, is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? “The debates of Hillel and Shammai” (Avot 5.17). In the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai are bywords for lifelong, bitter antagonists. The law nearly always follows Hillel, but the views of Shammai are fully aired. For though the law may be indispensable, without any provision for dissent it is intolerable.

Many readers find the harsh style intolerable. It seems cruel and heartless to them, or rude and uncivil, and there is no question that a style which aims at rigor and austerity, which grants no sufferance to fools, can stray into abrasiveness and truculence.

The thin line can be firmly drawn by another excursion into religious vocabulary. Orthodox Jews who are uncompromising in their observance of Jewish law are sometimes described as mahmir (“strict, stringent”), an epithet that derives from the Talmudic principle that every debate entails a mahmir and a meykel, a strict and a lenient position. Now, among Muslims the equivalent to mahmir is hamas, but in Hebrew hamas means “lawlessness.” The line that divides conscientiousness from terrorism is clear. The harsh stylist knows where it lies and takes infinite pains not to cross it, even though his critics, out of ignorance, blur the distinction.

Nevertheless, the first question to be asked of any style, as J. V. Cunningham says, is what is its vice? How does it go bad? And here the critics of the harsh style are of small assistance. Cunningham, however, who could himself adopt a harsh, combative style, is suggestive:

Hang up your weaponed wit
Who were destroyed by it.
If silence fails, then grace
Your speech with commonplace,
And studiously amaze
Your audience with his phrase.
He will commend your wit
When you abandon it.

The vice of the harsh style is not that it will lead straight to its abandonment, but rather that its very harshness will prevent it from being recognized for what it is—its weaponry will distract from its wit—and so it will not be answered in kind. It will provoke a merely social reaction, expecting clichés and mutually agreed upon empty phrases in the place of battle for the sake of what matters.

[1] Judy Katulas, Review of Young Sidney Hook by Christopher Phelps, Journal of American History 85 (1999): 1623–24.

[2] Alexander Bloom, Review of Out of Step by Sidney Hook, Journal of American History 75 (1988): 276–77.

[3] D. B. Jones, Review of Convictions by Sidney Hook, Modern Language Studies 21 (1991): 116–19.


ricpic said...

Hook was up against Stalinists. Anything less than confrontational would have been him.

R. T. said...

When that which can be objectively explained becomes hidden within the fuzzy embellishment of the subjective, it takes a certain harsh treatment to sweep away the fuzziness and get back to the core. For a better understanding of the positive side of "harsh," consider the roots of the word which go all the way back to Indo-European roots (kars = to scratch or comb) and Latin (carerre - to card wool); viewed in that light, there is nothing "wrong" with being harsh because it can be positive employed for the scratching away the fuzziness and uncovering the greater goodness of clarity.

Buce said...

Well, even more than Stalin, Trotsky. But what would you say of S Johnson, who does the most savage put-downs but in a Johnsonian style: "In out passage through the boundless ocean of disquisition we often take fog for land, and after having long toiled to approach them find, instead of repose and harbours, new storms of objection, find fluctuations of uncertainty." [That's the "Review of Jenyns.")

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the context of Leftist brawls from the ’thirties. Yes, the anti-Stalinist and later anti-Communist Left was almost uniformly harsh in its prose. They had been trained in Party polemics.

As for Dr Johnson. He is far too suave ever to be harsh, although his intent is often punitive. Reminds me of another Cunningham epigram:

A periphrastic insult, not a banal:
You are not a loud-mouthed and half-assed worm;
You are, sir, magni-oral, semi-anal,
A model for a prophylactic firm.

The other Jonson is more likely to dip into the harsh, merciless style.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

To be harsh, you must be sure of your position - which is why I will probably never write in the harsh style. I prefer to be jocular, so that in case I'm wrong or have committed a violent misreading of some text, I can pretend I was never serious or passionate. The young, cowardly writer swathes herself in "self-protective ambiguity"!

And when I'm not being facetious or twee, I tend to write clinically.

The harsh style is admirable... and frightening!

shade said...

I've been lately enjoying the writings of one of the most savage -- and most brilliant and funniest -- of the harsh-style mavens, Rebecca West. To our host, I wonder if you've read her (especially Black Lamb and Grey Falcon) and is so what your opinion of her is?

D. G. Myers said...

Rebecca West! Yes! Exactly so!

I first read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of the greatest unplaceable books of all time, in a class taught by the poet and critic Howard Nemerov. I really must go back to it. It is inexhaustible.

Her criticism, collected in The Strange Necessity, is peerless. I wish I could write like the author of the essay “Uncle Bennett.”

Buce said...

Suave? Recall Oliver Goldsmith:

"there is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt."

I forebear to quote the one about the bawdy house and the receiver of stolen goods because I can't source it.

I think Trotsky is actually pretty good, if you like savage invective.