Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The permanent home of language

Not too surprisingly, Patrick Kurp finds himself reading more books these days and fewer things online, including blogs. The reason? His “festering impatience with shoddy writing.” While “good writing is always rare,” he observes, it particularly hard to smoke out “in an age when seemingly everyone is convinced of his obligation to share his precious words.”

Part of the problem is sheer numbers: listserve lists, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other “social networking” technologies are merely the latest example of what Henry James called the “multiplication of endowments for chatter.” No one who has accepted the moral obligation to write well is on Twitter, except perhaps to draw attention to good writing elsewhere. Nor is settling for the ready-made phrases that come tumbling off the top of the head a necessary and sufficient condition for blogging or any other means of “instant publication.” The technology is not at fault; or, rather, its only offense is that it permits the indulgence of bad literary habits and worse principles.

The real problem is identified by the poet D. J. Enright, from whose posthumous memoir Injury Time (2003) Kurp quotes:

There are two reasons why people don’t make good writers: (a) they have nothing to write about, (b) they are not at home with the written word (however fluent they may be in the spoken word). The latter is by far the most potent reason. If you can write, you’ll find something to write about; having something to write about doesn’t make you a writer.The only thing that makes someone a good writer is being “at home with the written word.” What does Enright mean, exactly? More than being comfortable—relaxed, secure, free from anxieties—in the literary language. Something closer to being a native speaker of the written tongue: the good writer’s first language is the language of the page, not the streets or screen. By definition his sentences are not natural, but artificial: they are seized by hand from the floods of life that stream around and through us.

The influence of Christianity, with its preference for language that reflects Christ’s own social position—“humble, socially inferior, unlearned, esthetically crude or even repellent,” on Erich Auerbach’s description—encourages the suspicion of linguistic artifice.[1] Not merely the language of the gutter but the slapdash verbal guesses of the pavement and shop floor are twisted homage to Christ’s example.

Since the stylistic commonplace throughout Christendom is that low speech is authentic (and high language is affected and insincere), and since modern technology has made it easier and easier to translate low speech into written words, by progressively easing the manual labor required to do so, the armies of shoddy writing march largely unopposed across the globe. Those like Kurp who pull back from the latest technological novelties may appear to be seeking the literary equivalent of “sustainable living.” In truth, though, they are simply trying to remind the rest of us that ultra-high speed broadband and 45-nanometer processors may be really cool, but they are not indispensable for good writing. This is something else that Kurp learned from D. J. Enright. In a poem from the ’seventies, Enright wrote:I too would avail myself of the large and common
       benefits of modern technology.

That on the Wings of Imagination a chartered jet
       shall transport me to my inspiration.

That tapes may record the best and happiest moments
       of the happiest and best minds.

That a fine excess of surprising subject-matter
       be relayed to me by satellite.

That powerful pumps ensure the spontaneous overflow
       of powerful feelings.

That cameras shall arrest the vanishing apparitions
       which haunt the interlunations of life.

That sophisticated computers select the best words
       and collocate them in the best order.

                                   


A pointed stick, some vegetable dye, a strip of bark
       removed by stealth from the public park.
  [2]
Technological marvels cannot solve the problem of writing. When all else fails, a pointed stick dipped in vegetable dye can be dragged across a strip of bark—but the need for inspiration, mind, subject-matter, strong emotion, memorable images, and the best words remains the same, no matter the technology used in tackling the problem.

The problem is the problem of language. And it dawns upon me that there is a reason those who prefer what J. V. Cunningham called “sinuous and exacting” language to low authentic speech—those like Kurp who spend less and less time with their eyes fixed on a computer screen—read so much fiction (in prose and verse) instead. The reason is this. Fiction is the only form of human discourse that hunts more after words than matter. If you insist, before anything else, upon “the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses”—if these are more important to you than “the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment”—then you stay home with fiction.[3] For it is the permanent home of language.
____________________

[1] Erich Auerbach, “Sermo Humilis,” in Literary Language and Its Public in Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 40.

[2] D. J. Enright, “The Progress of Poesy,” in Collected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 166. Originally published in Sad Ires (1975).

[3] Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605): 1.IV.2. Bacon called these preferences the “first distemper of learning.”

14 comments:

Mark said...

I'm in sympathy with the basic theme of this post, but I think you're misreading--or maybe misusing--Auerbach. Auerbach's point in the essay you cite is not to say that "because of the Incarnation, Christians prefer sermo humilis." His point is that because of the Incarnation, Christians are comfortable using the high or intermediate styles to talk about lowly things--which is something the classical orators (Cicero!) would not allow. I'm not an expert in modern literature, but one can hardly read Dante, Milton--and MLK jr.--and think that Christianity inherently "encourages the suspicion of linguistic artifice."

Auerbach does think Christianity ruined Western literature, but not in the way you described. For Auerbach, Dante merged the low and the high styles in such as way that there is no longer any unique way of talking about the sublime (see Mimesis 201 - 202). In Auerbach's reading, Dante used the high style to talk about "lowly" things, such as human emotions, and he did so with such effectiveness that there is no longer any room to use the high style to talk about the sublime.

That's an intriguing thesis, and one I have a number of questions about it, but at least it allows for Christian writers to continue to use the high style.

That said, I am sympathetic with your main point about the coarsening of writing. Who do we blame it on? As you suggest, the problem is much older than the advent of modern technologies, but those technologies certainly do exacerbate it!

John Baker said...

Thanks for this. We can't be reminded often enough.

Novalis said...

I am with you--as I usually am--until the claim in your last paragraph. If anything, it seems that poetry itself, not fiction broadly considered, is the genre most suited to style over matter.

To say that subject matter is even relatively irrelevant to the interest or greatness of a novel is baffling; indeed, the prominence of wordplay over real human interest may be one reason (among many) for the decline of reading (and of English departments) in recent decades.

Was it Pater who said that all great art approaches the condition of music? Literature may do this at times, most ideally in nonsense verse perhaps, but in general it can't be separated from messy, and non-literary, human interests. This isn't to say that style isn't necessary, but it also isn't sufficient.

D. G. Myers said...

To say that subject matter is even relatively irrelevant to the interest or greatness of a novel is baffling. . . .

But I didn’t say this, Neil. In fact, I have entered my preference for message over technique, and have suggested that the “greatest novelists, with the obvious exception of Nabokov, have all been discursive.”

What I am saying is that fictional discourse, whether in prose or verse, is primarily worried about verbal exactitude.

And note, too, that I am making no distinction here between “poetry” and “fiction.” With the exception perhaps of Theodore Dreiser, every novelist I can think of is the equal of any poet in the surveillance of his words and sentences.

R. T. said...

Your statement, which follows, has me puzzled: "Since the stylistic commonplace throughout Christendom is that low speech is authentic (and high language is affected and insincere), and since modern technology has made it easier and easier to translate low speech into written words, by progressively easing the manual labor required to do so, the armies of shoddy writing march largely unopposed across the globe."

The warrant implied by the statement suggests that non-Christian cultures ought to be hospitable breeding grounds for "high language" that is immune from the stylistic commonplace you and Auerbach lay at the feet of Christendom.

Overlooking your ironic use of "commonplace" within the blog that bears that label, I would ask you this: Why are you willing to buy into Auerbach's argument, one that seems so hostile to Christianity's influence on culture? If I am misreading your use of Auerbach, please explain.

D. G. Myers said...

Tim,

Good ideas cut both ways. Christianity also deeply influenced the rise of the plain style, which boasts the greatest triumphs of Western literature.

D. G. Myers said...

As for sermo humilis in modern Christian writing: consider C. S. Lewis.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you make yourself available as a mentor of good writing? Since you condemn blogers for their bad writing, doesn't a modicum of moral integrity require that you open the door to those who want to become better writers?

Anonymous said...

I love this site! Thank you sooo much for all your posts!

R. T. said...

As one thing always tends to lead to another, so it is with your posting and the threaded discussion, which has led me to discover an intriguing title that I look forward to finding and reading: Christian Plain Style: The Evolution of a Spiritual Ideal by Peter Auksi.

While I wait for the library to come up with an interlibrary loan of a copy, I turn instead to a rereading of Alfred Kazin's God and the American Writer, a book that has a slightly different angle of attack on the issues you have highlighted.

So, as I fritter away my leisurely hours (i.e., out of the classroom for an indefinite period of time), I have found an intriguing line of inquiry to pursue. And you are responsible. Thank you!

D. G. Myers said...

Why don't you make yourself available as a mentor of good writing? Since you condemn blogers for their bad writing, doesn't a modicum of moral integrity require that you open the door to those who want to become better writers?

How do you know that I don’t? Just yesterday a buddy and I huddled over a scholarly article of his. A journal had asked him to revise and resubmit it, including a wider review of the scholarly literature. I was trying, against my better judgment, to teach him about intertextuality (so that he could reject the concept).

More on point, though. Despite the fact that I am the historian of creative writing, I am heretical about its central premise. I do not really believe that writing can be taught. It can only be mastered, in private, after long hours of study and practice.

Anonymous said...

"I do not really believe that writing can be taught. It can only be mastered, in private, after long hours of study and practice."

So your argument is that blogers should practice long and hard before they publish. A clever retort, to be sure, and worthy of the best mental contortionists but ultimately entirely a work of artifice and no substance, for how do you know that blogers don't practice writing long and hard? There's the rub! You don't! What if whatever they publish is the culmination of all of their hard, lonely, bitter effort?

Now, with your advice perhaps they could improve rather than work fruitlessly, alone, without direction, but you seek to avoid being helpful. You make a biting comment, pontificate, condemn, knowing nothing about how hard blogers you condemn actually practice their writing, and then seek to run away when you're asked to contribute to the betterment of humanity and the creation of lasting good. Now, what are we all to think?

D. G. Myers said...

Now, what are we all to think?

That I am a bum?

R. T. said...

"I do not really believe that writing can be taught. It can only be mastered, in private, after long hours of study and practice."

Perhaps I can add to your observation by offering an analogy.

A musician must understand and master what is involved in the making of music before going on stage and performing in public; study and practice (in private), of course, are essential prerequisites.

Writers ought to be more like musicians.