Thursday, May 05, 2016

`Dull Our Reason and Dim Our Insight'

Joseph Epstein pays his respects to the late Robert Hartwell Fiske, “an unknown soldier in that most glorious and hopeless of wars, that against the ignorant and abusive use of language.” Fiske’s arsenal, in addition to the obsessiveness noted by Epstein, included a fine-tuned ear, a healthy respect verging on love for language and its rules, and a readily deployed wit. See his “Opening Comments” to Thesaurus of Alternatives to Worn-Out Words and Phrases (Writer’s Digest Books, 1994):

“Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase – indeed, the height of expression – a `dimwitticism’ is the converse; it is a commonplace remark or phrase. Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight.”

If the reader is about to mutter “elitist,” note the final phrase and reconsider. Threadbare language is more than merely tedious, lazy and frequently incoherent. Shoddy words signal shoddy thinking. If your reaction to a piece of music, for instance, is an automatic Awesome! you haven’t been listening or thinking. I’m surprised to discover that by 1994 Fiske had already diagnosed the now ubiquitous “awesome.” In his entry for it in the Thesaurus, Fiske writes: “An overworked word. Like awful and terrific, the word awesome has been made ridiculous by those who are bent on using it solely in its most popular sense.” “An overworked word” is one of Fiske’s more diplomatic epithets. Most of the entries in his Thesaurus are described as a “moribund metaphor,” “insipid simile” or “dimwitted redundancy.” Of “have a good (nice) day (evening),” Fiske writes:

“A plebian sentiment. We are dimwitted creatures who find that formulas rather than feelings suit us well enough; indeed, they suit us mightily. How pleasant it is not to have to think of a valid sentiment when a vapid one does so nicely; how effortless to rely on triteness rather than on truth. Dimwitticisms veil our true feelings and avert our real thoughts.”  

In other words, thoughtlessly borrowed language is often dishonest, a verbal smokescreen. For clarity, see the always amusing and instructive Vocabula Review, founded by Fiske in 1999. In 2002, he published the first edition (with two to follow) of his Dimwit’s Dictionary: 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them, to which Epstein supplied a foreword. It concludes with this:

“Mr. Fiske is, in short, a fanatic, an extremist who apparently believes that clear language is our only hope for clear thought, that dull language deadens the mind and dampens the imagination, that a felicitous phrase is good news, that a strong prose style is a gift to be cultivated and cherished, that nothing, no, nothing in the world exceeds language in its significance to the human enterprise. As it happens, I believe in all this, too, which makes it an honor to salute a fellow fanatic and wish him and his book the great good fortune both deserve.”

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

`Monstrous Novelty and Strange Disguise'

Be strong and try to imagine you are encountering this phrase for the first time in your life: variety is the spice of life. Think how rare spices were in England and the rest of Western Europe, how the wealthy paid extravagantly for products now in every grocery – nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin and ginger. Stuck in the amber of cliché, the phrase once triggered salivation but has long since been coopted by advertisers, practitioners of phony bonhomie and those who live in fear of sameness and routine like spoiled children. My ear tells me the phrase in recent decades has taken on a hint of sexual suggestiveness, just as stag films used to be called “spicy” (even better, “naughty but nice”). The origin of the phrase is the first section of William Cowper’s once immensely popular long poem The Task (1784). As frequently happens, the phrase has been slightly misremembered. Cowper writes:

“Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour. We have run
Through every change that Fancy at the loom,
Exhausted, has had genius to supply;
And, studious of mutation still, discard
A real elegance, a little used,
For monstrous novelty and strange disguise.”

In context, Cowper is poking fun at life in the town as compared to the country. He satirizes the obsession of townspeople with the latest fashions in clothing. In a gentler key, Cowper presages Thoreau: “The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.” Some forty lines later, Cowper writes:

“The earth was made so various, that the mind
Of desultory man, studious of change
And pleased with novelty, might be indulged.
Prospects, however lovely, may be seen
Till half their beauties fade; the weary sight,
Too well acquainted with their smiles, slides off
Fastidious, seeking less familiar scenes.”

At this point we ought to question our snobbery when it comes to at least some clichés. One is more forgiving of their presence in casual conversation than in journalism and contemporary poetry, where they are ubiquitous and largely unrecognized by their practitioners. “Variety is the spice of life” might be judged a benign cliché, a sort of folk poetry. The thought expressed certainly preexisted the cliché, as an egg preexists a chicken. There was a moment when almost every cliché was a shining, short-lived aperçu. The worst clichés are given and received deafly. They are ossified language, verbal holes plugged, lazy proxies for genuine communication, gestures in place of thoughts. Cowper left us other familiar phrases, almost proverbs, some later misremembered, that we have flattered by turning into clichés: “God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform,” “God made the country, and man made the town, “I am monarch of all I survey.”

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

`The Sublime of the Commonplace'

On this date, May 3, in 1777, in a letter to his childhood friend John Taylor, Dr. Johnson outlined a typically candid self-diagnosis: “My nights continue to be very flatulent and restless, and my days therefore are sluggish and drowsy. After physick I have sometimes less uneasiness, as I had last night, but the effect is by no means constant; nor have I found any advantage from going to bed either with a full or any empty stomach.”

Johnson always remained fond of Taylor and judged him “a very sensible, acute man” who worked as both a parson and a dairy farmer, but whose deportment was “by no means sufficiently clerical.” Taylor spoke often of his bullocks, an obsession Johnson, a devoted urbanite, found endlessly amusing. And yet, when Johnson’s wife Hetty died in 1752, Taylor was the person to whom he wrote of his loss. One admires a man equally comfortable sharing news of a death and gastrointestinal distress with a friend. In a letter to Taylor dated Sept. 9, 1779, Johnson asks, “Are you well? If you are let me know it.  If you are afflicted with any disease, take care that you do not make it worse by discontent.” Later in the same letter, Johnson returns to the theme of GI discomfort: “I suspect that I have eaten too much fruit this summer, but that temptation is near an end.”

About Johnson there is always an acceptance of the merely human. In A Paul Elmer More Miscellany (The Anthoensen Press, 1950), the editor, Arthur Hazard Dakin, includes a brief note on Johnson by More, who begins with a mild rebuke:

“The Rambler and, to a lesser extent, Johnson’s other works are filled with solemn reflections on the oldest and tritest of themes—on death and time and the vanity of life and the deceitfulness of the human heart and the consolations of religion. There is no attempt to renovate these ancientest of topics by paradox or unexpected applications, and the language is often slow and sometimes overweighted.”

More isn’t finished. Rather, he’s setting us up. Johnson’s gravitas, in fact, is among the reasons we so often return to his work:

“Why, then, do these commonplace reflections on man and the world have to the true Johnsonian a meaning and a power that make the cleverness of England’s modern school of essayists seem like the crackling of thorns under an empty pot? . . . It is because, however they may sound to the inexperienced reader, they were not commonplace to Johnson himself, but the fruit of vivid personal experience. His philosophy might be described as the sublime of the commonplace.”

Monday, May 02, 2016

`The Moral Equivalent of Knighthood"

“A postage stamp with us is the moral equivalent of knighthood.”

And thirty-three years later, William James remains unknighted. The image of his brother Henry, we’re told, will soon appear on a U.S. postage stamp, a century after his death. The gesture is grudging and ambivalent at best. “It discharges a debt at small expense; the honor is posthumous, anonymous, and capricious,” writes Jacques Barzun in A Stroll with William James (1983). If a postage stamp is our measure of all-American worth, we must suffer from that all-purpose diagnosis, poor self-esteem. Among the Americans honored by the U.S. Postal Service are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck and Andy Warhol. Barzun gives a list of figures who had been honored with stamps as of 1983, along with the face value of each. He comments:

“Kudos is not measured by the denomination as such, but by its being the first-class rate at the time of issue, so that one dollar for Eugene O’Neill amounts to a thinly veiled insult—up to now. But seriously, where are Prescott and Ives, Willard Gibbs and Louis Sullivan and Mary Cassatt—all outstanding in their domains? And where are the Jameses?”

Josiah Willard Gibbs was knighted in 2005, and Charles Ives in 1997. But what about Henry Adams? Vladimir Nabokov? Art Tatum? Whittaker Chambers? Fairfield Porter? A.J. Liebling? Lester Young? Yvor Winters? Guy Davenport? Eudora Welty? But as Barzun reminds us: “Not that William and Henry need to be stamped as great. The `honor’ is not an indication about the recipient but about the culture.”

Sunday, May 01, 2016

`To Serve As So Many Small Epilogues'

Attached like a library annex to the conclusion of A Stroll with William James (1983) is a commonplace book of quotations Jacques Barzun collected across a lifetime spent reading James. All were written by thinkers who preceded James, but in them Barzun hears prescient echoes of the philosopher/psychologist. (Borges expresses a similar thought in “Kafka and His Precursors.”) He observes that “temperaments recur, predicaments also, and the resultant sayings show matching parts.” Seasoned readers with retentive memories will recognize the frequent occurrence of such resonant affinities among writers. Barzun explains:

. . . the worth of parallels lies chiefly in their showing that to similarly `tuned receivers’ experience comes in similar `drops’ and inspires similar reflections [i.e., there is no such thing as originality]. That in itself is pleasant to contemplate. I have accordingly made a small selection of `takings’ similar to James’s and grouped them loosely, to serve as so many small epilogues to topics dealt with along the way. The choice is arbitrary; apart from the pleasure I have just mentioned, it may also suggest something that needs no proof: that I have seldom forgotten James while reading his predecessors in the Great Conversation.”

That marvelous word and pastime, “conversation,” has lately been vulgarized and drained of meaning, largely in political contexts. Barzun uses it properly, in a manner that recalls Michael Oakeshott’s “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”:

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Among Barzun’s sources for proto-Jamesian thought are Aristotle, St. Matthew, Swift, Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt. Here is a useful citation from Walter Bagehot’s Physics and Politics (1872), a book I have not read:

“Unproved abstract principles without number have been eagerly caught up by sanguine men and then carefully spun out into books and theories which were to explain the whole world. But the world goes clear against these abstractions, and it must do so, as they require it to go in antagonistic directions. The mass of a system attracts the young and the unwary; but cultivated people are very dubious about it.”

Saturday, April 30, 2016

`The Sheer Beauty of It'

One occasionally meets a person without an aesthetic sense, someone who would never think to describe a landscape, a woman, an equation or a sonnet as beautiful. One pities them, but only so long they do not mistake their indifference to beauty for a philosophy. At that point they become theorists or garden-variety boors, and beyond the limits of tolerance. Cousins to the beauty-bereft are the socially aesthetic, those for whom beauty is to life as the extended pinky is to teatime. Speaking of the changes in culture that occurred late in the nineteenth century, Jacques Barzun writes in A Stroll with William James (1983):

“The triumph of art as a cult meant another change that we also take for granted: it is no longer the work, the craft, that defines the species `artist,’ but the love of art. So the critic, too, is called an artist, and the connoisseur, and the bourgeois who has seen the light and who `collects’ or `subscribes’ or `follows.’ Every educated person must take or pretend an interest in art; he or she owes it to the social self, just as formerly everyone must go to church and say family prayers.”

One need not be an aesthete in the Beardsley mode to unselfconsciously revel in beauty. Some of us go through life careening from one perception of beauty to another. We’re not blind to ugliness and horror but on most days see the world as a vast opportunity for enjoyment. On the radio Friday morning, on the way to work, I heard the Everly Brothers singing “Let It Be Me” and the third movement of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto. Marissa Skudlarek, a woman whose name I had never heard before Friday, tweeted what I’m trying to say:

“Wandering streets of Oxford composing a sonnet on Shakespeare's death. Tears in my eyes at Blackwell's Books from the sheer beauty of it.”

Friday, April 29, 2016

`His Courage Cannot Be Overstated'

The closest I’m likely to get to London is Dr. Johnson’s poem. Besides, my London is a semi-mythical place spanning more than half a millennium of writers. As Michael McNay reports in his introduction to Hidden Treasures of London (Random House, 2015), the city’s population is estimated to have been 543,520 in 1777, the year Johnson famously remarked that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Today, the city’s population exceeds 8.6 million. I’ll hold on to my bookish myth.

For a man born more than three centuries ago (and in Lichfield, not London), Johnson shows up with pleasing frequency in McNay’s book. His longest appearance is the entry devoted to his house at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street, where he lived from 1748 to 1759. In the garret at that address, Johnson assembled A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). “Here he could install desks and bookcases for himself and the six copyists he hired to help him in compiling the first great English dictionary,” McNay writes. Few books rival it for sheer browsability. Long before the internet, the dictionary (which doubles as a generous book of quotations – almost 114,000 of them) offered an inexpensive way to while away the day. Johnson’s labor was heroic and probably would have broken a lesser man. In Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008), Peter Martin writes of the lexicographer:

“He was beset with doubts, plagued with persistent melancholia, and not entirely certain how to proceed. He was working in a vacuum, without a useful model. Nobody had done before what he wanted to do, not at any rate the way he wanted to do it. . . . His courage cannot be overstated.”

McNay makes Johnson’s house today sound rather disappointing: “. . . there is no real sense of his presence. Of his abundant eccentricities, voluble speech, affliction by violent spasms, his scorn and generosity, nothing remains.” How could there be? That’s why we have Boswell and Johnson to renew our acquaintance. As Howard Baker writes in “To Dr. Johnson” (Ode to the Sea and Other Poems, 1966): “We are all Boswells harkening the worms.”