Friday, October 23, 2009

`Torn, Rent, Ragged, Tattered'

No one writes turgidly because life is turgid. The imitative fallacy is a simple-minded cop-out. People write turgidly because: (a.) They do not possess the skills to write with clarity and precision. (b.) They are lazy or indifferent. (c.) They seek to obscure their meaning. (d.)They wish to appear profound and assume (rightly) that some readers are credulous enough to mistake turgidity for profundity. I use “turgidity” as collective shorthand for such related ailments as vagueness, redundancy, pretentiousness and reliance on padding and clich├ęs. Orwell famously described such writing as “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

I was already thinking this way at lunch in the school staff room on Thursday when it occurred to me that the perfect model for students wishing to write uncluttered English prose, and thus learn to think clearly and without clutter, is P.G. Wodehouse. I was reading the Mr. Mulliner stories collected in my ancient copy of Nothing But Wodehouse (edited by Ogden Nash and published in 1932) and marveling again at the grace of his language. He makes it look effortless, and all reports confirm it was nearly effortless for Plum for more than 70 years.

“The Truth About George” disguises its artifice perfectly. Mr. Mulliner relays the story of his nephew, George Mulliner, a crossword puzzle enthusiast who stutters. Plot summary with Wodehouse is futile: it’s never the tale but the manner of telling that makes us laugh. George is attracted to Susan Blake, a fellow crossword devotee, but his stammer hinders his declaration of love. After an ordeal too long and hilariously unlikely to recount, George regains full powers of speech and encounters the object of his affection. Both speak like puzzle obsessives:

“`Why, Mr. Mulliner!’ she exclaimed. `What has been happening? Your clothes are torn, rent, ragged, tattered, and your hair is all disheveled, untrimmed, hanging loose or negligently, at loose ends!’”

“George smiled a wan smile.

“`You are right,’ he said. `And what is more, I am suffering from extreme fatigue, weariness, lassitude, exhaustion, prostration, and languor.’”

George continues:

“`Susan, I am not an eloquent man – I cannot speak fluently as I could wish – but these simple words which you have just heard come from the heart, from the unspotted heart of an English gentleman. Susan, I love you. Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, helpmeet, consort, partner or better half?”

“`Oh, George!’ said Susan. `Yes, yea, ay, aye! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute.’”

All of this is extremely funny and needs no further exegesis (analysis, explanation, interpretation), but ostentatious, puzzle-minded redundancy is a quality found pandemically in academic writing and elsewhere . Once a stutterer, now afflicted with logorrhea (loquacity, prolixity, bombast), George Mulliner might be Wodehouse’s prescient parody of writers, critics, professors and politicians averse to finding pleasure (delight, enchantment, gratification) in elegance and economy of language. In the story’s final sentences, Wodehouse suggests as much:

“[George] is now the chosen orator at all political rallies for miles around; and so offensively self-confident has his manner become that only last Friday he had his eye blacked by a hay-corn-and-feed merchant of the name of Stubbs. It just shows you, doesn’t it?”

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