Thursday, March 11, 2010

`His Force and Terror Inundate Every Word'

“Talent alone cannot make a writer.”

Who can argue with this? Thomas Wolfe had talent. So did David Foster Wallace. So does a happy minority in the blogosphere. But Wolfe and Wallace were not writers nor are most bloggers. Talent is rare; discipline, rigorous self-criticism and linguistic prodigality, rarer.

“There must be a man behind the book; a personality which, by birth and quality, is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise; holding things because they are things.”

So, writing is more than a reliable reservoir of pretty words or fogbank of generalities. A forceful dedication to truth, the writer suggests, is the genuine writer’s sustaining engine.

“If he cannot rightly express himself to-day, the same things subsist, and will open themselves to-morrow. There lies the burden on his mind--the burden of truth to be declared,--more or less understood; and it constitutes his business and calling in the world, to see those facts through, and to make them known.”

This is encouraging. Perceiving and understanding truth, and learning to express it, perhaps understanding it by learning to express it, is a writer’s work-in-progress. We are unfinished. Work remains. Back to the keyboard.

“What signifies that he trips and stammers; that his voice is harsh or hissing; that this method or his tropes are inadequate? That message will find method and imagery, articulation and melody. Though he were dumb, it would speak. If not,--if there be no such God's word in the man,--what care we how adroit, how fluent, how brilliant he is?”

The writer’s optimism grows a little overbearing and Yoda-like, though I admire “trips and stammers” and “”harsh or hissing.” On to the next paragraph:

“It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence, whether there be a man behind it, or no. In the learned journal, in the influential newspaper, I discern no form; only some irresponsible shadow; oftener some monied corporation, or some dangler, who hopes, in the mask and robes of his paragraph, to pass for somebody. But, through every clause and part of speech of a right book, I meet the eyes of the most determined of men: his force and terror inundate every word: the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble,--can go far and live long.”

Ghosts, stylized ectoplasm, emit what passes for writing in most learned journals and newspapers. But our writer transcends his funk and rouses himself to laud “the most determined of men: his force and terror inundate every word” – that is, the rarest of creatures in the writerly jungle, the real writer.

Our man here is Emerson in “Goethe; or, the Writer” (Representative Men, 1850). I thought of the essay while reading Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries (2009) by Daniel Mark Epstein. He refers in passing to a “curious lecture,” “On Discoveries and Inventions,” Lincoln wrote and delivered in 1858 “under the influence of Walt Whitman.” I had never read it before. Here’s the complete paragraph from which Epstein excerpts:

“Writing -- the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye -- is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it -- great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. Suppose the art, with all conception of it, were this day lost to the world, how long, think you, would it be, before even Young America could get up the letter A. with any adequate notion of using it to advantage? The precise period at which writing was invented, is not known; but it certainly was as early as the time of Moses; from which we may safely infer that its inventors were very old fogies.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I like your contemporary take on Emerson's take on Goethe. Reading the whole essay was interesting, a blend of dated paeans to Greco/Renaissance comity and modern-sounding warnings about words co-opted by money and facts overwhelming reasoning capabilities.

I can't imagine what Emerson would think of things today, where we are expected to read hundreds of emails a day and are exposed in a typical week to more information that he came across in his entire lifetime. Some say this makes us dumber by rearranging our brains to multi-tasking triage, some say it frees us from mundane fact to stretch our mental acuities in ways formerly unforeseen. In any case, the special place of the writer in his Platonic society has been essentially obliterated--too many seeds, too few feces.

I suppose that is a necessary thing. Past limitations on information allowed our minds to be shaped and controlled through the scrivening class to a far greater degree than can be done today. I go back to Thomas Kuhn on this, that the "great men" and "great ideas of history" are more or less socially convenient constructions that we trick ourselves into believing are objective truths borne out of some special privilege.

(There's no rational reason, for example, that an entire culture can be built from the warring philosophies of two mere books, the Bible and the Hermetica (both of which were about as genetically manipulated as an apis-bull), but there we have it--the road taken.)

Don't get me wrong. I love history because of the wonders we did with what we knew at the time. But the current age has taken a turn towards a collective singularity that is, to my mind, completely unprecedented. Individual minds are no more than cells in the machine--unable to grasp the great work in its totality. The inevitable result in us--who've been programmed to think otherwise--is a rise in ego and addictions and solipsistic play that still--despite everything-- contributes to and informs the whole.

David Foster Wallace once said "I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today,of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it." No wonder he committed suicide!

Maybe we can all just take a "page" from you, Patrick, and discover in what catches our eyes some secret to our own private psyches.