Friday, February 01, 2013

`A Comely and Muscular Sentence'

If an essay, that notoriously wayward form, can ever be judged perfect, it might be Guy Davenport’s “Finding,” or Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative,” or Charles Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading,” or Dr. Johnson’s The Rambler #185. It might also be a three-page charmer turned out in 1985 by Cynthia Ozick and collected in Metaphor & Memory (1989): “The Seam of the Snail.” In it, Ozick calls herself “a pinched perfectionist,” and among its themes is striving after perfection in the human realm. 

Her essay starts with a memory of growing up during the Great Depression. Ozick contrasts her mother’s sewing style with her cousin Sarah’s: “My mother’s sewing had elegant outsides, but there was something catch-as-catch-can about the insides. Sarah’s sewing, by contrast, was as impeccably finished inside as out; not one stray thread dangled.” Without saying so, Ozick has proposed a grand taxonomy of human types. Already I know I want to be like Sarah but, sadly, I’m closer to Ozick’s mother. Unlike Ozick’s Uncle Jake, a masterful clock maker, her mother’s creations are “serviceable” (a word that always reminds me of Edgar’s retort in King Lear: “I know thee well. A serviceable villain”). With her mother, “nothing was perfect. There was always some clear flaw, never visible head-on.” Once she planted “a whole yard of tall corn.” The result: “The corn thrived, though not in rows. The stalks elbowed one another like gossips in a dense little village.” 

Aligned with Sarah and Uncle Jake is Ozick’s high-school English teacher, Miss Brubaker, who teaches penmanship. Ozick’s mother judges her “an emblem of raging finical obsession.” The loops in her mother’s handwriting are “big as soup bowls, spilling generous splashy ebullience.” We sense where Ozick’s sympathies lie, for she too is divided. She learned Miss Brubaker’s lessons too well, and she goes on “casting and recasting sentences in a tiny handwriting on monomaniacally uniform paper.” She writes of her mother: “She was an optimist who ignored trifles; for her, God was not in the details but in the intent.” Another taxonomy, this one theological. 

Never merely a love song to her mother, Ozick’s essay is a forgiving moral assessment of human behavior. She says: “Lavish: my mother was as lavish as nature” and “…my mother’s was a life of—intricately abashing word!—excellence: insofar as excellence means ripe generosity.” That’s a fine way to think of Ozick’s own prose, with its echoes of Henry James and Saul Bellow: “ripe generosity.” One wishes to hand the reader the entire essay, point at it and insist, “This is how it’s done. Read it”: 

“The fact that I am an exacting perfectionist in a narrow strait only, and nowhere else, is hardly to the point, since nothing matters to me so much as a comely and muscular sentence. It is my narrow strait, this snail’s road; the track of the sentence I am writing now; and when I have eked out the wet substance, ink or blood that is its mark, I will begin the next sentence. Only in treading out sentences am I perfectionist.” 

She has two more matchless paragraphs to go. Read them. A writer will understand. Our little kingdom, our sole sovereignty, ends at the next word, at the conclusion of this sentence.


Ian Wolcott said...

Bravo, Mr Kurp.

Roger Boylan said...

Brilliant, Patrick. Resonant.