Saturday, March 02, 2013

`An Achievement of a Different Order'

“A phrase, the interaction of a few words, is an achievement like a chemist’s, something glowing unexpectedly in a vial. A sentence is an achievement of a different order: a construction like a Roman arch or the great circle of a geodesic dome, a directed interdependency, carrying the attention between points of reference which are themselves the termini of other sentences.” 

The telltale clue as to the author’s identity is the reference to the geodesic dome, but seasoned readers of Hugh Kenner will also detect his mark in “directed interdependency.” This is the man, after all, who characterized a knot in a rope as “a patterned integrity” and “a self-interfering pattern.” Kenner was an architect of prose and only secondarily a chemist. The passage above is from A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett (1973). As an example of the achieved architecture of a sentence, Kenner cites a tour-de-force from Malone Dies: 

“It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter.” 

Kenner describes Beckett’s fifty harmoniously arranged words as “a flawless rhythmic structure pregnant with grotesqueries.” The writer of phrases is a frequently observed species, not without interest but common as a sparrow. Emerson built an oeuvre and career on a gift for phrase-making. Among poets, so did Whitman and Pound. Thoreau started as a writer of phrases and turned himself through sheer diligence into a fine crafter of sentences. Lincoln wrote sentences from the start. Other sentence-makers come to mind, such as Jonathan Swift, one of the best in the language, as in A Tale of a Tub (1704): 

“I have one word to say upon the subject of profound writers, who are grown very numerous of late; and I know very well the judicious world is resolved to list me in that number. I conceive therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers as with wells - a person with good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there: and often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and a-half under-ground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep upon no wiser reason than because it is wondrous dark.” 

Listen to the measured Irish tease of that complicated yet crystalline sentence. It’s crafted like a joke with a punch line, but one with time-released reverberations. I defy you to read it only once. For another, more circuitously minded Irishman, let’s look to Laurence Sterne in Chapter 1, XXXVII, of Tristram Shandy (1759-67): 

“Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;—so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.” 

Conversational? Yes, but no one even in Ireland has spontaneously spoken quite like that. Sterne’s prose is never mere transcription, nor is Flann O’Brien’s parody of Irish Twilight silliness in At Swim-Two-Birds (1939): 

“Finn Mac Cool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.” 

The Irish-American J.V. Cunningham in “The Journal of John Cardan” (The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham, 1978), shares the unsentimental, laser-like focus of his forebears: 

“So we save ourselves from the sentimental death of the hearts, and at the same time protect ourselves from engrossment in our wayward wishes. For a man must live divided against himself: only the selfishly insane can integrate experience to the heart’s desire, and only the emotionally sterile would not wish to.”

1 comment:

George said...

W.B. Yeats is also a master. Rereading Autobiographies the other winter, I found myself stopping at many sentences, and now and then copying them out. It is not surprising that many of these dealt with writing, and some with other writers: I find that I copied his remarks on Wilde and Synge.

His father is said to have managed similar feats, viva voce. Chesterton in his autobiography calls the elder Yeats the best talker of his day:

'Among twenty other qualities, he had that rare but very real thing,
entirely spontaneous style. The words will not come pouring out,
any more than the bricks that make a great building come pouring out;
they are simply arranged like lightning; as if a man could build
a cathedral as quickly as a conjurer builds a house of cards.
A long and elaborately balanced sentence, with dependent clauses
alternative or antithetical, would flow out of such talkers with every
word falling into its place, quite as immediately and innocently as most
people would say it was a fine day or a funny business in the papers.
I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in
an offhand way about the South African War, "Mr. Joseph Chamberlain
has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman
who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has
the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined."
That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence,
was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in
the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled
notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial;
merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it.
I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there
is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate.'

(Courtesy of Martin Ward's GKC web site: