Wednesday, September 11, 2013

`Seek More or Less After Precision'

The novelist Rose Macaulay (1889-1958) begins her essay “Catchwords and Claptrap” with the confession that she finds “language as used one of the most amusing subjects for meditation and speculation.” Coming from a writer, such an admission ought to be redundant but some are indifferent to their chosen medium and others actively impatient and contemptuous. I saw “first thought, best thought” first put in action not by Jack Kerouac but a sports writer for a newspaper in Ohio. He was snobbish about writing badly, as many reporters, academics and bloggers remain. Taking care with words, fitting sound to sense, seemed effete. He was indifferent to Swift’s advice to a clergyman: “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” 

Macaulay writes: “Many words, many phrases, seem to acquire nimbuses of association, which do rough service for exact meaning.” The language sickness she diagnoses carries fewer political implications than George Orwell’s muddier and more influential essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946). Macaulay could almost be reporting on the way we hear people speak daily in 2013: “…the vague and rhetorical use of phrases and ideas which carry with them certain associations in the mind of the user, and which will, he trusts, carry across similar associations to the hearer or reader.” In short: “you know.” Referring to the “verbal haloes” used by the litterateurs of the late nineteenth-century (and, we might add, today), Macaulay writes: 

“Most of the better writers of verse and prose, in all countries, seek more or less after precision, and have gained in truth what they have perhaps lost in loveliness. Claptrap, facile and inaccurate symbolism, the repetition of the tag and the slogan, are to be found mainly just now in third-rate literature, in popular speech, and in the less educated press. In these places one finds, on a lower plane, the same intention - the lazy and sentimental desire to convey an effect by using catchwords.” 

I found Macaulay’s essay in a brown first edition titled The Hogarth Essays, published in 1928 by Doubleday, Doran & Company. The originals were issued as pamphlets beginning in 1924 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf and their Hogarth Press. The lineup represents an All-Star team of Anglophone Modernism – three essays by T.S. Eliot published collectively under the title Homage to John Dryden; E.M. Forster; such lesser lights as Roger Fry, Herbert Read and Logan Pearsall Smith; Robert Graves; and unreadable contributions by Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein (“It is very likely that nearly every one has been very nearly certain that something this is interesting is interesting them,” stammers Stein.)  The ringer in the bunch is “HenryJames at Work,” by Theodora Bosanquet, the novelist’s chief amanuensis from 1907 until his death in 1916. Her devotion to a writer devoted only to his Muse is touching. She’s also drily funny: 

“Many men whose prime business is the art of writing find rest and refreshment in other occupations. They marry or they keep dogs, they play golf or bridge, they study Sanskrit or collect postage stamps. Except for a period of ownership of a dachshund [Max], Henry James did none of these things. He lived a life consecrated to the service of a jealous, insatiable, and supremely rewarding goddess, and all his activities had essential reference to that service.” 

Bosanquet, author of a fine monograph devoted to Paul Valéry (1933), understands James better than many of his critics: 

“The essential fact is that wherever he looked Henry James saw fineness apparently sacrificed to grossness, beauty to avarice, truth to a bold front. He realized how constantly the tenderness of growing life is at the mercy of personal tyranny [Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, What Maisie Knew, etc.] and he hated the tyranny of persons over each other. His novels are a repeated exposure of this wickedness, a reiterated and passionate plea for the fullest freedom of development, unimperilled by reckless and barbarous stupidity.”

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