Friday, April 18, 2014

`The Right Kind of Mind'

More than eight years ago, one of the first writers I wrote about at Anecdotal Evidence was the American philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892-1987). That post, devoted to On Philosophical Style (1954), led to my friendship with Dave Lull, who knows more about Blanshard (and Hume, among others) than I ever will. In a used book store I recently found a water-warped copy of On Philosophical Style – at sixty-nine small pages, hardly more than a pamphlet – priced at fifty cents. It takes half an hour to read but is packed with useful ideas about prose, philosophical and otherwise. He asks us to name the writers who have “managed to make their ideas most uniformly interesting.” All of Blanshard’s nominations date from the nineteenth century – Macaulay, Froude, Carlyle, Hazlitt, Lamb and Ruskin. Of them he writes: 

“These men wrote in different ways and on different subjects—not always easy subjects by any means. But there is one trait they all have in common: they are unfailingly interesting. That makes one suspect that they have at least one other trait in common, and with a little reflection one finds it: what they wrote is saturated with feeling.” 

I thought immediately of a book blogger I know, a partisan of the avant-garde, whose prose is unfailingly leaden. His writing embodies the flat-affect school of composition. He has honed an earnest, inexpressive drone. I think, however, we have to be careful about calling for writing that is “saturated with feeling.” Too easily that’s interpreted to mean hysteria, adolescent self-indulgence and "sincerity." Blanshard writes (and keep in mind that he is a philosopher): 

“Readers want their writers to make them feel alive, and when they can sit with their authors and jeer and laugh and scold and rejoice and admire with them, they feel intensely alive.” 

I’ve devoted a lot of time lately to Philip Larkin, who will never be mistaken for a cheerleader but whose best poems and much of his prose make this reader feel “intensely alive.” Readers and writers alike mistake stridency for animation. A few pages later, Blanshard admits that he likes “in my philosophers, some responsiveness of mood to matter.” Cookie cutters are useful in baking but not in crafting sentences. Each sentence, each word, is brand new, a freshly minted thought and sound. The right sort of mind finds that invigorating. Blanshard writes near the end of his little book: 

“The more perfectly one’s style fits the inner man and reveals its strength and effect, the clearer it becomes that the problem of style is not a problem of word and sentences merely, but of being the right kind of mind.”

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