Sunday, August 31, 2014

`Giving Elegance to Trifles'

“The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is communicated or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the absent either love or esteem; to excite love we must impart pleasure, and to raise esteem we must discover abilities.”

When did I last receive a letter? I mean “letter” in the conventional, almost extinct sense of a sheet of paper, handwritten or typed, with a message composed in complete sentences, folded, sealed in an envelope, stamped, addressed and mailed – a significant investment of time, energy and thoughtfulness our literate forebears took for granted. The closest surviving descendant of this non-machine-generated ideal is the birthday card, a second-best, ghost-written surrogate. This would have appalled Samuel Johnson, author of the passage above in The Rambler #152, published on this date, Aug. 31, in 1751. Johnson continues:
“Pleasure will generally be given as abilities are displayed by scenes of imagery, points of conceit, unexpected sallies, and artful compliments. Trifles always require exuberance of ornament; the building which has no strength can be valued only for the grace of its decorations. The pebble must be polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond; and words ought surely to be laboured, when they are intended to stand for things.”
There was, in other words, an art to letter writing, prescribed in part by an unwritten code of manners (“Dear,” “Sincerely,” “P.S.”), a mingling of formality and affection, and a willingness to select the correct words and polish them. Cousin to such a letter is the flow of familiar conversation. Or the rare, well-written, thoughtful email, such as I received Friday from Helen Pinkerton. She writes, in part:
“In your blog for August 11 on Louise Bogan I like the way that you show your gift not only finding exceptional passages of criticism in older writers but adding your own perceptions about the passages in question. I admire and enjoy your way of writing what is really the equivalent of a very short literary essay. You, yourself, are pretty strong on `much in little.’” 

That such a compliment is delivered in careful, measured prose, not in today’s more overheated, formulaic fashion – the verbal equivalent of the vulgar “High five!” – lends it an earned quality. Helen respects language and other people. It’s no coincidence that she noticed a typo I had missed in the same post. Johnson says in the same Rambler essay:
“As much of life must be passed in affairs considerable only by their frequent occurrence, and much of the pleasure which our condition allows, must be produced by giving elegance to trifles, it is necessary to learn how to become little without becoming mean, to maintain the necessary intercourse of civility, and fill up the vacuities of actions by agreeable appearances. It had, therefore, been of advantage, if such of our writers as have excelled in the art of decorating insignificance, had supplied us with a few sallies of innocent gaiety, effusions of honest tenderness, or exclamations of unimportant hurry.”

No comments: