Thursday, March 19, 2015

`It Is All Plain and Aboveboard'

Some of us expend much energy and ingenuity trying to avoid the “I.” Though skinny, the runt among words in English, the first-person singular pronoun is pushy and ever ready to leap on stage, the default writing mode of every egotist. “I” is the word spoken most often on the telephone, and a pandemic of the irritating little article infects the world, online and off. Since Montaigne, the form’s progenitor, the essay has been a wrestling match with “I.” The strategies spawned by its practitioners to avoid proliferating I’s have been many. Recently, in connection with an online pest, Dave Lull observed that this blogger did not possess an “interesting mind” (I would add that he cannot write). Perhaps it’s a matter of sensibility, that elusive but instantly recognizable quality. 

To assuage the “I,” Montaigne specialized in simultaneously reveling in and deflating the self. Lamb invented Elia, his affable stand-in. Mencken pulled it off with sheer brashness and brio, as did Chesterton. In From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Jacques Barzun writes that Hazlitt in Liber Amoris is “immediate, yet detached.” That seems to be the trick. One is not confessing, pontificating or whining but observing everything, even the viral little “I.” Hazlitt writes in The Spirit of the Age (1825) of William Cobbett, author of the wonderful Rural Rides (1830) and an essayist who, like Mencken and Chesterton, was essentially a journalist: 

“His egotism is delightful, for there is no affectation in it. He does not talk of himself for lack of something to write about, but because some circumstance that has happened to himself is the best possible illustration of the subject; and he is not the man to shrink from giving the best possible illustration of the subject from a squeamish delicacy. He likes both himself and his subject too well. He does not put himself before it, and say `admire me first,’ but places us in the same situation with himself, and makes us see all that he does. There is no blind-man's buff, no conscious hints, no awkward ventriloquism, no testimonies of applause, no abstract, senseless self-complacency, no smuggled admiration of his own person by proxy. It is all plain and aboveboard.”

1 comment:

Place to stand... said...

Have you overheard me repeatedly saying to someone who shall remain nameless - 'please use a different pronoun, anything other than 'I' !!!

Love this, thanks.