Saturday, August 13, 2016

`Grateful Reverence for the Way Things Are'

“The very beginning of lyric poetry is compression radiating connotations. Loquacity is the very opposite of poetry; it’s gaseous speech, non-coruscating and disjoined. (In chemistry they call such gas `inert.’)”

Because such gases rarely react with other elements. Because they are so stable they are chemically staid, about as unchanging as matter gets. They don’t “socialize” and are incombustible. In short, they are a nice metaphor for indifferent writing, whether poetry or prose. A writer intolerant of flab and fluff makes every word count. His sentences are simultaneously matter and energy. It’s no coincidence that the author of the passage above is attracted to the aphorism, the tightest and densest of forms, prose very nearly poetry. Eva Brann has just brought out Doublethink/Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts and Twofold Speech, a sequel of sorts to Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on Word and Soul (2004), both published by Paul Dry Books.

Brann divides her new collection of “thought-bits,” as she calls them, into forty categories. The first I read was “Books.” Two entries before the one quoted above she writes, even more succinctly: “Poetry is radiating concision, prose braided expansion.” Neither is superior to the other. Each has its purpose. “Braided” is Brann’s richest choice of words. I don’t think she means decorative, as in hair or bread. The OED helps: “plaited, woven, entwined; fig. tangled, intricate, as a dance.” Prose as merengue or waltz, with the implication of music and disciplined movement. The best prose writers learn the lessons of poetry without writing “poetically,” as in flowery or faux-sensitive. Writers have much in common with the best scientists, beginning with precise observation and distaste for theory.

In another entry, Brann notes the epigraph from Dr. Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia that George Eliot gives to Chap. LXI of Middlemarch: “Inconsistencies,” answered Imlac, “cannot both be right, but imputed to man they may both be true.” Brann comments, almost whimsically: “I would expand: not only `imputed to man’ but to everything—my new-found Heracliteanism. Long live inconstancy rightly understood!” An acceptance of inconstancy is the telltale symptom of a mature mind. Only children, generally backward children, expect the world to run according to plan, that things don’t break and people live up to their promises, that the world is an obedient extension of themselves. Brann goes on: “Eliot is a wonderful citer of quotes, but if all her own observational obiter dicta were culled and collected, I should be out of business, all my scribblings being de trop.”

As that implies, Eliot resides in Brann’s pantheon of fiction writers. She calls novels “world-extensions of the imagination.” Along with Middlemarch (one wishes she would write of its non-identical twin, Daniel Deronda) she ranks War and Peace and Jane Austen’s Persuasion. She writes of novels (not novelists) in an endearingly fond and personal manner, as though they were friends. What she likes about War and Peace is “fat, dissolute Kutuzov and his wise passivity, his confident fatalism . . . . Still, I wouldn’t particularly want to have dinner with the old slob. I’m for stringy Anglo-Saxons, meaning Lincoln, also a faithful fatalist, but in more shapely format. That’s because I’m an American, or better, an almost-American—by choice rather than birth.—No, that’s not quite right: first by fateful accident, then by steadily growing inclination.”

Finally, Brann confirms something I observed long ago: Conservatives have an almost absolute monopoly on humor. She writes, sounding something like Michael Oakeshott:

“Why are comic writers often conservatives, viz. Aristophanes? Because they see the world as blessedly resistant to managerial reason, and individuals as intractably recalcitrant to being rectifyingly shifted out of their own type. But stubborn coincidence with one’s own paradigm [we’ll forgive her use of that ugly word], indefeasible adherence to one’s template, is itself funny and becomes really comic when it exactly figures the human mean. So, moreover, conservatives tend to grateful reverence for the way things are, and the human mean is the way things mostly are. And since they think that the world is not rational, they know it’s sometimes tragic (tragedy being what reason can’t fix), and so they like to laugh, and, if they have the genius, to make others laugh.”

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