Monday, May 21, 2018

`It's Dignified But Not Pretentious'

My middle son is reading The Structures of Everyday Life (trans. Siân Reynolds, 1981), the first volume in Fernand Braudel’s three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries. I asked what he thought, and he replied, “I like the style. It’s dignified but not pretentious,” a description that rules out most academic writing, journalism and blogs. To achieve stylistic gravitas, a writer must know something, know he knows it and know how to articulate it. He must be confident but not cocky. Glibness, know-it-all jargon-slinging, self-righteousness, cheap shots, snobbery and childish partisanship are incompatible with dignity.

Who are exemplars of the balanced style my son finds in Braudel? Johnson, of course. Much of Henry James. Abraham Lincoln, whose dignity verges on nobility. Carlyle and Henry Adams, in their cooler moments. Henry Adams. Proust. Santayana. Yvor Winters. Certainly Gibbon. Here is a continuation of the chapter from George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) quoted in Sunday’s post. After dismissing Coleridge’s observation that “Gibbon’s manner is the worst of all,” Saintsbury quotes a memorable, lengthy paragraph from Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1796). Here are Gibbon’s concluding sentences, among his most evocative, dignified and personal:

“The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years. I shall soon enter into the period which, as the most agreeable of his long life, was selected by the judgement and experience of the sage [Bernard Le Bovier de] Fontenelle. His choice is approved by the eloquent historian of nature, who fixes our moral happiness to the mature season in which our passions are supposed to be calmed, our duties fulfilled, our ambition satisfied, our fame and fortune established on a solid basis. In private conversation, that great and amiable man added the weight of his own experience; and this autumnal felicity might be exemplified in the lives of Voltaire, Hume, and many other men of letters. I am far more inclined to embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.”

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