Wednesday, December 05, 2018

'Every Word Carries the Meaning'

“Style is manifest in language. The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of mind and heart which back it.”

If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember the clever analogy. Cyril Connolly is seldom less than clever. When he’s merely clever, or unclever, his books read like protracted tweets, unctuously or viciously glib. His next sentence in Enemies of Promise (1938; rev. ed., 1949) continues in the clever mode, in the better sense: “The perfect use of language is that in which every word carries the meaning that it is intended to, no less and no more.” Here he echoes Swift: “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” Connolly pinpoints the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as the era when “words expressed what they meant and when it was impossible to write badly. . . . To write badly at that time would involve a perversion of language, to write naturally was a certain way of writing well.” He cites, among other, Dryden, Swift and Defoe. The contrast with writing today is too obvious to note. Progress is seldom inevitable. Connolly goes on to condemn the “two great Alters,” Addison and Pope, and formulates a silly theory:

“Addison was responsible for many of the evils from which English prose has since suffered. He made prose artful, and whimsical, he made it sonorous when sonority was not needed, affected when it did not require affectation; he enjoined the essay on us so that countless small boys are at the moment busy setting down their views on travel, the Great Man, Courage, Gardening, capital Punishment to wind up with a quotation from Bacon.”

He goes on to accuse the admittedly industrious Addison of turning essay writing into an “industry.” Again, Connolly turns cleverness into a liability, and drags in political snobbery by accusing Addison of being “the apologist for the New Bourgeoisie.” One relishes the spectacle of an intelligent man behaving foolishly. Addison, he writes, “anticipated Lamb and Emerson, Stevenson, Punch and the professional humorists, the delicious middlers, the fourth leaders, the memoirs of cabinet ministers, the orations of business magnates, and of chiefs of police.” Here’s he’s amusingly wrong and sounds like an English Mencken.

Connolly disapproves of a vast school of writing he calls Mandarin, into which he manages to cram such unlikely bedfellows, “beloved by literary pundits,” as Lamb, the Keats of the letters, Compton Mackenzie, Rupert Brooke. In the next chapter, he abruptly shifts gears and has good things to say about certain practitioners of the Mandarin style: Donne, Browne, Addison [!], Johnson, Gibbon, de Quincey, Landor, Carlyle and Ruskin. He makes things even more confusing by opposing them to Bunyan, Dryden, Locke, Defoe, Cowper, Cobbett, Hazlitt, Southey and Newman. The eighteen writers just named, as best I can tell, have little in common except various forms of the English Language. I revere most of them and assume a respectable reader/writer is familiar with all of them.

Dogma helps no one. The only thing I expect of any writer is that he write well. His sole obligation is the composition of good prose, according to his gifts. I love the prose of Swift and Defoe. That doesn’t compromise the pleasure I take in reading late James and Nabokov.

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

While slightly older than you I spent my education on good English prose and, hence, Investrd heavily Connolly. Today all I recall is a joke: one Bostonian socialite to another: “ Do you know Cyril Connolly?” The other: “ Oh, heavens! Not THAT well!!”