Tuesday, April 13, 2021

'As Relentlessly as a Spartan Father'

“Honesty and veracity, it seems then, can be kept only by constant self-control. ‘Know thyself’—‘Nothing too much.’ But our much-governed generation, at least, should have learnt that too many controls are dangerous. Beginning as necessities, they often end as abuses.” 

The passage is drawn not from a treatise on morals or governance but from a guide to writing good prose: Style (1955) by F.L. Lucas. I read it again after reading Joseph Epstein’s introduction to a newly published edition. It’s not one of those annoying writing manuals that resemble instructions for assembling a desk from Ikea, or a recycling of Strunk and White. It’s not boring or preachy. Lucas himself is a first-rate writer. It reads like the creation of one man –  not a committee, mercifully. Keep in mind that most literary critics today cannot compose an interesting sentence. Epstein calls Lucas' book “a compendium of its author’s opinions, tastes, point of view.” Only a deeply read writer, one whose own prose is vivid and precise, could write a book as entertaining as Style.


The sentences quoted above open Chap. VIII, “Good Health and Vitality.” Lucas has just closed the preceding chapter, “Good Sense and Sincerity,” like this:


“A writer should remember that about his Muse there is a great deal of the Siren. He should view his mental offspring as relentlessly as a Spartan father - if it is not perfectly sound, let it be cast out. If he does not oppose it, others will, in a different sense. No doubt such austerity is not easy. It may involve infanticide on the scale of Herod; and it was not his own children Herod was killing. Yet better that, than falsity.”


Lucas follows his own advice. He is disciplined enough to happily digress without creating a muddle. His thoughts are both focused and abundant. He appears to have read almost everything worth reading. His imagination is both libertarian and disciplined. To leave an impression of imaginative freedom without chaos is hard work. Here are the sentences that follow the passage at the top:


“Through the ages, indeed, men have swung uneasily backwards and forwards from indulgence to austerity, from austerity to indulgence; partly from force of circumstance. Partly because the innate aggressiveness of human nature can easily turn from tyrannizing others to tyrannizing itself. The ascetic is often one who sacrifices healthier pleasures to that of playing dictator in his own soul.”


You know when reading Style you are in the company of a grownup, a man with few illusions about human nature.

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