Thursday, February 08, 2024

'Not Simply Bad Prose'

 “It is not simply bad prose—a tank is not a badly constructed automobile.”

Gilbert Highet (1906-78) was a Scottish-born, Oxford-educated American classicist who taught at Columbia for thirty-three years and managed to become a bona fide pop-culture “celebrity.” In 1952 (the year of Invisible Man and Witness) he was given a weekly radio show, the only stipulation being that he confine himself to “books of a high standard or else open up some question of broad literary or social interest.” His show was broadcast Tuesday evenings at 9:05 on WQXR in New York City. It aired on hundreds of stations in the U.S. and Canada, picked up by the Voice of America and BBC, and ran through 1959. Highet edited his radio talks into essays and published them in five volumes.


His best books, the ones I read when young and read again perhaps a decade ago are The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949) and Poets in a Landscape (1957). The passage at the top is taken from an essay titled “Axis Prose,” published in the spring 1942 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. Presumably, it was written in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor. America had already entered the war. Highet looks at the writing indigenous to the Axis powers – Germany, Italy, Japan – as well as the Soviet Union. He continues:


“Axis prose is a weapon, like a mine-thrower; or a drug, like chloroform. It is to be appraised not by its beauty, but by its efficiency. If it does its job, it is good of its kind. And we must admit that, so far, it usually has done its job. Kipling has a poem in ‘Barrack-Room Ballads” about the woes of the artist, who must always hear the Devil’s question; ‘It’s clever, but is it Art?’ The makers of Axis prose are troubled by no such doubts. When they hear the word ‘culture,’ they reach for their revolvers, as one of their own number has well said. The Party does not want criticism; the Party wants obedience.”


Highet’s essay echoes observations Orwell would make later in the decade and and that still echo today. “Even the most ordinary objects are renamed” sounds disturbingly contemporary. And this: “If a new name cannot be found, an impressive adjective is tacked on to the noun which needs ennobling.” And the following recalls much of the academic writing I have to read daily: “[M]ost of the effective mystifications in Axis prose are produced by the excellent device of constructing sentences too long and indigestible for him to follow and assimilate.”


Highet might be reading today’s headlines:


“These, then, are the three feelings which Axis prose is designed to produce: solidarity, aspiration, and mystification. They correspond neatly enough to the fascist motto which one sees stenciled on every blank wall in Italy: believe! obey! fight! Believing without understanding is mystification. Subordination of oneself to the group (and its leader) is obedience. The revolutionary future is to be won by fighting. Believe. Obey. Fight.”


Richard Zuelch said...

As you no doubt know, his "Poets in a Landscape" was reprinted by New York Review Books in 2010. Now I've got another book to buy!

Richard Zuelch said...

And, a short note: some of Highet's original radio programs can be heard here:

Thomas Parker said...

Thank you, Richard - what a treasure trove!