Sunday, September 27, 2009

A single spot on a pristine surface

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry upon reading the word euphemisms, in the New York Times obituary of William Safire, misspelled as "euphamisms." The writer, Robert D. McFadden, is not likely to have responded to my profile on dating web sites, when I used to use them; but his sisters-in-kind used to write that they enjoyed "quite" evenings at home, which immediately caused me to stop reading.

Safire himself is probably laughing at McFadden's gaffe. It reminds me of Garrison Keillor, whose Writer's Almanac program I greatly enjoy, telling us every April 9 about Lee and Grant meeting "at the Appomattox Court House" to negotiate the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. They didn't meet in a court house but in the parlor of Wilmer McLean's farm house; "Appomattox Courthouse" was simply the name of the nearest town!

On the other hand, I liked it very much when Keillor described one of the last acts of William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker:

"Four days before he died in 1992, Shawn had lunch with Lillian Ross, and she showed him a book cover blurb she had written and asked if he would check it. She later wrote of that day, "He took out the mechanical pencil he always carried in his inside jacket pocket, and ... made his characteristically neat proofreading marks on a sentence that said 'the book remains as fresh and unique as ever.' He changed it to read, 'remains unique and as fresh as ever.' 'There are no degrees of uniqueness,' Mr. Shawn said politely."

I had not known that Safire arranged Nixon's famous "kitchen debate" with Kruschev and had forgotten that, as a former White House speechwriter, he was apparently the source of the phrase made famous by Spiro Agnew: "Nattering nabobs of negativism."

The ability to convey a great deal with a few well-chosen words is all too rare. I greatly admire the opening paragraph of James Gleick's biography of Sir Isaac Newton:

Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after. He was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity. He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos. He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact. He established principles, and they are called his laws.

The prose is lithe and supple; Gleick's longest sentence, the second, is a series of short clauses and is immediately followed by the elegant eight-word "He was chief architect of the modern world." He uses three-word series but does not overuse them, as Samuel Johnson sometimes did. In 142 words, there are only 15 of 3 syllables or more—only 2, quantitative and philosophical—of 4 syllables or more. The tone is intimate and yet somehow commanding, making the reader feel as if he has encountered something important that ought to require his full attention.

C.S. Lewis would have quarreled fiercely with Gleick's assertion that knowledge became "a thing of substance" by being "quantitative," but he shared Gleick's talent for powerful writing, intelligent and yet accessible to the general reader. As someone who no longer agrees with Lewis's beliefs in the most important things, I was still startled, this past week, to hear an intelligent friend who shares Lewis's faith, remark that Mere Christianity was so written that my friend couldn't really consider it very clear or engaging. Out of curiosity, I reread it for the first time in about 15 years, surprised to find it available online in .PDF format.

I remembered Lewis's flaws well enough but had forgotten some of his strengths. I can't finally agree with the book but found it quite gripping in places. As to writing style, Lewis knew the value of pithiness as much as anyone, but was still a very perceptive critic of that quality used for meretricious ends. I have often enjoyed, and still agree, with his comments on Bacon's Essays from Lewis's History of English Literature in the 16th Century:

"Even the completed Essays of 1625 is a book whose reputation curiously outweighs any real pleasure or profit that most people have found in it, 'a book' (as my successor admirably says) 'that everyone has read but no one is ever found reading.' The truth is, it is a book for adolescents. It is they who underline (as I see from the copy before me) sentences like 'There is little friendshipe in the worlde, and least of all betweene equals': a man of 40 either disbelieves it or takes it for granted. No one, even if he wished, could really learn 'policie' from Bacon, for cunning, even more than virtue, lives in minute particulars. What makes young readers think they are learning is Bacon's manner; the dry, apophthegmatic sentences, in appearance so unrhetorical, so little concerned to produce an effect, fall on the ear like oracles and are thus in fact a most potent rhetoric...."

In another place (I thought it was here but can't find it), Lewis says something like "Nothing could be less practical than the desperate practicality of Bacon's maxims." Actually, it may be just as well that poor Lewis has gone on to his reward; were he alive today, so far from complaining about the too-great attraction of the Essays for adolescents, he would be chagrined to learn that the likelihood of high school students appreciating or even comprehending Bacon's work on any grounds is considerably less than it was in Lewis's own day. In fact, I had forgotten until writing this that one night, about 10 years ago, some young person instant-messaged me on AOL® out of the blue, having seen the word "writer" in my profile and wondering if I could help her understand, what she had been given as homework, Bacon's essay "Of Truth." With more charity than sense, I gave her a long explanation of it, at the end of which she said "Yes, but what does it mean?"

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

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