Daring

Dept. of Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as ‘daring’, though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Thing

Not quite genius

It has been truly said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

A genius once observed that all motion is relative. After long perspiration, he published the Theory of Relativity.

An idiot, too, observed that all motion is relative. After no perspiration at all, he decided to brush his teeth by holding the toothbrush in one place and shaking his head back and forth.

Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’

Fairy tales and realism

‘Can you not see,’ I said, ‘that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is – what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is – what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

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Sumer is icumen in

I posted this years ago on the old blog, but as the solstice approaches, I have been thinking of it and thought I would trot it out again.

The Hilliard Ensemble sings the earliest known example of six-part polyphonic song, one of the major hits of the 13th century – the first of exactly two periods in which the world was knocked off its pins by English music. I think it still stands up well.

 

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Pes:
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

 

In Modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag leaps,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now.

Pes:
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

(There is some controversy over the translation of uerteth. An alternative, favoured by the scatologically inclined, is that the stag is farting. This is an amusing idea, I suppose, but neatly destroys the parallelism of action in the line, and I find myself compelled to disfavour it.)

Efficiency

A person falling into a manhole is rarely helped by making it possible for him to fall faster or more efficiently.

—Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason

Fake evocation

A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the main street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin, and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.

—Richard Brautigan, Sombrero Fallout

This is a good way of hooking a reader: we want to know where that sombrero came from. But it does contain a wasted sentence, thrown in, apparently, in a failed attempt to provide ‘atmosphere’:

It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen.

That line is simply a cheat. One technique that bad writers use fairly often, and even good writers may fall back on despite themselves, is fake evocation – communicating mood by phony description. Instead of describing a thing and allowing it to suggest a mood to the reader, they flatly state what the mood is supposed to be and pretend that the thing described evokes it. It’s lazy, it’s a swindle against the reader, and it deserves no praise.

In the instant case, it appears to me that Mr. Brautigan (or, rather, the character who is writing the story-within-a-story that begins with this passage) wanted to shoehorn an expectant mood into the passage, so he looked for a place where he could plausibly insert the phrase ‘waiting for something to happen’. He did this by attaching it to a bit of physical description that, by itself, would do absolutely nothing to evoke such a mood, and then relying upon artistic licence to make readers (and critics) let him get away with it.

Incidentally, to say that eyes are sky-blue is descriptive, because sky-blue is a fairly definite colour. To say that the sky was eye-blue is just silly, because blue eyes are not all alike.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this at somewhat greater length in ‘Teaching Pegasus to crawl’.

(Reposted, with edits, from a comment thread on The Passive Voice.)

The limits of technique

I have just re-read (after a lapse of some years) Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, which first appeared in 1974. He addresses his polemic chiefly to computer scientists and computer-science teachers, but he is consciously aware that he is speaking more generally and philosophically. Some of what he says, it seems to me, applies to writers quite as well:

It happens that programming is a relatively easy craft to learn. Almost anyone with a reasonably orderly mind can become a fairly good programmer with just a little instruction and practice. And because programming is almost immediately rewarding, that is, because a computer very quickly begins to behave somewhat in the way the programmer intends it to, programming is very seductive, especially for beginners. Moreover, it appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success. Immature students are therefore easily misled into believing that they have truly mastered a craft of immense power and of great importance when, in fact, they have learned only its rudiments and nothing substantive at all.

A student’s quick climb from a state of complete ignorance about computers to what appears to be a mastery of programming, but is in reality only a very minor plateau, may leave him with a euphoric sense of achievement and a conviction that he has discovered his true calling.… He may so thoroughly commit himself to what he naively perceives to be computer science, that is, to the mere polishing of his programming skills, that he may effectively preclude studying anything substantive.

Unfortunately, many universities have ‘computer science’ programs at the undergraduate level that permit and even encourage students to take this course. When such students have completed their studies, they are rather like people who have somehow become eloquent in some foreign language, but who, when they attempt to write something in that language, find that they have literally nothing of their own to say.

The lesson in this is that, although the learning of a craft is important, it cannot be everything.

Replace ‘computer’ with ‘story’, ‘programming’ with ‘writing’, and so forth, and it stands as a pretty shrewd assessment of a rather common problem in recent fiction. On one level, you get the creative-writing graduate who has a superb grasp of technique, but does not know how to come up with an interesting story, and has been painstakingly taught not to care. On another, you get a certain kind of self-published writer – the one who thinks that volume is the sole and sufficient secret of success, and cranks out books as fast as he can shove them through the keyboard, without ever once asking, ‘Is this story interesting enough to be worth telling?’

Between these two, the world sees a lot of stories that might just as well not have been written at all. And yet the people who write them think they are accomplishing something, and in many cases, even feel that they have some kind of moral duty to persist and write their daily quota of pages. The idea of writing when one has something to say, it seems, scarcely occurs to them.

In the terms I used in ‘Style is the rocket’, these stories are all propulsion system and no payload. The rocket takes off with a satisfactory rush of smoke and flames, but at the end of its flight, nobody and nothing has been transported anywhere. This is a fine hobby for the rocketeer, but its entertainment value to anybody else, sad to say, is considerably lacking.

Pascal on composition

The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.

—Blaise Pascal

(Hat tip to Mary Catelli.)

On political correctness

Morals consist of political morals, commercial morals, ecclesiastical morals, and morals.

—Mark Twain

 

Here I am not trying to deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of anti-social selfishness. Although other aspects of the question are usually in the foreground, the controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.…

The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privilege.

—George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature

The term ‘political correctness’, which began (and justly so) as a term of abuse, has been embraced by a legion of liars as a justification for their lies; and it has been made so fashionable that nowadays, in most polite circles, it is considered an insult to accuse someone of not being politically correct.

The usual excuse made for this is that political correctness is about not offending people’s feelings unnecessarily; that anyone who opposes it must therefore want to be offensive, and that, you know, is a Very Bad Thing. This characterization of the issue is one of the Big Lies of our time, as a variation of it was in Orwell’s time. The real issue, now as then, is about the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.

If Joe Bloggs wishes to say that two and two are four, or that Paris is the capital of France, or to make any other straightforward and uncontroversial statement of fact, he is working on a level where political correctness does not even come into question. What he says is correct, without any modifiers, or else it is in error. The moment you add a modifier to that adjective, you are moving away from the primary issue of truth vs. falsehood, and into secondary matters which may be in plain conflict with it. [Read more…]