Archives for March 2012

John C. Wright on moral valence

John C. Wright is interviewed in Raygun Revival. Here, as a taste of the gig, is Mr. Wright on moral valence in popular fiction:

If you wish to argue that there is no such thing as clearly defined good and evil in real life, all I can say in reply is that your notion of real life is missing an essential dimension. This does not mean, of course, that our stalwart hero cannot be caught in a moral paradox, but it does mean that the moral paradox must be a real one, with white and black as sharply defined as squares on a chessboard. It does not mean that our characters need always to be Bishops, always ending on the same color where they began.

I heartily endorse this view of the matter, and I will add this on my own account:

People who extol the so-called virtues of moral ambivalence are, in my experience, generally lazy thinkers. They have not the patience to solve difficult problems (and most of the moral problems that actually engage our attention are difficult); so they pretend that the problems are insoluble and that one answer is no better than another.

If someone says there is no black or white in moral matters, you should carefully consider the possibility that he cannot see them because he is looking with his eyes tightly shut.

‘The Triumph of Bullshit’: T. S. Eliot pre-empts his critics

The following poem is, I find, a remarkable piece of work, and for at least three reasons. For one thing, it is an exquisitely formed comic ballade by T. S. Eliot — not the first name that comes to mind, I dare say, when you think of funny verses, or of strict rhyme and meter for that matter.

Secondly, it’s a beautiful pre-emptive attack on just the sort of critics who would spend the remaining fifty-five years of Eliot’s life bellyaching about his poetry in just the way that he describes, though not usually with the same dash and glitter. Pre-emptive, I say: for Eliot wrote this poem about 1910, when he was still virtually unknown, before he composed any of the great poems that made him a cornerstone of the Modernist movement and the bête noire of every right-thinking reader. He never published it in his lifetime, but there must have been scores of reviewers that he would have liked to send it to privately.

It is also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known written usage of the word ‘bullshit’. I find this both amusing and tremendously sad. Bullshit had barely been christened, and already it was triumphant. If I am ever called upon to write a one-sentence history of the intellect in the twentieth century, that will be it.

The Triumph of Bullshit

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward, insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles freely versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotion that turn isiculous,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out ‘this stuff is too stiff for us’—
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannon fumiferous
Engines vaporous—all this will pass;
Quite innocent,— ‘he only wants to make shiver us.’
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shall pass
Among the theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ’s sake stick them up your ass.

—T. S. Eliot

John C. Wright on writing fiction

John C. Wright has recently reposted an excellent introductory essay on the mechanics of fiction-writing. In his survey of the subject, he blows the gaff on one of our more undeservedly disreputable techniques:

This, by the way, is why writers use stereotypes. Far from being the evil thing all the rest of the world regards them as being, writers cannot write without stereotypes of people, places and things, and this is because our entire art consists of creating the illusion of a complete picture or a complete world out of a splinter or fragment of description, with the reader’s imagination filling in the majority of the details. One cannot do this without knowing what pictures the reader is likely to have in his imagination beforehand.

What the writer wants not to do is to be asked by the writer to use the stereotype in his head in a tired, trite, shopworn, or expected way, because then the reader notices, and is rightly put off, by the trick being pulled on him.

Incidentally, I still want to see someone write Old Men Shall Dream Dreams. Go and read, if only to appreciate the opening scene he offers as an example for dissection.

Sir Ernest Gowers on adjectives and adverbs

Unwary writers are often advised to strip all the adverbs out of their prose, and sometimes all the adjectives as well. There is a name for the kind of people who give this advice: blockheads. Here, by contrast, is some good advice on the subject:

Cultivate the habit of reserving adjectives and adverbs to make your meaning more precise, and suspect those that you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. Use adjectives to denote kind rather than degree. By all means say an economic crisis or a military disaster, but think well before saying an acute crisis or a terrible disaster. Say if you like ‘The proposal met with noisy opposition and is in obvious danger of defeat’. But do not say ‘The proposal met with considerable opposition and is in real danger of defeat’. If that is all you want to say it is better to leave out the adjectives and say ‘The proposal met with opposition and is in danger of defeat’.

—Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words

My own comment:— [Read more…]

Jonathan Richardson on Milton

A reader of Milton must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense, it arises in every line, every word is to the purpose; there are no lazy intervals, all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely you may blow ’em off; Milton’s are all substance and weight; fewer would not have serv’d the turn, and more would have been superfluous.

—Jonathan Richardson

This is, to my mind, very nearly the highest praise of a writer’s style that anyone could make. The only other thing that might be added is if the writing also sounds well, and the sounds and rhythms comport with the meaning, so that the suggestive and poetical qualities of the language reinforce the plain meaning of the words. This quality also (I would add on my own account) Milton has in abundance.

Dr. Johnson, in choosing literary sources for his Dictionary, tried to include just those authors whose use of language was unimpeachable by the standards of the time, and recent enough still to be a fairly faithful representation of living speech. The better the writer, the more he could be excused for not being recent, and contrariwise. The oldest author that Johnson included in his list of authorities was Milton; and granting that remark of Richardson’s, and my own addendum to it, I think he was eminently right to include him.