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How The Course Works
Additions To The Permanent Collection of Classic PresentationsThinking About Writing
How The Course Works
The Rationale Of The Course
Learning to write in a style is learning an activity - like playing the violin, sprinting, pole-vaulting, sparring, riding a horse. This course and the book that grew out of it teach an activity, not a content. Students consider the concept of style and learn to notice style, to recognize styles, and to analyze styles. Analyzing them makes it much easier to acquire them.
A style consists of a conceptual stand on some basic intellectual questions that are the elements of style. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit its conceptual stand.
We select one style, classic style, for daily practice. Classic style is a general style, suitable for presenting anything, accessible to anyone who wishes to learn it. Although there are many distinguished classic writers who work in English, and although workaday classic style is widely used in journalism, advertising, and instruction in English, classic style is not a routine style in the English-speaking world and is almost never taught in its schools. This unfamiliarity with writing in classic style actually makes it easier for the student to recognize that classic style is a style, to detect the classic stand, and to practice classic style without sliding into intuitive and unconscious but poorly developed or incoherent former versions of it. Since classic style has thrived in English and appears in every field and situation, regardless of content, students notice instantly that the activity they are trying to learn is widely practiced. They recognize its products in literature, manuals, guide books, news reports, book reviews, personal letters, statements of purpose, nearly anywhere they care to look, provided they know how to look.
The status of classic style in the French-speaking world as a routine, automatic, culturally privileged style, taught in the schools, deliberately acquired, associated with the greatest French writers, helps American students see that the ease with which they fall into a style is largely a matter of their cultural biography, and that the unconscious styles they have acquired, which seem to them inseparable from their identity, are stands that can be exchanged. A style is like a coat one can put on and take off. One coat can be exchanged for another. If the student had been born in France and had attended certain French schools, he or she would have come in adulthood to regard classic style as a standard style, in fact the style that sets the standard.
Classic style is also an incomparably effective style for American students to learn, because classic style is associated in America with intelligence and distinction, even though classic writing does not draw attention to itself or appear to be trying to promote the writer. Having learned to inhabit the classic stand and to write or speak from it gives the student an invaluable instrument for dealing with any moment that calls for self-presentation or persuasion, because classic style in America is taken as a mark of the superiority of the writer. The ethos carried by classic style gives an implicit but powerful picture of the writer which often accomplishes all by itself the task the student faces. The writer confronted with the law school application, the blank "Statement of Purpose," the application to graduate school, the job interview, the brief interval in which she may be allowed to pitch whatever it is she has to pitch, has a great advantage over competitors if she can assume the classic stand and speak from it.
Classic style is elastic over personalities, allowing the student to develop an individual style that is none the less classic for being individual. La Rochefoucauld, Thomas Jefferson, A. J. Liebling, and the authors of the Audubon Guide to North American Birds are all distinct and well-formed individuals, but they are all prototypical classic stylists.
Classic style offers the student exceptional pleasure since it is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader - a grade, a letter of recommendation, a contract. The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate. The writer's security as a thinker and a writer is not at issue. As students learn to write in classic style, their adoption of the classic stand becomes, by degrees and in pulses, more and more thorough. The assumed scene of classic style displaces ever more effectively the real scene. Many of them forget, for long stretches, that they are enrolled in a class, writing to a teacher, or vulnerable to grades. The student is sprung, if only temporarily, from the undergraduate nightmare of being treated like an adolescent, pushed into intellectual fraud, and required to pretend that the fraud is educational. Adopting the classic stand can become addictive for undergraduate students because it reliably and enjoyably brings them good grades, gives them a social distinction, and springs them from the undergraduate intellectual ghetto.
Since the course teaches an activity, it defines the teacher in the role of the coach, the dance instructor, the music instructor, the sen-sei. The coach gives tips on performance, suggests training routines, helps the student see what is to be achieved. There are tricks, and we will present those tricks on this web site from time to time, but the tricks are secondary; the student must above all be dissuaded from imagining that a style can be learned by acquiring a bag of tricks, especially surface tricks. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit the intellectual stand of the style; surface features to some degree follow a stand, but in ways that differ across classic stylists. Little local rules for doing this but not doing that are an impediment, not a help, to learning classic style. We use the trick of prohibiting students after the first few weeks from mentioning surface features in their stylistic analyses, and requiring them instead to begin an analysis by answering the questions on page 22 of the book. We maintain this proscription until the danger seems to have passed.
We tell students frankly that they are being asked to think about style in an unnatural way and to learn to write in a style that is foreign to them, and that we know, based on our experience in teaching this course, that they will be profoundly confused and uncomfortable for about a month. We do not yet know of a way to speed up this period. Students appear to do a great deal of conceptual work during this month, but not to flower until the fifth or sixth week. We tell students that the first month of work may be the most important - certainly it is indispensable - but that there is almost no point in grading anything they write during that month, because it will bear little relation to what they can do by the end of the class. We tell them that above all they must not approach the class by trying to understand it as fitting something they already know. They do not know what we are about to teach, or anything like it, and if they substitute something they do know for the activity of the course, it only means they will not learn. They are being asked to learn something new, and they must approach the course in that spirit - they are being asked to learn to walk on their hands, become a mime, fly. We tell them that the only way to learn an activity is by doing it routinely, to think about it all the time, to practice it as part of their daily intellectual equipment, and that if they try to learn classic style or the analysis of style by turning on their "style module" for an hour or two the night before an assignment is due, not only will they fail completely to learn the activity, they may be worse writers at the end of the course than they were at the beginning. Scales must be practiced every day, fan kicks must be worked on every day, front kicks every day. To learn the activity, the student must do stylistic analysis as part of looking at the world, and try every day, a few times a day, to inhabit a style and write from it. At first, it is like learning to hold a violin bow - everything seems to go wrong. But after a while, it is like knowing how to hold a violin bow - it seems unnatural to hold it any other way.
We tell the student to obliterate completely the hope of learning to write by revising what they have written. To write in classic style, or any style, the writer must first inhabit the conceptual stand of the style, and then write from it. The beginning student is asked to write, to analyze the style of what she has written, and to notice ways in which it is unclassic, and then to lay it completely aside, to inhabit the classic stand, and to write something new. A passage already in a style can be improved by local revision, but it usually cannot be turned into another style by local revision. In the second half of the course, we in fact ask students to "revise" a piece to make it classic, but this kind of "revision" is actually more a "substitution." Many courses in writing take local, textual revision as their central method. We, by contrast, do everything to encourage the student to abandon that method. For the first few weeks, it is best if the student never revises a thing she writes, but instead always tries to inhabit the style more fully before starting from scratch.
Defining the teacher in the role of the coach requires the teacher to perform spontaneously for the students the activity they are asked to learn. In sports, a coach can plead old age or infirmity, but there are no excuses for the teacher of this class. The class will often become, simply because students will insist on it, an impromptu workshop. The teacher must be able to pause and speak in classic style, often to replace something a student has offered, while pointing out the difference between the student's prose and the teacher's prose. The teacher will then turn the tables on the student, and give the student something to be jettisoned and replaced with a classic alternative. This is not difficult. With a little work, any competent teacher of writing can learn to do it.
How The Course Works
Stranger and Stranger
In the first four weeks of the course, we lose a few students. The course looks stranger and stranger to them, their work looks worse and worse, they cannot see a future, and they flee. Typically the students we lose have been raised on courses in which serious, sequential, and productive industry has supplanted actual learning: the syllabus in such a course provides a program of progress with tasks to be performed at each step, the tasks require exertion and suffering which the student can recognize, and the products of suffering can be marked up and graded. By contrast, in this course, students spend the first several weeks trying to become comfortable with the concept of inhabiting a conceptual stand and writing from it, and they do not acquire this concept easily or in visible pieces. In the first month, their efforts typically show little progress and they can become frustrated at the lack of tricks for improving their work. Should they revise this sentence? No. Should they work on their vocabulary? Maybe; it depends. What should they do with this essay, to which they have dedicated their time? Well, observe its stylistic stand, lay it aside, try to inhabit the style, and start over from scratch in the attempt to write from that stand.
It is possible to teach prose style through a program of explicit steps and tricks, and this method does create a feeling of success, but in our experience it is an illusion that fails, in the end, to produce the right results.
We do not know of a way to speed up this initial period or make it less confusing. We keep the student working, we offer examples, we give initial assignments designed to allow the student to get a foothold, we discuss the concept of style. We say, "Think about it for a minute. Do you really expect to be able to acquire a style, or even a part of a style, in a couple of weeks, by using these words instead of those words, that paragraph structure instead of this, or in any way making some little adjustments in what you already do? People teaching themselves have been delighted to learn classic style after working on it for a decade, while this class is going to make you a basic classic stylist in fifteen weeks. If you were trying to learn to hurdle, you would expect to spend at least a month before you looked like a hurdler instead of a goose flopping over the bar. Patience." This is just too bizarre for some students.
How The Course Works
We give a sequence of assignments designed to save the beginning student from crashing. Our method has something in common with giving a child a bicycle with training wheels, confined to a safe course, and letting the child ride. Now and then, in stages, we raise the training wheels and make the course harder. The alternative - giving the child an unmodified bicycle and telling it to go ride in the street - is for most students the path to sure obliteration.
But in each class there are a couple of students who are frozen by proscription ("don't write about x; don't begin with y") and who have a knack for learning activities at a swoop. Their debilities and abilities are inseparable. To such a student, we say, aside, "See that bicyclist? Here's a bicycle; get on it and ride." The student falls down fast and often, but, surprisingly, by afternoon can wobble along on the bicycle and can even articulate the principles that guide her riding. Specifically, we give such a student something like the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region and say, "See these presentations of birds? Go write twenty presentations that sound like that." Sometimes the student not only produces passable imitations but also learns the principles of the style.
This second method is not recommended except under a doctor's orders.
How The Course Works
We teach this course, in this way, because the results are miraculous. We find it hard to believe it ourselves. When asked to describe the results, we lie, afraid of looking self-deceived. Privately, we use words like "inexplicable" and "magic."
This course is incomparably gratifying for the teacher. Students whose writing was embarrassing in the past, who wrote the kind of paper that makes the Freshman writing instructor sigh with despair before correcting some spelling and scribbling "awk" here and there, become passable writers. They still write "it's" for "its," but that is a flaw they can fix easily and locally, and which they now have a motive to fix since they can recognize it as a blemish on something basically sound. Average students become good stylists, even though in some cases it takes three months. All of the students learn to analyze the style of a passage presented to them. There are always a few students in the class whose work becomes absolutely distinguished, publishable, a portfolio for launching a career. The greatest surprise for us is the student whose writing goes from truly terrible to truly superb, who produces work we would have thought permanently out of his reach. We ask in office hours, "What happened?"
There comes a gratifying moment in about the twelfth or thirteenth week of the semester when we announce that we will start each class with readings from student work. We read these fine pieces one after another, and the class as a whole judges its collective performance to be breathtaking. The individual students write in their sketchbooks and in private email, "I thought I was the only one who had made the jump."
In fact, the improvement is clearly too large to be the result of fifteen weeks of study. We imagine that much of it comes from clearing away impediments to hidden abilities.
Stealth Argument: Guide to the Electoral College
Exercise 10 of “The Studio,” in the second edition of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, explains that one purpose of writing is to persuade the reader, and that persuasion can be conducted in a number of styles, only some of which take the stylistic stand that its purpose is persuasion. Practical style is often used for persuasion, as Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb explain in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, but the stereotypical style of persuasion, and the one usually taught using the “5 paragraph essay” model in high schools and colleges, is adversarial dispute, masterfully analyzed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which serves as a handbook for trial lawyers. One contemporary treatment of the nature of adversarial dispute is Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A Garner’s Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008).
Adversarial dispute is central to the conception and practice of Western jurisprudence, especially in the United States, but it is not central to writing in general. Aside from the high school or college classroom, it is rare that one will enjoy an expanse of time in which to “make one’s case,” with a guarantee not only of the audience’s sustained presence and attention, but also of a recognized adversary. These situations are so rare in life outside of courtrooms that they must be artificially manufactured in the classroom to provide the opportunity for what the teacher hopes will count as practice. Even in academic articles, adversarial dispute provides only a fraction of the structure; most of it is presentational.
The personal letter, the job interview, the first date, and so on are all scenes in which adversarial dispute is unlikely to conduce to success. Even in law, it can take expert legal work to establish clear adversarial positions so that there is a case to be tried. Conceptually, the idea of adversarial dispute is grounded in the experience of bodily force-dynamics: two forces oppose each other and push against each other. These opposing forces, if they are balanced, stand in equilibrium, with the result that there is no movement. In Aristotle’s phrase, they are in “stasis.” As Turner (1991, chapter 5) analyzes, the complexity of a legal situation can be grasped by blending it with the idea of two balanced, opposed forces in a condition of stasis. The role of the court is then to break the stasis, so that one side wins. There are four major grounds upon which stasis can be constituted. One sort of ground concerns “Fact or Being,” also called “Existence or Conjecture” (an sit), as in the opposed claims, "You injured me!" versus "I didn't do anything!" The second ground concerns “Definition” (quid sit) as in the opposed claims, "You injured me!" versus "What I did does not count as an injury!" This is the ground of interpretation, including legal interpretation of a statute. It is sometimes called the "legal" ground. The third ground concerns “Quality” (quale sit) as in the opposed claims, "You injured me!" versus "And a good thing too, since I did it to stop you from committing treason!" This is a ground of right versus wrong, and is sometimes called the "juridical" ground. The fourth and last ground concerns “Objection,” as in the opposing claims, "You injured me!" versus "This court is not the appropriate place to consider such a charge!"
How will the stasis be broken? How will one force overcome the other? This is where adjudication comes in. Adjudication is the breaking of the equilibrium. The result is a limited, compact, force-dynamic situation, with a limited, dynamic resolution: there is an equilibrium, and adjudication breaks it in one direction or the other, so that one of the two opposing forces is victorious. This gives judiciary action a basic narrative arc, of competing agents with competing, indeed diametrically opposed, goals. The competing agency produces competing roles in the story. In medieval Europe, the judiciary was sometimes reduced to one of the simplest forms of this competition, trial by combat, with the victor in combat being declared the victor in law. This basic narrative of adversarial jurisprudence, with limited roles and a familiar arc, is a special form of a cycle, that of a repeating contest. Two forces oppose to make a stasis, then two sides contest over which force will win. In trial by combat, the two agents are the deciding forces. In judicial proceedings, judges (including juries) are the deciding force. Two sides compete, one side wins, and it happens every time the court comes to order, at least in principle. This is a brilliant compressed idea that produces a simple narrative of contest. Citizens can apply it repeatedly, to any case.
They use this compressed idea to organize a vast mental network of information involving the specific case, a network that would otherwise be intractable to the mind. The result of using it to make sense of and work upon that vast mental network often leads to deep misunderstanding of specifics, such as, for example, the difference between a trial court and an appellate court. But it provides a basis for generating an understanding of the complexity in the vast mental network. Those who are trained will expand the compressed idea to organize the mental network of information in ways regarded as more accurate than others. The power of this adversarial jurisprudence idea as an organizer of vast mental networks can be seen, for example, in its Biblical use, where the entire history and condition of humankind is understood as anchored in this compressed idea: Humankind is the defendant; Satan is the accuser and prosecutor, before the Judgment seat of God. Translations of Job typically render ha-Satan, “The Satan,” with an expression that is the equivalent of “the accuser” or sometimes “the prosecutor.”
A topical example of the use of a style of adversarial dispute to persuade—indeed an example that is reliably reanimated every four years—is the evaluation of the Electoral College as a mechanism for electing the president and the vice-president of the United States. If you enter the keywords “abolish,” “electoral,” and “college” into an internet search engine, you will immediately be presented with hundreds of blogs and op-ed pieces in the style of adversarial dispute, usually with titles like “Let’s Abolish the Electoral College Now!” One can see immediately the lines of making the case: under a conception of “one person, one vote,” we add up all the votes of people voting, and under the conception of “majority rule,” whatever candidate gets the majority wins. But that “national popular vote” mechanism has no standing and was actively fought against by the framers of the Constitution, on the arguments that it serves representative democracy very poorly and that its evident weaknesses as a mechanism guarantee its failure in practice.
One could easily write the opposing piece in a style of adversarial dispute, perhaps with a title like “The Electoral College Must Be Retained.”
But it is also very easy, once one understands classic style, to write a piece presenting the Electoral College in such a way as to serve all the actual purposes of persuasion. In classic style, the motive is truth and the purpose is presentation, not persuasion. The participants are collusive rather than adversarial. It is easy to imagine an actual scene that would encourage the writer to adopt classic style rather than the style of adversarial dispute. Suppose your Brazilian friend, who is educated and competent, watches the news about the U.S. presidential election and asks, “What is the Electoral College?” So, you answer your friend with a “Guide to the Electoral College.” Below is one that we have written as an interactive exercise with a group of students in a class on classic style at Case Western Reserve University. We emphasize that our purpose here is to make a point about style—that classic style can always be used to conduct any stealth argument, regardless of which side of the debate one is on. We could just as well write a “Guide to the Electoral College” in classic style that would in effect damn the Electoral College instead of praising it. Our purpose is not to engage in political science—we are not experts, and we might have this or that detail wrong, or the details might be unresolved, or the rules of the election of president and vice-president might change, as they changed under the twelfth and twentieth amendments to the Constitution. Our purpose is to show that ostensible presentation can serve the ends of adversarial argument.
Guide to the Electoral College
The Electoral College is a mechanism for electing the president and the vice-president of the United States, on the goals of respecting the authority of all the individual American sovereign states—who, at the time of its invention, were considering whether to form a union—, of providing for a timely and determinate result, of protecting against error and fraud, of establishing a robust system that succeeds even if parts of it fail and even if one cannot predict the ways in which they might fail, and of creating transparency in the sight of those who otherwise might be disposed to reject and resist a particular outcome.
The structure of the Electoral College was designed to protect the rights of the states in many ways. The sovereign states, considering whether to join into a union, looked for a guarantee that they would have an acceptable voice in the process of electing a president of that union. Acceptability was secured by giving them the same voice that they would have in the legislative branch: the number of a state’s electors would equal the number of senators and Representatives to which it was entitled. A state’s constitutional guarantee of two senators and at least one Representative accordingly guarantees a minimum of three electoral votes. A person whose loyalties lie institutionally with the federal government cannot be an elector; specifically, no one holding federal office—such as a senator or a federal judge—can be an elector. The electors’ votes are cast in their respective state capitals; the College never meets as a body. Neither the federal government nor any other state can interfere with the way a state appoints its electors or with the way those electors cast their votes. Each state determines the individual process of selecting its electors; each state conducts its voting; and each state certifies the votes its electors cast.
The number of electors is so small that the electoral vote cannot be indeterminate. By contrast, it is easy for a mass vote by many millions of individuals in unknown circumstances spread across the expanse of the North American continent to be indeterminate. The votes of the electors are public and subject to scrutiny by anyone, including the electors, so that an elector’s vote cannot be misreported or miscounted.
The vote of the Electoral College is a first-level event—restricted to a single ballot—but there is a system of protections that takes over if that vote should fail to give a majority to one candidate. In that case, the election moves to the newly-elected House, whose term begins at noon on the third of January. Such an election in the House also respects the authority of the states: each state has exactly one vote, determined by its delegation of Representatives, and the states can vote for only a candidate whose vote total in the Electoral College placed that candidate among the first three. As many ballots as are needed can be taken. This and other protections ensure that when the term starts for the new president, a unique person will qualify to take the oath.
In any case—election by the College or election by the House or election by one of the subsequent mechanisms—the number of votes to be cast is known in advance, the names of the persons casting those votes are known, and the votes can be counted with perfect precision. An election by national popular vote has none of this clarity. A very close popular vote can leave permanent doubts about the result. The founders had seen the utter depradation for European countries in situations where the succession was disputed. They were motivated to establish a system that could never result in such a dispute, and their achievement defines presidential elections from their day to ours.
Occasionally, there are calls, usually from a commentator in a densely populated area, for the replacement of the Electoral College by a national popular vote. The framers of the Constitution foresaw this interest and accordingly placed the authority of the Electoral College in the Constitution, so that a change to the College would require, as do all Constitutional amendments, ratification by three-fourths of the states. The effect of such a change on the influence wielded by a state in the presidential election depends on the proportion of the population of the state to the population of the country, both determined by the most recent census, conducted as directed by the Constitution.
Except for states with only one Representative, this proportion of populations equals the proportion of representation in the House. If x is the number of a state’s Representatives, then its weight in the House is x/435. Its weight in the Electoral College is accordingly (x+2)/538. A state’s weight in the House equals its weight in the Electoral College when x=8.45. Therefore, for states with 9 or more Representatives, influence on the presidential election would be increased by a switch to national popular election. Conversely, for states with 8 or fewer Representatives, influence on the presidential election would be decreased by a switch to national popular election. At present, there are 17 states that would benefit from the switch, because they have 9 or more Representatives, and 33 states that would see their influence decreased by the switch. Since it requires 38 states to ratify a Constitutional amendment, abolishing the Electoral College is a political fantasy.
Levels of Style
There are many topics in the study of style beyond the preliminaries, some intermediate, some advanced, and some for only the most accomplished practictioners. Writing is an art, and style is its intellectual core. Like all arts, writing has rudiments, but there is no limit to the extent of the development of the art. We have discussed in the book how to glide from one style to another and back, how to blend styles, and so on, all driven by a set of decisions on the elements of style. Another advanced topic is the use of levels of style. Although in what follows we will discuss sophisticated uses of levels, in fact these uses can be found widely in everyday speech. Suppose, for example, that Celine and Anastasia are discussing their friends and the way in which Beatrice in particular sustains conversation by repeating herself, which seems to induce everyone else into affirmations—call and response, as it were. Celine at this point drops into a fine imitation of Beatrice's repetition, and Anastasia drops into affirmations. They do this not so much in the way one would see in a videotape of Beatrice in conversation, because there is a wit to producing the special qualities of flatness and inevitability in the conversation. Their performance, relative to the target they are imitating, is a little extended, a little hyperbolic, a little overdrawn, so that in the identical performance they are both imitating and poking fun. Then we have one scene that is embedded in another. In the lower scene, we have the conversational style of Beatrice. There is an implied speaker and an implied hearer, and they are earnest in their engagement in this scene, without any mocking or any awareness of the mocking. But this scene is embedded in a higher scene, in which there is a higher implied speaker (whom we might identify with Celine, but be careful, because there can be more than one level of nesting, as we see in the 1001 nights) and a higher implied reader (whom we might identify with Anastasia, but again be careful), and this is a scene in which the purpose is to present collusively and with evaluation not whatever Celine is talking about in the embedded scene but instead the style of Celine's conversation. The use of such embedded scenes is quite common in literature. In Huck Finn, the narrator is Huck, and Huck's narration implies a reader who understands as Huck thinks he should understand. But of course, there is an implied writer, whom we might identify with Twain, and a higher implied reader, whom we might identify with ourselves reading, and they are looking upon not only the content of Huck's narration but also his style and character and patterns of understanding, and upon the nature of Huck's implied reader. In A Modest Proposal, there is an implied writer and an implied reader, but there are also a higher implied writer, whom we might identify with Swift, and a higher implied reader, whom we might identify with ourselves. The higher implied reader sees things that the lower implied writer does not see and that the lower implied reader does not see. But the higher implied writer and the higher implied reader concur utterly that the cast of mind of the writer is utterly barbaric, however calm and reasoned his argument, however ostensibly motivated by the impulse to do good and rectify a bad situation. The higher implied reader sees that this is a satire by the author, intended as a comment on the present and actual barbarous treatment of the Irish, while the lower implied writer is engaging in a mild extension of that barbarous treatment.
Can classic style be a lower level of style? Of course. Imagine that we are reading what looks like a fine classic presentation of court under the reign of a monarch. The presentation includes the death of a courtier. But as we read further, we continue to learn things that make us wonder about the death. The writer seems to feel that nothing about the coutier's death is suspicious and has made what he thinks is a presentation we should take at face value. But gradually, we begin to think that perhaps the courtier was poisoned, or that the accident with the horse was arranged, or that some other nefarious cause produced the death. We see a mystery, and we think the writer does not see it. But now we read further and at last conclude that the writing is just too superbly arranged for this stealth mystery to be the result of obliviousness on the writer's part. At that point, we conceive of a higher implied writer, whose style includes mystery and suspense. The higher implied writer is deploying the lower implied writer as a veil. Classic style is ideal for this veil, because the classic writer is never holding anything back for the purpose of mystery and suspense. Then we have two writers, with two styles, at different levels. Some of the most interesting cases of levels occur when it becomes unclear what level we are on, as in Diary of a Madman, (See Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction) or what relationship holds between the levels, as in the 1001 Nights (see Turner, The Literary Mind).
Presentation versus Description
Classic style is not descriptive style. The word "description" covers so much ground that Pascal could be said to give a "description" of the Jansenist position and Liebling a "description" of the modest threshold in the passages quoted below as exhibits in the Museum, but I want to narrow the meaning of "descriptive style" to a stand in which the writer is a delivery device, a videocamera, a conduit passing salient and canonical features of what he perceives through to the reader. Sometimes the description is cast as a running account of the writer's perceptions. Sometimes it conforms to a general template ("Suspect is a 5' 10" male, white, medium-build, with short brown hair, tattoo on left forearm, last seen wearing baseball cap and track suit"). In descriptive style, the writer is not responsible for including an element in the description, in fact has no obligation to present but merely to report or describe. The writer's justification for including an element in the description is simply that it is a salient or canonical feature of what is to be described. The writer is no more to blame for including something in the description than the videocamera is for the image it relays.
The classic stylist, by contrast, first perceives an interesting, not necessarily grand, truth that is worth presenting. This perception almost always involves conceptual nuance - the classic stylist would otherwise have no reason to speak, since there is no call to point out what everyone already sees. The classic stylist then presents the truth she has perceived. She does not simply report it, pass it along, hand it over. The chef who perceives in the lettuce, endive, grapefruit, and olive oil a combined taste does not plop them in front of the diner. Instead, she works invisibly to make that taste perceptible to the diner, gives the salad a presentation on a plate, and hands it to the waiter for its complete presentation to the diner. The restaurant takes full responsibility for the quality of the dish and the appropriateness of the presentation - it has no excuse for presenting something not worth eating.
If I ask for a description of a car accident I can object if you don't tell me the point of impact and the nature of the damage. If I ask for a description of a building I can object if you don't tell me how many floors it has. But a presentation of the car accident or the building has none of these obligations. A description of a wound and a presentation of the same wound come with different requirements, different scenes, different motives, different justifications, different responsibilities.
A classic presentation can recruit, partially, from descriptive style, as when Liebling tells us that someone has long hair and white teeth, is about six feet tall and dressed in rags, but in such a case Liebling is presenting rather than describing because Liebling is responsible for having selected these elements, feels no obligation to meet the standards of canonical description - indeed might leave out everything a description would be obliged to include and instead provide us with features that would never have appeared in a description. It is possible that an excerpt from a classic piece could count as an adequate description, but its adequacy as a description would be accidental. It would not have been motivated to be adequate in that way.
A description of a chair cannot omit the fact that it is brown or has no legs, but a presentation of the chair might present nothing except the superb, nearly invisible craftsmanship evident in the way its back is sculpted to fit the human body. Can you "see" craftsmanship? In the classic stand, of course you can: everything that can be presented is assimilated to the model of perception. Vision is the prototype.
The descriptive stylist conveys what you would see if you were in his position. He is a substitute pair of eyes. By contrast, when a classic stylist presents, say, the interior of a store, although she takes the stand that of course what she presents is actually there in the store to be seen, it is not automatically assumed that you would have seen any of it had you walked into the store on your own, or that you would have known where to look for it, or even that you would have known that it could be found anywhere. The classic stylist takes the stand that you could not fail to perceive what she presents once she has presented it to you.
This assignment is intended to draw the distinction between presentation in classic style and description in descriptive style. Choose a concrete, definite, visible object; present it in classic style. Then treat it in descriptive style. Repeat the assignment for different subjects, advancing along a gradient toward invisible concepts. A typical scale might be: a pencil, a chair, a tree, a bird, a dress, the way a particular animal moves, the way a particular person talks, a place (Mount Vernon Square in Baltimore), a city (Washington, D.C.), someone's character, a legal concept like perjury.
Practice your scales.
Assumed Stand versus Real Situation
Classic style is defined by its assumed stand on the elements of style, not by the actual situation. In the real situation, it may be that there is no symmetry between writer and reader, that the reader is incompetent, that the scene is formal, that the writer is terrified, that the purpose is persuasion or defense or fraud, that the motive is ambition or vanity. The real situation can be anything. The classic writer nonetheless assumes the classic stand, complete with classic scene. It may be that Liebling was principally interested in getting you to admire Liebling rather than boxing. No matter. His writing takes the stand that fame is not the motive, persuasion not the purpose; on the contrary, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation. It may be that in fact we read a classic piece for its style, and even that the writer's real purpose is to lead us to admire the style rather than the subject. No matter. The classic writer adopts the stand that we are not reading for the style but rather for what he presents, and certainly that he is not writing for the style but rather for what he presents. Almost no one alive cares in the least about the dispute between the Sorbonne and the Jansenists that so motivated Pascal to write Les Lettres Provinciales, but the book is immortal because people read it for the writing. The real situation does not matter.
Often, a real setting will require a writer to represent a group or speak to a group; hence the prose may have surface marks of the actual scene - words like "we"; references to the audience as a group; a formula at the beginning and another one at the end marking the occasion. E.g., "The trustees of the museum invite the members of the audience to meet the actors at a reception following the performance." This does not make the prose any less classic, because a style is defined by its assumed scene, not its real situation. As long as the voice presents itself as a single voice, not the rumble of bureaucracy, and sounds as if it is speaking for itself, not at the will or direction of some other authority, and sounds as if it is speaking to another classic mind, even if in reality it is speaking to a wide and diverse audience, the classic scene stays intact.
In the paragraph you have just read, I am in fact speaking for all teachers and analysts of classic prose; I represent my group and its accumulated learning. We teach classic prose, and I am presenting what we teach. I am also speaking to an audience of at least twenty or so students, some of whom I have never met and whose names I do not know. You know who you are. The facts that I represent a group, or say "we," or speak to a wide audience, or even call you "students" do not make the prose any less classic. These are merely surface marks required by the real situation. Does this paragraph sound like one person talking informally to another? Is the assumed relationship between writer and reader symmetric? (It does not matter at all that I am actually the professor and you are actually the students.) In the assumed stance of the prose, is the writer competent? the reader competent? the language adequate? the motive truth? the purpose presentation? Does the prose have a clean onset and a clean dismount? The real situation and the surface marks that it imposes on the writing are beside the point. Style is defined by the writer's stand, not by the moment in which the stand is actually assumed.
It is an invaluable power in a writer to be able to establish the assumed scene, cast, purpose, and motive. The assumed stand can effectively displace the reality. You may be assigned to do a piece of writing, but in fact almost no one wants to read a piece of writing that takes the stand that it is an assignment. You may in fact want something from the reader, but the reader may be disposed to resist, and so it can be much more effective to take the stand that you want nothing at all. You may be terrified and insecure, but by assuming the classic stand, you may hide that from the reader and perhaps even lose your terror and insecurity.
Assignment: Imagine yourself in five real situations, each one further from the assumed stand of classic style. In each situation, assume the classic stand, and write from that assumption.
(Gift of Todd Oakley)
The Reading Daybook
The reading daybook documents a particular kind of reading. It documents your development as a critical reader of prose style. By the end of this semester, you should have accumulated approximately 30 entries, all of which will vary in detail. Here is the procedure: read two portions of text a week in expository prose. Your reading can be from a textbook, newspaper, magazine, web page, advertisement, pamphlet - any expository piece is fair game. Start small. Read your selection once, and then have the document in front of you as you answer the following six fundamental questions. You may make multiple entries for different portions of one text.
1. What can be known?
2. What can be put into words?
3. What is the relationship between thought and language?
4. Who is the writer addressing and why?
5. What is the implied relationship between writer and reader?
6. What are the implied conditions of discourse?
These six questions, taken from page twenty-two of Thomas and Turner's Clear and Simple as the Truth, may be hard to find answers to at first, especially questions 1, 2, and 3. Aim to make specific comments for each question (you may not be able to come up with answers to all of them at first) regarding each piece of text. Remember each text has unique properties worth presenting.
The format of these entries should follow these general guidelines. Use a loose-leaf notebook. Tape this assignment sheet on the inside front cover. At the top of each page, provide a citation: author(s), press or publication, date of publication, and page number. Date each entry. On the page itself, provide numbered answers to the six questions. As the entries grow, so should the level of specificity and insight of your responses. I will check this daybook three times during the semester and grade it at the end of the course.
(Gift of Todd Oakley)
Like an artist who keeps a sketchbook of her attempts to present something pictorially, you will keep a sketchbook of attempts to present something verbally. This sketchbook should be used every day. By the end of this course, you should have accumulated approximately 105 entries. Each entry should be legible and dated. Begin by dividing your sketchbook into five sections: objects, scenes (events), persons, abstractions, and class work. Our course will begin with you presenting concrete objects and events as well as people and will move toward presenting abstractions, which in classic style are presented as if they were concrete objects. You will have more entries under the concrete heading; however, by semester's end you will have accumulated a significant number of abstract presentations (about 25). Bring this notebook to class every day. The work you do in it will provide material for your portfolio assignments. I recommend a loose-leaf notebook.
(Gift of Michael Schoop)
Contrast the styles of the following two passages.
"He chased us silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges,
between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets. Every time I glanced
back, choking for breath, I expected he would have quit. He must have been
as breathless as we were. His jacket strained over his body. It was an immense
discovery pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that
this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained
at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you're doing, you
have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive."
"So let us press forward. Let us resolve to conduct ourselves in
such a way that our children's children will read about the 'Spirit of Kyoto,'
and remember well the place and time where humankind first chose to embark
on a long-term sustainable relationship between our civilization and the
The exhibit on page 129 of Clear and Simple as the Truth is a classic presentation of a portrait of Terukatsu. Constrast the style of that presentation with the style of Walter Pater's presentation of the Mona Lisa, analyzed and quoted by Denis Donoghue in the following passage from "The Practice of Reading," Ideas 5:2, 1998, pages 82-84:
The most celebrated or derided record of an impression, as something not entirely subjective but more subjective than objective, is Pater's commentary on La Gioconda of Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa. It is not a commentary in any strict sense; it is a reverie. Pater does not examine the painting for its formal qualities. He does not lead us through the painting as Leavis leads us through "Surprised by Joy," helping us to "live through" the poem. Pater's main concern is to divine the particular sensibility, the structure of feelings, which he thinks of as Leonardo's, or at least Leonardesque, and then to respond to that with his own. The painting embodies a distinctive psychological type which Pater identifies as Leonardo's. By looking at his works, or works deemed however inaccurately to be his, Pater gradually senses a type of human being, a particular discovery among the possible ways of being alive. Then, since he is an aesthetic critic, he lets that sense of the Leonaresque exert itself on his mind, inciting it to a new act of sensibility. The particular impression is what Pater's mind does in return. When he contemplates a particular manifestation of the Leonardesque - say, when he looks at the Mona Lisa - he trusts the impression the painting incites his mind to produce. It is a new act of his own mind, an extension of his creative life. That is what his "reading" of the painting comes to. The critical problem is then to find the right words to convey that impression. So Pater writes of the Lady Lisa:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and the modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
That passage of Pater's may sound bizarre, a gorgeous flourish of nonsense, so much the rhapsody of a hedonist that it could not establish a tradition of criticism, but it has done exactly that. Critics have Pater's authority, if they want to invoke it, when they give more credence to their mental acts in the face of a work of art than to any formal, historical or otherwise objective qualities the work may be shown to have. They have his authority, too, when they assume that the human mind or spirit is so abundant that no sequence of articulations could exhaust it. Critics can express some of that abundance: By divining it in the artist, they proclaim its possibility in themselves. We call that abundance one's sensibility. Pater responds to it in Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo by trusting to his own provoked eloquence.
A Suite of Writing Assignments: Introduction
We offer a suite of assignments to help the student distinguish between the real situation of the writing and the assumed scene of the style. Present, in classic style,
In the classic stand, the writer, on the motive of truth, wanting nothing from the reader, presents something as if it and its features exist objectively and can be recognized once the writer points them out. Interpretations, opinions, judgments, and preferences are folded into the texture of specific facts and presented as if they are no different from specific facts. Some real situations - like pointing out features of an animal - are quite close to the stand of classic style. Other real situations - like presenting yourself in a job interview, or trying to argue the reader into agreement - are very far from the stand of classic style. But all of these real situations can be addressed in classic style. In the job interview, you take the stand that your motive is truth and your purpose presentation, that you want nothing from the interviewer, that you and the interviewer are intellectual equals, and that it never occurs to you that the interviewer will doubt what you point out. You turn a real situation of tension and opposition into a scene of pleasure and collusion by adopting the classic stand. To argue in classic style, you take the stand that you are not arguing at all, merely pointing out what there is to be seen, and that it never occurs to you to doubt that the reader will recognize what you present..
As you proceed through the suite of assignments, if you stumble at some point, break off and go back to presenting the visible, recognizable features of an object or animal. Study again the presentations of the Titmouse and the Northern Shrike in Clear and Simple as the Truth. Those pieces are the model for every other presentation in the suite of assignments. In the classic stand, presenting a controversial assertion, an abstract concept, or the invisible impulses of human psychology is no different from presenting the stripes on the wing of a bird.
Some of the assignments will be hard because you already know non-classic styles in which they are done. You know how to write a contemplative essay of effusive praise for a work of art, an endorsement of a restaurant meant to encourage your friends to dine there, an overtly argumentative essay in which you take one side in an adversarial dispute, and an official-sounding overstatement of your qualifications for a job you want. These automatic styles must be recognized, examined, and locked away, or they will take control of your writing.
Presenting a Place, Presenting a Self
This is a dangerous assignment: present a place in classic style, and in doing so, implicitly present yourself. The student will typically choose to present a place that she finds psychologically powerful, often a place important in childhood or young adulthood. It is natural for the student to resort to a kind of poetic diction in which the phrases and phrasing tell readers what they are to think of the place - much the way the soundtrack to a movie tells us when to be happy, when to be apprehensive, when to be relieved. It is equally natural to try to make the prose iconic for the writer's psychology, to enact in the writing the writer's sensations. These impulses must be resisted if the writing is to stay classic.
The following passage is an example of a presentation of place. It implicitly presents the writer. It is classic in nearly every way, and of course superb in all ways, but its phrasing is so uniformly writerly as to lean away from the freshness of speech that belongs to prototypical classic style. With that exception, it would be a perfect execution of this assignment.
Mount Vernon, Baltimore
From Daniel Mark Epstein, "Mr. Peabody and His Athenaeum," in
Tolstoy's Dictaphone, edited by Sven Birkerts
As I set out to learn the mysterious art of poetry twenty-five years ago, I got along in Baltimore on a weekly salary of forty dollars from part-time work in a jewelry store. I lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment on Cathedral Street just off Mount Vernon Square. Once H. L. Mencken occupied a lavish suite of rooms just up the street, overlooking the statuary and fountains of that city park he called the most beautiful in America. There the statue-topped pillar of the nation's first Washington monument passes its shadow over a brick mansion designed by Stanford White, the Greek Revival pediment of the Walters Art Gallery, the columns of the cacophonous Music Conservatory and its venerable, silent neighbor, the George Peabody Library.
I say that I lived in the apartment, but the tiny efficiency in which I slept and wrote in the mornings was hardly a space for living. I lived, really, in the neighborhood of Mount Vernon, which twenty-five years ago still kept the serenity and something of the gentility of a southern town. In the summer, businessmen crossed the square wearing seersucker suits, bow ties, and straw hats. They shopped downtown in haberdasheries their grandparents had patronized. This was before the real estate boom and bust filled the streets with brokers, mortgage bankers, and nouveau bureaucrats. Baltimore had a stable middle class that used the public schools. Old women in flower-print dresses and white gloves strolled arm in arm on Charles Street in the evening, without fear.
The old city was quiet and lazy, hospitable to ghosts and visions and reverie, a perfect place for a poet. I haunted the elegant, slightly seedy streets of Mount Vernon. The deserted marble salon of the Walters Art Gallery was my living room, hung with paintings by Ingres, Botticelli, and Monet, the dusky bar of the Alcazar Hotel was my dining room. And the great Peabody Library was my study.
There is no other library like this in America, or anywhere else, excepting the parallel universe of Jorge Luis Borges's fiction.
From the cobblestones of the Square you ascend marble steps between fluted double columns, pass under the arch of a classical portico and through the cubic vestibule. The loft reading room with its low shelves and card catalogs looks out on the green park through three enormous windows. Like ancient censers, eight ceiling lamps hang on chains, illuminating gilt-framed portraits of long-dead librarians.
In the middle of the interior wall, beneath a high archway of dark wood, an unwound pendulum clock hangs silent under the keystone. Through the doorway under the arch you see the white marble floor shining, set with black diamond tesserae. As you pass under the arrested pendulum into the open space, your eye is drawn up slender columns sixty feet to the latticed skylight with its gilded finials, the pale sky supported by a mountain range of books, two hundred fifty thousand books under the roof's painted vaults, whispering, humming a mazy fugue, a bibliographic Tower of Babel. Books are shelved to the sky upon five tiers of cast-iron balconies, ladders of lacy grillwork railings running all around the four sides, friezes and columns glittering with rosettes and gold scallops. Double globe lamps hang from the columns on brass stems, lighting oaken library tables in the alcoves of the lower stacks.
Once the globe lamps were gas fueled, now they are electric. Nothing else here has changed in a century. The collection is noncirculating: these books have never left the building. The space breathes such a dignified air of antiquity, it is hard to believe the library has not been here since the founding of the Republic, ours or another state more imposing, more deeply rooted, a Republic of human letters. But the library opened its doors to the public in 1878, as part of the educational institute founded by George Peabody.
A cameo portrait of George Peabody shows the prosperous silver-haired bachelor in his sixties, with muttonchop whiskers, kind, wide-set eyes, broad forehead, a large patrician nose, and a determined mouth that flickers at the corners with wry humor. He was born poor in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1795. The boy served an apprenticeship to a grocer for five years, then he worked in a drapery shop. Peabody served in the army during the War of 1812, where he met Elisha Riggs, a merchant. In 1815, when the war ended, the men set up a dry goods business in Baltimore under the sign Riggs, Peabody & Co. Peabody, the younger partner, cranked the business up into an enterprise with branches in New York and Philadelphia. By 1829 the firm's name had become Peabody, Riggs & Co.
In Baltimore George Peabody made the small fortune that would provide the cornerstone for the great one he would pile up later as a financier. The center of the financial world was then London, so Peabody left Baltimore for London in 1837. But he never forgot his home here, or the friends he had made in his youth; and he vowed that someday he would return to do something worthy of the city that had given him his start.
No one could have predicted this tyro's success in the treacherous world of bankers and bond factors. By the beginning of the Civil War, George Peabody was so rich that he single-handedly rescued the endangered credit of the U. S. government in England. Sensitive to the plight of the working class in Dickens's London, the energetic American built more than forty thousand housing units at his own expense, and gave them away to needy families. For this heroic act of charity, Queen Victoria offered Mr. Peabody a baronetcy. He declined the title, explaining that it might only come at the expense of his U. S. citizenship, which was dear to him. The philanthropist gave tens of millions of nineteenth-century dollars to Harvard, Yale, Philips Academy, to his hometown of Danvers (now Peabody), Massachusetts, and to the South for public education after the war. Thus he became the prototype for other great nineteenth-century philanthropists - Andrew Carnegie himself acknowledged his debt to Peabody's example.
The charity Mr. Peabody is best known for today, however, was his endowment of the cultural institute in Baltimore that bears his name. The founder's letter dictated that the Institute should have four elements: an art gallery, a lecture series, an academy of music, and a library "which I hope may become useful towards the improvement of the moral and intellectual culture of the inhabitants of Baltimore. . . ." The fastest-growing city in America in 1857 had no university, no library, no art museum - Baltimore was a cultural wasteland. It took the ex-grocery clerk, who had not the leisure to read fifty books in his lifetime, to see the need and provide the basic elements for a civilization.
This is an assignment for the mature student.
At first, it may sound odd to think of writing a vita in classic style. The classic scene is one person talking to another, but the vita is mostly a list. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to imagine the classic stylist sitting down to compose a vita. The classic stylist wants nothing from the reader; there is no task at hand; prose is perfect performance; writer and reader are intellectual and aesthetic equals; writer and reader are competent; thought and language match; the motive is truth; the purpose is presentation.
Classic style, because it is a style of informal presentation, always has a clean onset and a clean dismount. It is never pushy. These are particularly important points to remember in composing the vita. The classic vita typically has ample white space and a pleasant font. The writer never appears to be trying do anything to make the writer look better.
The Admissions Essay
In the early part of the course, assignments call for a real scene not far from the assumed scene of classic style: present a bird, a building, a restaurant, a movement, an action in a sport, an abstract concept, to someone competent who was not there or who does not have the needed accidental knowledge, in an informal moment, in perfect speech. Once students can inhabit classic style for these limited scenes, the assignments begin to call for a real scene increasingly far from the assumed scene of classic style. It is a power in a writer to be able to assume a scene that obscures or displaces the real scene. It typically takes maturity and discipline in the writer to resist the influence of the real scene. What follows is an assignment not to be given during the early part of the course.
A high school student applying to college is typically asked to submit a "college application essay," sometimes referred to as an "admissions essay," or "statement of purpose." In the real scene that goes with this task, the motive is something like ambition to enter college and the purpose is to persuade the admissions committee to grant admission. Students who want financial aid or other help have other motives as well. It is assumed that there is absolute asymmetry between writer and reader, and that the occasion is formal.
Members of admissions committees recognize certain kinds of essays that inevitably result, with a dreary repetition, from the conditions of this real scene. First, the nearly vacuous statement that glues together general, formulaic phrases: "My purpose in attending college is to . . . My interests have always been interdisciplinary. I am interested in both history and languages, as well as mathematics and computer science . . . If admitted, I will simultaneously pursue studies in . . ." Second, the splashy, look at me essay: "I have always set high goals for myself, and, supported by my family, have often achieved them. I was lead whistle monitor for my high school band at the same time that I assisted the track team in raising money to purchase new hurdles." Third, the I- am-a-character essay: "I can be recognized on campus by my characteristic red backpack. No one else wears red, but I have not specialized in following the crowd. . . ." Fourth, the pity-me essay: "My parents will not let me apply out of state and I want desperately to obtain my degree from your university." And so on. They are painful to read and drift to the bottom of the stack, unless the reader is able to see past the unfortunate style to locate a worthy, obscured candidate. These styles present the candidate as either a faceless cliché dedicated to absorbing more clichés or an anxious supplicant trying to find some way, any way, including bluff and arrogant flourish, to handle the pressure of writing the essay. They are unleisurely, uncomposed, uncalm, insecure, inappropriately formal. They are unpleasant to read, unflattering to the writer, and, for all their easy sycophancy ("It would be an honor for me to gain admission to your university . . ."), they usually paint a picture of the writer that is unappealing to the reader.
A real scene of application or supplication can be treated in classic style, by substituting the classic scene, in which the motive is truth, the purpose presentation; writer and reader are intellectual and aesthetic equals; writer and reader are competent; one person is talking to another; language is adequate; language matches thought; prose is perfect performance; of course the reader is interested; the occasion is informal; the writer speaks for himself or herself; and so on.
While college admissions essays typically assert qualities of the applicant ("I have a strong interest in sociology and have always been absorbed by local details of human interaction"), the classic application presents the candidate as having those qualities. The classic application, often meticulously planned, sounds spontaneous. The following, for example, could begin an application whose actual agenda is to convince the reader that the writer is an interesting, articulate, poised, amateur sociologist:
I knew the restaurant I used to work in only from the back. I parked in the gravel lot and walked up the back steps into the kitchen. It was a small kitchen, tiny really when you consider that it produced the best food in the city. And while the customers never saw it, part the of restaurant's charm was in the kitchen. The ice machine was upstairs, the storage room downstairs. The door to the walk-in didn't shut tight and the cash drawer opened if you bumped against it. If something broke, the owner's husband fixed it, or tried to. The paint peeled off the walls and the tiles off the floor, and the dish pit was more like a platform. The radio played country or oldies, depending on the cook, and rap after the cooks left for the night. The kitchen was open during blizzards and ice storms. More than one afternoon we worked without electricity. (copyright © Kate O'Leary, 1998; used with permission.)
Assignment: pretend you are back in your senior year in high school, and write your application essay in classic style. Once you have done this, try to dig up your original application essay. Turn them in together.
We note that this assignment is calculated to be soft, unthreatening. The student is only counterfactually in the difficult situation.
I had a great friend in grade school, and, exactly unlike me, she had the whitest of blond hair and blue eyes the color of a cornflower Crayola. Her fair skin mimicked a pale champagne rose. My blackened hair, tar pit eyes, and bronzed complection made us cosmetic opposites. In guitar class in high school, the two of us used to stow away in the band and color guard room to practice. High on life one day, we dressed, her hair tucked into a white plastic band hat and polyester jacket, my feet crammed into black rubber boots with an orange pull, and a porous, polyester, pleated jumper. Fully clad and unable to quiet our giggles, we swung open the wide door and faced twenty-five pairs of eyes, two belonging to a steaming instructor. That moment was one of the best in my life, and I later tried to recall it with her. I found out I was the only one high on life. She was just high, so high she didn't remember most of that year. Ever since then I have had a need to document things. That is why I want to be a journalism major. (copyright © Lea Pasternak, 1998; used with permission.) ——->
The Art of the Classic List
Classic style is exceptionally receptive to the art of the list. In the classic stand, a list is a presentation of what is there to be recognized, the prose is a perfect and perfectly transparent window on that reality, and the writer takes no credit for listing what is to be seen. Actually, of course, the tight constraints of the genre of the list may pose a difficult challenge to the artistry of the classic stylist. Georges Perec is celebrated in large part because of his absolute mastery of the art of the classic list. The assignment is to write perhaps five hundred words of classic prose that include several classic lists. Here is an example, the first three paragraphs from Lawrence Weschler, "A Reporter At Large: Deficit," The New Yorker, May 11, 1992, page 41:
Passages For Analysis
Use the questions on page 22 of Clear and Simple As the Truth to guide your analysis of the following passages.
From Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperPerennial,
1985 ), pages 102-103.
My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton's prayer, "Give us time!" It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek. You don't run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You'll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day.
Here is the word from a subatomic physicist: "Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves." Let me twist his meaning. Here it comes. The particles are broken; the waves are translucent, laving, roiling with beauty like sharks. The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.
From "New Discovery in the Fine Arts."
Where are we going? Who can tell? The phantasmagoria of inventions passes rapidly before us - are we to see them no more? - are they to be obliterated? Is the hand of man to be altogether stayed in his work? - the wit active - the fingers idle? Wonderful wonder of wonders!! Vanquish aqua-tints and mezzotints - as chimneys that consume their own smoke, devour yourselves. Steel engravers, copper engravers, and etchers, drink up your aquafortis and die! There is an end of your black art - "Othello's occupation is no more." The real black art of true magic arises and cries avaunt. All nature shall paint herself - fields, rivers, trees, houses, plains, mountains, cities, shall all paint themselves at a bidding, and at a few moment's notice. Towns will no longer have any representatives but themselves. Invention says it. It has found out the one thing new under the sun; that by virtue of the sun's patent, all nature, animate and inanimate, shall be henceforth its own painter, engraver, printer and publisher.
(Gift of Delia.)
And burying our heads in the sands of talk about equality does not erase the reality of the examiner/examinee, and grader/gradee, equation which underpins most of the tertiary institutions in which we are paid to work. So, no wonder I didn't trust the male teacher's rhetoric about his openness and "life-long learning" desires, when he was potentially the grader and I was the one to be graded. But more to the point, why should my students believe me if I walk into a class within a patriarchal, competitive institution and suggest that we are equals, that they are free to say what they want? They don't believe me. I don't believe the teacher who says such things to me when I am in the role of student. And they/I would be rather naive and foolish if we did. Most of us as students have an intimate understanding of this power dynamic.
Pope Francis as a Classic Stylist
Classic style is modeled on conversation; it is informal, unrehearsed—one person speaking to another no matter what the actual scene and the actual cast may be.
On the evening of 13 March 2013, Jorge Bergoglio stepped out onto a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square in the Vatican to present himself as the newly elected bishop of Rome, the first pope from the Western Hemisphere, the first Jesuit ever elected to the office, the first pope to adopt the regnal name "Francis."
The new pope was addressing thousands of cheering people he had never seen before in a minutely planned set-piece in front of television cameras and the world press.
The literal scene was about as far from the classic scene as it could be, and yet his speech was classic in every major respect. Pope Francis addressing this large, anonymous and heterogeneous crowd—knowing too that he was being overheard by an audience of indefinite size all over the world— showed himself to be a master of the art of treating the audience, stylistically, as an individual and the scene stylistically, as informal—and a scene of reciprocity as well. The "conversation" was actually a monologue since no one was in a position to respond to his words, but he treated the monologue as conversation, "before your bishop blesses you, I want to ask you for a favor: pray for me."
The core of the speech was a masterpiece of apparent informality, although it was certainly not spontaneous; there wasn't a hesitation, a false start, a syntactic bobble, or an awkward phrase. It was the performance of an accomplished actor playing the role of someone just saying the first thing that came to his mind: "As you know, the cardinals were charged with finding a new bishop for Rome, and it seems as if my brother cardinals went to the ends of the earth to find him, but here I am."
This is talking to a crowd of strangers in a formal, practically a ritual, setting as if you are addressing a casual observation to a friend standing beside you. Only the most accomplished actors can do such a thing with unforced conviction. It is too soon to tell what sort of a pope Francis will turn out to be, but it is already apparent that he is an outstanding master of classic style.
Here is the text of his speech:
The following is the Vatican's official English translation of Pope Francis' speech `'Urbi et Orbi" delivered in Italian from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica Wednesday night.
Brothers and sisters, good evening!
You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one... but here we are... I thank you for your welcome. The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop. Thank you! And first of all, I would like to offer a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us pray together for him, that the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may keep him.
(Our Father... Hail Mary... Glory Be... )
And now, we take up this journey: Bishop and People. This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches. A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity. It is my hope for you that this journey of the Church, which we start today, and in which my Cardinal Vicar, here present, will assist me, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this most beautiful city.
And now I would like to give the blessing, but first – first I ask a favor of you: before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop. Let us make, in silence, this prayer: your prayer over me.
Now I will give the Blessing to you and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will. (Blessing)
Brothers and sisters, I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and until we meet again. We will see each other soon. Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome. Good night and sleep well!
The Gallery of Miniatures
Old faces are forbidding or beautiful for what is expressed in them;
in a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is
hidden, so that it is beautiful both for what is there and what cannot
yet be there.
One can hold a scrubbing brush with two good fingers and the stumps
of two others even if both joints of the thumb are gone, but it takes
considerable practice to get used to it.
Moral Portraiture Disguised as Presentation of Fact
There is nothing contrived about Tony Blair's inauthenticity.
Presentation of Place: The Balkans as Strategic Terrain
"Crossroads of Europe" is a catchphrase designation for the Balkans, conveying little more than unfamiliarity with the region by those who use it. The Balkans, spined and herringboned by some of the highest mountains on the continent, offer few highways, and none deserving to be called a path of conquest. No single power, not even the Roman Empire at its height, has dominated the whole region: cautious generals have consistently declined to campaign there if they could. It has been a graveyard of military operations ever since the Emperor Valerns succumbed to the Goths at Adrianople in 378.
Presentation of Persons: Franklin Roosevelt as a War Leader
. . . Roosevelt was able to hold aloof from the business of directing war, an activity alien to his temperament. Such an aloofness was not granted to any of the other leaders. Churchill, of course, revelled in high command, dedicated his days (and nights) to war- making, had rooms, suites, even whole houses adapted to his needs as a wartime Prime Minister, preferring his "siren suit" to any other garb (though he also kept handy his uniforms of an honorary colonel of the Cinque Ports Battalion), demanded a constant diet of Ultra intelligence intercepts and lived in hour-to-hour intimacy with his military advisers. Hitler turned himself into a military hermit after the opening of Barbarossa, seeing few but his generals, even though he found their company grating. Stalin's wartime routine conformed strangely in pattern to Hitler's - secretive, nocturnal, troglodyte. Roosevelt scarcely altered the pattern of his life at all after Pearl Harbor. Unthreatened by air attack, he continued to live at the White House, occasionally vacationing at Hyde Park, and there pursued a timetable that drove the methodical and purposeful almost to distraction. [General George C.] Marshall's day was measured to the minute: his only relaxation was to visit his wife in his official quarters for lunch, which was served as he stepped on to the veranda from his staff car. Roosevelt lunched off a tray brought into the Oval Office, did not begin work until ten in the morning and took few telephone calls at night. . . .
. . . Unlike Churchill, who was constantly on the move - to Paris (before the fall of France), to Cairo, to Moscow, to Athens (where he spent Christmas Day 1944 while the sound of gunfire between British troops and ELAS rebels rocked the city), to Rome, Naples, Normandy, the Rhine - Roosevelt travelled little. His mobility was, of course, limited by his physical disability, which was the result of poliomyelitis and which a discreet press disguised from its readership almost completely. Nevertheless he travelled when he chose, but during the war his travels took him only to Casablanca in January 1943, Quebec twice (August 1943 and September 1944), Cairo and Tehran at the end of 1944 and Yalta in the Russian Crimea, in February 1945. He saw nothing of the war at first hand, no bombed cities, no troops at the front, no prisoners, no after-effects of battle, and probably did not choose to; he directed American strategy as he had directed the New Deal - by lofty rhetoric and by rare but decisive strikes at the conjunctions of power.
Fontenay and the Cistercian School
From Burgundy, Morvan. Michelin Green Guide, 1992.
Cistercian architecture first appeared in Burgundy in the first half of the twelfth century (Cistercium was the Latin name for the town of Cîteaux). It is characterized by a spirit of simplicity in keeping with the teaching of St Bernard, who had a considerable influence on his times. He strove against the luxury displayed in some monastery churches. With a passion and a violence that were extraordinary, he opposed the theories of the great builders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such as St Hugh, Peter the Venerable, and Suger, who considered that nothing could be too rich for the glory of God: "Why," he wrote to William, Abbot of St-Thierry, "this excessive height in the churches, this enormous length, this unnecessary width, these sumptuous ornaments and curious paintings that draw the eyes and distract attention and meditation? We, the monks, who have forsaken ordinary life and who have renounced the riches and ostentation of the world . . . in whom do we hope to awaken devotion with these ornaments?"
There is however a certain grandeur in the sobriety and austerity that he advocated. The uncluttered style and severe appearance truly reflected the principles of the Cistercian rule, which regarded as noxious everything that was not absolutely indispensable to the development and spread of monastic life.
The Cistercians almost always insisted on an identical plan of construction for all the buildings of their order and themselves directed the work on new abbeys. The Abbey of Fontenay is a good example of the standard plan. This design and its architectural techniques are to be found throughout Europe from Sicily to Sweden. Every new monastery was another link with France and craftsmen followed the monks. It was the turn of the Burgundian Cistercian monasteries to spearhead the expansion of European monasticism. In 1135 the Cistercians adopted Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, a recent foundation (1132); there they were to build on a large scale what was to become the wealthiest Cistercian abbey in England.
The Rats on the Waterfront
From Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage, 1993.
The brown rat is an omnivorous scavenger, and it doesn't seem to care at all whether its food is fresh or spoiled. It will eat soap, oil paints, shoe leather, the bone of a bone-handled knife, the glue in a book binding, and the rubber in the insulation of telephone and electric wires. It can go for days without food, and it can obtain sufficient water by licking condensed moisture off metallic surfaces. All rats are vandals, but the brown rat is the most ruthless . . . Instead of completely eating a few potatoes, it takes a bite or two out of dozens. It will methodically ruin all the apples and pears in a grocery in a night. To get a small quantity of nesting material it will cut great quantities of garments, rugs, upholstery, and books to tatters. In warehouses, it sometimes goes berserk . . . One night, in the poultry part of the old Gansevoort Market, alongside the Hudson, a burrow of them bit the throats of over three hundred broilers and ate less than a dozen.
By Kim Phillips. (Gift of Brooks Headley)
In Grand Crossing, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, the average monthly spending on the lottery is $60 per household. Grand Crossing lies just west of the South Shore neighborhood, home of the much-lauded community-development-oriented South Shore Bank. Jeffery Boulevard, the busy commercial thoroughfare where the Bank's headquarters are located, is lined with thriving small businesses—hair salons, pizzerias, Black-owned clothing stores. But traveling from South Shore to Grand Crossing you pass a boarded-up apartment building, an abandoned grocery store, a deserted TV repair shop. A little bit further and you come to Stony Island Avenue. The businesses here are distinctly different than on Jeffery—there's a Checker's, a Church's Fried Chicken, a Burger King; a neighborhood has started to become a ghetto. Next to a shuttered bar there's an ad for a pawn shop—"Need Cash Fast? Top Dollar for Broken Gold." Go under the highway that passes over the neighborhood; you'll find a sudden proliferation of storefront churches, one of which, the House of Deliverance, has obviously been abandoned. At Cottage Grove there's a Currency Exchange and a store that advertises itself as selling liquor—and as an afterthought, food. Beyond, there's nothing but ramshackle buildings, no businesses as far as the eye can see. Only the passing of an occasional bus reminds you that you're connected to the rest of the city.
Marburg virus . . . affects humans somewhat like nuclear radiation, damaging virtually all of the tissues in their bodies. It attacks with particular ferocity the internal organs, connective tissue, intestines, and skin. In Germany, all the survivors lost their hair–they went bald or partly bald. Their hair died at the roots and fell out in clumps, as if they had received radiation burns. Hemorrhage occurred from all orifices of the body. I have seen a photograph of one of the men who died of Marburg, taken in the hours before his death. He is lying in bed without any clothing on his upper body. His face is expressionless. His chest, arms, and face are speckled with blotches and bruises, and droplets of blood stand on his nipples.
In this way the public funeral was conducted in the winter that came at the end of the first year of the war. At the beginning of the following summer the Peloponnesians and their allies, with two-thirds of their total forces as before, invaded Attica, again under the command of the Spartan King Archidamus, the son of Zeuxidamas. Taking up their positions, they set about the devastation of the country.
They had not been many days in Attica before the plague first broke out among the Athenians. Previously attacks of the plague had been reported from many other places in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere, but there was no record of the disease being so virulent anywhere else or causing so many deaths as it did in Athens. At the beginning the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick. Nor was any other human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
The plague originated, so they say, in Ethiopia in upper Egypt, and spread from there into Egypt itself and Libya and much of the territory of King of Persia. In the city of Athens it appeared suddenly, and the first cases were among the population of Piraeus, where there were no wells at that time, so that it was supposed by them that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs. Later, however, it appeared also in the upper city, and by this time the deaths were greatly increasing in number. As to the question of how it could first have come about or what causes can be found adequate to explain its powerful effect on nature, I must leave that to be considered by other writers, with or without medical experience. I myself shall merely describe what it was like, and set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again. I had the disease myself and saw others suffering from it.
That year, as is generally admitted, was particularly free from all other kinds of illness, though those who did have any illness previously all caught the plague in the end. In other cases, however, there seemed to be no reason for the attacks. People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stomach-aches and with vomitings of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterwards. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor was there any pallor: the skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning, so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked to plunge into cold water. Many of the sick who were uncared for actually did so, plunging into the water-tanks in an effort to relieve a thirst which was unquenchable; for it was just the same with them whether they drank much or little. Then all the time they were afflicted with insomnia and the desperate felling of not being able to keep still.
In the period when the disease was at its height, the body, so far from wasting away, showed surprising powers of resistance to all the agony, so that there was still some strength left on the seventh or eighth day, which was the time when, in most cases, death came from the internal fever. But if people survived this critical period, then the disease descended to the bowels, producing violent ulceration and uncontrollable diarrhoea, so that most of them died later as a result of the weakness caused by this. For the disease, first settling in head, went on to affect every part of the body in turn, and even when people escaped its worst effects, it still left its traces on them by fastening upon the extremities of the body. It affected the genitals, the fingers, and the toes, and many of those who recovered lost the use of these members; some, too, went blind. There were some also who, when they first began to get better, suffered from a total loss of memory, not knowing who they were themselves and being unable to recognize their friends.
Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. Here in particular is a point where this plague showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards. Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either round the bodies or anywhere else. But dogs, being domestic animals, provided the best opportunity of observing this effect of the plague.
These, then, were the general features of the disease, though I have omitted all kinds of peculiarities which occurred in various individual cases. Meanwhile, during all this time there was no serious outbreak of any of the usual kinds of illness; if any such cases did occur, they ended in the plague. Some died in neglect, some in spite of every possible care being taken of them. As for a recognized method of treatment, it would be true to say that no such thing existed: what did good in some cases did harm in others. Those with naturally strong constitutions were no better able than the weak to resist the disease, which carried away all alike, even those who were treated and dieted with the greatest care. The most terrible thing of all was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and, by giving in this way, would lose their powers of resistance. Terrible, too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention. When, on the other hand, they did visit the sick, they lost their own lives, and this was particularly true of those who made it a point of honour to act properly. Such people felt ashamed to think of their own safety and went into their friends' houses at times when even the members of the household were so overwhelmed by the weight of their calamities that they had actually given up the usual practice of making laments for the dead. Yet still the ones who felt most pity for the sick and the dying were those who had had the plague themselves and had recovered from it. They knew what it was like and at the same time felt themselves to be safe, for no one caught the disease twice, or, if he did, the second attack was never fatal. Such people were congratulated on all sides, and they themselves were so elated at the time of their recovery that they fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in the future.
A factor which made matters much worse than they were already was the removal of people from the country into the city, and this particularly affected the incomers. There were no houses for them, and, living as they did during the hot season in badly ventilated huts, they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law. All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could. Many people, lacking the necessary means of burial because so many deaths had already occurred in their households, adopted the most shameless methods. They would arrive first at a funeral pyre that had been made by others, put their own dead upon it and set it alight; or, finding another pyre burning, they would throw the corpse that they were carrying on top of the other one and go away.
In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness. Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they used to keep dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.
This, then, was the calamity which fell upon Athens, and the times were hard indeed, with men dying inside the city and the land outside being laid waste. At this time of distress people naturally recalled old oracles, and among them was a verse which the old men claimed had been delivered in the past and which said:
War with the Dorians comes, and a death will come at the same time.There had been a controversy as to whether the word in this ancient verse was "dearth" rather than "death"; but in the present state of affairs the view that the word was "death" naturally prevailed; it was a case of people adapting their memories to suit their sufferings. Certainly I think that if there is ever another war with the Dorians after this one, and if a dearth results from it, then in all probability people will quote the other version.
Then also the oracle that was given to the Spartans was remembered by those who knew of it: that when they inquired from the god whether they should go to war, they received the reply that, if they fought with all their might, victory would be theirs and that the god himself would be on their side. What was actually happening seemed to fit in well with the words of this oracle; certainly the plague broke out directly after the Peloponnesian invasion, and never affected the Peloponnese at all, or not seriously; its full force was felt at Athens, and, after Athens, in the most densely populated of the other towns.
Such were the events connected with the plague. Meanwhile the Peloponnesians, after laying waste the Attic plain, moved on into the Paralian district as far as Laurium, where the Athenian silver-mines are. First they laid waste the side that looks towards the Peloponnese, and then the other side facing Euboea and Andros.
The Civil War in Corcyra, 427
When the Corcyraeans realized that the Athenian fleet was approaching and that their enemies had gone, they brought the Messenians, who had previously been outside the walls, into the city and ordered the fleet which they had manned to sail round into the Hyllaic harbour. While it was doing so, they seized upon all their enemies whom they could find and put them to death. They then dealt with those whom they had persuaded to go on board the ships, killing them as they landed. Next they went to the temple of Hera and persuaded about fifty of the suppliants there to submit to a trial. They then condemned every one of them to death. Seeing what was happening, most of the other suppliants, who had refused to be tried, killed each other there in the temple; some hanged themselves on the trees, and others found various other means of committing suicide. During the seven days that Eurymedon stayed there with his sixty ships, the Corcyraeans continued to massacre those of their own citizens whom they considered to be their enemies. Their victims were accused of conspiring to overthrow the democracy, but in fact men were often killed on grounds of personal hatred or else by their debtors because of the money that they owed. There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there.
So savage was the progress of this revolution, and it seemed all the more so because it was one of the first which had broken out. Later, of course, practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state - democratic leaders trying to bring in the Athenians, and oligarchs trying to bring in the Spartans. In peacetime there would have been no excuse and no desire for calling them in, but in time of war, when each party could always count upon an alliance which would do harm to its opponents and at the same time strengthen its own position, it became a natural thing for anyone who wanted a change of government to call in help from though there may be different degrees of savagery, and, as different circumstances arise, the general rules will admit of some variety. In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do. But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people's minds down to the level of their actual circumstances.
So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one's blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.
Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, no openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.
Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable - on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy - but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice not by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.
As a result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manoeuvred in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, over-confident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.
The Modest Threshold
From A.J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
In the twenties, the Rue Sainte-Anne, a narrow street running from near the Théâtre Français end of the Avenue de l'Opéra to the Rue Saint-Augustin and skirting the Square Louvois en passant had been rendered illustrious by a man named Maillabuau, a gifted restauranteur but a losing horseplayer who had no money to squander on décor. He turned his worn tablecloths into an asset by telling his customers that he wasted none of their contributions on frills—all went into the supreme quality of his materials and wines. A place with doormen in uniforms, he would say—a place with deep carpets and perhaps (here a note of horror would enter his voice) an orchestra—was ipso facto and prima facie a snare. He would then charge twice as much as any other restaurant in Paris. My memories of visits to Maillabuau's—visits that I had enjoyed only by stratagem—were so pleasant that I had chosen the Hôtel Louvois in order to be near it.
All during my year at the Sorbonne, the Guide du Gourmand à Paris had served as the Baedeker for my exploratory splurges when I had money enough to try restaurants off my usual beat. The author addressed his book to the gourmand, rather than to the gourmet, he said, because it was impossible to like food if you did not like a lot of it; "gourmet" was therefore a snob word, and a silly one. This predisposed me in his favor. But it was his subject matter that held me captive. The restaurants were categorized as "of great luxury," "middle-priced," "reasonable," and "simple," but all were warranted "good," and there were about a hundred and twenty-five of them. At the head of the "luxury" group was a "first platoon" of six restaurants (of which today only one survives, and that scarcely worthy of mention). Maillabuau, despite the worn tablecloths, figured among the ten others in the "luxury" group. In my own forays, "reasonable" was my ceiling, but I liked to read about the others—those financially unattainable Princesses Lointaines. I knew the description of Maillabuau's by heart:
| Sombre, almost lugubrious front. If the passerby is not warned,
never will he suspect that behind that façade, having crossed that
modest threshold, he can know the pure joys of gastronomy! How to know, if
one is not a gourmand, that here the sole is divine, that the entrecôte
Bercy has singular Chambertin) are the year that they should be, and that
the marc resembles embalmed gold? How to know that only here, in all Paris,
are made ready the fat squab guinea-hens anointed with all the scents of the
Midi? Staggering bill, which one never regrets paying.
I had no thought of crossing that modest threshold myself until one warm morning in the late spring of 1927, when it occurred to me that my father, mother, and sister would be arriving in Paris in a few weeks—they were waiting only for the beginning of the summer holiday at the Connecticut College for Women, where my sister was now a sophomore—and that in the natural course of events they would ask me, the local expert, where to dine. My mother and sister favored the kind of restaurant where they saw pretty dresses and where the plat du jour was likely to be called "Le Chicken Pie à l'Américaine," but my father had always been a booster for low overhead and quality merchandise; they were the principles that had guided his career as a furrier. Russian sable and ermine—with baum or stone marten if a woman couldn't afford anything better—had always been his idea of decent wear. His views on fur were a little like J.P. Morgan's on yachts—people who have to worry about the cost shouldn't have them. Foxes began and ended, for him, with natural blacks and natural silvers; the notion of a fox bred to specifications would have filled him with horror. Seal had to be Alaskan seal, not what was called Hudson seal, which meant muscrat. Persian lamb had to be unborn Persian lamb, not mutton.
As I had anticipated, when my family arrived in Paris they did indeed consult me about the scene of our first dinner together. So Maillabuau's it was. When we arrived before the somber, almost lugubrious front, my mother wanted to turn back. It looked like a store front, except for a bit of scrim behind the plate glass, through which the light from within filtered without éclat.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" she asked.
"It's one of the best restaurants in the world," I said, as if I ate there every day.
My father was already captivated. "Don't give you a lot of hoopla and ooh-la-la," he said with approval. "I'll bet there are no Americans here."
| We crossed the modest threshold. The interior was only half
a jump from sordid, and there were perhaps fifteen tables. Old Maillabuau,
rubicund and seedy, approached us, and I could sense that my mother was about
to object to any table he proposed; she wanted some place like Fouquet's (not
in the Guide du Gourmand). But between her and Maillabuau I interposed
a barrage of French that neither she nor my sister could possibly penetrate,
though each chirped a few tentative notes. "I have brought my family here
because I have been informed it is the most illustrious house of Paris,"
I told him, and, throwing in a colloquialism I had learned in Rennes, a city
a hundred years behind the times, I added, "We desire to knock the bell."
On hearing me, old Maillabuau, who may have thought for a moment that we were there by mistake and were about to order waffles, flashed a smile of avaricious relief. Father, meanwhile, regarding the convives of both sexes seated at the tables, was already convinced. The men, for the most part, showed tremendous devantures, which they balanced on their knees with difficulty as they ate, their wattles waving bravely with each bite. The women were shaped like demijohns and decanters, and they drank wine from glasses that must have reminded Father happily of beer schooners on the Bowery in 1890. "I don't see a single American," he said. He was a patriotic man at home, but he was convinced that in Paris the presence of Americans was a sign of a bunco joint.
| "Monsieur, my father is the richest man in Baltimore," I told
Maillabuau, by way of encouragement. Father had nothing to do with Baltimore,
but I figured that if I said New York, Maillabuau might not believe me. Maillabuau
beamed and Father beamed back. His enthusiasms were rare but sudden, and
this man—without suavity, without a tuxedo, who spoke no English, and whose
customers were so patently overfed—appeared to him an honest merchant. Maillabuau
showed us to a table; the cloth was diaphanous from wear except in the spots
where it had been darned.
A second refroidissement occurred when I asked for the carte du jour.
"There is none," Maillabuau said. "You will eat what I tell you. Tonight, I propose a soup, trout grenobloise, and poulet Henri IV—simple but exquisite. The classic cuisine française—nothing complicated but all of the best."
When I translated this to Father, he was in complete agreement. "Plain food," he said. "No schmier." I think that at bottom he agreed that the customer is sure to be wrong if left to his own devices. How often had the wives of personal friends come to him for a fur coat at the wholesale price, and declined his advice of an Alaskan seal—something that would last them for twenty years—in favor of some faddish fur that would show wear in six!
The simplicity of the menu disappointed me; I asked Maillabuau about the pintaudou, fat and anointed with fragrance. "Tomorrow," he said, posing it as a condition that we eat his selection first. Mother's upper lip quivered, for she was très gourmande of cream sauces, but she had no valid argument against the great man's proposal, since one of the purposes of her annual trips to Europe was to lose weight at a spa. On the subject of wines, M. Maillabuau and I agreed better: the best in the cellar would do—a Montrachet to begin with, a Chambertin with the fowl.
It was indeed the best soup—a simple garbure of vegetables—imaginable, the best trout possible, and the best boiled fowl of which one could conceive. The simple line of the meal brought out the glories of the wine, and the wine brought out the grandeur in my father's soul. Presented with one of the most stupendous checks in history, he paid with gratitude, and said that he was going to take at least one meal a day chez Maillabuau during the rest of his stay. The dessert, served as a concession to my sister, was an omelette au kirsch, and Maillabuau stood us treat to the marc, like embalmed gold. Or at least he said he did; since only the total appeared on the check, we had to take his word for it. The omelette au kirsch was the sole dessert he ever permitted to be served, he said. He was against sweets on principle, since they were "not French," but the omelette was light and healthy. It contained about two dozen eggs.
| The next day we had the pintaudou, the day after that
a pièce de boeuf du Charolais so remarkable that I never eat
a steak without thinking how far short it falls. And never were the checks
less than "staggering," and never did my father complain. Those meals constituted
a high spot in my gastronomic life, but before long my mother and sister mutinied.
They wanted a restaurant where they could see some dresses and eat meringues
glacées and homard au porto.
So in 1939, on my first evening in wartime Paris, I went straight from the Louvois to the Rue Sainte-Anne. The Restaurant Maillabuau had vanished. I did not remember the street number, so I walked the whole length of the Rue Sainte-Anne twice to make sure. But there was no Maillabuau; the horses at Longchamp had eaten him.
Reflections in a Cul-de-sac
On Sunday, September 3, 1939, everybody with the price of a newspaper knew that Great Britain and France were about to declare war on Germany, which had already invaded Poland. I was living down on East Thirty-third Street then, but I drifted up toward the New Yorker office because I thought that even though it was a Sunday I might find someone there to talk to. It was a hot afternoon, I remember. Wolcott Gibbs had a radio going in his office. I went down the fire escape from the main editorial office on the nineteenth floor to the cell on the seventeenth where I did my writing and sat there for a while, at moments glad because France still had pride, at others feeling guilty because I would not share the fight or the risk. I was sorry that I had left daily newspaper work four years before then, because if I had stayed on a paper I might have a chance to go to the war. The New Yorker appeared a cul-de-sac.
As I sat there I thought of M. Lebourgeois, a traveling salesman I had met in the billiard room of the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc at Vire in 1926, and also of M. Perrin, the patron of the hotel in the Rue de l'Ecole de Médecine at Paris, where I had lived for two years while pretending to study medieval literature, and my good friend Henri, who was the French representative of an American silk firm. All three had shared the quality of having escaped from a great danger with honor intact. None of them had come through the war unwounded, and none had achieved any great position since the armistice of 1918. But each took immense pleasure in not having been killed and in not having to be ashamed of himself.
When M. Lebourgeois had patted his stomach, while telling me of the table d'hôte at a favorite hotel in his territory, he had clearly been glad that the stomach had survived—the bullet had broken his left leg, which bothered him hardly at all except in wet weather. The merchants of the United States, M. Lebourgeois had told me, had absolutely the right idea—le big business. Undoubtedly, in that country of large orders, he had said, it was a pleasure to be a salesman. The retailers had vision; they were not like these retrograded types of the Department of Calvados, who bought a few articles at a time and those only with the most apparent misgivings. He had had one period of relative affluence, he had said—almost le big business, it had been—directly after the war, when he had gone about selling to small communities those life-size cast-iron figures of poilus which served as war memorials in most of rural Normandy. On the base of each statue was the inscription "Morts à l'Ennemi," and under it the twenty or thirty names of the late heroes. The figure of the poilu was always poised on the ball of the right foot, the bayonet stuck out before him, the iron face constricted in defiance. "These opportunities don't recur often in a man's lifetime," M. Lebourgeois used to say when he told about it. "Figure to yourself—it is necessary to have a war before you can sell something in this bugger of a department." If M. Lebourgeois was sufficiently fortunate to survive this new war, he might make more sales, I figured to myself.
M. Perrin, my landlord, had taken a Chinese pleasure in disingenuous self-abasement. It was a privilege he had earned in the war. If he had deprecated himself before that, nobody would have contradicted him, because, as he used to say, he was a small, insignificant man without capacity or cultivation. Then, in order to survive, it would have been necessary for him to assert himself. He would have disliked that. But he had won the Legion of Honor for bravery under fire, and although he always shrugged away references to his decoration, he never left the ribbon off his coat. Also, he had been a captain. Intelligence is not requisite for a captain of infantry, he used to assure me. An officer of artillery or engineers, that required culture, but a captain of infantry, and especially one who began the war as a private, might be very stupid. It was a matter of luck, of survival, one might say. We would sit at a table in front of the Soufflet—which was later to be replaced by a gigantic modernistic chain-store café called Dupont—watching the Danish and Rumanian students and their girls, and the little waiter with the reddish eyes and the carroty mustache would not be so brusque with M. Perrin as with the other clients. M. Perrin's suits had been shiny, but the ribbon had given him an air. Almost, one would say, an instructor at the Ecole des Chartes near by. The instructors' suits were shiny too. The possibility of such a mistake had flattered M. Perrin, and he had tried by his manner to convey to strangers the idea that his ribbon was an academic honor.
M. Perrin was a native of Lille. He had lived with his wife, a large, hot-tempered Orleanaise, his mother, who was very old, and his daughter, who was adolescent, on the street floor of the hotel. Without the red ribbon to enhance his dignity, without the head wound he had received at Douaumont to explain his flightiness, M. Perrin, it was easy to see, would have been familially submerged. "My wife is very bitter after gain," he had sometimes said over the apero. But he had never refused to accept payment of a bill which she had harried some student into meeting. His mother had been in Lille during the occupation of 1914-18. Her confidence had never wavered, she had once told me, since the day when she had seen some German officers eating lettuce. "They put sugar on it," she said, an indication to her of cretinism on a national scale. The reason I thought so long of M. Perrin was that he had lived in what he and I and everybody else had thought was a comfortable aftermath. Another decoration would bring him no satisfaction commensurate with the first. Neither would another head wound.
Henri had been most pleased to survive the war of any of them, because to him it had seemed especially horrible. He was a sensitive man, extremely tall, with a long, doleful countenance, watery blue eyes, and a great, drooping Gallic mustache. In 1914 he had been in the United States—it was there I had first known him—and he had returned to fight. Sometimes I used to have dinner with Henri's family in their apartment on the Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, a neighborhood roughly equivalent to Central Park West, and after we had eaten, Henri would tuck a violin under his chin and his daughter Suzette would go to the piano, and then he would play and sing "J'Avais Perdu la Tête et Ma Perruque," from Les Cloches de Corneville. His son Jean, who had spent most of his young life in America, would sit silent, uninterested, and slightly embarrassed. Jean liked to talk about automobile engines, using a good deal of American slang. "He should be a handy man around a tank now," I thought, "he's just the right age." Henri had preferred to talk about "before the war," a period, he would say, when Paris really had been fit to live in. Eglée, his wife, had sometimes pretended to be bored by his reminiscences. I reflected that Henri, with luck, would be able to talk someday about "before the war before last." As a matter of fact he was not to survive this second war. He was to die of cold and malnutrition and chagrin, "but principally of chagrin," his daughter would later write to me, in Paris in February of 1941.
A chess problem is genuine mathematics, but it is in some way "trivial" mathematics. However ingenious and intricate, however original and surprising the moves, there is something essential lacking. Chess problems are unimportant. The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful—"important" if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and "serious" expresses what I mean much better.
I am not thinking of the "practical" consequences of mathematics. I have to return to that point later: at present I will say only that if a chess problem is, in the crude sense, "useless," then that is equally true of most of the best mathematics; that very little of mathematics is useful practically, and that that little is comparatively dull. The "seriousness" of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is "significant" if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas. Thus a serious mathematical theorem, a theorem which connects significant ideas, is likely to lead to important advances in mathematics itself and even in other sciences. No chess problem has ever affected the general development of scientific thought; Pythagoras, Newton, Einstein have in their times changed its whole direction.
The seriousness of a theorem, of course, does not lie in its consequences, which are merely the evidence for its seriousness. Shakespeare had an enormous influence on the development of the English language, Otway next to none, but that is not why Shakespeare was the better poet. He was the better poet because he wrote much better poetry. The inferiority of the chess problem, like that of Otway's poetry, lies not in its consequences but in its content. . . .
It will be clear by now that, if we are to have any chance of making progress, I must produce examples of "real" mathematical theorems, theorems which every mathematician will admit to be first-rate. . . .
I can hardly do better than go back to the Greeks. I will state and prove two of the famous theorems of Greek mathematics. They are "simple" theorems, simple both in idea and in execution, but there is no doubt at all about their being theorems of the highest class. Each is as fresh and significant as when it was discovered—two thousand years have not written a wrinkle on either of them. Finally, both the statements and the proofs can be mastered in an hour by any intelligent reader, however slender his mathematical equipment.
I. The first is Euclid's proof of the existence of an infinity of prime numbers.
The prime numbers or primes are the numbers
(A) 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, ...which cannot be resolved into smaller factors. Thus 37 and 317 are prime. The primes are the material out of which all numbers are built up by multiplication: thus 666 = 2 . 3 . 3 . 37. Every number which is not prime itself is divisible by at least one prime (usually, of course, by several). We have to prove that there are infinitely many primes, i.e. that the series (A) never comes to an end.
Let us suppose that it does, and that
2, 3, 5, . . . , Pis the complete series (so that P is the largest prime); and let us, on this hypothesis, consider the number
Q = (2 . 3 . 5 . . . . .P) + 1It is plain that Q is not divisible by any of 2, 3, 5, ..., P; for it leaves the remainder 1 when divided by any one of these numbers. But, if not itself prime, it is divisible by some prime, and therefore there is a prime (which may be Q itself) greater than any of them. This contradicts our hypothesis, that there is no prime greater than P; and therefore this hypothesis is false.
The proof is by reductio ad absurdum, and reductio ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician's finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.
The Role of the Bishop
The role of the bishop naturally differs from White to Black. For White there are two important ways of using the bishop. The first one is the natural development square e3, from where it threatens a7 and has the following latent manoeuvre:
26 bishop-b6! rook-d6 27 bishop a5!White takes the d8-square from the queen's rook, and thereby makes the defence of d5 very hard.
27 . . . rook-e8 28 rook-c5 bishop f4!A good decision by the young Englishman (an international master at the time). Defending the pawn would tie down his pieces and almost surely lead to defeat. Instead he gives up the d-pawn, and in return gets his rook to White's second rank.
29 rook-cxd5+ rook-xd5 30 rook-xd5+ rook-e5!After 31 rook-xe5+ bishop-xe5 the black king is ready for the dish of the day.
31 . . . rook-e2 32 bishop-b6 bishop-e5 33 rook-d3Onishchuk believes he is better here, and although he may be right, Black was still able to make a draw by at the right time sacrificing a pawn on the kingside to push the h-pawn.
The second role the bishop can play is closely connected to the black d-pawn. Alone or together with the king, it can block the pawn, and at the same time keep an eye on the key squares b4 and a5 on the queenside . . .
A presentation of a Person, 1
David Peretz was a traditional Jew and a pious man, an unworldly observer of the Talmud and Torah, of the kind gently mocked in many of I. L. Peretz’s stories of life in the shtetl. It is quite possible that he was a Hasid, or close to the Hasidic movement . . . since his daughter, Esther, when explaining the family background to her nephew in 1967, spoke at some length about what Hasidism was: a cult of joy through prayer and song, a fervently religious branch of orthodox Judaism, intent on achieving spiritual elevation through strict observance of the law. Long after the family had left Poland, when David Peretz was a kindly old man behind the counter of a Paris grocery store, his wife was not keen to leave him in sole charge. He might give away the whole stock of sweets to children who came in and asked for them.
[He] . . . was married in 1895. His bride Rojza Walersztejn, was short, dark-haired, energetic, and just sixteen. She became a mother within a year. She held different views from her husband and soon became the family provider, setting up a business to supply timber to local builders. David spent much of his time in prayer rooms but was not allowed to bring his piety into the home: Jewish rites were not observed by Rojza, according to Esther’s later account of her home life in Poland. In fact, if we are to believe a scribbled line opposite Rojza’s name in Perec’s notes, his grandmother refused even to give alms to the poor. Giving alms is the very basis of traditional Jewish social life; you cannot refuse to give alms without making quite a stir in the world in which David and Rojza lived. In the eyes of a Hasid, or an orthodox Jew, refusing to give alms is tantamount to refusing to be Jewish.
A presentation of a cultural institution
The name OuLiPo stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or "Workshop for Potential Literature". The idea arose in 1960 at a ten-day conference at Cérisy-la-Salle, a country estate in the Cotentin, not far from the Normandy beaches, used, like Royaumont, as a cultural center. The conference itself, entitled "Une Nouvelle Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française, " in imitation of Du Bellay’s 1549 manifesto for the enrichment of the French language, was held to honor [Raymond] Queneau for his long efforts on behalf of néo-français–"French as she is spoke"–a campaign crowned by the popular success of Zazie in the Metro (1959). What emerged from Cérisy-la-Salle was a group intent on the further study of a different aspect of Queneau’s achievement: the overlap between, or intersection of, mathematics and poetry. The first meeting of the group was held in Paris in November 1960; soon after, members began convening for an irreverent monthly lunch party, with huge ambitions.
The founding group consisted mostly of writers and mathematicians. Not all the writers could do mathematics, and not all of the mathematicians (Claude Berge, François Le Lionnais, for example) were writers. Some early members (Ross Chambers and Albert-Marie Schmidt) were literary historians, and some (notably Latis, but also Queneau and Le Lionnais) were Pataphysicians. There were fewer than a dozen of them to begin with. Under Queneau’s guidance they undertook a vast programme of investigation into the formal devices used by writers over the centuries ("analytic OuLiPo") and into the literary potential of patterns that could be cannibalised from formal languages such as mathematics, logic, computer science, and–why not?–chess ("synthetic OuLiPo"). OuLiPo was not a sect, or a chapel, or a campaign for an "ism"; indeed it was not really a writers’ group at all. It was a research team that aimed to fashion new tools for writing and to refurbish old and forgotten ones. Its operational model was Bourbaki, the group of anonymous French mathematicians who had reinvented their entire discipline by starting afresh from first principles.
Membership in OuLiPo was not secret, as was that of Bourbaki, but it was meant to be confidential. Queneau wished to create something quite different from the surrealist movement, which with its infighting and public disputes, had hurt him deeply thirty years before. OuLiPo’s constitution stipulates that a member is a member once and for all time. No one can be expelled; deceased members are excused from attendance at meetings but are not allowed to withdraw. (Only by committing hara-kiri at a properly constituted meeting, specifically, explicitly, and exclusively in order to resign, can a member win the right to claim ex-membership. No one has yet taken advantage of this provision of the group’s constitution.)
A presentation of a person, 2
Madame Moreau détestait Paris.
En Quarante, après la mort de son mari, elle avait pris la direction de la fabrique. C’était une toute petite affaire familliale dont son mari avait hérité après la guerre de Quatorze et qu’il avait gérée avec une nonchalance prospère, entouré de trois menuisiers débonnaires, pendant qu’elle tenait les écritures sur des grands registres quadrillés reliés de toile noire dont elle numérotait les pages à l’encre violette. Le reste du temps, elle menait une vie presque paysanne, s’occupait de la basse-cour et du potager, préparait des confitures et des pâtés.
Elle aurait mieux fait de tout liquider et de retourner dans la ferme où elle était née. Des poules, des lapins, quelque plants de tomates, quelque carrés de salades et de choux, qu’avait-elle besoin de plus? Elle serait restée assise au coin de la cheminée entourée de ses chats placides, écoutant le tic-tac de l’horloge, le bruit de la pluie sur les gouttières de zinc, le lointain passage du car de sept heures ; elle aurait continué à bassiner son lit avant de se coucher dedans à prendre le soleil sur son banc de pierre, à découper dans La Nouvelle République des recettes qu’elle aurait insérées dans son grand livre de cuisine.
Au lieu de cela, elle avait développé, transformé, métamorphosé la petite entreprise. Elle ne savait plus pourquoi elle avait agi ainsi. Elle s’était dit que c’était par fidélité à la mémoire de son mari, mais son mari n’aurait pas reconnu ce qu’était devenu son atelier plein d’odeurs de copeaux : deux milles personnes, fraiseurs, tourneurs, ajusteurs, mécaniciens, monteurs, câbleurs, vérificateurs, dessinateurs, ébaucheurs, maquettistes, peintres, magasiniers, conditionneurs, emballeurs, chauffeurs, livreurs, contremaîtres, ingénieurs, secrétaires, publicistes, démarcheurs, V.R.P., fabriquant et distribuant chaque année plus de quarante millions d’outils de toutes sortes et de tous calibres.
Elle était tenace et dure. Levée à cinq heures, couchée à onze, elle expédiait toutes ses affaires avec une ponctualité, une précision et une détermination exemplaires. Autoritaire, paternaliste, n’ayant confiance en personne, sûre de ses intuitions comme de ses raisonnements, elle avait éliminé tous ses concurrents, s’installant sur le marché avec une aisance qui dépassait tous les pronostics, comme si elle avait été en même temps maîtresse de l’offre et de la demande, comme si elle avait su, au fur et à mesure qu’elle lançait de nouveaux produits sur le marché, trouver d’instinct les débouchés qui s’imposaient.
Jusqu’à ces dernières années, jusqu’à ce que l’âge et la maladie lui interdisent pratiquement de quitter son lit, elle avait inlassablement partagé sa vie entre ses usines de Pantin et de Romainville, ses bureaux de l’avenue de la Grande Armée et de cet appartement de prestige qui lui ressemblait si peu. Elle inspectait les ateliers au pas de course, terrorisait les comptables et les dactylos, insultait les fournisseurs qui ne respectaient pas les délais, et présidait avec une énergie inflexible des conseils d’administration où tout le monde baissait la tête dès qu’elle ouvrait la bouche.
Elle détestait cela. Dès qu’elle parvenait à s’arracher, ne fut-ce que quelques heures, à ses activités, elle allait à Saint-Mouezy. Mais l’ancienne ferme de ses parents était à l’abandon. Des herbes folles envahissaient le verger et le potager ; les arbres fruitiers ne donnaient plus rien. L’humidité intérieure rongeait les murs, décollait les papiers peints, gonflait les huisseries.
Avec Madame Trévins, elles allumaient un feu dans la cheminée, ouvraient les fenêtres, aéraient les matelas. Elle, qui avait à Pantin quatre jardiniers pour entretenir les pelouses, les massifs, les plantes-bandes, et les haies qui entouraient l’usine n’arrivait même plus à trouver sur place un homme qui se serait un peu occupé du jardin. Saint-Mouezy, qui avait été un gros bourg, un marché, n’était plus qu’une juxtaposition de résidence restaurées, désertes la semaine, bondées les samedis-dimanches de citadins qui, équipés de perceuses Moreau, de scies circulaires Moreau, d’établis démontables Moreau, d’échelles tous usages Moreau, faisaient apparaître les poutres et les pierres, accrochaient des lanternes de fiacre, montaient à l’assaut des étables et des remises.
Alors elle revenait à Paris, elle remettait ses tailleurs Chanel et elle donnait pour ses riches clients étrangers des dîners somptueux servis dans des vaisselles desinées spécialement pour elle par le plus grand styliste italien.
Elle n’était ni avare ni prodigue, mais plutôt indifférente à l’argent. Pour être la femme d’affaires qu’elle avait décidé d’être, elle accepta sans efforts apparents de transformer radicalement ses manières d’être, sa garde-robe, son train de vie.
[Madame Moreau hated Paris.
In 1940, after her husband’s death, she took over the factory. It was a very small family business which he had inherited after the 1914-18 war and which he’d run in relaxed prosperity with three cheerful woodworkers at his side whilst she kept the books in big, black-cloth-bound registers with ruled paper and pages she had numbered in violet ink. The rest of the time she led an almost peasant-like existence, busy with the backyard chickens and the kitchen garden, making jams and pâtés.
She’d have done better to sell up and go back to the farm where she’d been born. Rabbits and chickens, some tomato plants, and a couple of beds for lettuces and cabbages–what more did she need? She would have sat by her fireside amongst her placid cats, listening to the clock ticking, to the rain falling on the zinc drainpipes, and the seven-o’clock bus passing by in the far distance; she’d have carried on warming her bed with a warming pan before getting into it, warming her face in the sun on her stone bench, cutting recipes out of La Nouvelle République and sticking them into her big kitchen book.
Instead of that, she had developed, transmogrified, metamorphosed her little business. She didn’t understand why she’d done so. She had told herself it was out of fidelity to her husband’s memory, but he would not have recognized what had become of his old workroom with its smells and shavings: two thousand people, millers, turners, fitters, mechanics, installers, electricians, testers, draftsmen, roughers-out, model- makers, painters, warehousemen, treatment specialists, packers, drivers, delivery men, foremen, engineers, secretaries, publicity writers, commercial agents, and sales reps, making and marketing every year more than forty million tools of all kinds and calibres.
She was tenacious and tough. She rose at five, went to bed at eleven, dealt with all her business in exemplary fashion, punctually, precisely, firmly. She was authoritarian and paternalistic, trusted nothing and nobody save her own intuitions and her own mind; she wiped out all her competitors and took a share of the market larger than anyone had predicted, as if she were mistress of both supply and demand, as if she knew instinctively, on launching each new product, where the real opportunities lay.
Up until the last few years, until age and illness virtually confined her to her bed, she had divided herself tirelessly between her factories in Paris and Romainville, her offices in Avenue de la Grande Armée, and this luxury flat which was so unlike her. She inspected the shopfloors at a gallop, terrorised accountants and typists, insulted suppliers who didn’t keep delivery dates, and chaired Board Meetings energetically and inflexibly, making all heads bow when she opened her mouth.
She hated it all. Whenever she could tear herself away, even for only a few hours, she went to Saint-Mouezy. But her parents’ old farm had gone to ruin. Weeds grew wild in the orchard and vegetable garden; the fruit trees no longer produced. Damp was eating the walls, unsticking the wallpaper, warping the doorframes.
Madame Trévins would help her to light a fire in the fireplace, open the windows, and air the mattresses. She who had four gardeners at Pantin to tend the lawns, flowerbeds, bushes, and hedges surrounding the works couldn’t even manage to find a local man to keep an eye on the garden. Saint-Mouezy, which used to be a sizable little market town, was now a mere juxtaposition of houses restored as second homes, empty all week and chock-full on Saturdays and Sundays with townsfolk who, as they brandished their Moreau hand-drills, their Moreau circular saws, their Moreau portable work-benches, their Moreau all-purpose ladders, laid bare old beams and old stone, hung coachlamps, and rallied to the attack on barns and cartstalls.
Then she would come back to Paris, don her Chanel two-pieces, and for her wealthy foreign customers would give lavish dinners served in crockery designed especially for her by the greatest of Italian designers.
She was neither a miser nor a spendthrift, but simply indifferent to money. In order to become the businesswoman she’d decided to be, she accepted without any apparent effort a radical transformation of her habits, of her wardrobe, of her style of life.]
How Wrong We Were!
Blaise Pascal. "Letter One," The Provincial Letters. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin, 1967. pages 31-40
Letter Written to a Provincial Gentleman by one of his Friends on the Subject of the Present Debates in the Sorbonne.
Paris, 23 January 1656
How wrong we were! I only had my eyes opened yesterday. Until then I thought that the arguments in the Sorbonne were about something of real importance and fraught with the gravest consequences for religion. So many meetings of a body as famous as the Faculty of Paris, at which so much has occurred that is extraordinary and unprecedented, raise expectations so high that it seems incredible that the subject should be anything but extraordinary.
Yet you will be very surprised when you hear from the present account the upshot of so great a commotion; which is what I am briefly going to tell you now that I am fully informed on the subject.
There are two questions under examination; the first of fact, the other of law.
The question of fact is whether M. Arnauld is guilty of temerity [translator's footnote: a technical term for an error short of heresy] for asserting in his Second Letter: "that he has carefully read Jansenius's book, that he has not found in it the propositions condemned by the late Pope, but despite this, since he condemns these propositions wherever they may be found, he also condemns them in Jansenius if they are there."
The question is whether he can, without temerity, thus express doubts as to whether these propositions come from Jansenius when the bishops have declared that they do.
The matter comes up before the Sorbonne. Seventy-one doctors come to his defense, maintaining that his only possible answer to those who asked him so often in their writings whether he held these propositions to be in the book was that he could not find them, but none the less condemned them if they were there.
Some, going even further, declared that however hard they looked they could never find them there, and had even found quite contrary ones, earnestly requesting any doctor who might have found them to point them out: something so simple that it could not well be refused, since it was one sure means of dealing with all of them, including M. Arnauld; but their request has been constantly refused. So much for what happened in that quarter.
On the other side stood eighty secular doctors and some forty from the Mendicant Orders, who condemned M. Arnauld's proposition but would not examine whether what he said was true or false, going so far as to declare that it was not a question of the truth, but solely of the temerity of the proposition.
That is how they settled the question of fact, which causes me little concern, for whether M. Arnauld is guilty of temerity or not my conscience is not affected. If out of curiosity I wanted to know whether these propositions are in Jansenius, his book is nether so rare nor so bulky as to prevent me from reading it in full and clearing up this point for myself without reference to the Sorbonne.
But, if I were not afraid of being guilty of temerity myself, I think that I should share the opinion of the majority of the people I see; so far they have believed on the strength of public assurances that these propositions are in Jansenus, but they are beginning to suspect the contrary because of this strange refusal to point them out, so strange, indeed, that I have never yet met anyone who claims to have found them there. So I am afraid that this censure may do more harm than good, and give those familiar with its history quite the opposite impression to what has been concluded, for people are really becoming suspicious and only believe things they can see for themselves. But, as I said before, this point is unimportant, because it involves no question of faith.
As for the question of law, it seems to be of much greater moment in that it affects faith. Thus I have been particularly careful to find out about it. But you will be pleased to see that it is just as unimportant as the other.
The point at issue is to examine what M. Arnauld said in this same Letter: "that the grace without which we can do nothing had failed in St Peter when he fell." You and I both thought that this meant examining the basic principles of grace, for instance whether it is not given to all men or whether it is efficacious, but we were quite mistaken. I have become a great theologian in a short time, as you will see.
In order to know the truth of the matter, I saw M. N., a doctor at the Collège de Navarre, who lives near me, and is, as you know, one of the most zealous opponents of the Jansenists. As my curiosity made me almost as eager as he, I asked him if they would not formally decide that "grace is given to all men" so that there should be no more doubts expressed on that score. But he rebuffed me rudely, saying that that was not the point; that there were some of his party who held that grace is not given to all; that the examiners themselves had said before the whole Sorbonne that this opinion was problematic, which view he shared himself; and he confirmed it for me from a passage of St Augustine which he described as famous: "We know that grace is not given to all men."
I apologized for misunderstanding his views and asked him to tell me if they would not then at least condemn the Jansenists' other opinion, which has caused so much fuss: "that grace is efficacious and determines our will to do good." But I fared no better in my second question.
"You do not understanding anything about it," he said: "that is no heresy, but an orthodox opinion. All the Thomists hold it, and I maintained it myself in my doctoral thesis."
I did not dare put any more of my doubts to him; and indeed I no longer knew what the difficulty was when, for my own enlightenment, I begged him to tell me what made M. Arnauld's propositions heretical.
"The fact," he said, "that he does not recognize that the righteous have the power to fulfil God's commandments in the way in which we understand it."
I left him after this instructive talk, and, very proud of knowing the nub of the matter, went off to find M. N., who is getting better and better, and was in good enough health to take me along to his brother-in-law, a Jansenist if ever there was one, but a very good man for all that. In the hope of a warmer welcome I pretended to be one of their fervent supporters, and said:
"Could the Sorbonne possibly be introducing into the Church the error: 'that all the righteous always have the power to fulfil the commandments'?"
"What are you saying?" my doctor said. "Are you describing as an error so Catholic a view, which only Lutherans and Calvinists oppose?"
"What," said I, "is that not your opinion?" [Mark Turner's clarification: the speaker is asking: Isn't it your (Jansenist) opinion that the Sorbonne is in error when it asserts: "that all the righteous always have the power to fulfil the commandments?" The answer given to this question is "No, we Jansenists do not believe that the Sorbonne is in error. We Jansenists agree with the Sorbonne. It would be heresy to deny that all the righteous always have the power to fulfil the commandments."]
"No," he said, "we anathematize it as heretical and impious."
Surprised at this answer, I realized that I had overdone the Jansenist role, as I had overdone the Molinist one previously. But, feeling quite uncertain how he would answer, I asked him to tell me in confidence whether he held that: "the righteous always have real power to observe these precepts." My man became very excited at this, though with a holy zeal, and said that nothing would ever make him disguise his feelings; that this is what he believed, and that he and his friends would defend it to the death, as being the pure doctrine of St Thomas and of St Augustine, their master.
He addressed me so earnestly that I could not doubt him. With this assurance I returned to my first doctor, and told him, with some satisfaction, that I was sure the Sorbonne would soon be at peace; that the Jansenists agreed on the power of the righteous to fulfil the commandments; that I would vouch for it, that I would get them to sign it in their own blood.
"All very fine!" he said; "you must be a theologian to appreciate the finer points. The difference between us is so subtle that we can barely point it out ourselves; you would have too much difficulty in understanding it. Just be satisfied with the knowledge that the Jansenists will indeed tell you that the righteous always have power to fulfil the commandments: that is not what we are arguing about. But they will not tell you that this power is proximate: that is the point."
This was a new word to me, and unfamiliar. Up till then I had understood the business, but this term plunged me into obscurity, and I think it was only invented to confuse people. So I asked him to explain it, but he was very mysterious about it, and sent me off, with no further satisfaction, to ask the Jansenists if they admitted this proximate power. I fixed the term in my memory, for my intellect did not come into it, and for fear of forgetting it, I went straight back to my Jansenist, to whom I said forthwith, after the opening courtesies:
"Please tell me whether you admit proximate power."
He began to laugh and said coldly:
"You tell me yourself in what sense you mean it, and then I will tell you what I think about it."
As my knowledge did not extend that far I found myself faced with the impossibility of answering him, but all the same, to save my visit from being fruitless, I said to him at random:
"I mean in the sense of the Molinists."
Whereupon my man, quite unmoved, asked:
"To which of the Molinists are you referring?"
I offered him the whole lot together, as forming a single body acting in the same spirit, but he said:
"You do not know much about it. Far from all having the same views they are in fact quite divided amongst themselves. But as they are all at one in their intention of destroying M. Arnauld, they have decided to agree on this word proximate; they will utter it in unison, though each man means something different. Thus they can all speak the same language and use such apparent consistency to form a considerable body and constitute a majority, the surer to crush him."
This reply amazed me, but without accepting such an impression of the Molinists' evil designs, which I am not ready simply to take at his word and which is none of my concern, I concentrated merely on discovering the different meanings given to this mysterious word proximate. But he told me:
"I should be glad to enlighten you, but you would find such inconsistency and gross contradiction that you would hardly believe me. You would be suspicious of me. You will feel surer if you hear it from their own lips, and I will give you the addresses. You need only to see M. Le Moine and Father Nicolaï separately."
"I do not know either of them," I told him.
"Well," he said, "see if you know any of those whom I am going to name. For they follow M. Le Moine's opinions."
I did in fact know some of them. Then he said:
"See whether you know any Dominicans, who are known as neo-Thomists, for they are all like Father Nicolaï."
I knew some of those he named also, and determined to profit by this advice and settle the business, I left him and went first to one of M. Le Moine's disciples.
I begged him to tell me what it meant "to have proximate power to do something."
"That is easy," he said, "it means having everything necessary for doing it, so that nothing more is needed in order to act."
"And so," I said, "having proximate power to cross a river means having a boat, boatman, oars, and so on, so that nothing more is needed."
"Quite right," he said.
"And having proximate power to see," I said, "means having good sight, and being in good light. For anyone with good sight in the dark would not have proximate power to see according to you, since he would need light, without which no one can see."
"Spoken like a scholar," he said.
"And consequently," I went on, "when you say that all the righteous always have proximate power to keep the commandments, you mean that they always have the grace necessary for fulfilling them, so that they lack nothing as far as God is concerned."
"Wait a minute," he said, "they always have what is necessary for keeping them, or at least for praying to God."
"I quite understand," I said; "they have all that is necessary for praying God to help them, without it being necessary for them to have any fresh grace from God to pray."
"You have understood correctly," he said.
"But then do they not need an efficacious grace in order to pray to God?"
"No," he said, "according to M. Le Moine."
To save time I went to the Dominicans and asked for those whom I knew to be neo-Thomists. I asked them to tell me what is meant by proximate power.
"Is it not the power," I said, "which contains everything needful for action?"
"No," they told me.
"What? But, Father, if this power is short of something do you call it proximate, and would you say, for instance, that a man in the dark, with no light, has the proximate power to see?"
"Indeed he has, according to us, if he is not blind."
"I do not mind," I said, "but M. Le Moine understands just the opposite."
"That is true," they said, "but that is how we understand it."
"Agreed," I said, "for I never argue about a name so long as I am told in what sense it is being taken. But I see from this that when you say that the righteous always have the proximate power to pray to God you mean that they need extra assistance to pray, otherwise they never will pray."
"That is fine," answered my Reverend Fathers hugging me, "fine; for they must have in addition an efficacious grace, not given to all, which determines their will to pray. And it is heretical to deny that this efficacious grace is needed for prayer."
"Fine," I said in my turn, "but according to you the Jansenists are Catholics and M. Le Moine a heretic, for the Jansenists say that the righteous have the power to pray, but that they still need an efficacious grace, and that is what you approve. While M. Le Moine says that the righteous can pray without efficacious grace, and that is what you condemn."
"Yes," they said, "but M. Le Moine calls this power proximate power."
"What! But Reverend Fathers," I said, "it is playing with words to say that you are in agreement because you both use the same terms, when you mean different things."
The Fathers did not answer. At that moment the disciple of M. Le Moine turned up so opportunely that I found it extraordinary, but since then I have learned that they meet quite often and are constantly involved together.
So I said to M. Le Moine's disciple:
"I know someone who says that all the righteous always have the power to pray God, but that they would none the less never actually pray without being determined to do so by an efficacious grace, which God does not always grant to all the righteous. Is he a heretic?"
"Wait a moment," said my doctor; "you might catch me out. Let us then take it in easy stages: distinguo; if he calls this power proximate, he is a Thomist, and so Catholic, if not, he is a Jansenist, and so a heretic."
"He does not call it," I said, "either proximate or not proximate."
"The he is a heretic," he said: "ask these good Fathers."
I did not ask for their verdict, because they were already nodding agreement, but I said to them:
"He refuses to admit this word proximate because no one will explain it to him."
At that one of the Fathers was about to offer his definition, but he was interrupted by M. Le Moine's disciple who said to him:
"Do you want to start off our squabbles again? Did we not agree not to explain this word proximate, and both to utter it without saying what it signifies?"
The Dominican admitted this.
That showed me what they had in mind, and as I got up to go I said:
"To tell the truth, Reverend Father, I am very much afraid that all this is pure quibbling, and whatever comes of your meetings, I venture to predict that, even if the censure is passed, peace will not be established. For even if it is decided that we must pronounce the syllables prox-i-mate, is it not obvious to anyone that if they remain unexplained each of you will claim the victory? The Dominicans will say that the word is understood in their sense, M. Le Moine in his, and so there will be far more argument over explaining it than introducing it. For, after all, there would be no great danger in accepting it without any meaning, for it is only the meaning that can do any harm. But it would be something unworthy of the Sorbonne and theology to use equivocal and captious words without explaining them.
"Now, for the last time I ask you, Reverend Fathers, to tell me what I must believe to be a Catholic."
"You must," they all said in unison, "say that all the righteous have proximate power, leaving aside all question of meaning: 'leaving aside the Thomist meaning and the meaning of other theologians.'"
"In other words," I said as I took my leave, "one must pronounce this word with one's lips to avoid being called a heretic. Is this word Scriptural?"
"No," they told me.
"Does it comes from the Fathers, the councils, or the popes?"
"What about St Thomas?"
"Then why is there any need to say it, since it has no authority behind it nor any meaning in itself?"
"You are stubborn," they said. "You must either say it or be heretical, and the same with M. Arnauld. For we are in the majority, and if necessary we shall bring in enough Franciscans to ensure victory."
Leaving them with this solid argument, I have just come away to write you this report. From it you can see that none of the following points is in question or condemned by either side: 1. That grace is not given to all men. 2. That all the righteous have power to fulfil God's commandments. 3. That in order to fulfil them, and even to pray, they still need an efficacious grace which irresistibly determines their wills. 4. That this grace is not always given to all the righteous, and depends on the pure mercy of God.. Consequently the only risk left lies in this meaningless word proximate.
Happy the people who know nothing of it! Happy those who came before it was born! For the only cure I can see is for the gentlemen of the Academy to use their authority to banish this barbaric Sorbonical word which is causing so much dissension. Otherwise censure seems certain, but I can see that the only harm it will do is to bring the Sorbonne into contempt for such behaviour and deprive it of the authority it needs on other occasions.
However I leave you free to decide for or against the word proximate; for I love my neighbour [translator's footnote: the word "prochain" means both "proximate" and "neighbour"] too much to use this excuse to persecute him. If you find this account to your liking, I will continue to keep you posted of any developments.
I am, etc.
Les Enfants Gâtés
copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas 1997
Two of the most immediately obvious differences between English and French are the inflected article in French and the explicit distinction between the whole of something and part of something. Les enfants gâtés means the spoiled children and is a set-phrase used in French where its English equivalent would never be used. A French art historian, one of my guests at a leisurely lunch in a luxurious Paris restaurant, said after we resolved the problem of choosing between two especially attractive desserts by ordering both, "Nous sommes vraiment des enfants gâtés!" No one at the table was under fifty, and there was no sense of reproach in the phrase. I cannot imagine anyone saying in such circumstances in English "We really are spoiled children." But the phrase in French also insists that we are some spoiled children. In French the partitive some (des) cannot be omitted; otherwise you would be saying that we are (all) the spoiled children (in the world). This is not an issue in English. "Shall we have chicken or fish?" is good English but its literal equivalent would be bad French. In French, in order to sound normal, it would have to be "Shall we have some chicken or some fish?"
One day in May 1985, I was walking in the Marais, an increasingly chic area on the right bank that has the greatest concentration of seventeenth-century buildings in Paris, and stopped in a salon de thé I had never noticed before called Les Enfants Gâtés. I loved it at once and continued to do so for years. A salon de thé is not a café, of course, nor is it a restaurant. Unlike a café, it has no bar; unlike a restaurant, it serves anything on its menu from the time it opens (usually noon) to the time it closes (usually six or seven in the evening). A salon de thé implies casual leisure. A customer can have tea (chosen from a long list of teas), coffee (unlikely), or chocolate but might also have lunch (quiche or a salad), perhaps followed by a dessert (le cheesecake, for example). There is often reading material in a salon de thé and the chic ones have charming servers who manage to give you the impression that they are not working but rather serving you as a friend would serve a friend. These servers have a certain chic of their own, and help to create an ambiance because that is really what a salon de thé has to sell—an ambiance. In many cases, there is nothing distinguished about the food; all of it is ordered from outside anyway, and in principle, anyone can open a salon de thé and serve the identical food.
Parisian Salons de thé were once something reasonably close to what an American who had spent a little time in England would expect a tea room to be, quiet oases of a middle-aged person's idea of comfort. These institutions are, in my own experience, uncommon in the United States, although self-consciously sophisticated hotels in big cities often serve tea in their lobbies at about the hour tea is normally served in the United Kingdom. There are still middle aged salons de thé in Paris (a classic of the genre is The Tea Caddy, facing the exquisite little church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre.)
Les Enfants Gâtés has little in common with The Tea Caddy. Not only is its core clientele younger, but the atmosphere is hardly one of detente; the defining posture is rather affected indolence. Affected indolence is, of course, work. Its accomplished practitioners are self-conscious about how they look and who is noticing them while apparently being completely absorbed in reading A Suivre or smoking a cigarette. Someone accomplished at this sort of performance gives no evidence even of noticing the devastatingly beautiful young woman in the skin-tight leather outfit who has just uncoiled herself from her battered leather armchair and is now unhurriedly walking the full length of the room deftly slipping between tables she does not glance at on her way to what could never be called by its English cognate in an American establishment, la toilette.
Except for the fact that there were too many low tables and battered leather armchairs in the room, the premises of Les Enfants Gâtés might almost have been a 1967 graduate student apartment at the high end of graduate student prosperity in the vicinity of one of the more reputable universities in the United States. A poster of Louise Brooks, a poster for Baby Doll, just the right combination of the exquisite and the (apparently) careless. The faint but persistent suggestion that "We don't take anything too seriously here," combined with those carefully selected three dozen teas and a ritual of service as carefully choreographed—albeit in a very different style—as the tea ceremony in a sixteenth-century Kyoto tea hut.
On an early visit to Les Enfants Gâtés, perhaps on my very first visit, I encountered one of its three owners, Laurent, and had the first of many pleasant talks with him. Whenever I was in Paris on Sunday, I stopped in for "le brunch." The tiny kitchen impossibly overextended, the two (smashing) servers continually on the run but always projecting the laid-back tone that is the signature of this place, and a steady stream of would-be customers turned away while Laurent encouraged anyone who might be feeling a little pressure to leave to have another drink, to relax, to read another bande dessinée, to enjoy the sense of being an enfant gâté.
On an ordinary afternoon, it was a place that offered a sort of personal haven. I often walked there the first day I arrived after the long flight from Chicago. It was just the right distance, and I could have just the right sort of meal when I got there. Once when the leaden curtain of jet lag caught up with me before I got back to my bed, I dozed off in my easy chair, and then fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up after a few hours, surprised to find myself in a private nook at Les Enfants Gâtés on a quiet afternoon, the server said, "I knew you had just arrived today, so I thought I'd just let you sleep." I was sitting at the same half-hidden table that serves as a retreat for a top model—easy to recognize because she hides under a large hat—who lives in the neighborhood.
Les Enfants Gâtés is not the sort of place that exemplifies the virtues beloved by La Défense de la langue française. For one thing, a lot of its customers do not speak French. The music that is sometimes oppressive is almost always American, so are most of the actors, actresses, and films seen in the pictures and posters that hang on the walls. Laurent is more Jack Lang than he is Musée des monuments français. He has a Parisian's love of Paris, to be sure, and can speak with almost Proustian feeling about the Place Maubert and the Place de la Contrascarpe, but the cities that have captured his imagination the way Paris has captured mine are Amsterdam and New York.
Laurent is filled with enthusiasm for the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Broadway and 86th Street. A huge bookstore on several floors with armchairs and a café! And Amsterdam's "brown cafés" have been an inspiration to him. In fact, they have led him to alter Les Enfants Gâtés's self description. Salon de thé has been painted out of its shop sign. It has been replaced with a word apparently borrowed back from Dutch: caffé (with two f's), a word he thinks better suited to describe his establishment's ambience. Perhaps it is. To some French people, borrowing an originally French word from Dutch might be a sign of just how bad things have become, but just beneath the ruthless chic of Les Enfants Gâtés and its self-conscious internationalism, there are bedrock French virtues: a profound respect for the fidelity of its customers that translates into a personal recognition and transforms a business into a privileged encounter; and a sense of métier, even if that métier is the creation of an ambiance. Although it is never allowed to surface, there is a rigor and a sense of continuity in a place like Les Enfants Gâtés that, if it exists at all in New York, is probably confined to the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Frick Collection.
The last time New Year's Day fell on a Sunday, Les Enfants Gâtés was open. It was almost empty, and Laurent received his clients in a sort of analogue to the way generations of French people have received their relatives on the Jour de l'An. There was no overt sentimentality, just the unspoken sense that he regards his clients as his family. This tender and familial side of Les Enfants Gâtés runs like a vein of gold just under the surface of the place and even if it too is a performance, its art is beyond the reach of any Barnes & Noble.
copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas, 1988
The week that Richard Nixon described as the greatest in history—an astronaut had walked on the Moon and Edward Kennedy had driven off a bridge—was the first week I spent in Amsterdam. I was there to see the Vermeers. There are four of them in the Rijksmuseum and three more at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, fifty minutes away by train.
I had begun my trip in Vienna, as far East as there are Vermeers, and then followed a jagged line West: Berlin, Braunschweig, Dresden, Frankfurt. But the Dutch towns were best because there it still is possible to see the spatial relations the painter knew and the objects he loved: the low windows, narrow streets, seventeenth-century brick façades, the unself-conscious Turkish carpets on wooden tables. The only discordant note was the shock of seeing European papers with red, white, and blue American flags plastered above hysterical headlines proclaiming to the inter-galactic ages America's newest stunt: "Men from the Planet Earth Set Foot on the Moon."
Even Le Monde had a stupid headline, but I saw with relief that someone there had kept his head. In the left-hand column there was an editorial entitled "Oui, mais pourquoi?" I bought a copy and turned the corner into the Thorbeckeplein without knowing where I was going.
The Thorbeckeplein, if it could be transplanted to Albany or Minneapolis, might properly be called sleazy. If I had been more knowledgeable about it, I should have been more surprised than I was to find there, tucked in among the strip-joints and other places of naughty entertainment, an inviting little sandwich shop—a broodjeszaak—called De Drie Musketiers.
I was served by its owner, a short, bald, moon-faced man of seventy-five, glowing with energy and good humor. He was immensely excited about the Moon landing. Le Monde did not fool him for a minute. I was American. Subtle discouragements went unnoticed. He was going to treat me the way an American should be treated today.
He exasperated me. I responded to his effusions by pointing out to him in my most acid tones that I had had nothing whatever to do with the Moon landing, that if I had been consulted, any fool who wanted to go to the Moon would have had to pay for the trip out of his own pocket; I ended by asking him to tell me just how he personally was better off for it.
He gave me one of those beatific smiles seen mainly on the faces of babies and decent old people and said, "You know, you remind me of my father. He hated machines. When I was seventeen, I built a radio—enormous thing. I was crazy about it. My father hated it. Didn't want it in the house. When I came back from my summer vacation, it was gone. He had buried it in the back yard and refused to tell me where. Buried it!"
How can you help loving a man like that? Besides, his food was excellent. I had lunch at his shop every day. He ran around energetically taking orders, making "broodjes," fetching hot food from the dumb-waiter that carried it down from the kitchen, and dispensed his charm.
One day a stout American woman marched up to him and enunciated in the manner of a first grade reading teacher "DO—YOU—SPEAK—ENGLISH?"
"Anglisch, French, Dutch, German," he shrugged, "Do you want to eat or is this a survey?"
Mr. Rosenthal and I became friends. He would sit at my table when he wasn't too busy. He joked about his neighbors, asked if I thought he should get a stripper to entertain at lunchtime, told me about his shop. He had had it twenty-five years, and, like its owner, it had aged well. There were ancient Coca-Cola signs in Dutch behind the counter and another sign headed "PRIJS LIJST" which looked like "PRUS LUST" to me but advertised meals at low prices instead of the attractive if incomprehensible cupidities it conjured up in my imagination. His prices were really very low. "So many young people in the summer without much money," he explained once, "They have to eat too."
So there in Dutch, German, French, and "Anglisch" he advertised "Extensive meats of f3.75."
Some days I would bring young women to lunch with me. On these occasions, Mr. Rosenthal would pretend I was just another customer. Next day he would give me his impressions.
"That one was a real beauty. Makes me wish I were young again."Vermeer didn't paint girls to his taste; he didn't paint old men of beautiful character either. But, as he sat at the big table in the window and joke with his friends, Mr. Rosenthal might have been a subject for Frans Hals. I used to sit half-way down the narrow room—with the counter, like a huge Vanitas, at my right—looking out the big front window onto the Thorbeckeplein. It was in that little shop that I came to know the very Dutch comfort of being in small room with large windows.
One day a French group came in at the height of the lunch hour. Mr. Rosenthal was running around at such a pace that I was a little uncomfortable watching him. Surely at his age . . . .
The French group included several small children; one was a boy of about three who was overtired and crying. He wandered around the table unhappy as only a tired three-year-old in a foreign country can be unhappy.
The old man couldn't stand it. As he whisked by with a platter in one hand, he swept up the stupefied little boy in the other. Then, while he continued to dash around the shop, he jabbered atrocious French at the tyke, fed him bits of cheese, showed him the dumb-waiter, and by a torrent of energy and will amused him into a better humor.
It got so that if I were going to be out of town for a day—in Delft or The Hauge—I would warn Mr. Rosenthal, "I won't be in tomorrow." One day I came by very late—six o'clock was his closing time. I had got involved in ancient numbers of Oud Holland at the library and had forgotten the time. There was a chair propped in the door—his sign that he was closed even though there were still customers in the shop. I was going to walk on, but he saw me and quickly pulled away the chair.
"Come in, come in," he said, "for you I'm always open."
No one else could combine such sentiment with such briskness.
The day had to come. My last lunch at De Drie Musketiers. When I finished, he refused to give me a check.
"From me," he said. "A way of being sure you'll come back."
It was raining the next time I was in Amsterdam. I had been on the train from Frankfurt all day, and it was almost five when I got in. I dropped my bags at the hotel and rushed off immediately to the Thorbeckeplein to get there before Mr. Rosenthal closed. I concentrated my anxiety on the danger that he would be closed for the day; it held off other possibilities.
He gave me his standard beam as I walked in, pointed me to my usual table and said, "So. One May cheese, one roast beef, one coffee, one apple cake." My standard order. It was as if I had been to The Hague for a day.
The gossip that summer ran to politics. "This Nixon—such a wicked man!" My last day, I gave him a present. A good print of Vermeer's Milkmaid, which he said he would hang over his counter.
"When you come back again you'll see it, and in the meantime I'll look at it and be reminded that you're on your way."
As it happened, I was on my way a long time. My job disappeared. My work on Vermeer was interrupted while I looked for another one.
The paintings too experienced unexpected hard times. The Guitar Player at Kenwood House was stolen and damaged. A Lady Writing a Letter was stolen, and The Love Letter, from the Rijksmuseum was stolen and mutilated while on loan to an exhibition in Brussels.
It had been heavily restored. I was doing some seventeenth-century restoration work myself shortly afterward. In the course of it, I was sent to Holland to see the restored Love Letter and discuss some technical details with the people who had worked on it.
I went to my usual little hotel in Amsterdam and was pained by what I saw. Its once prosperous owner had been badly hurt by a sharp decline in the demand for the kind of accommodations she offered at the greatly increased prices she was forced to ask.
I went to the Thorbeckeplein my first afternoon but didn't rush. De Drie Musketiers was gone. The wicked man's "new prosperity" had delayed my return too long.
After a careful look, I could see where the door of the shop had been. It was now a night club with glossy photographs of an ample blond "exotic dancer" no longer in the first blush of youth. I seemed to know what had happened to Mr. Rosenthal. Finally I heard from the counterman in a much less pleasant broodjeszaak down the street—one of a chain—that he thought the old man had died.
I didn't return to the Thorbeckeplein. With Mr. Rosenthal gone, it was sleazy.
The restoration work on the Vermeer was, within its cosmetic limits, good. "Professional." Of course, the restorers had the luxury of an almost unlimited budget. I don't suppose a casual museum visitor will notice how little of Vermeer's paint clings to the surface. You can still see his idea, still grasp his character as a painter. The picture is, after all, over three hundred years old. Time will leave its mark.
From W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 2001), pages 7-8, 9-10, 12-13.
One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdus was Austerlitz [. . .] That day in Antwerp, as on all our later meetings, Austerlitz wore heavy walking boots and workman's trousers made of faded blue calico, together with a tailor-made but long outdated suit jacket. Apart from these externals he also differed from the other travelers in being the only one who was not staring apathetically into space, but instead was occupied in making notes and sketches obviously relating to the room where we were both sitting—a magnificent hall more suitable, to my mind, for a state ceremony than as a place to wait for the next connection to Paris or Oostende—for when he was not actually writing something down his glance often dwelt on the row of windows, the fluted pilasters, and other structural details of the waiting room [. . . . ] When I finally went over to Austerlitz with a question about his obvious interest in the waiting room, he was not at all surprised by my direct approach but answered me at once, without the slightest hesitation [ . . . ] Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Austerlitz began, in reply to my questions about the history of the building of Antwerp station, when Belgium, a little patch of yellowish gray barely visible on the map of the world, spread its sphere of influence to the African continent with its colonial enterprises, when deals of huge proportions were done on the capital markets and raw-materials exchanges of Brussels, and the citizens of Belgium, full of boundless optimism, believed that their country, which had been subject so long to foreign rule and was divided and disunited in itself, was about to become a great new economic power—at that time, now so long ago although it determines our lives to this day, it was the personal wish of King Leopold, under whose auspices such apparently inexorable progress was being made, that the money suddenly and abundantly available should be used to erect public buildings which would bring international renown to his aspiring state. One of the projects thus initiated by the highest authority in the land was the central station of the Flemish metropolis, where we were sitting now, said Austerlitz, designed by Louis Delacenserie, it was inaugurated in the summer of 1905, after ten years of planning and building, in the presence of the King himself. The model Leopold had recommended to his architects was the new railway station of Lucerne, where he had been particularly struck by the concept of the dome, so dramatically exceeding the usual modest height of railway buildings, a concept realized by Delacenserie in his own design, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, in such stupendous fashion that even today, said Austerlitz, exactly as the architect intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade. Delacenserie borrowed the main elements of his monumental structure from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, but he also struck Byzantine and Moorish notes, and perhaps when I arrived, said Austerlitz, I myself had noticed the round gray and white granite turrets, the sole purpose of which was to arouse medieval associations in the minds of railway passengers. However laughable in itself, Delacenserie's eclecticism, uniting past and future in the Centraal Station with its marble stairways in the foyer and the steel and glass roof spanning the platforms, was in fact a logical stylistic approach to the new epoch, said Austerlitz, and it was also appropriate, he continued, that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century—mining, industry, transport, trade, and capital. For halfway up the walls of the entrance hall, as I must have noticed, there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on, with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation. And Time, said Austerlitz, represented by the hands and dial of the clock, reigns supreme among these emblems. The clock is placed above the only baroque element in the entire ensemble, the cruciform stairway which leads from the foyer to the platforms, just where the image of the emperor stood in the Pantheon in a line directly prolonged from the portal; as governor of a new omnipotence it was set even above the royal coat of arms and the motto Endracht maakt macht [Unity is strength or, more literally, Union creates power]. The movements of all travelers could be surveyed from the central position occupied by the clock in Antwerp Station, and conversely all travelers had to look up to the clock and were obliged to adjust their activities to its demands. In fact, said Austerlitz, until the railway timetables were synchronized the clocks of Lille and Liège did not keep the same time as the clocks of Ghent and Antwerp, and not until they were all standardized around the middle of the nineteenth century did time truly reign supreme. It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other. And indeed, said Ausrerlitz after a while, to this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad. From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life. I shall never forget how he concluded his comments on the manufacture of the tall waiting-room mirrors by wondering, glancing up once more at their dimly shimmering surfaces as he left, combien des ouvriers périrent, lors de la manufacture de tels mirrors, de malignes et funestre affectations à la suite de l'inhalation de vapeurs de mercure et de cyanide. [How many workers perished during the manufacture of such mirrors from the malign and deadly effects of inhaling mercury and cyanide vapors.]
The C. Burr Artz Library
copyright © Kate O'Leary, 1998. Used with permission.
The C. Burr Artz Library in downtown Frederick hides behind a deceptively small facade. Past the circulation desk and magazine racks, straight back, adult fiction is to the right and left, with non-fiction shelves to the far left, then the reference desk on the left, and the card catalog, now a collection of computers, to the right. The mystery section used to be held right before the card catalog but it gets moved around a lot. The non-fiction shelves are interrupted by the microfilm room, and resume with biographies. Young adult fiction is next, opposite study tables and carrels to the right. The children's section continues with books for increasingly younger ages all the way to the back doors of the library. In the back left corner is a large open space for storytellers and puppet shows.
My father read to me the day I came home from the hospital, and I spent a considerable part of my childhood reading library books. My mom took my sister and brother and me to the library every few weeks and we would check out ten books each, because that was an easy number to keep track of. I remember getting my own library card, a small upright rectangle of stiff white plastic. My last name had a comma instead of an apostrophe. A few years ago my card was replaced with a credit card sized card made of flimsy plastic and without my name stamped on it. The bar code fell off once and I had to have it replaced.
A friend of mine grew up going to a library where children under a certain age couldn't check out certain books, but the only censor I had was my father. I think I might have gotten more upset when certain books disappeared, but with so many left to read it really didn't make a difference. I never read Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, but I read Little Women three times, The Little Princess, Kidnapped, and all the original Nancy Drew's. I read a collection of E. B. White's novels with my mom, loving The Trumpet of the Swan, and a little puzzled by The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I didn't read Roald Dahl until my sister started reading his books, but if he were still writing I would still be reading him.
I hope that my children will feel lucky for being spoiled with books, and I hope they will enjoy reading them for the first time as much as I will enjoy reading them again. There are too many books worth reading to buy them all, so we will be familiar with the local public library. I hope they will love reading enough to pass over whatever incarnation of RL Stine happens to be popular. I don't know whether or not my love of reading was inherited, but it was certainly nurtured. It is more than the difference between illiteracy and literacy. It is the difference between literacy and love.
A Presentation of Self
copyright © Jenny Miller, 1998. Used with permission.
When I was twenty I left Ohio State University and my hometown of Columbus determined to experience "life." I landed in Olympia, Washington, where it appeared I'd found the community of socially aware and environmentally conscious people I'd always hoped was out there. I assimilated quickly and merrily. When I returned home for a visit two years later, my friends didn't know what to make of me. I'd shaved my head, but no longer shaved my legs; I lived in a tipi on an organic farm, and had developed a strong distaste for all things disposable, commercial, and artificial. I shunned cheap coffee, macro- beers, and fast food, and I didn't watch TV.
When I returned to the Northwest the rainy season had begun, and my tipi was suddenly a profoundly chilly, soggy habitat. My books and clothes were molding when I was rescued by a band of middle-aged lesbian-separatists, who came straight out of the seventies to offer me a cabin to live in on "the land." I lived in this cabin for a year. I had no running water, and I ran my stereo off a car battery. My only company was my beloved first cat, Kitty, and the coyotes, who eventually ate her.
I had a wide variety of occupations in Washington, ranging from ditch-digger to assistant to the lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Affiliates. I learned how to sail, how to frame a house, how to navigate icy passes in the Cascade mountains, and how to build a sweat lodge. But these days I'm back on the East coast, doing East-coast kinds of things. Right now I'm an English major at the University of Maryland, and I work at a video store. I have hair on my head again, and none on my legs. I watch too much TV, and I can occasionally be seen eating McDonalds French fries and drinking 7-11 coffee. Someday I hope to be a wealthy, well-loved genius, with a gorgeous, perfect girlfriend and numerous acclaimed novels to my credit.
A Presentation of Self
copyright © Todd Stephens, 1998. Used with permission.
School is a two-decade developmental internship. I knew English was my calling because it was the only class I could consistently stay awake in in elementary school. I found organized sports to be too organized the moment the referee forbade me to run more than two steps with the basketball. I spent more time outside than James Audubon, and I have the scars on my knees to prove it. Since my independent sketch sessions in middle school algebra class, I have become a capable sketch artist. Books have gone from being cumbersome shoulder weights to being microcosms of the world. Once I sobered up from my freshman year at Frostburg State University, I realized the final four years of my unpaid internship were crucial. Although I'm an English major, I find more excitement in the Starr Report than in Huck Finn. Unlike my tie-dyed, bleary-eyed, open-toe-sandaled English brethren, I have little interest in finding hidden nuances in Macbeth. I love company, but the only person who can constantly stand my rantings is me. Writing allows me to say authoritatively what I want without letting anyone know I'm a tall, skinny, black kid who hates Literature.
A Presentation of Self
copyright © James Kuzner, 1998. Used with permission.
I lived most of my life in Frederick County, Maryland's bottle-shaped social abyss. I came to the University of Maryland with a strong aversion to home and a vague desire for further education. I chose the English major by default, because I was either uninterested in - or atrocious at - everything else. I enrolled in a beginner's short story course having read maybe ten books and having written nothing at all. I did well though, made imaginative by my seventeen first, solitary years. I started reading a book each week, mostly literature, and by the end of my freshman year I had written a hundred pages of fiction. Things went well. My parents were mildly shocked when the grade reports came home and I had a 4.0.
Lately I have begun a novella, read two or three hundred books, and found an interest in postmodern metaphysics. My literary influences include John Updike, Steven Millhauser, and Mark Turner. Currently I am studying with Mary Kay Zuravleff and Howard Norman, and an MFA is probably up next.
I have visited home little since coming to college. When I do, I feel glad that I no longer live there, and grateful that I once did.
A Fictional Presentation of Self
copyright © Amanda Bernhardt, 2000. Used with permission.
My mother always told me that men don't like girls who have slept around, but at the wily age of fifteen, I knew that there were only two kinds of bridegrooms on the wedding night. The first kind is made up of lovesick blockheads who take no trouble at all to cuckold. Their wishes blind them to reality, and the innocence of their minds translates into the imagined innocence of their brides. Fill them with love, adoration and strong wine, behave coyly, flush when they look at you and fix your eyes shyly to the floor, and these men never suspect that their blushing brides have more bedroom savvy than most whores. The second kind of bridegroom marries only for money, or power, or some other unscrupulous reason. He jealously guards the social opportunities his wife represents just as an unmarried man might guard his lover's body, but the unscrupulous man does not care whether there's a spot of blood on the sheets in the morning. And so I laughed at my mother's old-fashioned fears and never hesitated to make love to those I did not intend to marry, because, of newly-wed husbands, there are only those who do not know, and those who know but do not care.
A presentation of Self
copyright © Christy O'Hara, 2000. Used with permission.
I am 26 years old and live in a one-bedroom condominium on the lake in Columbia, Maryland and have worked for Marriott hotels for three years. I spent my childhood traveling through Europe because my father worked for the Government and I was too young to stay home alone. The experience would have been exciting if I had been older and had not spent my winters worrying if Santa Claus could find us.
The University of Maryland has been my academic nemesis for four years and I am now seven classes away from graduation. English majors have the perpetual burden of having every written and spoken word reviewed for syntax errors. I will have my Bachelors degree in English by May but I will never be able to use the semi-colon correctly.
My family is small compared to the Waltons. I have three sisters, three brothers, seven nieces and nephews and my parents are worried our family will outgrow their three-bedroom waterfront property in North Carolina. Four months ago I agreed to marry Jon Pettyjohn and my parents decided to sell the house.
copyright © Olivia Stewart, 2000. Used with permission.
Contrary to an annoying number of Americans' romantic visions, England is a third-world country with beautiful architecture. Buildings such as St. Paul's Cathedral or Warwick Castle do not make up for the absence of water pressure, fairly regular oil crises, usurious tax rates, poor medical attention that can take weeks, if not months, for someone to get, a class system that more resembles a caste system and regular bar room and street brawls over politics. Their food supply faces contamination regularly, and mad cow disease was by no means the first problem with English food, even if you don't count the taste of English food. The US socialist and communist parties like to point to England's health care system as an example of what we should do. Of course they fail to mention that even in a country as small as England, those in poor and rural areas wait a month or two to see, if they are lucky, a third rate doctor, but usually a nurse. In fact, the only thing England can take pride in is their transportation system, but the best and least confusing elements of that come from the Romans.
copyright © Patti Koch, 2000. Used with permission.
Victoria is a petulant young girl, talented at sustaining a pout. The ease with which she manipulates her parents is recognized immediately by strangers but not at all by her parents. When Victoria realizes she has hit her parents' last nerve, she calmly saunters away from them with feline disinterest and disdain. It is hard work for a nine-year-old child to outsmart two adults. It leaves the child drained of energy but filled with power.
A classic obituary of Anne Boleyn
copyright © Olivia Stewart, 2000. Used with permission.
When Anne Boleyn was born, it was such a nonevent that no one bothered to record the year, let alone the date. But her execution on May 19th will change how an English king is remembered. When she was born, she came into a family of petty nobility. Her mother, Elizabeth, like a number of noblewomen at the time, made claims to a royal descent that no one acknowledged, and her father, Thomas, tried to hide the fact that he was a glorified merchant. When Henry VIII came to the throne, though, her family rose considerably. Thomas Boleyn liked to think his family's rise was due to own brilliant politics, but he mistook politics for sycophancy and was not exceptional in either. However, he was passable enough to get Anne a position as lady-in-waiting to Mary, the king's sister and future wife of the King of France, but Thomas's virtues could only take the family so far. It was his daughters' lack of virtue that truly advanced their family. Anne's sister, Mary, readily let the king into her bed and enjoyed the gifts that started filling her room, and the titles that started filling the space after her father's name. But Mary was neither intelligent nor scheming and she did nothing to secure her power. Shortly after Anne returned from France, Henry abandoned her to pursue Anne, which did more for his ruin then hers.
Unlike the rest of her family, Anne was intelligent, clever, and ruthless. Though at the time of Henry's first attentions she was in love with a nobleman, she quickly forgot that love and began plotting, using her broken heart as an excuse to reject Henry. She learned well from her sister's mistakes and began to ask Henry for everything, including the crown, but gave him nothing. Between her resistance, his lawyers' scheming, and his own greed and desire for a son, Henry went to great lengths to obtain a divorce. He and Anne married in secret, England became a Protestant nation, and five months after her coronation as Queen, Anne gave birth to a daughter. Had her next two pregnancies not ended with stillborn sons, she would not have been beheaded, but like her predecessor, her only surviving child was a daughter. Unlike her predecessor, Anne bore no patience toward Henry's affairs and by the end of 1535, he and his lawyer, Cromwell, were already making plans to get rid of her. She was tried for adultery, a treasonable offense for a Queen, in May of 1536, and found guilty because her musician, her brother, and several of Henry's friends admitted under torture to being guilty with her. Her daughter with Henry, Elizabeth, has not yet been executed, and may not be since no one believes she is a legitimate heir. Her parents still serve in court, and were in attendance when Henry announced his engagement to Jane Seymour on May 20, 1536.
A classic obituary of Bonnie Parker
copyright © Amanda Bernhardt, 2000. Used with permission.
Ms. Bonnie Parker, a ninety-pound outlaw from Texas who bloodied up four states and shot thirteen people with her partner Clyde Barrow, met her own death last Thursday from complications of thirty-six bullet wounds. The freckled, strawberry-blond woman was twenty-three years old and possibly two and a half months' pregnant at the time of her death.
She was born in Rowena, Texas on October 1, 1910 and began her felonious career when she met Clyde in 1929, shortly after the collapse of Wall Street. With the Barrow gang, Bonnie Parker is credited with robbing seven gas stations, a hardware store in Waco County, the Alliance Bank of Texas, the Laredo National Bank, and several grocery stores, including two Piggly Wigglys and an A & P store in Arkansas. People followed the outlaws' adventures in the newspapers, and Bonnie and Clyde frequently sent photographs of themselves, in poses that parodied their own glamorized, Robin Hood images, to the local press.
The police ambushed Bonnie and her partner in Bienville Parish, Louisiana on May 23, pounding 167 bullets into their getaway car after Clyde's gun jammed and he was unable to shoot back. Bonnie received the majority of the bullet wounds and died immediately, her mangled head slumped between her knees.
Besides committing robbery and homicide, Bonnie Parker also wrote poetry and contributed her poems, "The Story of Suicide Sal" and "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde," to the West Dallas Inquirer.
A classic obituary of Faye Dunaway
copyright © Akbar Khan, 2000. Used with permission.
Faye Dunaway died in a car accident in Los Angeles yesterday. She was 54.
Dunaway was the last of the Hollywood actresses who knew what it was to be a star. Like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, she ate chauvinistic Hollywood bigwigs for breakfast and used her severe beauty to seduce and conquer. Her steely sexuality and cold egotism made her intimidating but irresistible. Those around her tolerated her diva-ish behavior because her talent, focus, and dedication made it worth it. They knew she had fought her way from the dusty streets of a Florida hamlet to play alongside Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson and to win an Academy Award. In her forty-year career she has played the unforgettable roles of a young woman on a crime spree with her boyfriend (Bonnie and Clyde), a ruthless TV executive (Network), a delicate socialite widow (Chinatown), and Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest).
Dunaway stormed off the set of Chinatown for two weeks when Roman Polanski pulled a stray hair out of her head, she battled Bette Davis on the set of the TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee, and she refused to continue her Broadway role of Maria Callas until the producers promised her the same role in the movie version.
Today's stars throw fits and make petty demands on their coworkers, but they just seem petulant and bratty. They lack the talent that would justify their bitchiness. So many of them are, as Dunaway's Joan Crawford says in Mommie Dearest, "spoiled Hollywood brats."
copyright © Christy O'Hara, 2000. Used with permission.
His immense body size and unscrupulous background have made Jesse Ventura, the governor of Minnesota, the most publicized and feared political figure since Ted Kennedy. When Governor Ventura retired from wrestling after twelve years and needed a job requiring no experience, minimal schooling, and passable social skills, he chose politics. On November 12, 1999, his name appeared on the presidential primary ballot in Michigan because the Secretary of that state can single-handedly add a worthy candidate to the ballot, but Governor Ventura had it removed and avoids commenting on the current election. The people of Minnesota feel that he would make a good President because of his strong moral values and his quest to give the World Wrestling Federation as much airtime as football.
When asked why he chose to run for Governor, Jesse Ventura explained that after being a Navy Seal, a Vietnam Veteran, a wrestler, an actor, and a sports broadcaster, he saw politics as the next obvious step. Of all his accomplishments, he is proudest of his family, his championship wrestling belt, and his status as the first politician to become a doll. Last year, Mattel made a replica of the Governor that comes equipped with a business suit and a torn tank top and directions on which outfit is for which profession. Jesse Ventura's famous line in the movie Predator has made him a permanent member of the Screen Actors' Guild, and they now pay for his health and retirement benefits so the state of Minnesota doesn't have to. Currently, Governor Ventura volunteers as a football coach at a local high school and is thinking about making it his new profession.
Guide To Inexpensive Hotels Of Europe
copyright © Maureen McGee, 1998. Used with permission.
Young, penniless American students have earned a reputation in Europe for seeking the cheapest and crudest accommodations. Most guidebooks designed for students present the basic, bottom-of-the-barrel picks among youth hostels, often neglecting the reasonably priced, comfortable hotels and pensions that remain vacant.
Amsterdam, The Bastion Hotel.
Berlin, Pension von Oertzen
Reykjavik, The Scandic Hotel.
copyright © Margarette Vilfort, 1998. Used with permission.
In April 1986, Port-au-prince, where I was spending my annual fifteen-day vacation, was a haven of peace and happiness. The fire of the popular revolution that had destroyed the dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier was already extinguished. Like a spring loaded with shining promises and lively birdsongs, a new era was beginning. The most melodious birdsong my heart could then enjoy listening to was my short stay in my birthplace.
Indeed my vacation was a source of keen pleasure from which emerged moments of inexpressible delight that I could share with my parents and friends. I was living the best times of my life in the best world ever created when something happened that was going to bestow a new dimension to my vacation, a new meaning to my dreamlike love of my homeland.
On the eve of my departure for the United States, just after a brief but interesting shopping trip in downtown Port-au-Prince, I was waiting for a taxi at the corner of two main streets. It was noon, and the tropical sunlight, scattered under a sharply blue sky, was scorching my face, already bathed with warm sweat. I kept turning my head in all directions, hoping to see one of the turtle-cabs which always made one wait and wait until his mind was crushed under the weight of impatience. For fifteen long minutes, I suffered the burden of my own impatience. Suddenly, I saw a large crowd coming down the street in my direction. At first, I thought it was one of the carnivals that did not stop erupting in the streets of Port-au-Prince as volcanic celebrations of the fall of Duvalier. A few seconds later, as the dense multitude came closer, I could clearly read the political slogans written on the banners and see the machetes whose edges were blinking like the eyes of death. However, it was still obvious to me that these people were not on the verge of perpetrating any political violence in the presence of a happy humanity which I represented. With a loud voice once in a while covered by some redundant music, the crowd was singing some political anthem which ended with these words:
In the name of freedom,
In the middle of the cross-roads, the crowd stopped like a moving cathedral. As I could not see clearly from sidewalk, I climbed up a wall nearby to get a panoramic view of the spectacle. Then I saw, in the heart of the multitude, two men handcuffed with heavy rope; their clothes were ripped off, their noses and their mouths were bleeding.
Suddenly, the crowd opened up, forming a large circle in the middle of which the two prisoners were placed. Still I did not have the least feeling that I was going to witness some strange rite inspired by an obscure priest who wanted to celebrate the spirit of a pseudo-revolution with great pomp and ceremony. To my surprise, two old men, who seemed to be the leaders, moved toward the captives. One was carrying something that looked like a gasoline tank; the other one had a big tire. One of the prisoners was taken to the side and crowned with the tire, and a large amount of fuel was poured over him, flowing from his head to his bare feet. Then, a match was lighted, and the prisoner was set on fire. Instantly his body became a tree of flame, walking, then falling, then rolling on the ground for a short instant that seemed as long as eternity, and finally turning into a mass of dark ashes.
Meanwhile, the rejoicing crowd was singing and crying, "down with the last Duvalierists! Death to tonton-Macoutes!"
Then, like a bird of ill omen, a heavy silence fell upon the crying throng, as the two leaders grabbed the last prisoner and forced him to kneel down. Three young and strong men in the crowd helped the old men subdue the captive who refused to kneel. The struggle lasted a few seconds. Overpowered by his assailants, the prisoner was compelled to drink the fuel that was being poured from the small tank into his throat. The singular libation continued until the victim's abdomen was quite filled up with gas. Then the crowd moved backwards, opening the circle more and more. One old man, while standing a few meters from the wet prisoner, threw a lighted match. The body caught fire instantly and in less than five seconds exploded like a bomb, throwing pieces of fried bones and meat into the air. There were no ashes left, no trace of life, except maybe an unidentified part of the skull which seemed to come from a fried chicken.
After the killing, the crowd moved away into the city a cathedral of death. At the top of the wall, I was crucified. Silently, I climbed down from there to stand and wait for the taxicab. I wanted to walk away from that gruesome street corner, but I was immobilized by terror.
Letter from Burkina Faso
30 June 1999
Today is my 384th day in Africa. It's a typical night au village: 20:45, just finished dinner, shortwave tuned to BBC, heat lightning flashing close to the horizon, a premonition of the rain that will come around midnight.
I live in Perigban, a small village of about 1,000 people in southwestern Burkina Faso. The dirt road which bisects the village continues across the border to Côte d'Ivoire, about 40 km away. Perigban's close proximity to Côte d'Ivoire means that many of the village's younger men and women migrate to towns across the border, work for several years at coffee or cocoa plantations, then return to invest the money they've earned in construction projects. Their movement between the two countries represents one of the major conduits for the spread of AIDS in the area. The subject remains something of a taboo, and frequently when someone in the village dies, and it's widely (if quietly) suspected or suggested that he died of AIDS, relatives will respond, "He went to Côte d'Ivoire and came back sick; he was sick for a long time."
I work at Perigban's health clinic, which lacks the materials to diagnose almost any illness that can't be identified as malaria or dysentery. I don't perform any curative services; those are left to the two nurses and midwife who staff the clinic. My hands-on experience has so far been limited to weighing babies and assisting with prenatal consultations, although I have witnessed several births. My "assignment," according to Peace Corps and the Ministry of Health, is to to help carry out an initiative to decentralize health care by encouraging my clinic's management committee - a group of eight villagers, all men - to become more autonomous. In concrete terms this means training the members, most of whom are illiterate and speak little or no French, to write an annual budget and action plan, conduct community needs assessments, and execute "health promotion activities." Not an easy thing to do in a place where meetings scheduled for 8am don't begin until 11, where no activity requiring community participation can take place during the planting season (June-October), where people have come to depend heavily on outside funding, and where I am propositioned by just about every breathing male over the age of twelve.
Fortunately, during the past year I've developed a thick skin, a broad sense of humor, and the realism to accept that any changes I influence won't take place on the grand scale. The most dramatic changes I've observed so far have been the ones that have taken place inside me. I've never been so independent in my life, or so dependent. I'm the only American in a relatively isolated village with no electricity, running water, or telephone. I love the solitude and freedom - most of the time. Except when, for instance, I run out of propane gas and am unable to cook until I find a way to transport the tank 25 km to be refilled. Or when the frustrations of living as an "étrangère" in a third-world country threaten to push me over the edge. At those times I realize how vulnerable I can be, and I gratefully - and humbly - accept my neighbor's invitation to eat with her family, or seek out another volunteer to engage in a bitch session.
I've also enjoyed some pretty remarkable insights. Number one: human beings are incredibly adaptable. I could never have imagined I'd feel comfortable doing things that come so naturally now: bathing outside with a bucket and cup, bargaining at a market, sleeping outdoors, eating anything from millet porridge to wild rat to python with the same degree of enthusiasm.
Insight number two: the less people have, the more generous they are. I'm astonished by how willing people here are to share whatever little they have. It's unthinkable to begin eating - even something like a handful of peanuts - without first saying "vous êtes invité" to whoever happens to be around. Since Peace Corps began in the 60s, volunteers have been claiming that they learned more from the experience than they taught; they received much more than they gave. It's easy for me to see how that's true, as the contributions I'm making are minute and the kindness shown me is boundless.
The kindness comes in spite of - or maybe as a result of, I don't know - the widely-held belief that Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso are really working as CIA agents. I've tried to erase that suspicion from people's minds by assuring them that I'm not supplying my government with sensitive information about Perigban's high-tech military installments (yeah, right). I think secretly they remain unconvinced. I guess they think all my bumbling, my cultural and linguistic ineptitude, is an act.
I hope this letter reaches you eventually; campus mail is notoriously slow. I've heeded your advice and have been keeping a journal. Maybe during these next few rainy months I'll work on developing some essays. Wish you the best -
Name withheld, but used with permission.
My class in Classic Prose has brought René Descartes into my life again. My meager acquaintance with Monsieur Descartes began in 1970. A few other students and I signed up for Philosophy 201. Philosophy was a subject I believed to be essential to a complete education. It was, and is, but the class's distance from my apartment, its 8:00 am hour, and my laziness made the class memorably disastrous. My one sweet memory is of the young Lancelot who sat two seats in front and to the side of me. I studied his noble profile each morning we both made it to class. Your father and I were newly in love but my mind's flirtation with this fair student did not feel like a betrayal of trust. In fact, when I am in the beginning of a passionate attachment my enthusiasm for love can hardly be satisfied by one love object. What made the flirtation even more exciting was Lancelot's likeness to your father. Frankly he was finer featured than Mark. I sensed refinement and sensitivity in his character and high intelligence, too, although I did not discover whether that was true. He was quiet and so was I. We didn't have a chance to grade each other's intellect.
I did not learn my attractive fellow student's views on Descartes. The only person in the classroom who showed genuine enthusiasm for Monsieur Descartes was the professor. He was the stereotypic philosophy professor, distant, obtuse, and rather sadly lonely. Those who dwell on the greatest dead minds seem out of place in the living world, or what the world looked like to a provincial young woman. At about the time the professor became briefly animated, and this was because of Descartes, I was struggling with a decision to stay in or drop the class. We had tackled Spinoza and a couple of others and I felt I could get my mind around those fellows but Descartes was elusive. The "cogito ergo sum" sounded a bit self-serving and fraudulent to me, but I hadn't the confidence to offer the class my opinion. Distractions were increasing daily: Fair Lancelot was beginning to follow me in my thoughts after I left class and that did feel unfaithful to Mark. Students around the nation were writhing in sorrow and rage after the Kent State murders, and even our isolated college, more attractive to future foresters than future politicians, was faced with having to react to this outrage against perfect youth. I now thoroughly disliked Descartes and it was my annoyance with his arrogance that forced my hand. I dropped the class.
The afternoon of the morning I dropped Philosophy 201 I went to a rally in front of the student union. Policemen and students shared the small semicircle that served as the university's town square. Some students called the police "pigs" to their faces and I was embarrassed and angry for their unkindness to fellow human beings. This was not love and peace; this was rudeness and temper tantrums. I would not follow the advice of anyone who spoke so hatefully. When the attempt was made to enter the Administration building, I withdrew because I did not respect the messengers of revolt.
One scruffy, half-baked revolutionary after another spoke his incoherent exhortations to take action. To what aim?, I asked silently. I wanted someone to give me a logical reason to follow them and no one did. No one did until the last speaker, an unlikely campus revolutionary, but I now see he had the best reasons to revolt. After all, he had to teach his students in a building with no windows that had once served as the animal sciences laboratory, and was situated, ironically, under a permanent shadow cast by the football stadium. His department received the least respect and money in the university. This revolutionary had been properly seasoned. My philosophy professor stood with arm upraised, shouting as incoherently as the students and calling the police "pigs" too. I was alarmed for him. How could he get caught up in this minor theatrical flop? Surely he would be fired. Spittle flew from his mouth as he urged action. His rage pushed him to make the only gesture of the day that had true political significance. He said at the end of his speech that he would give every student in every one of his classes an "A" as a protest against collaborative university administrations and all oppressors. If it hadn't been for Descartes I would have stayed in that class and earned an "A" - a free "A," not one borne of oppression. My skeptical mind told me he wouldn't get away with this radical action. I never found out if he did. I was out of the class and it was Descartes I blamed.
Dear Jessica II
Name withheld, but used with permission.
Mother and I spent two days and nights in the Veteran's Hospital. The nights were courtesy of the Veterans Administration. Relatives of critically ill patients are permitted to sleep over in the "Hoptel." This is, as you would deduce, a hospital-motel merger. The arrangement allows the information desk clerk in the hospital lobby to become, on occasion, a motel desk clerk, who escorts you to your room and points out the amenities found there. The amenities were the same as those found in all the other identically equipped hospital rooms in the institution: Narrow low beds encased in plastic, television sets hanging from the ceiling - designed for the bed-bound -, linoleum floors, and a buzzer labeled "nurse" next to each bed. I naively hoped for more of the Hyatt touch when we walked into the Hoptel wing with its pastel walls, fuzzy impressionist prints, and community room. Of course, in the event of an epidemic, or more likely, a cut in funding for frivolities like Hoptel, our room would be ready for serious duty again.
Funding of only the sort Senator Byrd can will has rebuilt and enlarged the pre-World War II graceful redbrick building. This place was the permanent home to many West Virginia veterans disabled in Europe and the Pacific theater. Today many old vets still come for treatment, or to die, but none live there permanently. Nursing homes have cornered that trade. Veterans of more recent actions come to a modern hospital built around the original core structure. The design blending the old with the new is successful, but as is so commonly found in construction today, the hidden systems of plumbing and heating and cooling are substandard. For two days I avoided using the toilet in our room because it did not draw properly, and bits of bloody detritus from a former occupant, or more likely from another room, floated in the basin. Mother and I enjoyed finding another proof of the absence of pride in craftsmanship today. This is a subject we agree on, and since there are so few proofs it is exhilarating when we hit on one.
Your uncle may or may not have known we were there to see him. He exists now on a plane between dreams and reality. It seemed remarkable at times that he and we shared the same room. He, at a primitive unconscious level, struggled to breathe, and to live, and we at the foot of the bed laughed and talked about my cousin's vacation plans for the beach. Even though his eyes were open, he could not speak, and thus could not be part of our community. When a patient cannot speak, there is nothing to do but ignore them most of the time, attend their needs when they make a gesture that signals a want, or fall into silent reflection about the patient's history or our own future. Mother would go to the head of the bed from time to time, ask him some question, like whether he was warm or cool, and deceive herself into believing his head movements were indications of his answer. I found the practice bizarre and embarrassing.
The medical staff was unusually stratified, with people of color at the top and whites at the bottom. The physicians I either talked with or observed were obviously "foreign doctors." I am not sure why there are so many in one Veterans Hospital in West Virginia. Perhaps the government finds physician émigrés willing to accept less pay and live away from the choice cities American-trained doctors head to after medical school. Nurses, technicians, and janitors were white, southern, and friendly to an unnerving degree. The instant intimacy induced by the indecency of a hospital room eliminates divisions of class and culture, except of course with the doctors. The atmosphere in the room became charged when one of them entered. It is impossible for me not to react resentfully to their dictatorial rights over the futures of pathetic sick people, particularly since it has been my theory for some time that most doctors can't stand sick people. I don't believe they differ in this regard from the average person. intellectual curiosity, family tradition, or a goal of status or money motivates most of them to the profession. Certainly the love of healing does not motivate most of them to endure the accepted hazing practices of medical training. It was good that most of them avoided Uncle's room. He was dying, and there was nothing of interest for them now.
During a break from the sick room one morning, I visited the lobby. I was attracted to it because on our walk through the evening before I noticed photographs of young soldiers displayed in glass cases on the walls. On this morning, viewing the photographs could not be a private affair because the chairs and halls were filled with old veterans waiting to be seen by a doctor or to have their blood drawn in the lab. No one was looking at the photographs except me. Gorgeous young faces smiled insouciantly out while grim unsmiling ones surrounded me. I had to assume that many of the displayed soldier had died - some in the war, some soon thereafter, some in this hospital. The faces of these dead young soldiers excited me. The faces of the living old soldiers enervated and depressed me.
One photograph of a scene familiar to all Americans who lived during the war, or to those who read its history, is of President Roosevelt standing in an open touring car looking at a newly commissioned submarine. The car is parked at the edge of the pier with Roosevelt standing in it, or appearing to stand, for he could not stand without the help of his staff and his braces. Dressed in an elegantly cut suit, he stood facing the ship's officers and crew lined up for review on the ship's deck. The ship was surprisingly small and the crew made only a single line of men. The large car, the elegance of Roosevelt's clothing, and that of his fellow riders, practically pushed the ship and crew into insignificance except as an excuse for the display of wealth and power of the country's leaders.
copyright © Alifya Vasi, 1998. Used with permission.
The first thing that struck me about the Bahamas was the transparency of the water. Despite being in depths of thirty feet, I was still able to see the seabed from the boat. Occasionally I saw a tropical fish swimming alongside the boat. In the Atlantic on the way to Bimini the waves were ten feet high. My shift happened to be during the Gulf Stream when the waves are at their highest. After reaching the calm flats of the Bahamas I could see a thin film of salt covering the boat. On the helm there were several flying fish washed up on deck. The flats were a welcome change from the stormy Atlantic and we all made the most of the serenity by sunbathing on the flying bridge. It didn't take long for the guys to become bored, so they passed the time fishing. But they caught nothing.
When we reached Bimini, after docking the boat we immediately filled the water tank so we could take our showers. As soon as I jumped into the shower the hot water ran out, after being used up by another girl who had to condition her hair twice in case the salt ruined it. After hygiene was taken care of, we strolled around the one-mile-wide island. At the other end of Bimini was a graveyard and the only grass on the island. It was a soft texture that felt like hair. Underneath, the ground was so springy it was like a trampoline. On our way back to the boat we came across Ernest Hemingway's old home. Inside, there were pictures and excerpts from Old Man and the Sea. I wasted no time in sitting in his chair, hoping to receive some of his talent through osmosis. Later that evening I got to sit in the chair again, when the Hemingway home turned into a bar. I drank Bahama Mamas while walking around Hemingway's dining room, and danced the Dollar dance in his kitchen.
We ventured to the beach around noon the next day still recovering from our over-indulgence in tropical drinks. The waves were very high and the ocean was rough, but I was more afraid of having fish swim around me than of being sucked into the rip current. After being hurled several times into the sand by my wave surfing, I collected shells. I refused to snorkel with the others. I had no desire to see what I was swimming above or with.
L'Université de Fribourg
copyright © Maurice Champagne, 1998. Used with permission.
I lived with an elderly Swiss couple in Bourguillion while studying at L'Université de Fribourg. The police never had to enforce the town's law against noise after 10:00 p.m. because you could hear a pin drop in the town square after 10:00 a.m. While studying one afternoon, I looked out of my bedroom window to see where this strange noise was coming from. I saw cows grazing in the field next to my house - the noise came from their bells.
I rode my bike through the steep, well-kept streets of as a study break and as a way of getting to and from the university. Much to my surprise, the drivers always respected my space; in fact, some would give me an encouraging honk and wave as I pedaled up some of the more difficult hills.
The steeple bells of the nearby Catholic church chimed precisely on the hour, noting the start of mass as well as the town's daily two-hour lunch break. There was a cemetery next to the church where some parishioners would visit loved ones or sit quietly during the day. Others would kneel and pray at the shrines on the road to the church. Someone regularly maintained those shrines because I usually saw fresh flowers and lit candles around the crucifixes and statues.
Many of the townspeople gathered in the local tearoom-boulangerie, especially Sundays after mass. The scent of fresh baked bread filled the air as customers enjoyed tea, pastries, jam, and, of course, chocolate. My French would get a good workout each time I would go into the tearoom. Most of the Swiss were patient with me as I tried to order food or hold a conversation.
I didn't see any stray dogs or cats running the streets of Bourguillion. The people kept their pets either on leashes or in their houses and yards. Most of the houses in Bourguillion were modern, two-story dwellings with large basements and ample yard space. Like many residents, my Swiss family maintained an abundant vegetable garden. They would pick their vegetables daily and serve them for dinner in the evening. Their yard was large enough to support a 35-foot vegetable garden, two twelve-foot clotheslines, and a play area for their grandchildren.
Bourguillion sits atop a hill overlooking La Vielle Ville. I often stopped to enjoy the view of Fribourg from the cobblestones of Chemin de Laurette. Although menacing-looking bulls lined the pastures along Chemin de Laurette, they never strayed too close to their surrounding electric fence. On the other side of the road, there was a man-made waterfall that carries water into the Old City. Deer would sometimes creep through the fields near the waterfall, then scamper at the first sight of humans. Near the waterfall was a monastery for nuns. I rarely saw the nuns; I don't think they came out much because I walked by there nearly every day on my way to and from the university.
I did, however, see a portly French-speaking man who cleaned the streets everyday. "Bonjour, grand chef" is what he would say to me as I passed by each morning. I knew that I could learn much from this man so I stopped to talk whenever possible. Our early conversations were vain struggles on my part to keep up with his native tongue. I'm sure he knew that I was having a hard time understanding him. But he kept talking to me and never made me feel awkward. If nothing else, I learned patience from that friendly man.
copyright © Kieca Mahoney, 1998.
After almost two hundred years of problems with crazy foreigners, Americans eventually got fed up with what they felt was snotty dining nonsense and simply began wrapping all of their food in bread so that they could eat it with their fingers and not get the important part dirty. Fast food chains, combined with the wheel, flourished, creating a society that could steer with one hand and eat with the other. Americans became obsessed with mobility and forgot all about table etiquette, becoming rather like the early unimaginative cavemen who didn't know about forks and spoons. Forks evolved into something found only in the road and Americans managed to prove once again that history is tiresome.
copyright © Alifya Vasi, 1998. Used with permission.
The summer holidays were my mother's opportunity to broaden my cultural exposure. I hated these days out, wondering what boring museum or painting I would have to see. However, the worst part was having to write about what I had seen each day. During the visit, I would collect lots of pamphlets so when I had to do my write-up I could plagiarize. Obviously, my mother found out. She knew that seven-year-olds did not know words like "exuberant," "quintessential," and "invigorating," nor did they know about Monet's cultural influences. I quickly learned that this tactic was a waste of time. Each time my mother caught me, I was made to rewrite my passage in front of her. Recently I discovered that my mother had kept all my reviews. I was surprised and relieved that they had not been thrown away.
Museums were the least boring of all the trips. I loved the British Museum, and was always disgusted and enthralled by the mummy remains. Unfortunately, my mother did not believe in repetition and we never went back after the first visit. Looking at the reconstructed dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum was also fun, but my mother wanted to teach me about evolution, so the dinosaurs were only a transitory part of the journey. I was fascinated by anything shiny, so I spent lots of time in the gem room. Nowadays, this room has lost its charm and I'm back looking at the dinosaurs. One day when I was particularly apprehensive about yet another outing, my mother took me to the Bethnel Green Children's Museum. I remember spending a lot of time looking at the dollhouses, imagining what it would be like to play with them. It was almost as exciting as the mummies.
Sometimes I reluctantly enjoyed my trips and even admitted it to my mother. Before attending the Proms, I wondered if I could sit still and maintain interest in a classical concert for two hours. In order fully to appreciate Mozart and Bach my mother felt that it was necessary to sit with the music lovers in the gallery. I was horrified that the gallery consisted of no more than a stone floor where I either had to stand or sit on the ground. And the music lovers ended up being university students, who would talk constantly through the performance. I was always confused because I had to be quiet. Whenever I asked my mother when we could sit in the boxes, she would say "next time." But I managed to sit through the whole concert quietly, which to my dismay occurred because I loved the music. Unfortunately, I have not gone back to the Proms, as the long queues and my expectations always intimidate me.
The worst part of the cultural exploration days was carrying the lunch bag. My mother would prepare all the food we needed for the day and make me carry the bag. Being a fashion-conscious kid, I was embarrassed about carrying the bright orange "Happy Sammy" bag around London, and made sure it was my mother's turn to carry it when we were on the streets. But it also served as a watch; I knew the lighter the bag got, the sooner we would be in the tube on the way home. I wanted to do fun things like eat at McDonalds, but my mother knew that picnics were cheaper and allowed us more time to look at the museums.
When it was too hot to go into the city we went swimming. On these days I had autonomy, while my mother swam laps. I used to play on the water slide for hours, and thought that the ten-minute wait was always worth the ten seconds of enjoyment. I was too afraid to use the diving boards because I was not sure that I would float back up after jumping into the water. To my horror, my mother found out about my fear and all my pool independence vanished. To regain it, I agreed to jump. Jumping off the board was an exhilarating moment. Shortly after, I abandoned the water slide for the diving boards.
My father was a realist and took me to the movies. Naturally he chose what we were going to watch, which was normally action movies. It was mother who took me to Disney's latest offering, while my father introduced me to Indiana Jones. A bonus about going to the cinema was the food. We had two cones of ice cream each, and always got different flavors so we could share. Afterwards we would go to McDonalds, or whatever restaurant had greasier food. But the best part about those days was coming home, and my father and I lying to my mother about what we had eaten. My father and I would plan what we were going to say in the car, but I was the one who later would tell my mother what we really had eaten.
When my father had seen all the movies that he had wanted to see, he used to take me to the library. We would spend half a day there. Even though we were in two different sections of the building, I never felt lonely. I liked to hide in the corner and read all the Dr. Seuss books even though I had read them twenty times. When I got tired of being alone I would drag my father to the audio section where we would pick records to take home.
Some days we spent lazily in the garden. My mother and I would watch as my father barbecued our lunch. We would spread out a huge blanket and all lie down and read. There would be a big bowl of grapes near by, which was often finished before I had come to the end of the first chapter. But the best days were those spent in my pajamas watching television. Although the trips broke the monotony and were entertaining, being lazy was my favorite summer pastime.
copyright © Alifya Vasi, 1998. Used with permission.
Near where my father used to work, there was a small clearing in the middle of a forest. The only path to the clearing was through bramble bushes and stinging nettles. On the way, I would eat raspberries from the bushes, which would numb the pain of the stings and scrapes. After many treks through the forest, it didn't matter whether the raspberries were sweet or sour. They became part of the journey and as necessary as the scratches. Although not the most magnificent sight I have seen, and with nothing there to make it personal, the clearing was certainly my favorite place. No matter how many times I went to the forest, each time I reached the clearing it was an accomplishment. The clearing was very bare. It was a patch of tall grass, with occasional poppies scattered about.
My father was the only person whom I thought worthy enough to take to the clearing with me. Naturally I led the way, eagerly wondering if he would have the same gratification I had upon seeing the clearing. When we reached the clearing, my father marveled more at the journey we had just made than at the clearing, as he was more impressed with the walk that I had to make to keep me coming back here. Had the journey through the forest not been so arduous the clearing would not have been as beautiful.
11800 Twinlakes Drive
copyright © Olivia Stewart, 2000. Used with permission.
The hallway at 11800 Twinlakes Drives looks like the hallway of a mid-grade hotel. The lighting is always dim and the fixtures aren't fashionable at all but they aren't obtrusive. The walls are a very bland beige with textured blue wallpaper around the doorways. The wallpaper is edged by wood which is real, but with no particular polish or quality. Compounding this blandness is an unaesthetic cleanliness. The maids clean without thought to much of anything, including their paychecks, so while the place is never dirty it is never impressive, either. However, there is a large mirror across from the elevator which is good enough and useful since I only have a small mirror in my bathroom and never would know if there was a run in my stockings otherwise.
Tanzanian Peaberry coffee beans
copyright © Alexandra Griffin, 2000. Used with permission.
Tanzanian Peaberry coffee beans, when properly roasted, have a color between caramel and deep tan. Each bean is a nearly perfectly spherical ball the size of a pea, with a natural seam running across one side as if it were a normal coffee bean made of clay and rolled into a ball. Actually, this shape is produced by one special species of coffee tree which grows berries that bear only one bean apiece, while average coffee berries must support two beans each, which gives them the classic hemispherical shape. Since each berry supports only one Peaberry bean, the beans have an intense and inimitable flavor. This raw flavor makes for less roasting, and therefore a relatively light brown color.
copyright © Amanda Bernhardt, 2000. Used with permission.
The condition of the neighborhood in which I grew up displays both desperate poverty and overflowing excess. The sunken houses, discolored by rain, have walls that sag like wet cardboard and ramshackle porches that the slightest breeze might collapse, killing the several youngsters and dogs playing underneath. Oddly enough, these poor families, who often can't afford shirts for their boys or hairpins for their girls, accumulate mountains of junk in their backyards: rusted wheelbarrows, scorched pots, broken swing sets, fleabitten sofas. It is as if, despite their poverty and the uselessness of their trashy possessions, the poor are still driven by the all-American instinct to acquire.
Fairmont Street, Bethesda
copyright © Adam Rice, 2000. Used with permission.
People walk up and down Fairmont street in Bethesda. Most of them have cell phones or breast implants or both as they walk briskly to their jobs or luncheons or bars. During business hours the street serves as a runway for an unconscious fashion show.
Welch's Grape Girl
copyright © Leigh K. Challenger, 2000. Used with permission.
Kate Viggiano is not afraid of spiders, snakes, or heights. She is not afraid of walking alone after dark, trying new food, or going up to strangers and starting a conversation. Her only fear is of a four-foot-two, perky blonde child. Ms. Viggiano is a confident, healthy, 20-year-old college student with an overwhelming fear of the Welch's Grape Juice Girl. The child's smile, which looks like as if she has a hanger permanently implanted in her mouth to make her smile wide, "looks like the devil's grin" to her. The child's dark, angular eyebrows and pointed incisors are also reminders of The Prince of Darkness. Ms. Viggiano explains that the child "gives me nightmares. That grin . . . It's just too scary to be forgotten." The fact that the child is articulate and doesn't speak with a toddler's lisp is even scarier to Ms. Viggiano. She claims that it's a conspiracy by the Welch's company; the "child" is actually a "thirty year old in a five-year-old's body."
Non-Classic Voices in Classic Texts
From Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), edited by R. W. Chapman [third edition, 1932] (London: Oxford University Press, 1982), pages 62-63. Elizabeth Bennet's and Mr. Bennet's comments, quoted in the headnote, are from the same edition, page 64.
Headnote to the passage from Pride and Prejudice: A text in classic style can include elements in another style and can do so without compromising the classic style of the whole. This is easy to see in works of fiction that include texts "written" by fictional characters. Jane Austen's novels quite frequently include characters who speak in non-classic styles. Some of these characters write too. Pride and Prejudice includes a letter from Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet. No one in the Bennet family, to whom Mr. Bennet reads the letter, has ever met Mr. Collins. Five of the six members of the family make a comment about it. Elizabeth Bennet raises the issue of style. For her, as for Jane Austen, style is something that derives from thought. Mr. Collins's letter is a kind of pastiche of ready-made phrases and what he imagines to be appropriate sentiments. He reveals a cultural ignoramus's idea of what is suitable to a clergyman, while affecting an assurance he obviously does not have. The sentiments, not being his and coming from random sources, are both inauthentic and unharmonious. What kind of person could think them appropriate? It is impossible to imagine that Mr. Collins wants to make the impression that the letter actually does make on Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet: "He must be an oddity . . . I cannot make him out. - There is something very pompous in his stile. - And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail. - We cannot suppose he would help it, if he could. - Can he be a sensible man, sir?" "No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him." No one could improve the style of the letter without being forced to change the content and the cast of mind as well because Collins's cast of mind drives the surface decisions of the writing.
The disagreement subsisting between yourself and my late honoured father, always gave me much uneasiness, and since I have had the misfortune to lose him, I have frequently wished to heal the breach; but for some time I was kept back by my own doubts, fearing lest it might seem disrespectful to his memory for me to be on good terms with anyone, with whom it has always pleased him to be at variance. . . . My mind however is now made up on the subject, for having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England. As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures of good-will are highly commendable, and that the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate, will be kindly overlooked on your side, and not lead you to reject the offered olive branch. I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable daughters, and beg leave to apologize for it, as well as to assure you of my readiness to make them every possible amends, - but of this hereafter. If you should have no objection to receive me in your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o'clock, and I shall probably trespass on your hospitality till the Saturday se'night following, which I can do without any inconvenience, as Lady Catherine is far from objecting to my occasional absence on a Sunday, provided that some other clergyman is engaged to do the duty of the day. I remain, dear sir, with respectful compliments to your lady and daughters, your well-wisher and friend,
From Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857), translated by Alan Russell (New York: Penguin, [1950, reprinted 1977]), pages 213-215.
Headnote to the passage from Madame Bovary: Jane Austen has an assured and seemingly natural command of classic style and is a wonderful mimic, thoroughly aware that the surface of a style is driven by the way a writer thinks. She was once charged, in a famous critical essay, with displaying "regulated hatred" for her characters. It is a charge that rests on slender evidence, skillfully magnified by isolation and greatly assisted both by its novelty and by the admirably deft phrase that expresses it. The great master of "regulated hatred" in novelistic fiction, however, is not Jane Austen but Gustave Flaubert, the creator of Madame Bovary. When it comes to relentlessly stripping fictional characters of every last shred of self-respect, showing them in the very act of entangling themselves in impenetrable webs of clichés, false sentiment, and vulgarity as the novelist stands back like a connoisseur to comment on the style of their performance, Flaubert has no equal. It is one thing for a great writer to mimic the product of an affected one; it is another to show the affected writer's thought process - a tangle of self-deception and deceit - in the act of writing. When Emma Bovary's jaded and dishonest lover, Rodolphe, decides to abandon her at the very moment when she expects to leave her husband for him, he writes her a letter. Flaubert does not merely give his readers the letter but represents Rodolphe in the act of writing it. Flaubert demonstrates how surface features are the product of intellectual decisions. In this case, surface features - from lexical choice to the decision to write adieu as two words, À Dieu [to God] - are meant to accord with what Rodolphe considers Emma's idiotic sentiments and ideas.
He wrote: " Be brave, Emma, be brave! I do not want to ruin your life . . . " 'That's true, damn it all,' thought Rodolphe. 'It's for her own good. I'm playing fair.' "Have you thoroughly pondered your resolution? Do you know to what an abyss I was dragging you, poor darling? No, I think you do not! You were coming in blind trust, believing in happiness, in the future. . . . Ah, what poor senseless creatures we are! " Here Rodolphe paused to think of a good excuse. 'Suppose I say I've lost all my money? No. That wouldn't clinch the thing anyway; I'd have it starting all over again. How can you make such women listen to reason?' After some thought he proceeded: "Be sure I shall never forget you. I shall always be deeply devoted to you. But one day, sooner or later, these ardent feelings of ours would doubtless have cooled. Such is the human lot. We should have grown tired of one another. Who knows but what I might have suffered the agony of witnessing your remorse - of sharing it myself, since I should have been the cause of it! The very thought of your suffering is torture to me, Emma. Forget me. Why did we have to meet? Why were you so beautiful? Am I to blame? No, by Heaven, blame only Fate! " 'Always an effective word,' he said to himself. "Ah, had you been one of those frivolous-hearted women one sees, then indeed, I might selfishly have embarked upon an adventure which would in that case have had no danger for you. But that delicious exaltation which is at once your charm and your torment, has prevented you from understanding - adorable woman that you are! - the false position in which we should have been placed. Neither had I thought of it at first. I was at ease in the shade of that ideal happiness, lying under the mango-tree, as it were, regardless of consequences." 'She may think it's the money I grudge. Can't help it if she does; it's got to be finished.' "Society is cruel, Emma. It would have pursued us everywhere we went. There would have been awkward questions, ugly words. They might have snubbed you - insulted you! You, that I would set upon a throne! You, whose memory will go with me as a talisman. For I am leaving the country, as a penance for all the harm I have done to you. I shall go at once. Where, I do not know, I am past thinking! Good-bye. Be always good and kind. Keep a place in your memory for this unhappy man who has lost you. Teach your child my name, and let her say it over in her prayers." The two candles flickered. Rodolphe got up to close the window, then sat down again. 'There, I think that's all. Oh, just in case she comes to ferret me out . . .' "I shall be far away when you read these sad lines. I have decided to leave immediately, so that I shant be tempted to see you again. No wavering! I shall come back, and some day, perhaps, we may talk to one another quite calmly of our past love. Adieu! " And there was a final adieu - separated into two words, "À Dieu!" - which he thought in excellent taste. 'Now, how shall I sign it?' he wondered. 'Your devoted? No. Your friend? Yes that's it.' "Your friend." He read the letter through, and felt satisfied.
From Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) (New York: New Directions, [reprinted] 1977), pages 16-17 and 24-25.
Headnote to the passage from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Vladimir Nabokov is a great virtuoso in many styles and is ingenious in deploying them in fiction. The two passages that follow are in the voice of the fictional Sebastian Knight's fictional half-brother. The first is a presentation of Sebastian as a boy and an unconscious allegory of his half-brother's project of discovering Sebastian's real life. The second is a poised and assured presentation of the writer's escape with his mother and half-brother from Russia in the first weeks of the revolution. Unlike Mr. Collins (an affected and inept writer) or Rodolphe (a vulgar and transparently dishonest one), Nabokov's fictional writer is a complex character, poor at tactics, often argumentative and cranky, constantly second-guessing himself on a quest that must end in failure but sometimes, as in these two passages, deft and masterful. It is, in part, Nabokov's way of reminding us that the connection between the person who writes and the persona assumed in writing is a complex one. The assurance and confidence of the writing does not necessarily come from a person who is assured and confident. We can inhabit a style and speak from it, but we remain ourselves.
I remember Sebastian as a boy, six years my senior, gloriously messing about with water-colours in the homely aura of a stately kerosene lamp whose pink silk shade seems painted by his own very wet brush, now that it glows in my memory. I see myself, a child of four or five, on tiptoe, straining and fidgeting, trying to get a better glimpse of the paint-box beyond my half-brothers moving elbow; sticky reds and blues, so well-licked and worn that the enamel gleams in their cavaties. There is a slight clatter every time Sebastian mixes his colours on the inside of the tin lid, and the water in the glass before him is clouded in magic hues. His dark hair, closely cropped, renders a small birthmark visible above his rose-red diaphanous ear, - I have clambered onto a chair by now - but he continues to pay no attention to me, until with a precarious lunge, I try to dab the bluest cake in the box, and then, with a shove of his shoulder, he pushes me away, still not turning, still as silent and distant, as always in regard to me. I remember peering over the banisters and seeing him come up the stairs, after school, dressed in the black regulation uniform with that leather belt I secretly coveted, mounting slowly, slouchingly, lugging his piebald satchel behind him, patting the banisters and now and then pulling himself up over two or three steps at a time. My lips pursed, I squeeze out a white spittal which falls down and down, always missing Sebastian; and this I do not because I want to annoy him, but merely as a wistful and vain attempt to make him notice my existence. I have a vivid recollection too, of his riding a bicycle with very low handle-bars along a sun-dappled path in the park of our countryplace, spinning on slowly, the pedals motionless, and I trotting behind, trotting a little faster as his sandled foot presses down the pedal; I am doing my best to keep pace with his tick-tick-sizzling back-wheel, but he heeds me not and soon leaves me hopelessly behind, very out of breath and still trotting. (pages 16-17)
In November of 1918 my mother resolved to flee with Sebastian and myself from the dangers of Russia. Revolution was in full swing, frontiers were closed. She got in touch with a man who had made smuggling refugees across the border his profession, and it was settled that for a certain fee, one half of which was paid in advance, he would get us to Finland. We were to leave the train just before the frontier, at a place we could lawfully reach, and then cross over by secret paths, doubly, trebly secret owing to the heavy snowfalls in that silent region. At the starting point of our train-journey, we found ourselves, my mother and I, waiting for Sebastian, who, with the heroic help of Captain Belov, was trundling the luggage from house to station. The train was scheduled to start at 8:40 A. M. Half past and still no Sebastian. Our guide was already in the train and sat quietly reading a newspaper; he had warned my mother that in no circumstance should she talk to him in public, and as the time passed and the train was preparing to leave, a nightmare feeling of numb panic began to come over us. We knew that the man in accordance with the traditions of his profession, would never renew a performance that had misfired at the outset. We knew too that we could not again afford the expenses of flight. The minutes passed and I felt something gurgling desperately in the pit of my stomach. The thought that in a minute or two the train would move off and that we should have to return to a dark cold attic (our house had been nationalised some months ago) was utterly disastrous. On our way to the station we had passed Sebastian and Belov pushing the heavily burdened wheelbarrow through the crunching snow. The picture now stood motionless before my eyes (I was a boy of thirteen and very imaginative) as a charmed thing doomed to its paralysed eternity. My mother, her hands in her sleeves and a wisp of grey hair emerging from beneath her woolen kerchief, walked to and fro, trying to catch the eye of our guide every time she passed by his window. Eight-forty-five, eight-fifty . . . The train was late in starting, but at last the whistle blew, a rush of warm white smoke raced its shadow across the brown snow on the platform, and at the same time Sebastian appeared running, the earflaps of his fur cap flying in the wind. The three of us scrambled into the moving train. It took some time before he managed to tell us that Captain Belov had been arrested in the street just as they were passing the house where he had lived before, and that leaving the luggage to its fate, he, Sebastian, had made a desperate dash for the station. A few months later we learned that our poor friend had been shot, together with a score of people in the same batch, shoulder to shoulder with Palchin, who died as bravely as Belov. (pages 24-25) —->
A contemplative reaction to a cathedral contrasted to a classic presentation of a cathedral
The first passage is from Julien Green, Œuvres complètes,
6. Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), 1990, pages
Green on Durham cathedral:
13 mai. Durham.–La cathédrale d’une beauté proche du fantastique. Avec ses tours carrées hérissées de clochetons, je la vois plutôt comme une forteresse que comme une église, parce que nous avons perdu le sens de ces choses et nous ne savons plus qu’une église est, en effet, une forteresse contre les force des maudits. Celle-ci d’un brun-rouge domine la ville et se voit à une bonne centaine de kilomètres. À l’intérieur, triomphe le roman massif qui m’est si cher et on a le sentiment qu’il tient toujours tête au protestantisme et que, si la Réforme a pu s’emparer de ces gigantesques cathédrales pour y moduler divinement ses psaumes, la liturgie ancienne y murmure encore son latin en silence.
[13 May (1977). Durham. Cathedral of a beauty bordering on the fantastic. I see it, with its square towers bristling with pointed turrets, as a fortress instead of a church, because we no longer know how to make sense of these things and no longer understand that a church is, in effect, a fortress to fight off the forces of damnation. This one, brown- red in color, dominates the city and is visible for a good forty miles. Inside, the massive Romanesque so dear to me is triumphant and one has the feeling that it always stands up to Protestantism, that if the Reform was able to seize these gigantic cathedrals in order to make the divine pulse of its psalms course through them, the old liturgy still goes on there murmuring its Latin in silence.]
There are only two cathedrals I have ever liked in my life. One is Notre-Dame de Paris, but only at a distance. The other is the cathedral at Bayeux, which is also called Notre-Dame but is about as ladylike as a Norman knight whacking off a thane’s head. The knights who followed William the Bastard wore simple shirts of chain mail, like iron mackintoshes and about as ornamental; they rode short, strong horses they could jump down from easily when they saw a dead man with a ring finger worth chopping off and could jump onto again as nimbly when they saw his friends coming. They were all muscle and business, like Moon Mullins. You can see them in Matilda’s comic strip [the Bayeux tapestry]. To understand the decline of Western chivalry as a military force, you need only compare Matilda’s pirates on horseback with the gloriously illuminated fifteenth-century Livre des Tournois of King René, in which manicured Clydesdales swathed in robes de chambre transport knightly Fancy Dans encased in patent burglarproof vaults–and at that the passengers used blunted lances to be doubly sure of not hurting one another. Off their horses, they were as helpless as sea turtles turned on their backs, and out of their armor as vulnerable as hermit crabs drawn from their shells.
The cathedral offers corroborative reading matter for those enamored of the past. The front consists of two great, blocky stone towers, combinations of skyscraper and donjon, whose façades are broken only by slits of windows with outlines like armor- piercing shells. These towers remain from the Romanesque cathedral that William the Bastard ordered built after his great amphibious operation. Most of the other elements of the original cathedral were destroyed by fire in 1105–a great pity, because they were replaced with comparatively namby-pamby Gothic. In the two original towers, William built the kind of fortress for God that God would have liked had he been William. They constituted a defensive position a small detachment of angels could hold against all the Powers of Hell, pending the arrival of reinforcements. The Powers must have been easy for William to visualize, because his direct ancestors in the preceding century had been Norse pagans.
The later architecture is a clear record of the progressive enfeeblement of the Middle Ages, like the transition from mail shirts to couturier armor. Early in the thirteenth century, a bishop of Bayeux named Robert des Ableiges surmounted William’s savage towers with spires, which was like putting New Year’s Eve clown hats on busts of Sulla. In 1099, when William’s towers still looked like fortresses, William’s son Robert and other rough men stormed Jerusalem; by the late fifteenth century, when Louis XI was adding the last style-flamboyant jingle bells to the cathedral, the Turks had taken Constantinople, and Bayeux was a city of priests and rentiers.
[Notes: (1) The Bayeux tapestry–also known as the tapestry of Queen Matilda–is described on page 476 as "a narrative cartoon strip embroidered on linen, telling Matilda’s husband’s side of his conquest of England, along with the events leading up to it. At the time the cartoon appeared, her husband, William the Bastard, was just beginning to be known as William the Conqueror." (2) Moon Mullens was a familiar newspaper comic strip character in the 1950s.]
A contemplative reaction to a work of art contrasted to a classic presentation of a work of art
The first set of passages is from Julien Green, Œuvres complètes,
6 Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), 1990, page
22 mai–Ce matin nous sommes retournés à Gand pour revoir le retable de L’Agneau mystique. Sur l’autel saigne l’Agneau et le jet de sang tombe dans un calice. Ce là toute la messe. Comme Granacci dans le petit panneau de tabernacle à Cardiff, Van Eyck a rendu sensible ce que l’esprit pouvait difficilement concevoir. Les peintres avaient ce don de traduire le mystère et, comme pour les récompenser, le mystère imprégnait leurs images.
[22 May (1977) –This morning we went back to Ghent to see the altarpiece of the Mystical Lamb again. On the altar, the Lamb is bleeding, and the stream of blood falls into a chalice. The whole of the Mass is represented there. Like Granacci in the little tabernacle panel at Cardiff, van Eyck makes visible what the mind could conceive only with difficulty. The painters had this gift of translating religious mystery and, as if to repay them, religious mystery impregnated their pictures.]
Leibling on a mosaic:
On the floor of the Bardo Museum, in Tunis, there is a mosaic picture of a knockdown in a prizefight that took place about 200 A.D. Nat Fleischer’s Ring Record Book does not go back that far, so it has been impossible for me to date the bout more exactly. The fighter who has been knocked down wears a beard, like Archie Moore, but it is improbable that even Moore was boxing that long ago. The mosaic came from the ruins of Thuburbo Majus, a Roman colony forty miles south of the Carthage-Tunis urban complex. The bearded fellow looks like a smart city fighter who was brought to Thuburbo for a soft touch and then encountered unexpected opposition. No Thuburbun sport would have paid for a mosaic of a Thuburban boxer being jolted; the sport was going to look at that mosaic every time he lay down to eat, and he would want it to remind him of a happy occasion. I imagine he won a bundle of sesterces on the match and commissioned the mosaic to celebrate the coup.
The fellow on the receiving end has an experienced, disillusioned look, like that of a boy who has fought out of town before. The humiliation he has just undergone is the kind of thing that could happen to a visiting boxer in what Whity Bimstein, a trainer friend of mine, refers to as the State of Cleveland, Ohio. He is older than his beardless opponent, who has nailed him with a right swing to the left temple. Blood is spurting from the point of impact in a long arc of separate drops, represented by red stones, and the swing has carried the local slugger part way around, so that he is looking over his left shoulder. The older fighter is squatting on his hunkers, neither knee quite touching the ground. The punch has not dazed him; he has his elbows pulled in tight to his body and his fists in front of him, ready to hit as soon as he can bounce up. There was no count in those days, and it was up to him to resume fighting as soon as possible. It must be difficult to give the effect of motion in mosaic; in any case, the fight scene has the implausibly static appearance of a picture taken with a high-speed camera.
A classic presentation of a place contrasted to a contemplative reaction to a place
The Kitum Cave expedition set up headquarters in the Mount Elgon Lodge, a decayed resort dating from the nineteen twenties, when the English had ruled East Africa. The lodge had been built for sporting people and trout fisherman. It sat on a promontory overlooking the red-dirt road that wound up the mountain to Kitum Cave. It had once been surrounded by English gardens, which had partly collapsed into clay and African weeds. Indoors there were hardwood floors, waxed daily to a perfect gleam. The lodge had turrets with round rooms and medieval doors, hand-carved from African olive wood, and the living room boasted an immense fireplace with a carved mantelpiece. The staff spoke very little English, but they were intent on maintaining English hospitality for the rare guest who might happen to show up. The Mount Elgon Lodge was a monument to the incomplete failure of the British Empire, which carried on automatically, like an uncontrollable tic, in the provincial backwaters of Africa long after it had died at the core. In the evenings, as the frost-tinged night came on, the staff built fires of Elgon olive logs in the fireplaces, and the food in the dining room was horrible in the best English tradition. There was, however, a splendid bar. It was a quaint hideaway in a round chamber, stocked with shinning rows of Tusker-beer bottles French aperitifs and obscure African brandies. The men could sit at the bar and drink Tuskers or lean on the great mantel by the fire and tell stories after a hard day in the cave wearing a space suit. A sign on the wall by the concierge’s desk mentioned the delicate matter of money. It announced that since the Mount Elgon Lodge’s suppliers had cut off all credit to the lodge, the lodge was unfortunately unable to extend any credit to its guests.
15 mai.–Ce matin à Haworth. Il faut être du pays pour prononcer ce nom convenablement. En aboyant un peu on y parvient. C’est chez les Brontë que nous allons, visite fort important pour moi qui leur dois beaucoup. Cette modeste maison jaune dans un paysage de dalles funéraires, quelles présences l’habitent, la hentent! La salle à manger avec le canapé sur lequel Emily s’étendit pour mourir; le bureau du père, le vieux pasteur qui stoïquement enterra sa femme et ses six enfants, homme silencieux, mais humain quoique rugueux. Et que voyait-elle de ses fenêtres, l’étrange famille? Le cimetière qui touchait presque à la porte de leur demeure. On a dit que des exhalaisons de toutes ces tombes insuffisamment creusées montaient les germes da la maladie qui les tua tous, et il faut reconnaître que la mort n’avait qu’un pas à faire pour entrer chez eux, mais cela fait partie de leur légende tragique.
Je me suis tenu de longues minutes dans chacune de ces pièces meublées simplement, non sans un certain élégance, et gardant le charme d’une maison qui fut si étrangement aimée par ses habitants. La cuisine avec le classique fauteuil à bascule près de la chiminée, la salle commune avec sa vitine pleine de livres, et sa grande table carrée sur laquelle tant de rêves furent écrits par ds enfants de génie. Le roman fantastique auquel chacun mettait la main et qui les tenait en haleine comme une histoire véritable. Il est impossible de n’être pas ému par l’obsédant souvenir de ces filles qui grandirent dans l’isolement du monde et ne se doutaient pas de ce qu’elles allaient ajouter la gloire de leur pays. Toutes bravaient le destin venant les charcher l’une après l’autre. Seul manqua de courage le pitoyable frère qui versait des larmes jugées indignes et ne fut pas pleuré. Au-delà de ce cadre étroit, au- delà du cimetière et de la chapelle néo-gothique s’étend la petite ville qui n’a pas bougé, propre et sérieuse avec ses petits magasins bien tenus en bordure de ses rues en pente. Mais derrière le presbytère où vécurent les Brontë, il y a les moors, les vaste landes ondulées qui sont le royaume du vent, coupées de vallons où le silence su réfugie comme un voleur. Ces hauteurs appelées wuthering pour le désespoir des traducteurs, l’énorme voix tantôt sourde, long mugissement sinistre, tantôt éperdue, menaçante, les traverse comme une plainte venue, d’un autre monde. Quoi d’étonnant qu’elle ait inspiré ces femmes possédées du démon d’écrire? Ajoutons à cela la présence des morts devant la maison et leur muet commentaire sur la vie, il faudra être bien pauvrement doué pour ne pas céder à de tels impératifs.
[15 May (1977). This morning at Haworth. You have to be a native to pronounce this name comfortably. If you howl a little, you’ll get it. It’s the Brontë house that we’re going to, an important visit for me who owe them so much. This modest yellow house in a landscape of gravestones, what presences inhabit it. haunt it! The dining room with the couch on which Emily laid down to die, the office the father used, the old pastor who stoically buried his wife and his six children, a quiet man, but human if rough-hewn. And what did they see out their windows, this strange family? The cemetery that comes up almost to their very door. It is said that the emissions of all those too shallow graves gave rise to the seeds of the illness that killed them all, and it must be recognized that death had to take just a single step to enter their house, but this is part of their tragic legend.
I spent a long while in each one of these rooms, simply furnished, not without a certain elegance, and retaining the charm of a house that was so strangely loved by the people who lived in it. The kitchen with its classic rocking chair near the chimney, the common room with its window full of books and its big square table on which so many dreams were written out by the genius children. The fantastic novel in which each one had a hand and which kept them in suspense as if it were true. It is impossible not to be affected by the obsessive memory of these girls who would grow up cut off from the world and who never had a doubt about what they were going to add to the glory of their country. All of them defied the destiny coming to seek them out one after another. Only the pitiful brother, who used to shed what were considered unworthy silent tears and had not cried lacked courage. Beyond this narrow setting, beyond the cemetery and the neo-gothic chapel lies the little city which has not changed, clean and purposeful with its well-kept little shops running along the hilly streets. But behind the presbytery where the Brontës lived are the moors, vast undulating tracts, the kingdom of the wind, interrupted by little valleys where silence hides like a thief. These heights called wuthering to the despair of translators, the huge voice, sometimes deaf, the long, sinister howling, sometimes distraught, menacing cut across them like a moan coming from another world. Why be surprised that it inspired these women possessed by the demon of writing? Let us add to that the presence of the dead just in front of the house and their mute commentary on life; you would have to be very poorly endowed to avoid giving in to such imperatives.]
The Mandarin Style
Fine writing has fallen into disrepute. Fifty years ago we were encouraged to acquire a prose style. . . .
I need not remind you of the sustained magnificence of the Decline and Fall. But even when Gibbon is writing quite simply, as in the description of his feelings when his great work was finally over, there is a movement and a tone that seem to me the essence of Mandarin. I quote it, familiar though it be, and you will observe from my gestures that one cannot resist conducting it, as though it were a piece of music.
That is Mandarin English at its zenith, and as it was to last for 150 years.
Carlyle had not created [his] style for literary reasons, but because he felt it his duty to tell the truth. He saw the shadow of great truths forming themselves just over the horizon of his mind, and he wanted to have the means of struggling towards them. He recognised that the Mandarin style, in which he had grown so proficient, permits, and sometimes almost compels, a writer to avoid or gloss over the truth. Evenness of texture, symmetry, and sonority can be disturbed by an inconvenient fact. This kind of evasion, this sailing over difficulties on the high tide of style, is a major fault of Mandarin. In criticism Matthew Arnold is the chief offender.
In history even Gibbon, whose use of his limited sources is exemplary, sometimes passes too easily over difficult ground. Lytton Strachey has described how Gibbon (like Guicciardini) delayed beginning his great work until he had made several drafts of the first two chapters. He had to be perfectly sure that his style was a vehicle that would carry him through to the end; and occasionally the stage-coach was too commodious. This is Gibbon's famous description of five hundred years of Byzantine history:
Magnificent: but irritating to a serious student of Byzantine history.
I suppose that Mandarin has also suffered from what might be called craft reaction. In all the arts styles are attacked when they have been pushed to an extreme. The pendulum swings between elaboration and simplicity, and towards the end of the nineteenth century the English prose admired by men of taste had become exceedingly mannered and elaborate.
I fancy that this new kind of romantic or sentimental elaboration goes back to De Quincey. He was the originator of the purple patch. Jeremy Taylor, Browne, Gibbon himself sometimes gave their prose a little extra colour, but without any break in tone. De Quincey was, I believe, the first to change gear, from the rather heavy, conventional style in which nine-tenths of his work is written, to those passages that are rightly referred to as prose poetry. "And her eyes if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams and with wrecks of forgotten delirium." This is presumably what Somerset Maugham meant by "writing nonsense," and in his path a good deal of it found its way into the periodicals of the aesthetic movement - The Yellow Book, The Savoy, or The Venture. Maugham was himself co-editor of The Venture. In the 1880s Ruskin's cloud-capped descriptions of nature, which were believed by all serious critics to be the absolute summit of English prose, had been succeeded by the sweet, sleepy, amoral incantations of Walter Pater. I believe it was Pater, more than anyone else, who gave fine writing a bad name. He has suffered from anthologies; you will remember that no less a person than W. B. Yeats opened his Oxford Book of Modern Verse with the Mona Lisa description chopped up into short - very short - lines, thus destroying any quality it may have. Pater has also suffered from imitators. His style was vulgarised by Wilde and thickened, as one thickens a soup with cornflour, by writers like Percy Lubbock. But even without these misfortunes, a reaction, I might also say a revulsion, from Pater was inevitable. Here is a passage that occurs in almost all anthologies; the description of the red hawthorn in The Child in the House:
What is so wrong with this famous passage? Not the subject or the sentiment, for in these respects it could have been one of the most memorable pages of Proust. Not, as is commonly supposed, the epithets. There are a few tiresome archaisms like "goodly" and "fair," and the "perishing little petals," which is an accident that might happen to anybody. (Interesting, by the way, to know when the word "perishing," which was still so effective in the De Quincey, became a word of popular abuse.) But our embarrassment goes deeper. I am reluctant to use words as imprecise as "texture" and "rhythm," but they are the only ones that I can think of to account for the peculiar tone of Pater's purple patches. A curious experiment proved the point. Vernon Lee published in an early number of Life and Letters, one of Pater's most famous passages, "the Night in the Temple," in Marius the Epicurean, rewritten in a more workmanlike style. She pointed out, in all seriousness, that Pater had made many mistakes of word order, of chronological sequence, of logic, and of accurate observation. She was an experienced writer, she had been Pater's pupil, and she felt entitled to put these faults right. No one but Vernon Lee, with her relentless fixity of purpose, could have undertaken such an exercise. The resulting translation is defensible at every point, except that it is - nothing. Like it or not, it was Pater's tone of voice that had made one read the original; and it was precisely this tone that seduced the would-be stylist for over fifty years.
The Official Style
From Richard Lanham. "The Official Style" in Revising Prose.
The Official Style . . . is a genuine style, and one that reflects the genuine bureaucratization of American life. . . . [It looks] at life only through the system's eyes. It is a scribal style, ritualized, formulaic, . . . . Sometimes you can see The Official Style seizing its prey like a boa constrictor and gradually squeezing the life out of it. Here's a student feeling its grip.
Twelve-year-old boys like to fight. Consequently, on several occasions I explained to them the negative aspects of fighting. Other responsibilities included keeping them dry (when near the creek or at times of rain), seeing that they bathed, attending to any minor wounds they acquired, and controlling their mischievous behavior. Another responsibility was remaining patient with the children.
We all want to fit in, to talk the language of the country. This desire is what keeps society glued together. So the impulses that attract us to The Official Style are not always perverse or depraved. And so when we analyze The Official Style, we're really talking about how we live now, about our society as well as our prose, about how to survive in The System. What does the prose tell us about the society?
Well, it is a euphemistic society, for a start. It thinks of every town dump as a "Sanitary Landfill Site," every mentally retarded child as "exceptional," every dog catcher as an "animal welfare officer." Society may have its pains and problems, but language can sugarcoat them.
The second rule in this society is "Keep your head down. Don't assert anything you'll have to take the blame for. Don't, if you can help it, assert anything at all." . . .
Long ago, La Rochefoucauld talked about a grave manner as "a mysterious carriage of the body to cover defects of the mind." The Official Style has elevated this into an article of faith. . . .
The Official Style always wants to make things seem better than they are, more mysterious and yet somehow more controlled, more inevitable. It strives, at all times, both to disarm and impress us. It suggests that it sees the world differently - sees, even, a different world. It suggests that those who see in this way form a happy band of brothers. Now such a use of language does not, to students of literature, sound unfamiliar. It is called poetic diction. And this is what The Official Style amounts to - poetry. The first rule about poetry is that you cannot translate it into prose without destroying its real meaning. And here we come to the central problem with The Official Style. There is no point in reproaching it for not being clear. It does not want to be clear. It wants to be poetic. It seems to be distant and impersonal, but it really is just the opposite. At its best, it wants to tell you how it feels to be an official, to project the sense of numinous self-importance officialdom confers. It wants to make a prosaic world mysterious.
The School Style
From Richard Lanham. "The School Style" in Revising Prose.
Students have developed their own version of The Official Style. We might call it The School Style. . . . School is a bureaucracy and a bureaucracy requires some version of The Official Style. . . . [The School Style] is compounded, in equal parts, of deference to a teacher . . ., of despair at filling up the required number of pages before tomorrow morning, and of the mindlessness born of knowing that what you write may not be read with real attention. Above all, The School Style avoids unqualified assertion. It always leaves the back door open. If the teacher doesn't agree, you can sneak out through an "it seems" for "is," "may indeed have something in common with" for "results from," "it could possibly be argued that" for "I think," and so on. Rule 2 requires that you fill up the page as quickly as possible. Never "feel isolated"; always "suffer from an acute feeling of isolation." Never "feel alienated"; always "feel like an outsider, alienated from the society of 'normal' men." This desire to fill up the page works whenever we write from demand and not desire, of course, but it works insidiously, even when you are not deliberately trying to fill the page with bullshit.
Clear and Not Commonplace
From Aristotle. The Rhetoric, Book 3, [1404b].
Excellence of style consists in being clear and not commonplace. . . . Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. The latter is persuasive, the former is not; for if artifice is obvious, people become resentful, as if at someone plotting against them, just as they do against those who adulterate wines.
Deliberative Style and Judicial Style
From Aristotle. The Rhetoric, Book 3, [1414a]. Translation by George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
The demegoric [deliberative] style seems altogether like shadow-painting; for the greater the crowd, the further the distance of view; thus, exactness is wasted work and the worse in both cases. Speaking in the law courts requires more exactness of detail, and that before a single judge even more, for it is least of all a matter of rhetorical techniques; for what pertains to the subject and what is irrelevant is more easily observed [by a single judge], and controvery is gone, so the judgment is clear. As a result, the same orators are not successful in all these kinds of speeches. Where there is most need of performance, the least exactness is present.
Classic style characteristically gives the impression of a person speaking from an assured and confident position. A classic presentation of a famous subject, such as the Second World War or Franklin Roosevelt, offers an evident contrast to the way these subjects are treated in reference works. Here the writer is under the direction of an editorial policy, and must strive to give a "neutral" and "balanced" presentation. The writer is conforming to a template. An editor or, more likely, an editorial committee has already decided how the subject is to be treated, what must be included, in what order, what to emphasize, and how much space it should receive, so that what results almost invariably sounds like the impersonal and lifeless thing that it is.
The more decisions an editorial committee makes, the harder it is to get people who have any power of choice to write for reference works. J. H. Hexter, a distinguished historian, who had written a respected book on Thomas More refused to write an article on More for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. "In about 1962 a letter from the editor requested me to do an article for the Encyclopedia on Thomas More (1478-1535) for, as I recall, $35.00. Enclosed with the letter was a seventeen-part editorial directive indicating among other things that the biography should deal with More's relations to the social sciences and with the relevance of his work to underdeveloped nations."
Hexter did contribute an article to the encyclopedia after refusing a further request "to write in 7,000 words the history of history writing in the Western world approximately from Herodotus to David Potter, including its relation to the social sciences." The encyclopedia failed to find any major historian willing to do that and gave up the idea of having such an article. Hexter wrote instead a 21,000 word piece on the rhetoric of history, a subject that the editors had no thought of commissioning. The editorial directive this time was, "We give you carte blanche."
[Note: Quotations from J. H. Hexter, Doing History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), pages 2-3.]
The Devil's Reading List
From Stephen Cox, "The Devil's Reading List," Raritan, 16:2 (Fall 1996), 97-111.
In the opening pages of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, two Soviet hack writers are discussing religion. An irritating stranger interrupts them. This man is a foreign "professor" of some kind, and he is amused by their naïve atheism. After brief discussion of six old-fashioned proofs of the reality of the supernatural world, the stranger reveals a seventh proof — his own identity. The professor is, in fact, the Devil; and if the Devil exists then God must also. This seventh proof turns out to be conclusive.
Bulgakov's story has some relevance to current disputes among critics (or, more accurately, professors) of literature. The believers are at war with the atheists. The believers affirm the existence of a world of literary miracles, of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Beowulf and Virginia Woolf; a world of literary genius, to use the old, semireligious term. The atheists — who are, just now, in the ascendant — do not agree. For them, there is no sacred realm of "literature." There is only "writing," and any claim that some of it should be "canonized" or even "privileged" above other products of "cultural work" and "social construction" is evidence that the claimant is unsophisticated at best, bigoted at worst.
But atheism always reckons without the Devil.
The Devil recently appeared to me, disguised as an author. It happened while I was reading a book called The Truth about the Titanic, by Colonel Archibald Gracie. Colonel Gracie survived the Titanic, but he did not succeed in rescuing his prose style. Consider his way of evoking the moment when it occurred to him that he was about to be drowned:
When I first saw and realized that every lifeboat had left the ship, the sensation felt was not an agreeable one.
A charitable reader will want to construe that strangely understated sentence as a daring display of irony, an attempt at using black humor to emphasize the existential horror of the human condition. If you have this charitable impulse, read on.
No thought of fear entered my head, but I experienced a feeling which others may recall when holding the breath in the face of some frightful emergency and when "vox faucibus haesit," as frequently happened to the old Trojan hero of our school days. This was the nearest approach to fear, if it can be so characterized, that is discernible in an analysis of my actions or feelings while in the midst of the many dangers which beset me during that night of terror. Though still worse and seemingly many hopeless conditions soon prevailed, and unexpected ones, too, when I felt that "any moment might be my last," I had no time to contemplate danger when there was continuous need of quick thought, action and composure withal.
By this point, there can be no doubt. Colonel Gracie is not a master ironist. He is, quite simply, a dreadful writer. He has tempted his readers with a magnificent story, the agony of a great ship and the multitudes of people who trusted their lives to her, and he has betrayed those readers basely. Colonel Gracie is an almost supernatural revelation of how bad a writer can be — a literary Devil incarnate. Let fashionable theorists argue that literary judgments are social constructions that can never attain universality; the theory is irrelevant to the experience of Colonel Gracie's work. No one, of any race, class, gender, political persuasion, or sexual orientation, can possibly regard Gracie's sentences as appropriate to their subject. The achievement of his writing transcends every social context and expectation. It is a miracle of incompetence.
Since Aristotle's time, works have been admitted to the canon because they brilliantly fulfill the potential of their genres. What is looked for in the countercanon, however, is reckless defiance of a genre's demands and expectations. Authors worthy of countercanonical recognition are the kind of carpenters who insist on making chairs that you can't sit in and tables that you can't put objects on and they do so without conveying any zen or dadaist intimations that might register favorably in the genre of theory.
The fundamental requirement of horror literature (to cite the example of one genre) is scary words in scary places. In Dracula, or parts of Dracula, Bram Stoker manages to provide such words. But in The Lair of the White Worm, he produced a book that is as unscary as a book can be, unless you are frightened by horrible writing. The plot idea is provocative, though daft: the hero, Adam Salton, discovers that his neighbor, Lady Arabella March, is actually a very large, very ancient, and very ill-tempered snake, a snake that would just as soon kill you as look at you. Oddly, this situation inspires little more dramatic action than would the discovery that Lady Arabella was a Christian Scientist. Adam complains that the serpent's "want of principle" reminds him of a suffragette, but he is willing to take friendly strolls with her and visit her for tea. Ah well; as he says, who would have "thought this fighting an antediluvian monster was such a complicated job"? The novel — so long, so dull, so insupportably priggish — is hard to explain except on the hypothesis that Stoker was obsessed with a Satanic desire to make nothing come of something.
Really bad writing, however, usually results from perfectly innocent motives. One of the most disastrous is the desire to achieve true literary distinction. The canon of great writing is, indeed, a dangerous thing: it has tempted many a hapless victim to self-destruction.
Mystery and Style
When we explain to students that classic style is not mysterious, we are often asked whether mystery is ever suitable for prose. Certainly it is. Simply imagine a stylistic stand that makes mystery a suitable stylistic tool. For example:
Suppose that the writer's motive is to inhabit the distinguished social role of the entertaining story-teller and the writer's purpose is to create suspense for the reader. In that case, the purpose is not presentation and the relationship between writer and reader is asymmetric. In such a condition, mystery is entirely suitable. Suspenseful mystery is even a mainstay of the kind of literary nonfiction in which the events are cast as a pursuit or a detective story. Examples are science writing about a research team on the hunt for a certain discovery, or journalism about what is really going on in diplomacy or international intelligence operations, or reports on what looks as if it may be a coverup, and so on.
Flirtation, in all its senses
Classic style adopts the stand that of course the reader is fully interested. But much of human engagement consists of drawing other people in, or even testing whether one wants to draw them in. In such cases, the style may consist of putting something out, to try to get the reader to pick it up, to try to draw the reader in by using a little mystery.
When the motive is to learn about the possibilities of a relationship, the purpose is to establish a connection, and the relative standing of the participants within the style is itself indeterminate, then of course one may want to leave a great deal unrevealed. The participants may be only feeling each other out, and the style may acknowledge this. One may want to have deniability even that one is engaging in flirtation. In any scene of flirtation, there can be a sequence of gradual, incremental removing of veils, with reversals, hints, mystery. But the classic stand eliminates such indeterminacy. Of course, in the real scene in which the writer is writing, the purpose may be flirtation. But in the assumed scene, the purpose is presentation. One can flirt by presenting, but it does not feel stylistically like flirtation.