Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Anxiety and influence

Over at Quantum Est In Rebus Inane there's a nice question:
What writer (and by that I mean anyone who writes, whether literature, philosophy, history … whatever) do you most wish you could successfully reduplicate as a writer?
Having once deleted my answer through sheer absent-mindedness and once lost it through WordPress not liking my combination of email address and username, I am afraid to try again. So I'll post a version of my comment here, and perhaps cut and paste it over there when my courage returns.

What I wanted to say is that I don't want to copy anyone else's style, but that I wish I had the ability to do so. Cavell, for instance, has a style that wonderfully allows him to have his own voice while still doing philosophy. But it would be a disaster if I tried to copy him. Perhaps others can do so successfully, either by recreating what Cavell does or by producing something new by attempting to reproduce his style. Mostly I try to write plainly, influenced to varying degrees by professional norms, Orwell, and Simone Weil (as well as a sense of my own limitations). But I do sometimes try to personalize my writing by attempting humor (probably a bad idea) and making references to things I like. One of these is Larkin's poetry, and I have had lines from his poems in mind at times while writing, for instance "If I were called in to construct a religion I should make use of water".

On the other hand, I also wish I made use of more words than I generally do, and had the ability to keep multiple ideas in the air at the same time. It would be nice to be able to write as cleverly as Chesterton or De Quincey.

Chesterton: Among the bewildering welter of fallacies which Mr. Shaw has just given us, I prefer to deal first with the simplest. When Mr. Shaw refrains from hitting me over the head with his umbrella, the real reason–apart from his real kindness of heart, which makes him tolerant of the humblest of the creatures of God–is not because he does not own his umbrella, but because he does not own my head. As I am still in possession of that imperfect organ, I will proceed to use it to the confutation of some of his other fallacies.   

De Quincey: Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that “decent drapery” which time or indulgence to human frailty may have drawn over them; accordingly, the greater part of our confessions (that is, spontaneous and extra-judicial confessions) proceed from demireps, adventurers, or swindlers: and for any such acts of gratuitous self-humiliation from those who can be supposed in sympathy with the decent and self-respecting part of society, we must look to French literature, or to that part of the German which is tainted with the spurious and defective sensibility of the French.

To be able to write like Cavell, Chesterton, and De Quincey, but to end up, by choice, writing like Larkin might be the best of all possible worlds. Chesterton writes with energy and wit, and De Quincey is a rogue. He sounds like Captain Haddock when he talks about demireps and adventurers, and his anti-French ranting is bracingly crude. On its own it would be dull and unpleasant, but its a nice contrast with his baroque sentence-structure and vocabulary. (That is, the contrast is nice; it's not both a contrast and nice.) To be a well-read, quick-witted cross between Santa Claus and Jack Sparrow who writes and speaks with a deceptive simplicity seems pretty desirable to me. (As does doing just about anything but grading papers right now.)


  1. '(As does doing just about anything but grading papers right now.)'

    word to THAT.

  2. I've been thinking for days about this (though not incessantly) and also about the possibility of commenting. Doing it over there was out of the question - the overall tone of the blog is so different that I'd have been out of place - like a speed boat on the River Styx. But I nevertheless felt that I wanted to write something here on your more homely blog. Finally, I decided on a few quotes from different writers:

    J. G. Ballard:

    Hitler's contemporaries - Baldwin, Chamberlain, Herbert Hoover - seem pathetically fusty figures, with their frock coats and wing collars, closer to the world of Edison, Carnegie and the hansom cab than to the first fully evolved modern societies over which they presided, areas of national consciousness formed by mass-produced newspapers and consumer goods, advertising and tele-communications. By comparison Hitler is completely up-to-date, and would be equally at home in the sixties (and probably even more so in the seventies) as in the twenties. The whole apparatus of the Nazi super-state, its nightmare uniforms and propaganda, seems weirdly turned-on, providing just that element of manifest insanity to which we all respond in the H-Bomb or Viet Nam - perhaps one reason why the American and Russian space programmes have failed to catch our imaginations is that this quality of explicit psychopathology is missing.

    Angela Carter:

    It had been a whimsical lodging. It wasn't just the lack of a bar that got to us, after a while. It was the display behind the reception desk, unconnected I may say, with the festival. "Books to buy or borrow", said a sign. Such as: I found God in the Soviet Union; The Jesus Generation; the complete works of Billy Graham. And mine host was apt to slip you a tract. "Are you the poetry lady? Here's a little book of poems. They're godly but super":

    I have drunk the wine of failure,
    Been drunken thru and thru,
    Have worn old clothes that did not fit.
    When every flower was blue.

    We looked at it but could not believe it. Verlaine should have been there.

    From this eyrie, every day, we descended to the festival - to greet the relays of lunchtime poets; to engage with those who wanted to engage with us; to be gently patronised by the street theatre because we hadn't the nerve to go up and relate to people by shaking rattles under their noses; to spend hours organising spontaneous readings; to get things going; to keep things going; and sometimes it rained and sometimes it did not.

    A very nice man who edits a magazine called Rabies came and did a modest Verlaine. He performed a poem containing a variety of farmyard impressions. We all liked it very much but afterwards a crisp, grey-haired lady put us down terribly by saying: "I suppose he thinks we don't know what Dada is in Ilkley." She turned out to be a marvellous primitive painter. She was mad as fire about the way people like me sneered at people like her - "little old ladies", she said. "They go on and on about little old ladies not knowing nothing about anything." She had a painting of a waterfall done in silver paint. She said it had been especially difficult to do, since she was trying to get the sound.

    On the other hand, a lady, admittedly rather older than she, had said, the night before - at the discussion group we were supposed to hold at the end of each day's events - that it was a pity Rupert Brooke had died so young since she was sure he would have done marvellous things. But then, she did not come from Ilkley. And, God knows, it is a reasonable enough thing to say if you actually care about poetry, even if it is God-awful poetry you care about.

  3. Stefan Collini (on a famous passage in Orwell):

    So, perhaps it's time to stop thinking of intellectuals as Other People, and to try not to fall so easily into the related tabloid habits of demonizing and pedestalling. Some intellectuals are PLUs (People Like Us), some aren't. But isn't that precisely what we should expect, once we get away from the stereotypes? Speaking for myself, I would frankly acknowledge that I drink a certain amount of fruit juice, I'm undeniably a sex maniac, if running counts as a "nature cure" then I'm a quack, and if it didn't risk being presumptuous I'd be pleased to be described as a feminist. It's true that I'm not much of a nudist, sandal-wearer, Quaker, or pacifist, but, hey, no one's perfect. And that, I have been suggesting, is true of other intellectuals as well.

    Julian Barnes:

    Arthur Koestler, before committing suicide, left a note in which he expressed "some timid hopes for a depersonalised afterlife". Such a wish is unsurprising - Koestler had devoted many of his last years to parapsychology - but to me distinctly unalluring. Just as there seems little point in religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as supposed to one that tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything, which is serious, so I would want my afterlife, if one's on offer, to be an improvement - preferably a substantial one - on its terrestrial predecessor. I can just about imagine slopping around half-unawares in some gooey molecular remix, but I can't see that this has any advantage over complete extinction. Why have hopes, even timid ones, for such a state? Ah, my boy, but it's not about what you'd prefer, it's about what turns out to be true. The key exchange on this subject happened between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Edmund Wilson. Singer told Wilson that he believed in some kind of survival after death. Wilson said that as far as he was concerned, he didn't want to survive, thank you very much. Singer replied, "If survival has been arranged, you will have no choice in the matter." The fury of the resurrected atheist: that would be something worth seeing.

    * * *

    These are my choices if asked about writing in English. I spent several hours trying to bring to mind representative passages from Finnish writers that would not lose in translation that which makes me wish I could "successfully reduplicate" them (as the question put it). But I came up with nothing, or so I decided in the end. For me, the wish of reduplicability is too much about the cadences, onomatopoeia, alliteration, psychological associations evoked by phonetic form, and other such sadly untranslatable things. (Maybe there is something about these kinds of questions that make you turn instinctively towards your mother tongue. It's interesting that Gadamer and Simone Weil were the only two writers not to have written in English who were mentioned over there.)

  4. Thanks, Tommi. These are marvelous passages--I like the Ballard and Collini especially, but suspect I might return to the Carter most often (perhaps just because it's the longest and so contains more). I thought about mentioning Frege and Schopenhauer, but since I read them in translation that didn't seem right. I like Frege's honesty and simplicity--not that his work is exactly easy, but he strikes me as making things as easy for the reader as he can. He writes like a brilliant amateur, which perhaps comes from being a pioneer. (I hope I'm not getting this horribly wrong. It's been a while since I read Frege, but this is how I remember him.) And Schopenhauer makes wonderful use of examples, and is in general full of wonder.

  5. And by the way, "like a speed boat on the River Styx" is the kind of thing I wish I could write.

  6. That was in fact a paraphrase of something by the Finnish lawyer and writer Jukka Kemppinen (who's nowadays - deservedly - one of the most popular intellectual bloggers in Finland). If I recall correctly, he wrote somewhere about something being as out of place as "an outboard motor on the River Tuonela" (the equivalent of the Styx in Finnish mythology).

    I think the fact that I couldn't bring myself to quote a shorter passage from the Carter essay is itself significant. When I read it myself, I always come away thinking that if I had a time machine and could use it just once, I'd probably set it to Ilkley, 1977.

  7. Yes, the Carter essay is wonderful. I don't know whether the experience of being there would live up to it, but it does make me wish I had been there.

  8. Hello,

    I'm trying to contact Tommi Uschanov, in relation to his translation of Guy Debord, as I am part of the organizing committee of a translation conference in France. I've tried his tuschano mail, but my message doesn't seem to have reached him. I hope this might be more successful?
    Beatrice Trotignon