July 22, 2022
I recently decided that we all need a way to enjoy the summer, and there is no finer pleasure than the pleasure of good language. I know that some might find that declaration peculiar, or even outright incomprehensible, but I trust that those who would bother with a newsletter such as this one will nod with understanding. Language is so mysterious, so utterly strange. Out of about 40 phonemes, or significant units of sound, erupt an endless number of new sentences, new meanings, new feelings and intuitions: it is as unlikely and incomprehensible as any magic in any fantasy novel. More on that in another newsletter, or more than one. Then there is writing, a second miracle, a second form of magic, a material vehicle that contains all those sounds and their meanings as a magician’s hat contains rabbits. More on that too, later. Today I want to begin talking about the pleasures that language can afford to those of us who love it. I had intended to deal with literature: the Roman poet Horace said that the purpose of poetry was to instruct and delight, and I intend to turn to the delights of literary language next week. But for this week the notion suddenly sprang itself on me to accept the dare to talk about the pleasures of critical writing, writing that interprets and provides insight, both about literature and about all that is connected to literature, which is the whole of life.
It is indeed a dare. Who in the world reads criticism for pleasure? Who in the world reads it at all, unless they have to? But that is exactly what I want to examine. If you are looking for intelligent nonfiction summer reading, you can find well written books on subjects ranging from string theory to the Civil War. But books on literature are typically written by academics for other academics, all too often in prose with the density of a neutron star. Any attempt to write more inclusively, for other academics and for an intelligently interested wider public, is likely to be distrusted as “popularization,” something that is not good for a scholar’s career. I have no desire to rant about this situation, although I find it sad. Instead, I want to explore my sudden realization that there are a handful of nonfiction writers, on literature and topics closely connected to literature such as depth psychology and mythology, that I read for pleasure, for escape of the best kind, for a life-sustaining quality of the sort that literature itself can give. Reading them revitalizes, makes life more worth living. They are also role models, because when I was younger I decided that I wanted, in my smaller way, to write works that might be liberating in the same way for other people, “liberating” in the sense of liberal education, education that liberates us from the reductive life perspective that we are born into.
Readers of this newsletter will be familiar with most of the catalogue of names by now: Northrop Frye, C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, Loren Eiseley, M.H. Abrams, Jacques Barzun, William James, George Bernard Shaw, though I will add a few others, such as Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind from art history. I am sure there are others of the sort whom I have never discovered, though I am always on the lookout. And, although it is a highly personal list, I do not want this to be about me but about the writers. They are from varied fields and yet are connected in the manner that Northrop Frye calls “interpenetration.” But I do not intend to examine them in terms of content but of style, of how these writers use language. I want to look at them rhetorically, using that term to refer to the effect of language on an audience—most composition books are called rhetorics. I have in mind a kind of typology of rhetorical strategies, based on a diagram of the strategies that all writers use, so that we are really mapping what writing does in general, which may be instructive whether or not a reader has any interest in these particular writers.
If you do open one of those freshman composition rhetoric books, you are likely to find that it employs a distinction one going back to Classical times, of three levels of style, which were then called high, middle, and low. But those terms implied a value judgment, one with social class insinuations at that, so modern books use various other terms. When I teach, I call them formal, conversational, and popular. They are of equal value, adaptations of language for varying social purposes. The sciences and the law demand formal style in order to achieve a detached objectivity, also to be able to articulate highly complex, discipline-specific subject matter. This is appropriate to their purposes, although there is a tendency, especially in the social sciences, to be far more formal than actual scientific precision requires, because formal style has acquired a certain prestige: it is truth-language, the voice of scientific reason itself, compared to which ordinary language seems mere chatter. Such unnecessary formality has made heavy, and I do mean heavy, inroads into the humanities, however, where it is only occasionally necessary. To say that the appropriate style for the humanities, as their name implies, is the conversational style, a slightly formalized version of the human speaking voice, is to push against an unspoken consensus. It is somewhat dispiriting when gifted undergraduates who wrote beautifully lucid essays in your classes come back from graduate school having been professionalized into writing in the jargon-laden formality that is more or less a mark of membership in the guild.
This reached a peak with the prestige of “high theory” in the 80’s and 90’s, prompting the invention of an award for worst academic prose of the year. Here is a sample from one of the winners:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one which the insights into the contingent possibilities of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
I am trained in this stuff and wonder a bit uneasily what it says about me that I can actually understand that passage, sort of, enough to assure you that the verbiage is not merely a smokescreen: the writer does have something to say. But although the high theorists liked to throw around the word jouissance, French for orgasm, about the supposed qualities of such “writerly” prose, the effect of such writing is utterly anticlimactic: if nothing else, there has to be rhythm in order to achieve any kind of climax. There is no pleasure here, but rather the old torture technique of “pressing” by heavy weights so that the victim can no longer breathe. Nor is this “necessary difficulty”: the passage could be translated into English effectively without loss of subtlety, probably with some gain, starting with the breakup of that one, long python of a sentence that has swallowed its subsidiary phrases like so many pigs.
Such obscurantism underwent a 19th-century diaspora from continental philosophy and is particularly associated with Hegel. An attack on Hegel by William James, quoted in Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James (1983), is not only a dismantling of the pretensions of unnecessarily formal style but a bracing example of conversational style by one of its early masters:
James [as Barzun says] denounced “his abominable habits of speech, his passion for the slipshod in the way of sentences, his unprincipled playing fast and loose with terms; his dreadful vocabulary, his systematic refusal to let you know whether he is talking logic or physics or psychology, his whole deliberately adopted policy of ambiguity, in short. For my own part, there seems something grotesque in the pretension of a style so disobedient to the first rules of sound communication between minds to be the authentic mother-tongue of reason and the Absolute’s own ways of thinking.” (133)
Barzun’s description of James’s conversational style in fact exemplifies his own mastery of it:
James knew that he disconcerted his colleagues and sometimes even his popular audiences by his manner of exposition—his straightforward speech, his many concrete illustrations, alien to lofty thought, and his vivid renderings of the listener’s unspoken objections. He would utter the strong image that came into his mind; he would let the man show through the words instead of presenting a smooth façade of impersonal abstractions. (132)
Barzun’s Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (1974, 1985) is the how-to-write book I most wholeheartedly recommend. Its title phrase captures the essence of conversational style, which is the natural style for the humanities because we can hear the sound of a human voice and thereby have contact with a human personality.
However, while much of the needless formality of academic prose is motivated by the desire to assume a mantle of quasi-scientific authority, there has also been a different kind of attack coming from the far left. The sound of a human voice and a human personality is exactly what the radical theorists, the post-structuralists, post-modernists, post-humanists of the last half century do not want: that is the great bourgeois illusion, that we are personalities. They insist that we are not: we are simulacra constructed by vast impersonal systems of power, and such critics employ a deliberately alienating style to force recognition of our otherness. The sound of a human voice: that is ever so comfy, ever so bourgeois, ever so much a lie. Writing must be disruptive of the familiar and comfortable, and especially of the comfortable illusion that there is a self, that there is a human nature. I state this counter-position in passing so as not to give the impression that I am oblivious or evasive. I respond to it extensively in The Productions of Time and will only say here that things perhaps look different now that the humanities are no longer the bastions of bourgeois complacency that they were alleged to be decades ago but disintegrating rapidly and in danger of extinction, at least in their academic form. I will also point out that those claiming to speak from a “marginalized” perspective about the need to subvert the system usually held top positions in the most elite universities. No one except some of the somewhat unfashionable figures I am examining here was interested in teaching the public, the politicians, the big-time capitalists why the humanities are important, much less a source of pleasure, so society is hardly to be blamed for wondering why they should be preserved.
The third level of style, what I call “popular,” is colloquial, the language of actual speech, unbuttoned, “come as you are,” a rich stew of slang, bad grammar, personal reference, and asyntactic, associative phrases. Calling the second level conversational means that we can hear the sound of a real voice in it, but nobody actually talks like that, or, if you did, you’d have no friends. However, it depends on what you’re talking about. Popular style is grounded in daily life and its concrete particulars, and on that level it works just fine, but if two people wanted to talk about a religious question or a work of art, they might find their language shifting upward from the popular towards the conversational, with its larger vocabulary of abstractions and its more complex, relational syntax. Formal style is primarily written, which is why the academic ritual of reading formal papers to an audience at a conference is so mind-numbingly boring. Even when the paper is a good one, the style is simply wrong for the occasion. Popular style is almost entirely oral, though some kinds of journalism and Internet writing mimic it. The conversational is a compromise between the two.
Characteristic of some writers’ styles is a kind of critical code-switching, shifting from one level of style to another and back again. I do this orally in the classroom. I mainly lecture in conversational style, but you never know (because I never know) when I’m going to suddenly drop back into my Ohio working-class roots, slang, bad grammar, swearing, silly jokes and anecdotes, the whole shot. It isn’t deliberate, but when I do it, I’m bonding with my students, because I come out of the same background that they do, and anyway we all need a break: being intellectual is tiring, and a dumb Dolzani story is a moment’s rest. In his late essays, which appeared in the 60’s when there was a widespread desire for authenticity and breaking with uptight social conventions, Abraham Maslow relaxed at moments into a popular style in a way that some of his colleagues no doubt thought was highly unprofessional. It is something you can get away with if you have become world famous and are a past president of the APA—and probably not otherwise. At one point, clearly thinking of some of his students at affluent Brandeis University, he speaks of “youngsters” who have developed a defense method of “desacralizing”:
These youngsters mistrust the possibility of values and virtues. They feel themselves swindled or thwarted in their lives. Most of them have, in fact, dopey parents whom they don’t respect very much, parents who are quite confused themselves about values and who, frequently, are simply terrified of their children and never punish them or stop them from doing things that are wrong. So you have a situation where the youngsters simply despise their elders—often for good and sufficient reason. (47-48)
So the, ahem, youngsters desacralize: life is crap and then you die, get over it. Maslow concludes: “Self-actualization means giving up this defense mechanism and learning or being taught to resacralize” (48). After that sentence he adds this footnote: “I have had to make up these words because the English language is rotten for good people. It has no decent vocabulary for the virtues. Even the nice words get all smeared up—‘love,’ for instance” (48). The rest of the essay is more respectable: this is a moment of deliberately breaking through into something more down-home and authentic, to the extent of making fun of his own jargon. In reading the essays in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, it is instructive to listen to a few moments of Maslow on YouTube. In moments like the one above, style is the man: the passage sounds just like him, whereas with most conversational style there is a persona.
Depth psychologist C.G. Jung is another writer for whom shifting registers is a stylistic trademark, which may help account for his reputation for obscurity, a reputation that baffles me, since he is far easier than most post-structuralist critics. But the protean nature of his style makes him a mercurial writer—a perfect epithet, since Mercurius is the Trickster figure in alchemy whose energies catalyze the Great Work, and alchemy is to Jung the key to, well, almost everything. I cannot follow him there: it is alchemy that is obscure, not Jung, but thankfully his books on alchemy are only a small part of his voluminous collected works.
Jung writes formally when he is aiming for his characteristic combination of scientific and philosophical precision, as in the following passage, which an editor’s footnote tells us is his first public announcement of his theory of archetypes, symbols that occur throughout mythology and dreams because they arise from the a priori, in other words innate, structure of a universal collective unconscious beneath the individualized personal unconscious. What the passage is saying is that there are inborn patterns of behavior and perception. On the biological side they are called instincts; on the psychological side Jung calls them archetypes; philosophically the use of the term a priori signals an identification with Kant’s a priori categories that organize perception. It is a highly formal passage, but an elegant and ingenious identification of a common concept across three disciplines:
In this “deeper” stratum we also find the a priori, inborn forms of “intuition,” namely the archetypes of perception and apprehension, which are the necessary a priori determinants of all psychic processes. Just as his instincts compel man to a specifically human mode of existence, so the archetypes force his ways of perception and apprehension into specifically human patterns. The instincts and the archetypes together form the “collective unconscious.” (52)
At the other end of his career, Jung wrote the first part of a book, Man and His Symbols, intended to introduce Jungian psychology to a wider public. Here, he uses his considerable gifts as a teacher to dramatize what it feels like to be gripped from within by instinctual and archetypal powers—and, even more, what it feels like when we reject such a “superstitious” notion: “The one thing we refuse to admit is that we are dependent upon ‘powers’ that are beyond our control” (71).
In scathingly articulate conversational style, Jung lays it on the line:
Yet in order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection….His gods and demons have not disappeared at all: they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food—and, above all, a large array of neuroses. (71)
The modern disconnection from the deep instinctual, archetypal level has led to the modern crisis of civilization. And yet that crisis is just the current form of a conflict of opposites that is the imagination manifesting itself in history. I am always amused at the popular academic misconception of Jung as a New Age guru who promises a harmonious life if you will only put yourself in accord with the universal wisdom of the archetypes. A few pages after the previously quoted passage, Jung shifts rhetorically from straight-talking therapy to prophetic vision, the words of a man ten days before his death looking at the crisis of the Cold War a year before the Cuban missile crisis:
The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites—day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be: and if it were not so, existence would come to an end. (75)
This is not the clinically detached language of science: it is rhetoric, words with power, and its purpose is to grab us by the collar and wake us up. Occasionally Jung, like Maslow, drops to the popular level, usually when an outburst of emotion is more honest than keeping professional cool. His late book Answer to Job provides an occasion for such an outburst, because its purpose is to question the behavior of Yahweh, the God not only of the Book of Job but of the Old Testament. Instead of saying what we are supposed to say, that God’s ways are not our ways and must be accepted on faith, Jung is outraged. He claims precedent by quoting Psalm 89, in which David himself cries out, How long, O Lord? and then paraphrases David’s complaint in street language whose irreverence is exactly the point—what makes this irrational deity think he deserves reverence?
Had this been addressed to a human being it would have run something like this: “For heaven’s sake, man, pull yourself together and stop being such a senseless savage! It is really too grotesque to get into such a rage when it’s partly your own fault that the plants won’t flourish. You used to be quite reasonable and took care of the garden you planted, instead of trampling it to pieces. (533)
Psalm 89 is not just emotional venting: its charge is serious. Yahweh is accused of being unfaithful, of being a Covenant-breaker, the very thing for which he never tires of blaming the human race. Jung claims that “it was inevitable that certain thoughtful people were unable to stomach the Eighty-ninth Psalm,” adding that “It is historically possible that these considerations influenced the author of the Book of Job” (537). The justice of the charge is not the point here, but rather the rhetorical situation, in which Jung feels the need to break through the reflex of conventional piety, sweeping the dishes off the table, so to speak, agitated precisely because he is not an armchair atheist but regards God’s unjust and incomprehensible behavior with deadly seriousness. So did the authors of Psalm 89 and the Book of Job, who paid God the respect of shouting at him rather than kowtowing.
In addition to its vertical relationship with the formal and popular styles above and below it, conversational style has a figuratively horizontal relationship with two contrary tendencies that form a spectrum with the conversational norm in the middle. Insofar as the writer’s language moves towards the primary processes of the unconscious, it becomes, first, what we think of as lyrical or poetic prose, which can in turn deepen into something outright oracular. Insofar as it moves in the other direction, towards the secondary processes of the shaping intellect, it becomes witty and aphoristic. While the central conversational norm is utilitarian, to the degree that writing moves towards either the oracular or the witty end of the spectrum it tends to be classed as “creative non-fiction.” Conversational writers save lyricism and wit for special occasions, and especially for conclusions, in order to lift an essay or book beyond itself.
It is a useful device, one that I habitually employ myself, as I’m sure you have noticed, one that I learned from Northrop Frye, for whom it becomes a kind of stylistic signature. Out of countless possible examples, let me quote the ending of Creation and Recreation, because its theme is language, and the relationship of language to vision. Frye sets his climax up a few pages before the end, his rhetoric already heightening somewhat beyond that of simple and direct ordinary prose:
The terms “Word” and “Spirit,” then, may be understood in their traditional context as divine persons able and willing to redeem mankind. They may also be understood as qualities of self-transcendence within man himself, capable of pulling him out of the psychosis that every news bulletin brings us so much evidence for. I am suggesting that these two modes of understanding are not contradictory or mutually exclusive but dialectically identical. (80)
That is the runway, in a manner of speaking. Here, in the final words of the book, is the liftoff:
If we could transcend the level of professed belief, and reach the level of a world-wide community of action and charity, we should discover a new creative power in man altogether. Except that it would not be new, but the power of the genuine Word and Spirit, the power that has created all our works of culture and imagination, and is still ready to recreate both our society and ourselves. (82)
Such passages tend to become “touchstones” in Matthew Arnold’s sense of passages that continue to resonate beyond their immediate context. Having spent 15 years editing Frye’s unpublished notebooks, Robert D. Denham and I know that Frye’s writing process in fact began with discontinuous aphoristic paragraphs. Continuous argument and development came at a later stage, and were laborious to him. He had a repeated daydream of writing a whole book in the style of discontinuous paragraphs and aphorisms like Pascal’s Pensees, but, although he never did so, we have the notebooks themselves. Bob has culled a collection from them, Northrop Frye Unbuttoned: Wit and Wisdom from the Notebooks and Diaries (2004).
In his published work, Frye budgets his use of touchstone passages. Emerson, in his essays, however, loads every rift with ore (Keats’s advice to Shelley) so richly that every paragraph strives to become a touchstone, the effect becoming more like the discontinuous prose of the Bible. Another writer whose lyricism is more thoroughgoing than occasional is Loren Eiseley, a scientist whose prose is nevertheless influenced by the great tradition of meditative prose that goes back to such writers as Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century. Eiseley’s most famous essay is “The Brown Wasps,” about the nature of the imagination, which he exemplifies through the parable of a mouse whose home had been paved over by developers and who had found a new home in Eiseley’s pot of ferns:
About my ferns there had begun to linger the insubstantial vapor of an autumn field, the distilled essence, as it were, of a mouse brain in exile from its home. It was a small dream, like our dreams, carried a long and weary journey along pipes and through spider webs, past holes over which loomed the shadows of waiting cats, and finally, desperately, into this room where he had played in the shuttered daylight for an hour among the green ferns on the floor. Every day these invisible dreams pass us on the street, or rise from beneath our feet, or look out upon us from beneath a bush.
I could visualize what had occurred. He had an image in his head, a world of seed pods and quiet, of green sheltering leaves in the dim light among the weed stems.
That is the point of the essay. We are no different from the mouse:
It is as though all living creatures, and particularly the more intelligent, can survive only by fixing or transforming a bit of time into space or by securing a bit of space with its objects immortalized and made permanent in time.
The other direction in which conversational prose may move is towards wit, which ranges from the amusing to the aphoristic, “What oft was said but ne’er so well expressed,” as the witty Alexander Pope put it. I will have more to say of critical wit next week, partly to keep this newsletter within bounds, and partly because critical wit often shows up in reviewing, where it is deployed against various kinds of literary ineptitude. The author whose wise and witty prose I boundlessly admired when I was in high school and longed to be intelligently witty far more than I longed to be good looking was George Bernard Shaw, who, as I came to realize, influenced a number of other writers I admired—including Frye, who took more from Shaw than he quite let on. Much of Shaw’s wit is of course in his plays, where it often takes the form of what the Classical playwrights called stichomythia, back and forth one-liners that debate and try to one-up each other. But as lyricism intensifies into the outright oracular, wit intensifies into aphorism. Some of Shaw’s aphorisms are put into the mouths of his characters; others occur in his long prefaces which are often as insightful and entertaining as the plays themselves, but Man and Superman actually has a collection of aphorisms appended to it, called “Maxims for Revolutionists,” such as the following:
A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.
The vilest abortionist is he who attempts to mould a child’s character.
What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts. [Frye more than once lifted this one for his own purposes, including in Creation and Recreation, 80].
Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty: what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.
No man can be a pure specialist without being in the strict sense an idiot.
Never resist temptation: prove all things: hold fast that which is good.
As that last one shows, Shaw himself was deeply influenced by Blake, who appended his “Proverbs of Hell” to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, including “Enough! Or, too much” and “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” In fact, Blake’s aphoristic genius makes him makes him so quotable that I can scarcely get through a newsletter without him, which I why I will spare you further examples at this point.
The need to limit this discussion to touchstone examples taken out of context risks making it a little too much like a wine tasting party. There is nothing wrong with that in itself: after all, my object was to draw attention to the pleasures afforded by critical language at its best. But make no mistake: the writers I have quoted have meant the world to me over a long lifetime. They give pleasure, but they also keep alive the genuine ideal of the humanities, of the humanistic. Art historian Erwin Panofsky’s introduction to his book Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955) is titled “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline.” Here is its opening paragraph:
Nine days before his death Immanuel Kant was visited by his physician. Old, ill and nearly blind, he rose from his chair and stood trembling with weakness and muttering unintelligible words. Finally his faithful companion realized that he would not sit down again until the visitor had taken a seat. This he did, and Kant then permitted himself to be helped to his chair and, after having regained some of his strength, said, “Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen”—“The sense of humanity has not yet left me.” The two men were moved almost to tears. For, though the word Humanität had come, in the eighteenth century, to mean little more than politeness or civility, it had, for Kant, a much deeper significance, which the circumstances of the moment served to emphasize: man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that is implied in the word “mortality.” (1)
Humanitas is a personal ideal, but expands into a social one. Some kinds of writing are a light in the falling darkness of a declining civilization. These writers are role models for me not only as writers but as teachers, whether or not they ever taught academically. It was Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America, read while I was still an undergraduate, that planted the seed of the teaching vocation, even though it was many years before I was aware of it. It would give me the deepest pleasure to think that I could pass along to others some of what their writing, their language, has given to me.
Barzun, Jacques. Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, revised edition. Harper & Row, 1975, 1985.
Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll with William James. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Eiseley, Loren. The Night Country. University of Nebraska Press, 1971.
Frye, Northrop. Creation and Recreation. In Northrop Frye on Religion, edited by Alvin A. Lee and Jean O’Grady. Volume 4 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, volume 4, 2000. Originally published by University of Toronto Press, 1980.
Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye Unbuttoned: Wit and Wisdom from the Notebooks and Diaries, selected by Robert D. Denham. Gnomon Press, 2004.
Jung. C.G. Man and His Symbols. Dell, 1964.
Jung, C.G. The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell. Viking Penguin, 1971.
Maslow, Abraham. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Viking Penguin, 1972.
Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. Doubleday Anchor, 1955.