Friday, December 10, 2010

Style and Its Discontents

Some Clouds

The plumb bob end of a skinny’d out, too taut week. Banging up against the lathwork newly tack’d down, undaub’d. Or drawing a tiny inclement arc, marking a limit. Somewhere Witold Gombrowicz says: “My art has shaped itself not in confrontation with a group of people related to me, but in relation to the enemy and confrontation with the enemy.” And there’s Stendhal (out of The Life of Henry Brulard):
      My relations were forever extolling to me, ad nauseam, the beauty of the fields, the greenery, the flowers, etc., ranunculi, etc.
      These worthless phrases have given me a distaste for flowers and flower-beds that still survives.
And, a few sentences along: “Thus it was, all those years later, that the rhythmical and pretentious phrases of Messrs Chateaubriand and Salvandy made me write Le Rouge et le noir in too jerky a style. A great foolishness, for who in twenty years’ time will have a thought for those gentlemen's hypocritical twaddle? As for myself, I am taking a ticket in a taking a ticket in a lottery first prize in which boils down to this: to be read in 1935.” Is style (merely) a reactionary impertinence, some recalcitrant thumping of the period’s usual? O’Hara talks (“Sudden Snow”), with usual “stylish” sass, about “the terrible limitations of poetic style ‘as we know it’” and concludes “Essay on Style” with the mock-petulance of the unabash’d tutelary god shrugging it off:
                                                no I am not going
to have you “in” for dinner nor am I going “out”
I am going to eat alone for the rest of my life
Style expounding itself contre tous in a temporal fit of refusing to fit. Compare such a “stance” to the derogatory use, style’s propriety (descending down out of Swift’s “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a stile”) and predictability. Joan Retallack (The Poethical Wager), essaying the nature of the essay, falls under the spell of style’s “service” (malign):
      The history of opinion on the essay is as full of disgust as admiration. Samuel Johnson evokes gastrointestinal disorders gone to the head: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” A century before, Francis Bacon had referred to his own essays as “dispersed meditations.” Addison, of Spectator fame, remarked on “the Wildness of those Compositions that go by the Names of Essays.” The Petit Larousse . . . denotes essais as first drafts or “titres de certains ouvrages qui ne prétendent pas épuiser un sujet.” Think of the degree to which prose styles with built-in grammars of persuasion service the pretense of exhausting the subject. If one avoids this pretense, if the subject is questionable or constantly shifting or densely complex, there is the risk of frustrating the reader who has been trained by the cultural marketplace to expect attractively packaged exhaustion. Every element of style is saying, Don’t worry, there’s nothing more to it than this. If this is called “essay,” it’s a misnomer.
(I see, too, that Dr. Johnson, in a later edition of the Dictionary quotes Sir Joshua Reynolds, tout seul in the O’Haraesque dining car—“The great stile stands alone, and does not require, perhaps does not as well admit, any addition from inferior beauties.”) And there’s Émile Zola’s remark, out of The Experimental Novel (1880), quoted by Lyn Hejinian in The Language of Inquiry: “Today we are rotten with lyricism, we wrongly believe that a great style is made of a sublime disorder, always ready to tumble over into madness; a great style is made of logic and clarity.” And: “No more lyricism, no more big empty word, but facts, documents.” Reactionary fervor (against too-floody Romanticism) and a call for style’s essential propriety, a scientist distrust of vagary and excess (I am tempt’d to say, of speech). Grenier’s “i hate speech” outburst: (merely) a salvo in a style war.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Samuel Johnson,” 1775