What has not been (properly) talked about

from Susan Sontag’s introduction to The Best American Essays, 1992:

The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt—and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking. Its most obvious trait, however, is assertiveness of one kind or another.

To read an essay properly, one must understand not only what it is arguing for but what it is arguing against. Reading the essays written by our contemporaries, we easily supply the context, the public argument, the opponent, explicit or implicit. The passage of a few decades can make this almost impossible.

Essays end up in books, but they start their life in magazines. (It’s hard to imagine a book of recent but previously unpublished essays.) The perennial comes now mainly in the guise of the topical and, in the short run, no literary form has as great and immediate an impact on contemporary readers. Many essays are discussed, debated, reacted to in a way that poets and writers of fiction can only envy.

The influential essayist is someone with an acute sense of what has not been (properly) talked about, what should be talked about (but differently). But what makes essays last is less their argument than the display of a complex mind and a distinctive prose voice.

The immediate perceptive epithet

from Bruce Wilshire, “William James’s Pragmatism: A Distinctly Mixed Bag,” in 100 Years of Pragmatism, edited by John Stuhr:

William James is a tragic figure. I will try to fully explain what I mean by that. But right off the bat, we can point out a feature of this tragic stance. It’s fairly widely believed that James is a major philosopher. Yet in no other such philosopher’s work, I believe, are great strengths so vividly mixed with major defects. His famous, often read—too often read, I think—popular lectures, Pragmatism, gaudily illustrate this claim.

What does it take to be a major philosopher? A most difficult question. Wilfrid Sellars’s one-liner statement of what philosophy seeks to discover is hard to better: how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense.

But how does one start a process of discovery without begging crucial questions that philosophy should endeavor to answer? How does one begin to comprehend the farthest reaches of complexity without prejudging things—or occluding whole horizons of possibilities and viewpoints—stupidly? James’s description in Pragmatism of expertness in philosophy is arresting: “Expertness in philosophy is measured by the definiteness of our summarizing reactions, by the immediate perceptive epithet with which the expert hits such complex objects off” (P, 25). Thee summarizing that emerges through perceptual epithet! A taking in at a glance that delivers the first sketch of the whole lay of the land. Is there any better way to avoid getting lost in the details of some corner of the subject matter, any better way to begin doing philosophy unprejudiciously?

The taint of preciosity

The opening of Chapter 1 (“Vocabulary”) of the second edition of H.W. Fowler’s The King’s English (1908):

Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:—

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

These rules are given roughly in order of merit; the last is also the least. It is true that it is often given alone, as a sort of compendium of all the others. In some sense it is that: the writer whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely. But if, instead of his Saxon percentage’s being the natural and undesigned consequence of his brevity (and the rest), those other qualities have been attained by his consciously restricting himself to Saxon, his pains will have been worse than wasted; the taint of preciosity will be over all he has written. Observing that translate is derived from Latin, and learning that the Elizabethans had another word for it, he will pull us up by englishing his quotations; he will puzzle the general reader by introducing his book with a foreword. Such freaks should be left to the Germans, who have by this time succeeded in expelling as aliens a great many words that were good enough for Goethe. And they, indeed, are very likely right, because their language is a thoroughbred one; ours is not, and can now never be, anything but a hybrid; foreword is (or may be) Saxon; we can find out in the dictionary whether it is or not; but preface is English, dictionary or no dictionary; and we want to write English, not Saxon. Add to this that, even if the Saxon criterion were a safe one, more knowledge than most of us have is needed to apply it. Few who were not deep in philology would be prepared to state that no word in the following list (extracted from the preface to the Oxford Dictionary) is English:—battle, beast, beauty, beef, bill, blue, bonnet, border, boss, bound, bowl, brace, brave, bribe, bruise, brush, butt, button. Dr. Murray observes that these ‘are now no less “native”, and no less important constituents of our vocabulary, than the Teutonic words’.

What makes one dream of writing

Jean-François Lyotard on Sam Francis’s “Meaningless Gesture,” 1958, in Sam Francis, Lessons of Darkness:

Le geste de peindre défère à l’autorité, à la confiance absolue, presque étourdie, que les couleurs ont en elles-mêmes. Pareillement, la fidélité des mots à la puissance immémoriale qui est en eux et à ses initiatives incessantes est ce qui fait rêver d’écrire. Cela n’empêche pas, cela explique que dans le geste de peindre il y a une impossibilité et l’interdiction de croire aux couleurs comme il y a un dégoût de s’en remettre aux mots dans le geste d’écrire.

translated by Geoffrey Bennington, 1993:

The gesture of painting defers to the authority, the absolute, almost giddy confidence that colors have in themselves. Similarly, the fidelity of words to the immemorial potential that is in them, and to its incessant initiatives, is what makes one dream of writing. This does not prevent, but explains the fact that in the gesture of painting there is an impossibility and ban on believing in colors as there is a disgust in relying on words in the gesture of writing.

The indifference of (mere) knowledge

Richard Howard’s prefatory note to Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller in 1975:

The French have a distinguishing advantage which Roland Barthes, a Frenchman through and through, has taken, has used, has exploited in his new book about what we do when we enjoy a text; the French have a vocabulary of eroticism, an amorous discourse which smells neither of the laboratory nor of the sewer, which just—attentively, scrupulously—puts the facts. In English, we have either the coarse or the clinical, and by tradition our words for our pleasures, even for the intimate parts of our bodies where we may take those pleasures, come awkwardly when they come at all. So that if we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take—the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its most abrupt and ruthless pitch—we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French utterance; we lack jouissance and jouir, as Barthes uses them here. The nomenclature of active pleasure fails us—that is the “matter” Sterne had in mind when he said they order this matter so much better in France.

Roland Barthes’s translator, Richard Miller, has been resourceful, of course, and he has come up with the readiest plausibility by translating jouissance (for the most part: Barthes himself declares the choice between pleasure and the more ravaging term to be precarious, revocable, the discourse incomplete) as “bliss”; but of course he cannot come up with “coming,” which precisely translates what the original text can afford. The Bible they translated calls it “knowing” while the Stuarts called it “dying,” the Victorians called it “spending,” and we call it “coming”; a hard look at the horizon of our literary culture suggests that it will not be long before we come to a new world for orgasm proper—we shall call it “being.”

Roland Barthes, in any case, calls it jouissance, as his own literary culture entitles him to do, and he associates his theory of the text, in this new book, with what has been a little neglected in his own and other (French) studies of what we may take, what we may have, when we read: the pleasure of the text. Pleasure is a state, of course, bliss (jouissance) an action, and both of them, in our culture, are held to be unspeakable, beyond words. Here, for example, is Willa Cather, a writer Barthes has never heard of, putting in a plea of nolo contendere, which is, for all its insufferable air of customary infallibility, no more than symptomatic:

The qualities of a first-rate writer cannot be defined, but only experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first-rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be defined or explained any more than the quality of a beautiful speaking voice can be.

In the puritanism of our expressivity, what can be said is taken—is likely—to be no longer experienced, certainly no longer enjoyed.

Yet Barthes has found, for all Cather’s strictures, a way to speak pleasure, a way which leads him to abandon the systematics of earlier studies (he has found this way before: this new book is to S/Z as his essay on Japan, L’Empire des Signes, is to Système de la Mode: a writer’s aphrodisiac); his way is to give himself away—literally, to confess, to speak with all the entranced conviction of a man in the dock: to give himself up to an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowings, bubbles, trial balloons, “phylacteries,” he calls them, of an invisible design—the design is the simple staging of the question “What do we enjoy in the text?” The design is not quite invisible, perhaps, for it obeys the most arbitrary (and apparent) of orders, the alphabetical, which governs Barthes’s series of proses in such a fashion that we feel held somewhere between the high-handed and the underhanded in the aspiration to catch pleasure out, the effort to catch up with bliss. Like filings which gather to form a figure in a magnetic field, the parts and pieces here do come together, determined to affirm the pleasure we must take in our reading as against the indifference of (mere) knowledge, determined to instance our ecstasy, our bliss in the text against the prudery of ideological analysis, so that perhaps for the first time in the history of criticism we have not only a poetics of reading—that, I think, is what Barthes has managed so marvelously to constitute in S/Z—but a much more difficult (because supposedly inexpressible, apparently ineffable) achievement, an erotics of reading.

The wisdom style of middle age

the final paragraph of Philip Lopate’s foreword to The Annotated Emerson:

I’m sure we could make the case for Emerson’s relevance today by molding him into a proto-postmodernist, a covert wild man with dark imagination, or a progressive fighter for multicultural diversity. My own fondness for him rests on his intelligence and his truthfulness, his questioning, nondogmatic sanity. He wrote some of the best reflective prose we have; he was a hero of intellectual labor, a loyal friend, and, taking into account all his flaws and prejudices, a good egg who always tried to do the right thing. True, he was middle-class and wrote increasingly in the wisdom style of middle age. Can we forgive him? Yes; we can even revere him, as a model of how to overcome anxiety and despair, and eloquently wed uncertainty to equanimity.

The cleansing and deepening of the dispute

Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, 1952:

Anyone engaged in the study, teaching, and criticism of literature as a university discipline is likely to become at some time or other aware of one fundamental problem raised by his own pursuits, of a difficulty that is all his own and is not, or at least not to the same extent, shared by his colleagues in other subjects. For however sincerely he may struggle against bias and prejudice in his own approach and appreciation, his work will still be very intimately related to his experiences in wider fields. […] and this, he will see, is no shortcoming of his own discipline, to be conquered in scientific campaigns or disguised by scientific masquerades, but is in fact its distinctive virtue. […] thus he would be ill-advised to concentrate exclusively on those aspects of his discipline which allow the calm neutrality of what is indisputably factual and “objective”. His business, I think, is not the avoidance of subjectivity, but its purification; not the shunning of what is disputable, but the cleansing and deepening of the dispute.

A requirement for genuine expertise

David Foster Wallace in conversation with Dave Eggers, The Believer, 2003:

We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius—which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

Constant and eager observation

Walter Pater, conclusion to The Renaissance, 1868; cf. Shklovsky:

Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren. The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us,—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve — les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Not to be writing a book was not to be alive

William H. Pritchard reviewing a biography of Van Wyck Brooks, 1981:

For “not to be writing a book was not to be alive at all,” Brooks said in his autobiography. Beginning with The Wine of the Puritans in 1908, he lived through his pen; and except for a brief foray into teaching at Stanford in 1941 (he moved to California in order to marry Eleanor Stimson) and in England later, he stayed at his desk, usually beginning to write at 5:30 A.M.


The remaining 32 years of Brooks’s life are thankfully not as “interesting” as that middle passage. All he set himself to do now was read every book written by an American between 1800 and 1915 (The Flowering of New England alone was the result of reading 825 of them) and write a five-volume history (or epic, or novel, or romance) of the writer in America, creating—as he once wrote in a notebook—”an American memory.” Writing was still a matter of life and death (“every morning, at my desk, I feel that I am on trial for my life”), but he managed grandly to survive into old age, remarrying after his first wife’s death, growing in public literary eminence as he came to matter less and less to younger critics of literature.