This morning I stumbled upon some notes I had written a couple of years ago, for a seminar held by my colleagues in our Western Civilization Program, on the subject of writing. They broach many of the topics we've batted around, or battered around, here on Mere Comments, so I thought I'd send them up Little Round Top and see what would happen:
Thoughts about writing:
1. Let’s be clear about the forest: a vast cultural breakdown in eloquence, clarity, and deliberative wisdom; all could fit under the general category of taste, so long as that term is not taken to mean mere subjective preferences; rather a sense of fitness, balance, and beauty.
2. An analogy: music. Suppose that the only music a people ever hear is the music they themselves produce, uneducated except by their own ears and their own hearts. We know how fine much of that music is: how many classical composers, from Brahms to Chopin to Rachmaninoff to Copland, have built upon the rhythms and harmonies of folk music. Now imagine a world in which “music” is slipshod, canned, mass-marketed, not bawdy but sleazy, not expressing the deepest longings of a culture but ensuring that no truly local culture will ever rise again. Imagine that what you have “heard” as music are the grunted quarter-rhymes of gangsta rap, or the slurred melismas of the latest diva whose voice seems to have been made for half-dozing customers in a brothel. Imagine that that is “music” to your ears. Now try to listen for five minutes to Mozart – and he is, for all his complexity, easy for the layman to approach. You will find yourself restless; you will not know what is going on, nor why you should care. You would have been better off had you never heard any music in your life. You are in a far worse condition than is the rustic.
3. This is the case with our culture and writing. We are inundated with the vapid, the silly, the slipshod, the awkward, the tasteless. Our students do not read newspapers, and that may be, on the whole, a good thing; but for twelve years they have read textbooks, and they read magazines or look at their pictures, and they paddle about the internet. They are not rustic in the matter of writing. Imagine how easy our job would be, if only that were the case! Imagine someone from the outback of Ohio two hundred years ago, whose only books in his cabin were the King James Bible and The Compleat Angler, or the Sermons of Jeremy Taylor, or Parson Weems’ Life of Washington. Even the sillier stuff in those days verged on eloquence and wisdom, and in any case there was not much of it directly available. Such a man’s writing would perhaps be rustic – would lack polish, would fall into the sentimentalities of the day, would sometimes wobble in the grammar – but it would be real writing. A peek into the diaries of the men who fought in the Civil War is enough to prove it. Our students – I should say almost everyone alive in America right now – are not bad writers because they are rustic. They are bad writers because their ears have been corrupted.
4. What to do about this? I have become persuaded that in such a case the patient cannot be given the cure before he is made aware of the disease: before he is at least introduced to its manifold forms, its pustules and eruptions, its clogs and tics. We need to be honest with ourselves here. We all live in the vicinity of the dump, and none of us is free of its influence. We learn to write by imitation, and that is the problem. Our students – and our colleagues, and alas we ourselves too often – have been imitating what is nearest to hand. Perhaps it might be instructive to compare, say, the front page of the Podunk Post from 1890, probably homespun, but also direct and intelligent, with the front page of our beloved Providence Journal. At all events we cannot pretend either that the problem is simply their own. I have just read an old essay by Frank Kermode on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and it almost made me weep, not simply for what he said, though that was fine enough, but for the decline in my own profession. Though there may be few enough journals now that might publish such an essay, there are even fewer of us professors who possess the learning, the quiet wisdom, the taste, to have written it in the first place. When I read such prose, I don’t feel like a pygmy standing on the back of a giant; only like a pygmy. But it is at least something to be made aware of the fact.
5. Then we need to immerse them in good writing. How can they write fine prose, when they have hardly ever seen it? Novels here don’t count; the art of fiction is too distant from the art of the essay for most people to bridge the gap.6. More than that, we ought to introduce them to a love of good writing. I don’t pretend to know how to do this, but I do know that the burden rests upon our shoulders, in this program. It’s well and good to argue that everybody in the college bears responsibility for it. True enough, but if we wait for everybody to lift the burden, we may as well just agree to let it rot on the ground. So at the very least we ought to resuscitate the old DWC colloquia devoted to our studies, our writing; we ought to have a lecture series; we ought to encourage or even require students to attend some of these. Consider that many of them will spend four years here and never find themselves in the company of people who have devoted their lives to the study, or the love, of what is well thought and well expressed.
Your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen?