Sunday, July 25, 2010

Unenviable style

A phrase of Paul Fry's suggested something interesting to me as I was writing one of my last posts. Fry says Dryden's preface to his Fables "is written in the enviably casual manner," and this got me thinking about what an enviable style would be like, if it were viewed as a project not unlike the answerable style of Milton (see Book 9 of Paradise Lost): if we sink under the fitness of Milton's verse (fit to what, though, we don't know), as Johnson once said, perhaps we reach out and over to Dryden--despite having been put to shame by his deftness.

Regardless, Fry's phrase also made me recall a wonderful little meditation near the end of Tristram Shandy (Book 9, Chapter 11), which gives the thought a different coloring. For it tells us what might be involved in an unenviable style:

Now in all common and ordinary cases, there is nothing which I have found to answer so well as this——
——Certainly, if there is any dependence upon Logic, and that I am not blinded by self-love, there must be something of true genius about me, merely upon this symptom of it, that I do not know what envy is: for never do I hit upon any invention or device which tendeth to the furtherance of good writing, but I instantly make it public; willing that all mankind should write as well as myself.

——Which they certainly will, when they think as little.


Of course, what's so fascinating about Tristram Shandy is its propensity to be imitated, despite the style being unenviable. This, however, is just one of the many paradoxes of True Shandeism.

Now, this thought doesn't really develop in the next chapter (Chapter 12), but it certainly continues——indeed in this unenviable, perhaps also unanswerable vein——and is so excellent that I might as well end by quoting all of it:

Now in ordinary cases, that is, when I am only stupid, and the thoughts rise heavily and pass gummous through my pen—

Or that I am got, I know not how, into a cold unmetaphorical vein of infamous writing, and cannot take a plumb-lift out of it for my soul; so must be obliged to go on writing like a Dutch commentator to the end of the chapter, unless something be done—

——I never stand conferring with pen and ink one moment; for if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me——I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off; taking care only if I do leave a hair, that it be not a grey one: this done, I change my shirt——put on a better coat——send for my last wig——put my topaz ring upon my finger; and in a word, dress myself from one end to the other of me, after my best fashion.

Now the devil in hell must be in it, if this does not do: for consider, Sir, as every man chuses to be present at the shaving of his own beard (though there is no rule without an exception), and unavoidably sits over-against himself the whole time it is doing, in case he has a hand in it—the Situation, like all others, has notions of her own to put into the brain.——

——I maintain it, the conceits of a rough-bearded man, are seven years more terse and juvenile for one single operation; and if they did not run a risk of being quite shaved away, might be carried up by continual shavings, to the highest pitch of sublimity——How Homer could write with so long a beard, I don't know——and as it makes against my hypothesis, I as little care——But let us return to the Toilet.

Ludovicus Sorbonensis makes this entirely an affair of the body [...]——but he is deceived: the soul and body are joint-sharers in every thing they get: A man cannot dress, but his ideas get cloth'd at the same time; and if he dresses like a gentleman, every one of them stands presented to his imagination, genteelized along with him—so that he has nothing to do, but take his pen, and write like himself.

For this cause, when your honours and reverences would know whether I writ clean and fit to be read, you will be able to judge full as well by looking into my Laundress's bill, as my book: there is one single month in which I can make it appear, that I dirtied one and thirty shirts with clean writing; and after all, was more abus'd, cursed, criticis'd, and confounded, and had more mystic heads shaken at me, for what I had wrote in that one month, than in all the other months of that year put together.

——But their honours and reverences had not seen my bills.

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