The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
It was impossible for him not to disturb words in the possession of their meanings.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799) stands at the beginning of German modernity, and right in the center of the country’s post–World War II concern with the recovery of liberal thought from historical catastrophe. If it was felt necessary to pump the mystique out of the whole idealistic heritage of German philosophy, Lichtenberg was the prototype of a German thinker who could be seen as the level-headed smallholder waiting back at the beginning, looking once again like an attractive prospect, now that the smoke had cleared. Just as Pascal, in French, began a tradition of compact concrete statement even about the spiritual, so did Lichtenberg in German.
Lichtenberg was a professor of physics, astronomy, and mathematics at Göttingen. One of those valuable faculty members who never lose the trick of talking like a brilliantly amusing graduate student—we can imagine Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos or Richard Feynman at Caltech—Lichtenberg was critically minded about the language of others, unfailingly scrupulous about his own, and never content to settle into a formula. Barred by physical deformity (he was a hunchback) from any easy participation in the passionate emotional life he saw as central to existence, he was nevertheless wonderfully sympathetic to the realities of love and sex: With every excuse to turn away from the real world, he kept its every aspect always in plain sight. Finally, it is his detailed and unflinching awareness that astonishes the reader. Scattered through his scores of “Waste-Books” and manuscript notebooks, Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations, nutshells each, add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as “the right distance,” a sense of proportion. He is the thinker against hysteria, the mind whose good-humored determination to avoid throwing a tantrum provides us with a persuasive argument that the tantrum might be the motive power of political insanity. His clarity and concision set a standard for expository prose, at whatever length, in the whole of his language and, by extension, in all languages.
In the quote above, Lichtenberg is describing a bad writer. There are bad writers who are exact in grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, sinning only through their insensitivity to tone. Often they are among the worst writers of all. But on the whole it can be said that bad writing goes to the roots: It has already gone wrong beneath its own earth. Since much of the language is metaphorical in origin, a bad writer will scramble metaphors in a single phrase, often in a single word. From a made-for-television film called The Movie Murders, I noted down this perfectly bad line of dialogue: “A fire is a Frankenstein when it’s let out of its cage.”
Of course, Frankenstein was not the monster, he was the monster’s creator: So, the use of his name is an inaccuracy. By now the inaccuracy has entered the language, like the juggernaut that serves us for Juggernaut’s car: But one of the things good writing does is to fight a rear-guard action against this automatic absorption of error. For example, a competent writer would look twice at rear-guard action to make sure that he means to evoke a losing battle and check automatic absorption to make sure that it falls within the range of phenomena against which a battle might conceivably be fought. He had better also know that phenomena should not be used in the singular, although that knowledge, too, is becoming rare. Competent writers always examine what they have put down. Better-than-competent writers—good writers—examine their effects before they put them down: They think that way all the time. Bad writers never examine anything. Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world.
Macaulay’s review of hapless poetaster Robert Montgomery is the classic analysis of the naturally bad writer who gets everything wrong because he is sensitive enough on the question of style to attempt to lift his means of expression above the ordinary. When Montgomery evoked a river that “meanders level with its fount,” Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount can’t even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay had uncovered the connection between the inability to notice and the inability to transcribe: the double deficiency that Montgomery’s highfalutin diction was invented to conceal. Mark Twain did the same for, or to, James Fenimore Cooper, who thought that “more preferable” was a more impressive way of saying “preferable”: The clumsily elevated language, Twain argued, was closely linked to the deficient power of observation that made the action of Cooper’s Leatherstocking books absurd. When a bad writer borrows locutions from past authorities, he characteristically takes the patina but leaves the metal. Biblical pastiche is a standard way for a mediocre stylist to attempt distinction. Attempting to define the sensationalism of the press, Malcom Muggeridge came up with the slogan “Give us this day our daily story.” A doomed effort, because all it did was remind the reader that the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer was better written than an article by Muggeridge. He would have been better off just saying that the press needs a new story every day.
Julius Caesar wrote with invariable clarity, whether about Gaul being divided into three parts or about building a bridge. Frederick the Great wrote about falconry from direct observation, with no hearsay, and in a plain style. Queen Victoria’s letters are models of compact accuracy: She wrote better than Queen Elizabeth I, which is saying a lot. Such practical expository prose by people with nonliterary day jobs should give a measure for would-be professional writers wise enough to build a solid base in their craft before trying to make an art out of it. They will soon discover that even the most down-to-earth of practical writers can scramble their meaning when they are in a hurry, so it must be a craft and not just a gift.
If language deteriorates in journalism, the damage will be felt sooner or later in writing that pretends to more distinction. In my time, to take one out of 100 possible examples, it has become common among cultural journalists to use “harp back” for “hark back.” If bored of should succeed in replacing bored with, there will be no real call to object, except from nostalgia: Of does the job at least as well as with, and anyway, such changes have happened in the spoken language since the beginning. But harp back scrambles the separate meanings of harp on and hark back, and thus detracts from the central, hard won virtue of the English language, which is to mean one thing at a time. The solecism gets into the paper because the subeditors no longer know the difference, either, so to see it cropping up in books is no surprise, although a great disappointment. David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure is one of the best books about moral turpitude in modern Hollywood. But the otherwise-savvy author uses flaunt for flout, thereby injuring two words at once: “To Cliff Robertson, Columbia’s reinstatement of Begelman was not only a brazen flaunting of justice, but also a deep insult to Cliff personally.” In a single sentence, an author who has convinced you that he could write anything leads you to suspect that he has read nothing.
There is evidence, however, that writers can read a great deal, among all the best exemplars, and still not take in the power to discriminate on critical points of grammar, derivation, usage, punctuation, and consistency of metaphor. Prescriptive initial teaching probably helps, but the capacity for such an alertness may be more in the nature of an inborn propensity than a possible acquisition.
The good prose-writer’s standards, however, should include the realization that he is not writing a poem. Henry James was not being entirely absurd when he complained that Flaubert was unable to leave his language alone. It is possible to be an admirer of Nabokov while still finding his alertness to cliché overactive, so that passages occur in which we can hardly see for the clarity: and with James Joyce it is more than possible. Somewhere between Tolstoy, who was so indifferent to style that he did not mind repeating a word, and Turgenev, who would sooner have died than do so, there is an area where the writer can be economically precise without diverting the reader’s whole attention to his precision. Lichtenberg would have included that area in his key concept of “the proper distance,” which he thought crucial to the exercise of reason. Rembrandt, in a reported statement Goethe was fond of, said that people should not shove their noses too close to his paintings: The paint was poisonous.
It is better to err on the side of too much scrupulosity than too little, but it remains a fact that good writers are occupied with more than language. The fact is awkward; and the most awkward part of it is that for metaphorical force to be attained in a given sentence, the metaphorical content of some of its words—which is a historic content provided by their etymology and the accumulated mutability of their traditional use—must be left dormant. Our apprehension of the Duchess of Gloster’s mighty line in Richard II, “Thou show’st the naked pathway to thy life,” would be blunted, rather than sharpened, if we concerned ourselves with the buried image of a naked person instead of with the overt image of an unprotected path, and our best signal for not so concerning ourselves is that Shakespeare didn’t, or he would have written the line in a different way. To make an idea come alive in a sentence, some of its words must be left for dead: The penalty for trying to bring them all alive is preciousness at best. If such preciousness is not firmly ruled out by the writer, there will be readers all too keen to supply it. In modern times, critics have earned a reputation for brilliance by pushing the concept of “close reading” to the point where they tease more meaning out than the writer can conceivably have wanted to put in; but it isn’t hard, it’s easy; and the mere fact that their busy activity makes them feel quite creative themselves should be enough to tell them they are making a mistake.
With the majority of bad writers the question never comes up. As Orwell points out in his indispensable essay “Politics and the English Language,” they write in prepared phrases, not in words, and the most they do with a prepared phrase is vary it to show that they know what it is. When Pope called genius an infinite capacity for taking pains, that was what he meant. The greatly gifted have almost everything by nature, but by bending themselves to the effort of acquirement, they turn a great gift into great work. Their initial arrogance is necessary and even definitive: Heinrich Mann was right to say that the self-confidence of young artists precedes their achievement and is bound to seem like conceit while it is still untried. But there is one grain of humility that they must get into their cockiness if they are ever to grow: They must accept that one of the secrets of creativity is an unrelenting self-criticism. “My dear friend,” said Voltaire to a young aspirant who had burdened him with an unpublished manuscript, “you may write as carelessly and badly as this when you have become famous. Until then, you must take some trouble.”