Style

Anthroposophical Movement 10.11 (8 June 1933): 83-86

People who are faced with the problem of preparing something for publication in a hurry are sometimes heard to make such a remark as: “I’ll hash something up myself and then hand it over to Smith to put into decent style.” If this simply means that the unoffending Smith is to go through the MS, and excise the grammatical errors and solecisms, there may be no harm in it. If it means – or rather if it is meant to mean – anything more, you may be sure that, as far as writing and the meaning of words is concerned, the speaker lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land of his own illusions. There appear, however, to be so many people living in this cloud-cuckoo-land that the present writer (who in his time has known what it is to be a Smith) has long felt an impulse (or, as we used to say, “wanted”) to say something about it.

In the first place the idea that “style” is something which can be stuck on to a piece of writing paper after it is finished, like the pinchbeck imitation half-timbering on the front of an Edwardian villa, is, to use the mildest expression that could reasonably apply, disgusting. It is disgusting because it remains false, and because the result, if such an attempt were made, would be insincerity. This does not, however, mean that no attention must be given to the way in which our thoughts are expressed in writing. The very closest attention must be given. But it must be given, not with the object of producing something that sounds pretty or looks appetising, but because it is only with very great labour and attention that it is possible to express “our” thoughts at all. The literary production of a man whose only object is to write a good style will be mannered and precious; the literary production of a man whose concern it is to express his thought, and who succeeds in doing so, will be – good style.

A poet will sometimes say of a poem which he does not feel to be quite finished, that it needs “polishing.” Some of the misunderstandings about style may have arisen from the misinterpretation of this word. It is rather an unpleasant word and may easily be taken to mean the same as “varnishing,” that is, the addition of a thin alien veneer to the surface of the object. Actually, as George Macdonald points out in one of his essays, the effect of polishing is not the addition of anything new, but the removal of existing stains and impurities. The characteristic of polished wood is that it reveals the nature of the material itself. You may polish a piece of deal till your gloves drop off; you will never make it look like oak. To try and make it look like oak you have got to use varnish and practice deception. But the more you polish oak itself, the more it will look like oak.

Thus, if it is necessary to give attention to the way in which things are expressed, that is because otherwise they are not expressed. They may be there, in a sense, but they are clouded and obscured and cannot reach the light. For other things are there as well, things which the author never intended to be there. The author has, in a sense, said what he means. But he has also said other things which he did not mean. And therefore he has not really said what he means.

A man may say and write things which he does not mean for two reasons. He may do so because he, personally, is a poseur and a hypocrite. But on the other hand he may do it because he either will not or cannot express himself; because he has no style. Thus there is an artistic or literary insincerity as well as a personal one. In the purely artistic insincerity the ego takes no part and so no obvious moral blame attaches. But it is nevertheless actual insincerity, for things have been uttered which purport to be uttered by the ego, but which have in fact been uttered by something or somebody else. And to the extent that the ego allows this – though it might have prevented it – the ego is to blame.

How does literary insincerity arise? It arises from the fact that the words which a writer uses are not created by him for his purpose as he goes along. They are there already, filled already with potential meaning. As soon as two (or more) words are placed together by a writer, there has to be taken into consideration not merely the fact that this writer has placed these words together, but that other people may also have placed them together before him. If so, the words will to that extent have acquired a meaning which may be independent of, or additional to, or even positively different from, the meaning which this writer intended. And this, although grammatically and etymologically the sentence is perfectly sound. For it is not simply the dictionary “meanings” which have to be taken into account, it is a question of all the overtones and associations which cluster round words, but above all round groups of words, according as they have been used in the past. Thus, as soon as he puts two words together, a writer enters a battle. “Look in thy heart and write!” said Sir Philip Sidney, and that is necessary in order to achieve even personal sincerity. But to achieve literary sincerity something else is necessary also. There are positive, objective hindrances to be overcome. Thus, the price of literary sincerity, like that of liberty, is eternal vigilance, and the writer is a man waging perpetual war against an enemy perpetually on the watch to cozen him of his own thoughts.

Critics call this enemy cliché. Anthroposophists know that he has many other names. It is mainly because of this enemy that a writer needs a large vocabulary. A well-stocked vocabulary is necessary, not for ornament and variegation, but for the purpose of avoiding cliché. It is the writer’s armoury from which, as the old ones are temporarily blunted, he draws new and sharp weapons to strike off the hydra-heads of the monster.

Thus to write an article on, say, the modern girl, all that is necessary is to close the eyes, hold the pen tightly between the thumb and two fingers, and then to cease thinking in thoughts and begin thinking in words; or rather to let stale old groups of words begin arranging themselves. The rest is practically automatic. Let us begin in the middle of the supposed article, and in the middle of a sentence: “… no plaster saint, but at least she is not a hypocrite. If Victorian modesty has gone, Victorian shams have gone with it. Miss 1933 claims as her birthright the right to express her own personality as she chooses, and if some of the ways she chooses make the older generation raise its eyebrows, well, that is….”

This sort of writing is only just not “automatic writing.” In automatic writing there is a total eclipse of the ego. In modern journalism there is an occultation which falls just short of total eclipse. But, although cliché is characteristic of journalism, it is not confined to journalism. No choice of subject, however sublime, will save you from it: for cliché is simply the abdication by the ego of its prerogative of thinking what it speaks and speaking what it thinks. How is it that the result is not a mere babble of meaningless nonsense? Because, no sooner has the ego abdicated, but something else, a sort of synthetic ghost of previous uses of the words, steps into its place and preserves intact a hollow shell of superficial meaning. Let us try writing an extract from an article on another subject, by the same means. We will begin, as before, in the middle: “… the man of our time has the task to grasp the concept of freedom in a living way. Such a concept can never be grasped by the dead materialistic purely intellectual thinking which is characteristic of natural science. Natural science, with all its wonderful achievements in the outer world, cannot help man forward any further on the path which he must tread. Only when quite new forces are brought to bear, forces which live and weave in the plant world and in the living world of colour, will there arise in man the necessary inner impulse which must be aroused if he is to fulfil the cosmic purposes which underlie that which weaves in the forces of his destiny.”

It must be confessed that this stuff is very nearly as easy to write as the other. But it is much more destructive. How quickly and smoothly – if we do not keep wide awake when writing about Spiritual Science – Ahriman glides up behind us and seizes the pen and himself chooses, with a mocking grin, what shall be written by it.

How can we protect ourselves? Only by again and again, with repeated tests, assuring ourselves that what we are expressing is in every detail our own thought. This does not mean that what we are thinking must never have been thought by anybody else. It does mean that what we write must be what we have thought and not simply what we have overheard. I would like to found a society of writers, and translators, on Spiritual Science, the members of which would be pledged to go through all that they have written and cut out the word “inner” wherever it occurs. They could then look again to see if it had make any difference to the meaning, and if it had made any difference (for the worse) they would be allowed to put the epithet back again. And the same with many other words and phrases.

Herr Steffen once wrote an article (a translation of which appeared in this periodical) in which he pointed out that the solution of the problems of style is really a way of initiation. Both may be conceived as a progressive disengagement of the not-self from the self. Initiation is not the acquisition of something new; it is the progressive revelation of something already there. By purging and purifying away the stains and irrelevancies which obscure it, the ego is laid bare, the true Self is found. And at the same time the discovery is made that this true Self, is from the earthly point of view, selfless. It is this fact which underlies the difference between style and mannerism, between originality and oddity. To be original does not mean to be odd or peculiar; it means simply, not to be a copy. It is in this sense that style may be said to be the expression of thoughts which are “our own.” The words uttered by a self which is determined to think only its own thoughts will not be peculiar. On the contrary. It is the parrot which is such a peculiar bird. Such words will not be a mere rattling of the dried husks of what was once thought but is so no more. They will be the expression of present and actual thought; and as such they needs must bear a universal significance. For thought is universal. Thought is at once our own and not our own. Thought bears the soul outward on its wings and teaches it to expand, without losing its integrity, into the majesty of the etheric universe. To write what I have thought is to write what the spirit has thought. And that is style.

Owen Barfield
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