On style & its dubious reputation
By Ursule Molinaro
First, I’d like to define what I mean by style. Or rather: what style means to me: The expression of an author’s subjective truth within the framework-truth of his time.
Usually an author writes
a) about what interests him. (i.e. about something he likes hates fears, etc.)
b) hopefully about what he knows.
(No one can write successfully about something he doesn’t know. & by this I don’t mean phantasy. But you’ve got to know something about nursing, about hospital administration, if one of your characters is to be a nurse. About sickness and its horizontal helplessness, if the character is the patient.)
The author’s subjective truth is already to some extent expressed by the selection of his material & by the angle from which he presents it.
His objective or collective truth is the validity of the selected material within the context of his time.
(Of another time, if he chooses to write about historical events or characters. But they must be relevant to the truth of his own time as well. As for instance Brecht’s Mother Courage or Arthur Miller’s Crucible.)
(Personally, I like to write about anonymous often nameless people. He/She/The Woman/His mother’s sister’s husband/ etc. By remaining nameless they become more prototypical of their specific situation or relationship. They grow from the inside out, their world ripping around their thought of themselves. —I’m forever fascinated with the ego-image & its outward reflection, or projection.— I have tried to render the ‘essence’ of a Mother/Daughter stalemate in a play Breakfast Past Noon by putting the dialogue into the past tense…)
Every thought or situation has its own heartbeat. Its own breath cadence. Its own organic page-duration. The very choice whether a thought or situation should become a short story a novel a play & of what length is already part of the style. Or form.
To me, even a potentially exciting thought or situation is dulled & becomes irrelevant if the form or style is not the perfect mirror of the content. (Perhaps this is why a finished stylist like Flaubert never quite succeeded in realizing his great ambition: to describe boredom without boring; in Sentimental Education…) Kafka Gertrude Stein Beckett Borges Nathalie Sarraute Robbe-Grillet Claude Ollier & many other recent Americans like Stephen Koch & Joseph McElroy are all masters of mirror-description, in a my opinion. Usually through repetition with a slight variation; an almost hallucinatory groping.
(By repetition I do not mean: writing on after one has nothing left to say. Letting a story or play run on & on, like a beheaded chicken running around a courtyard. As I’ve said before: the length of a story is an organic part of what the story wants to say.)
The inseparable bond between style & content becomes particularly evident when one tries to translate a work. (& I’m not only thinking of translating puns.) Each language has its own recurrence of vowels; its own sound associations. When influence slant direct an author’s thinking whether he realizes it admits it or not. A language is, after all, the expression of character & thought pattern of the people who live in it. & vice versa. & the grammar that regulates the sequence & importance of the different words within a sentence is the psychological key to the character & thought-pattern.
—The same applies to the slang, that constantly changing language within a language. That changes: as to like; switches from cool to heavy; that blows your mind & freaks you out.—
Nothing reveals a discrepancy between content and its expression as blatantly as the attempt to express that content in another language. (Which is another reason why plot stories that place little emphasis on style are more popular export articles. —Why an author like Günter Grass, with his Tin Drum, is a lot more popular in America than his compatriot Uwe Johnson, a stylistic innovator, with his also bulky Speculations about Jakob, or his Third Book about Achim.— A faithful rendering of STYLE requires the self-effaced patience of a translator of poetry.
Truth & reality at least the interpretation & expression of truth & reality are as subject to fashion as our concepts of what is beautiful & what ugly. Which no one will deny are subject to constant change. Yet, many people do deny that their points of view aesthetic as well as MORAL follow trends of fashion.
When pointed shoes & spike heels came back, replacing previous rounded flatness, many people said: God! How can anybody walk in that! Until many of those many people began walking in them… Because they no could longer face themselves as ‘clodhoppers’.
& when flat-heeled roundness made its first reappearance, just as many people regretted the days of gracefully tip-toeing helplessness… Until many of the many began feeling that: ‘Only prostitutes willfully reduced their mobility…’ & descended from their pointed heights to the respectability level of comfort.
When hemlines went up, so did eyebrows. For a while.
Now, the same heads shake their regret of long-legged liberty at the sight of a maxi-coat, climbing into a bus. (Paradoxically enough: older women who might have more reasons for hiding their legs & seek additional winter warmth besides, do not go in for maxi-coats; At least not yet.) Etc. Etc. Etc.
Or, on another level: when the Renaissance introduced perspective into
painting belying painting’s basic truth: 2-dimensional flatness it introduced a new way of seeing. A new & different pictorial ‘reality.’ That eventually went to extreme in trompe-l’oeil reality or Campbell soup cans. & every time, people’s vision adjusted itself. & the memory of previous visions was effaced. Until the landscapes around Arles began looking like Van Gogh’s paintings…etc…
Every taste every moral indignation every life & death sentence has its lifespan of truth & reality. Until it is superseded by the next. & every time, we speak of: progress. & look back upon the immediate past over fashionably padded or drooping shoulderlines with a condescending smile for our childhood follies.
While annotators annotate.
& analysts analyse
(a recurrence of fashion in clothes not so unlike what people wore during the bloody days of the French Revolution. A cut of coats not so unlike those worn during the civil war…).
& prophets prophecy doom & subsequent enlightenment.
& historians mutter about: history repeating itself.
& tired cynics take refuge in the triteness of proverbs. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose…
& prophets prophecy doom & subsequent enlightenment. & subsequent doom.
& critics criticize, & shake their heads…
& all are safe. On the safe side of basic absolute truth & reality. On the premise that human life on earth continues to pose more or less the same basic problems of survival individually as well as collectively. From one millennium to the next.
Granted: primitive man running from a dinosaur was not so differently motivated from a jaywalker in city traffic. By a similar mixture of imprudence & fear for his life. But the FORM of his imprudence has changed.
An author attempting to describe the jaywalker’s feelings cannot borrow imaginary retrospective fear-drama from the dinosaur contemporary. & yet, certain authors try to do just that. It is not so uncommon on television or in the movies. & certain critics applaud. & recommend them as examples.
Or, on a psychological level:
The jealousy outrage possessive indignation that prompted Othello to smother his loyal wife may still be felt by a husband/wife/lover party to a wife-swapping club of bridge-bored suburbanites in search of release. He might even be prompted to act in Othello’s old-fashioned fashion.
But an author describing or inventing or reinventing such a drama cannot justify the righteous indignation the concern with shame & honor that was the fictional reality in Shakespeare’s days. —Which was perhaps equally unreal, untrue to life even then. Today’s author would at least have to touch upon the mixed-marriage problem somewhere along his storyline. Go into housing discrimination, etc. Nor could he blithely reuse the handkerchief evidence, in this Kleenex-age. Unless he made a special point of his heroine’s using a handkerchief, rather than Kleenex. Which would give the lady a different character, setting her off as something of an original among her fellow suburbanites.
Still: there are many readers & networks; & especially certain critics that cling to this bygone fictional reality. & have nothing but scorn & yawns if not outright hatred for an anti-novel like Robbe-Grillet’s La jalousie which is to me a perfect modern— (& timeless) reality portrait of jealousy. Of suspicious spying & speculating from behind half-closed shutters. & no more ‘an unnecessarily repetitive complicating of a banal incident’ than somebody’s varying stages of degrees of jealousy.
But to certain critics who are looking for past centuries’ fictional reality in contemporary writing (& it seems to me that the tendency to look back oriented certain of these critics in the choice of their profession) La jalousie is a failure of a novel. A bad boring book. Because it does not offer a clear-cut plot, elaborated according to the standard: beginning-middle-end prerequisite by an omniscient author. Who makes his characters behave as though there was no such thing as multiple motivation. Or a subconscious. As though each knew on page 1 where he’d have to be at the end. After a detour-conflict in the middle.
As though truth & reality were stately unshakeable absolutes.
There is perhaps a deeply rooted psychological reason behind this attitude. Behind this distrust of style. Especially of stylistic innovations; unconventional punctuation or spacing; lists; ampersands instead of spelled-out ands; figures not spelled out; varying indentations of paragraphs, etc.etc. A distrustful moralizing attitude that feels at best that form should not be noticeable, in a work. (I think that it is the effort involved in creating the form that should not be noticeable.) That style or form should be totally subordinate to the content & not an integral indispensable part & aspect of the work, as important as the content. —A soul without a body is a ghost.— That a work cannot be successful, if the style is noticeable. That a noticeable style obstructs/obscures the content. Or the most common accusation that it is used as a screen behind which to hide a lack of content…
It seems to me that the psychology behind this ‘formophobe’ attitude is the same that attaches a value judgement a moral evaluation to the basic differentiation of:
positive & negative
active & passive
light & dark
white & black
right & left
& finally, to sum it all up & get to the crux of the problem of
male & female
masculine & feminine.
At the risk of being accused of blatant feminism and prejudice (men have opinions, women are opinonated) , I’d like to point out that form is a feminine, a female concept.
Which explains perhaps its dubious reputation. & the constant attempt, on the part of certain usually male critics to keep or to put form in its subordinate place.
Whereas the concept of content is definitely male.
All of life around us all of nature electricity the kabbala all teachings of wisdom show that one cannot exist without the other. That content & from shape one another. Feed one another. That they are originally bound to each other in never-ending interdependence.
Why speak ill of the surface. Only the void has none…
(& already each of you who may be drawing a picture of the void in his mind is giving it a form. A different form in each mind…)