The Battle for Precision


Saturday March 19, 2005

The Guardian

When I was a child, I mostly disliked writers and writing. In our English textbook, which had one of those 1970s titles that connoted nothing (Issues and Perspectives, maybe, or Amalgam 109), the sentences were lazy and everyday, emanating from what I have since heard called "consensus reality". These sentences ("Larry, aged 10, a tow-headed heavy-set boy with a happy smile for all, meandered down to the ballfield, hoping against hope he would be invited to join a game") repulsed me, the way a certain kind of moccasin-style house slipper then in vogue among my father's friends repulsed me. I would never, I swore, wear slippers like that. Only old people who had given up on life could wear slippers like that. Likewise the sentences in Amalgam 109 or Polyglot Viewpoints seemed to have given up on life, or to never have taken life sufficiently personally. They weren't lies, exactly, but they weren't true either. They weren't sloppy, exactly, but they lacked the precision that would have made them seem part of the world, rather than a mere description of it. These sentences seemed to emanate from no-person, and to argue against the intimate, actual feeling of minute-to-minute life.

Then I read a book called Johnny Tremain by a writer named Esther Forbes. She suggested another way: the sentence, she seemed to be saying, was where the battle was fought. With enough attention, a sentence could peel away from its fellows and be not only from you, but you. I later found the same quality in Hemingway, in Isaac Babel, Gertrude Stein, Henry White: sentences that had been the subject of so much concentration, they had become a thing in the world.

A person can write: "There were, in the bay, some islands or rocks, brownish in colour, although tending probably more towards black than brown, and on these rocks, or crags, were some white forms that, in terms of their feather-rustling, Johnny soon recognised them as birds, gulls more than likely." Or they can write, as Forbes did: "On rocky islands gulls woke."

There is a huge difference between these. The first is the lazy result of agreeing to see like everyone else. It is the result of a grinning kind of sloth. It doesn't mind. It won't object. It wants to please the least-demanding part of you. The second results from a kind of passionate leaning into that-which-is. Its author doesn't know what she thinks until she starts digging around, and the way she digs around is on the sentence level, trying to get that particular thought across as efficiently and truthfully as possible, and convention be damned. That missing comma? She meant it. There was, to Forbes, I expect, a world of difference between: "On rocky islands, gulls woke" and "On rocky islands gulls woke".

Standing around the schoolyard in those post-Forbes days, I tried out sentences meant to describe, with Forbes-like precision, whatever I happened to be seeing: "Sister Lynette hovered in the doorway like a nun hovering in a doorway holding a peanut-butter sandwich, which was what he, George, also was probably having later today, in terms of lunch." This, revised, became: "Sister Lynette, with sandwich, stood in the door." And then: "Sister, sandwich, in door." Well, maybe that was taking it too far.

Then Sister moved from the door, and stooped to pick up a scrap of paper, and an entirely new reality appeared, requiring a bright new sentence. When a person resolves to improve his prose, everything he is and everything he believes in, consciously or unconsciously, must be brought to bear. The movements from vagueness to precision, from generality to specificity, length to brevity, passivity to activity, involve, mysteriously, a corresponding movement from falsehood to truth.

Specificity, precision, and brevity, applied in language, drive us towards compassion.

Conversely, all attempts at world domination begin with weak, evasive, impersonal language: "It has been observed that when the doors are shut, the load always presses hard against them as soon as darkness sets in," a petty bureaucrat writes to his superior. "This is because the load naturally rushes toward the light when darkness sets in, which makes closing the door difficult. Also, because of the alarming nature of darkness, screaming always occurs when the doors are closed. It would therefore be useful to light the lamp before and during the first moments of the operation." The bureaucrat was the ironically named "Mr Just", his organisation the SS, the year 1942.

Certain kinds of language walk hand-in-hand with falseness: vague language, humourless language, sloppy language, language that strings together code words, language that eliminates the doer and the done to, that shuns people and things in favour of the abstract ("On structures not unlike rock masses, it was observed that certain animals perhaps prone to flight slept somewhat less aggressively than previously").

So that is one reason I write: as a kind of spiritual practice, to force truth to emerge from my habitual state of lazy dishonesty.

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