Introduction to "Literary Essays" (2011), by Sean Gabb
The purpose of this volume is to bring together some of the essays that I have written during the past decade or so on literary topics. Looking only at the million or so words I have written on political topics, these essays are a minority of my output. However, even if mostly published under other names, I am also a poet and the author of seven novels. I do not regard the contents of this volume as either of great brilliance or great originality. But they may be a useful supplement for those who have read my poetry and fiction and who want to know something about my views on literature in general.
I am not sure if my views can be dignified by the term philosophy of literature. Even so, I have spent my entire adult life obsessed by the meaning of words and by the effect that can be made by particular combinations of words. I believe that the sole function of any writer who wishes to be honest is to convey a message. This message can be political. It can be a narrative. It can be emotional. But it must be conveyed as clearly as possible. Everything must be subordinate to clarity. The worst fault a writer can have is to be unclear. Much lack of clarity is the result of dishonesty or incompetence. Most writing on politics, for example, is dishonest because those producing it do not wish to say what they really think. Incompetence is a far less blameworthy fault. A man may have something to say that he strongly believes, and just lack the ability to say it in a manner that allows others to understand him.
A further cause, however, is a false understanding of rhetoric. Ours is an age of linguistic decadence. The classical period of our language came to an end some time during the early twentieth century. Much of the English written since then has been ungrammatical in various ways, or ugly. Most English that is neither tends to be unmemorable. The response of many writers has been to put on stilts and try to sound grand. This produces unreasonably long sentences, or odd convolutions, or elegant variations to avoid repeating words, or revivals of archaic words, or archaic spellings of common words, or the insertion of words into a sentence that add nothing to its meaning, but are there to smooth out the rhythm.
Rhetoric does have a place in good English. As I have said, I am obsessed by the sound of words. But this must be secondary to clarity. Briefly stated, my own rules for writing good English are as follows:
First, the meaning of what is written must be clear. Any sentence that needs to be read more than once is a bad sentence. If a sentence adds nothing to a meaning already established, it is a bad sentence. If clarity means repeating the same word in one sentence, it must be repeated. If there is a short, native word that has the same meaning as a Latinate word, the shorter word must be used. If following a particular rule of grammar is likely to confuse a reader, that rule is to be ignored, or the whole sentence recast. The object must be to hold a reader’s attention and to leave him in no reasonable doubt of what has been said.
Second, notwithstanding what I have just said, a writer should try to follow the main rules of grammar. This is partly because following them tends to produce clear prose. There is a correct sequence of tenses, ignoring which leads to doubt regarding when things happened, or will happen, or might happen. There is a correct use of participles and of prepositions. There are rules for the correct use and avoidance of the subjunctive. Not all grammatical rules, however, need to be followed. For example, one of the rules of a conditional sentence is that the main subject should be placed in the apodosis. This rule should be followed in its generality. But it does not mean that Samuel Johnson was incorrect when he wrote “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” instead of “When he is tired of London, a man is tired of life.” His sentence is vivid. My recasting is pedantic. Again, in “shall” and “will,” English has a double future auxiliary for “to be.” The established rules should be followed in the indicative. Therefore, it was right to let the Frenchman drown who fell into the Thames and cried: “No one shall save me and I will drown.” But these rules have broken down for the subjunctive. “I should be very happy to be rich” sounds unnatural, and so should be avoided.
Then we have supposed rules of grammar that are no more than arguable usages. For example, there is the prescription that a sentence should not begin with a conjunction. I may ignore this more often than I should, but see no reason to follow it. Again, I share the snobbish dislike of split infinitives, and always avoid them. But it is better to split an infinitive than to break up the rhythm of a sentence by shifting adverbs to where they sound out of place. There are times when the impersonal pronoun “one” can and should be used. There are other times—especially when joined with the use of “they” as a neuter singular pronoun—when you are better advised to use the second person plural pronoun. This sentence is ugly, though arguably correct according to modern usage: “One should think twice before they open their mouth.” This one is much better: “You should think twice before opening your mouth.”
Third, the proper use of rhetoric is to emphasise what is being said, not to try telling the reader that you are a master of style. Look at this, from the Authorised Version of The Bible:
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (Matthew, 6: 28-34)
Read the passage aloud, and listen for the patterns of emphasis and pitch, the pauses, the use and avoidance of hiatus, the way in which consonants are sometimes allowed to clash and sometimes prevented by the rearrangement of words. See how all this and more contribute to the urgency yet confidence of tone. It may be that at least the translator of this text was inspired by God. To be sure, he was following rules of diction that you will find in Aristotle and Longinus and Cicero and Quintilian, and in many other ancient critics. Learning these rules takes time. It is like learning to type, when the act of writing is, for a while, made much slower. But, once learned, they become habitual and even instinctive. They will not allow any of us to produce something so astonishing as the Authorised Version. But they can save you from writing prose that is ugly other than by design.
A further suggestion is that we should try, so far as possible, to follow the classical usages of our language. Taken literally, this can become a stupid vice. So it was with many of the later Greeks and Romans, who ignored changes in the world about them, and tried to write exactly as if they had lived hundreds of years earlier. Procopius, for example, never uses the Greek word for “bishop,” as this word was unknown to Thucydides. Instead, he uses the Greek word for “high priest.” Other late Greek writers call the Slavs and Huns “Scythians.” The very late writers often call the Turks “Persians.”
This is a vice that we cannot indulge. Too many words in English have had their meaning changed to describe new things, and many new words have been coined. We cannot hope to write so that that Gibbon or Jane Austin would have had no trouble to understand us. “Railway train,” “light switch,” “software,” “mother ship,” “notebook computer,” and so on and so forth—these individual words may have been used for centuries, but the meanings they carry for us are specific to a technological civilisation that has only recently come into being.
I do not mean, however, that what we write should be backward compatible. That is not possible. What I do mean is that we should write in ways that do not make our classical literature impossible to understand for present and future generations. If we change the meaning of words unnecessarily, or coin unnecessary new words, or change our grammatical usages unnecessarily, we shall eventually make it as hard to read Addison and Gibbon and Jane Austin and Wilkie Collins as it now is to read Chaucer. I believe that, already, this has become the case with Shakespeare and the Authorised Version.
For what it may be worth, these are my suggestions for writing good English. I could make others, but these strike me as the most important. And I do think they help to explain a purpose that is common to most of the essays included in this book. The essays themselves are all occasional productions. They were written at various times and for various purposes. Sometimes, they are reviews of writers I like or dislike. Sometimes, they are straightforward polemics. The essay on Greek accents was read out in a seminar at my university when I was hoping for preferment. The essay on Epicurus was given in summary at an informal seminar of libertarians. The essay on ancient economies began life as a speech made in Turkey to the Property and Freedom Society. I did wonder if this had a place in the present collection. But I included it because it involves a discussion of the ancient world.
Though its contents touch here and there on libertarian themes, I do not suppose that this is a libertarian book. As well as for words, and how they have been used by the writers in three classical traditions, I have a passion for classical music. I have not so far written about this except in passing. But if I were to write about my liking for Mozart and the first Viennese school, it could be seen as wholly separate from whatever I believe about politics and economics. Karl Marx was a finer classical scholar than I am. Stalin was passionately fond of Mozart. No aesthetic taste seems necessarily connected with any set of political opinions.
Or, perhaps for me, there is a connection. To write clearly, you must, above all, think clearly. I may be mistaken in my political views. In some degree, I hold them on non-rational grounds—I have always believed as I do. But there is no doubt that I have also elaborated these views by a process of clear, though possibly misguided, thought. I believe, then, what I do partly out of commitment of a particular set of mental habits. These views also incline me to particular literary tastes.
But there may be a better connection. You can be a libertarian for many reasons. You may have gone in youth through what might have been a passing phase, but have been fixed in this by the friendships you made at the time. Or you may have become one for reasons of self-advancement. You will generally make more money as a statist intellectual. But there is certainly a need in modern England and America for big business apologists—for people, that is, who are able and willing to argue for the air to be “privatised,” so it can be made to yield a profit to well-connected business interests. Much more often, though, libertarians are people who want to live free so they can do the things they want to do. Some like drugs and naughty sex—and good luck to those who do. Others want to bring up their children in what they regard as the truth. Good luck also to them. Some of us want to immerse ourselves in the best literature and music that has ever been produced, and do not want to be distracted by taxes and regulations that make getting a living harder than it should be, or surrounded day and night by the snarling and yapping of fools. That may be a connection.
Or I may be writing nonsense, and I should stop here. Without further comment, then, my dear reader, I give you a dozen or so essays on topics that mean far more to me than the question of who should own the railways.