LESS THAN WORDS CAN SAY

by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Three
A Bunch of Marks

Still, skill in language does provide a better hope of survival; it even wins wars, for struggle on the field of battle is a dramatic version of strife in the minds of men. Long before the first trigger was pulled, Hitler fired off a shattering salvo of words. He pounded his fist and shouted: "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!" Don't make the mistake of thinking that his listeners muttered back an uncertain "Ach so, gewiss, gewiss." They shouted back, "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!"

The cannonade roared across the Channel and shook the cliffs of England. Fortunately for us all, England, although unarmed, was not unready. The answering barrage rings in our ears still: "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat." Battle was joined. Hitler's words sent the Wehrmacht crashing to the outskirts of Dunkirk but Churchill's words sent schoolboys and accountants and retired fishmongers down to the sea in their little boats and over the water to the beaches of Dunkirk.

While that may be an incomplete account of the war, it is not an inaccurate one. It was a war of words and speaking just as much as a war of iron and blood. If the fighting was sometimes noble and brave, it was because certain words were in the minds of men. If the fighting was sometimes stupid and vicious, it was because certain other words were in the minds of men. Whatever else Churchill may have been doing in those days, he was always providing the English with words. With words he formed their thoughts and emotions. "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills," said Churchill. Millions answered, apparently, "By God, so we shall."

Imagine, however, that Churchill had been an ordinary bureaucrat and had chosen to say instead:

Consolidated defensive positions and essential preplanned withdrawal facilities are to be provided in order to facilitate maximum potentialization for the repulsion and/or delay of incursive combatants in each of several preidentified categories of location deemed suitable to the emplacement and/or debarkation of hostile military contingents.

That would, at least, have spared us the pain of wondering what to do about the growing multitudes who can't seem to read and write English. By now we'd be wondering what to do about the growing multitudes who can't seem to read and write German.

Speech is tremendously powerful. It moves our minds and makes the path of history. It is, furthermore, perhaps the most complicated skill we have, and the uttering of words and sentences is only its beginning. When we speak, we do many other things simultaneously. We turn our heads and lift our eyebrows and wiggle our fingers and get up and walk about. We find exactly the right place from which to say this thing, and we go over to lean on the mantelpiece to say some other thing. We choose the appropriate pitch and volume for every sound. We sprinkle our speech with nonverbal sound effects, snorts and mm's, sighs and tsk's, and especially pauses, which are as important to speech as the rests to music. We change the shapes of our mouths and throats and alter the very tone quality of our voices. All such things, and innumerably more, we do quite automatically, and with such devices we suggest immeasurably more than the words can say by themselves.

Writing, on the other hand, is just a bunch of marks. It is not speech written down, and it lacks almost all the expressive devices of speech. It simply isn't "natural" in the way that speech is natural. For the natural expressive devices of speech, writing provides only a few pathetically inadequate gimmicks. We have some marks of punctuation and some graphic tricks, like capital letters and underlining. We can find an occasional word or expression that may remind a reader of the sound of speech, you know, and drop it in here and there. An occasional genius learns to write dialogue that we can almost hear and even to devise long passages that sound exactly right, but in general writing is even further from speech than notation is from music.

Like music, speech has a tune, and we have only the meagerest ways of indicating on the page the tune to which our words are to be sung. Commas, for instance, are pretty good as indicators of tune, and so are periods. They usually call for bits of melody that every native speaker of English sings in pretty much the same way. Question marks, however, indicate only a certain "family" of tunes, for any question we can make in English can be sung in many different ways to convey many different meanings. All these gimmicks, nevertheless, even the quotation marks that suggested a certain way to sing "family" in the last sentence, can't come close to a realistic approximation of the tune of English. And even if they could, they still wouldn't tell you which word was to be said slowly and deep in the throat and what sentence was to be delivered while leaning on the mantelpiece. As a way of recording speech, writing is a dismal failure.

It doesn't matter, though, because the recording of speech is not the proper business of writing. The proper business of writing is to stay put on the page so that we can look at it later. Writing, whether it be a grocery list or The Brothers Karamazov, freezes the work of the mind into a permanent and public form. It is the mind and memory of mankind in such a form that we can pass it around to one another and even hand it on to our unimaginably remote descendants.

Language is, essentially, speech. Writing is a special case of language. Discursive prose is a special case of writing. Written, discursive prose may be almost three thousand years old, but it is still our most recently invented use of language. It is no coincidence that the Greeks who first devised discursive prose also constructed formal logic and were the first to provide for their unimaginably remote descendants a visible record of the works of their minds. Thinking is coherent discourse, and the logic and the prose require one another.

The mind is a rudderless wanderer blown here or there by any puff of breeze. If I mention watermelons, you must think of watermelons; if giraffes, giraffes. The very rare genius can keep his mind on course for a while, perhaps as long as a whole minute, but most of us are always at the mercy of every random suggestion of environment. We imagine that we sit down and think, but, in fact, we mostly gather wool, remembering this and that and fantasizing about the other. In our heads we recite some slogans and rehash the past, often repeatedly. Even in this foolish maundering, we are easily distracted by random thoughts, mostly about money or politics but often about sports or sex. Left to its own devices, the mind plays like a child in well-stocked sandbox, toying idly with trinkets and baubles and often doing the same thing over and over again until some slightly more interesting game presents itself.

If we want to pursue extended logical thought, thought that can discover relationships and consequences and devise its own alternatives, we need a discipline imposed from outside of the mind itself. Writing is that discipline. It seems drastic, but we have to suspect that coherent, continuous thought is impossible for those who cannot construct coherent, continuous prose.

"Writing," Bacon said, "Maketh the exact man," as we all know, but we ordinarily stop thinking about that too soon. The "exact" part is only half of what writing makes; the other half is the "man." Writing does indeed make us exact because it leaves a trail of thought that we can retrace and so discover where we have been stupid. At the same time, though, it makes us "men," grown-ups who can choose what toys we want to play with and who can outwit the random suggestions of environment. In his writing, then, we can judge of at least two things in a man--his ability to think and his intention to do so, his maturity. An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages.

To understand the importance of writing for people who want to have a civilization, it is useful to compare discursive prose with poetry. Poetry is much older than prose, but since we have been taught to think it a form of "art," we regularly assume that prose comes first and that poetry, a much trickier business, is "refined" out of it with pain and skill. Not so. Many of the qualities that make poetry what it is are far more "natural" to any speaker of a language than the devices of prose. Like speech, poetry is metaphorical and figurative, elliptical, often more expressive than informative, synthetic rather than analytic, and concrete rather than abstract. Speech may not often be good poetry, whatever that may be, but sometimes it is. Little children devise poetic expressions quite naturally, and there seems to be no culture, however "primitive" we may think it, without its traditional poetry. Even the wretched Jiukiukwe have poetry.

The Jiukiukwe, like all other human beings, have some practical uses for poetry. In little verses, they can remember without effort the signs of a coming storm and the looks of the worms that cause diarrhea, just as we remember how many days there are in April. In poetry, or in language that is like poetry, they perform the social rituals that hold them together. That's exactly what we do when we recite the traditional formulae of recognition: Good to see you; What's new?; Lovely weather we're having. All such forms are permissible variations within the limits of established rituals that we all perform just because we're here and we're all in this together. We can remember and recite those ritual greetings just as easily as we can sing Fa-la-la-la-la and come in on the chorus--all together now!

(Digression: Why do we devote so much idle talk to the weather? Everybody knows, of course, that the weather is a "safe" subject, but that doesn't answer the question. It provides two new questions: Why is the weather a safe subject? and, Why do we devote so much idle talk to safe subjects?

The weather is right there in the world of experience. Even assistant deans pro tem can see that it's raining. When I meet the assistant dean pro tem on the campus in the rain, I am likely to assert, in one way or another, that it is in fact raining. He is likely to confirm this observation, after his fashion. We have used language where no language is needed, to indicate what is in the world of experience. To point out the rain to each other seems about as useful as mentioning the fact that we are both walking on our hind legs. That may be exactly why it's useful. We have taken the trouble to name something that needs no naming, thus acknowledging our kinship while still being careful not to evoke some other world in which our kinship might be questionable. Should I greet the assistant dean pro tem by announcing that power corrupts, he may well reply, "Absolutely!" and we will have evoked some other world, a world we'd rather not explore just now with the rain dripping down the backs of our necks. Twain probably had the truth in mind when he said that everyone talks about the weather but that nobody does anything about it. In fact, we talk about it precisely because we can't do anything about it. It permits us to establish our membership, which is polite, but it doesn't require that we look at each other's credentials too closely, which might be rude.)

Poetry is a profoundly conservative use of language. It conserves not only values and ideas but the very language itself, so that even some grammatical forms that ought to have disappeared long ago are still around and useful for special effects. Even crackpots who want to simplify and modernize English cannot bring themselves to say: Thirty days has September. It's amazing, but that actually sounds wrong, almost as wrong as: Six days shall you labor.

Prose is progressive and disruptive. It must subvert or elude the poetic qualities of speech to go about the business of logic and analysis. Discursive prose is essentially antisocial, subject to constraints and regulations that would be unsuitable, perhaps even rude, in speech. Writing is an audacious and insolent act. When we write, we call the other members of our tribe to order. We command their attention. We assert that what we have to say is valuable enough that they should give over their idle chitchat about the weather. It had better be.

When we choose to address our friends and relatives in discursive prose, it must be because what we want to say requires the special powers of discursive prose: logic, order, and coherence. The mere appearance of discursive prose promises those things. When I meet the assistant dean pro tem in the rain, I send and expect signals of fellowship. When I read his latest guidelines for the work of the Committee on Memorial Plaques, I hold in my hands a promise of logic, order, and coherence, and equally a promise that the language I read will be constrained and regulated in such a way as to engender those things. There is no Rule in Heaven that language has to be logical, orderly, and coherent any more than there is some Law of Nature that requires football players to stay within the lines. You can grab a football and run to Oshkosh anytime you please; you just won't be playing football. Your language can be illogical, disorderly, and even incomprehensible--in fact, sometimes it should be so--but you won't be writing discursive prose.

Ordinary speech, like poetry, is a kind of art; discursive prose in particular, like writing in general, is a technology. Clear, concise writing is a result of good technique, like an engine that starts and runs.

Good technique requires the knowledge and control of many conventional forms and devices. They must be conventional because writing is public and enduring, and the path of its thought must be visible to other minds in other times. Like the conventional "rules" of any technology, the rules of writing have come to be what they are because they work. You do well to keep the subject of your sentence clearly in view just as you do well to keep your powder dry and your eye on the ball. These things work.

Furthermore, although such things are matters of technique, they are derived not from some concern for technique but because they go to the heart of the matter. You keep your eye on the ball because it is the ball, and the meaning of the game is known only because of what happens to the ball. You get no points for cute panties. You keep your eye on the subject because it is the subject, and not just grammatically. It is the subject of thought, and the sentence is a proposition about it. We do not think by naming things but by making propositions about them. Nor do we think by making propositions about unnamed or unnamable things. Any writer forgets that from time to time, but a learned rule of technology calls him to order. The rules of the technology of discursive prose are simply aids to thought, and to learn the conventions of writing without learning the habit of thought is impossible.

Fools and scoundrels say that the time of writing is past, that Direct Distance Dialing and the cassette recorder have done to writing what the internal combustion engine did to the art of equitation. They point out, quite correctly by the way, that the ordinary American, once released from the schools, can go through all the rest of his life without ever having to devise a complete sentence. Even the thousands of forms we have to fill out call only for filling in blanks or checking boxes. This freedom from writing, in fact, doesn't always have to wait on our escape from the schools; fewer and fewer schools require any of it at all. This is, they tell us, an age of technology, and that what we need to know is how to program computers, not how to devise grammatical sentences in orderly sequence.

As it happens, computers work by reading and devising grammatical sentences in orderly sequence. The "language" is different, but that's how they work. Their "rules" are far more stringent and unforgiving than the rules of discursive prose. When we read a sentence whose subject and verb don't agree, we don't reject it as meaningless and useless. We may shake our heads and sigh a little, but we know what the poor fellow meant, and we go on. When the computer "reads" a "sentence" with an equivalent error, it simply spits it out and refuses to work. That's how we can tell which are the machines and which the people; the people will swallow anything. And you will swallow anything if you believe that we can teach all that computer stuff to whole herds of people who haven't been able to master the elementary logic of subject-verb agreement.

The logic of writing is simply logic; it is not some system of arbitrary conventions interesting only to those who write a lot. All logical thought goes on in the form of statements and statements about statements. We can make those statements only in language, even if that language be a different symbol system like mathematics. If we cannot make those statements and statements about statements logically, clearly, and coherently, then we cannot think and make knowledge. People who cannot put strings of sentences together in good order cannot think. An educational system that does not teach the technology of writing is preventing thought.


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