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Ray Sawhill recently called my attention to the 1996 how-to-write book Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, which extolls the “classic” prose style perfected by 17th Century French writers such as Descartes and Pascal.

In the development of English literature, more energy tended to be directed toward poetry than prose. Thus, 17th Century English prose, such as Milton’s Areopagitica, tends to be a chore to read. My impression is that there was a big leap forward in English prose at the time of the Statute of Anne of 1709, which established a 14-year copyright and thus made magazines and novels profitable. Many famous names in journalism — The Spectator, The Tatler, The Guardian — date from this epoch, as do fiction works that still sell, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

But still, it seems to me, English prose continued to lag in lucidity. Is the Declaration of Independence as easy to read as it ought to be? Or consider Franklin’s 1754 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, which ought to be the founding document of the social sciences in America but is ignored because of its anti-immigration policy advocacy and because the prose is hard to deal with.

One question concerns translation: We often update the spelling and maddening capitalization of old English prose, but otherwise leave them alone. Translations of classic French prose into English are freer. Still, the consensus seems to be that the French achieved lucidity in prose well before the English and Americans, which had an enduring impact on Frenchmen’s self-image of themselves as rational and clear-headed.

Clear and Simple as the Truth argues that to write prose as well as a great 17th Century Frenchman, you have to take on some of their personality and character traits, such as disinterestedness, self-confidence, and elitist egalitarianism. Basically, you have to pretend (and not only pretend, but you have to feel you deserve to act like) some kind of aristocrat of superb culture conversationally addressing some other gentleman of breeding about topics of interest to the handful of people able to rise above self-interest and partisanship.

Interestingly, the notion of esoteric writing is relevant here: 17th Century France was more of an authoritarian state than England/Britain over the same period (you did not want to get on King Louis XIV’s bad side), so the best French writing was limited in its original intended audience. The French classics typically started out as letters or memoirs, or were imitations of private correspondence, such as Pascal’s Provincial Letters of the 1650s.

In contrast, while the English didn’t have full freedom of the press, they had a Parliament, elections, and a lot of public oratory, which encouraged bloviation and showing off. Some English exoteric prose, like Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica asking Parliament to grant freedom of the press, is show-offy in the extreme. Milton was trying to impress his audience with his vast learning into granting him more liberty. He’s not some peasant likely to lead a peasant’s revolt.

I was going to write at more length about what else I learned from Clear and Simple as the Truth, but now somebody who is a much better writer than me has done the job. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Why Academics Stink at Writing

by Steven Pinker

… Instead of moralistic finger-pointing or evasive blame-shifting, perhaps we should try to understand academese by engaging in what academics do best: analysis and explanation. An insight from literary analysis and an insight from cognitive science go a long way toward explaining why people who devote their lives to the world of ideas are so inept at conveying them.

In a brilliant little book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that every style of writing can be understood as a model of the communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation. They distinguish, in particular, romantic, oracular, prophetic, practical, and plain styles, each defined by how the writer imagines himself to be related to the reader, and what the writer is trying to accomplish. (To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a male generic writer and a female generic reader.) Among those styles is one they single out as an aspiration for writers of expository prose. They call it classic style, and they credit its invention to 17th-century French essayists such as Descartes and La Rochefoucauld.

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

As usual with Pinker, read the whole thing there.

 
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  1. Pinker writes:

    The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

    Though no doubt the bamboozlement theory applies to some academics some of the time, in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.

    Pinker’s peer group is neuroscientists from MIT and Harvard, so this is probably true as far as his experiences. But most academics in the humanities truly do have nothing to say.

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  2. OT: Racist, underprivileged female Person-of-Color (based on the picture, that color looks white to me) who was accepted at NYU and got a job at the NYT reveals that NYT editors believe in HBD!

    Also, refers to the NYT building as looking like a “cathedral” and wants unlimited immigration.

    http://www.salon.com/2014/09/28/latina_at_the_white_male_new_york_times_%E2%80%9Cwhy_are_people_thinking_it%E2%80%99s_ok_to_say_racist_sh_t_in_front_of_me%E2%80%9D/

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    • Replies: @Nathan Wartooth
    I actually read most of that and it was a fun fairy tale.

    The stories about the evil racists talking about genetics only happen when she is one on one with them, making sure no one else can come out and say what really happened. If the guy tries to defend himself, he would just be another white racist liar trying to slander a proud woman of color.

    The other things she tries to paint as racist are actually really tame, even by the uberliberal standards at the New York Times. The part about the black kid who is a horrible employee, but gets hired and stays employed because he is black, is just people trying to cover their butts. They knew they messed up and bad. They saw signs that he was a liar and a plagiarist, but they let is slide because he was black. When the guy said that he gave him too many chances, he meant that he let the kid keep working there even after he messed up. But our proud latina makes it out to be like he was saying that he should never give a black male a chance.

    But nothing anyone said in her fantasy comes close to the actual real racism thoughts against whites that this lady has. She HATES whites, to the point where she steps outside and sees white objects that remind her of the people she hates and it affects her mentally.

    She "studies" white women, like they are animals at the zoo to her. In her "studies" she has found white women wanting, since she doesn't like them very much.

    This woman is one of those people who would cheer on white genocide in South Africa, someone whose thoughts and actions disgust even those of us in the HBD sphere.

    This should be a nice lesson for liberals that most of us already know. Those people of color who are your coworkers who you fawn over? Yeah, most of them HATE you. A combination of constant anti white propaganda mixed with in group loyalty.

    tl;dr I think she is lying about the "racist" comments, the only ones that are true she twisted and she has so much hatred for whites that if she was given access to a deadly virus to only worked on whites, she would release it into the air without a second thought.

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  3. Synchronicity, Steve? I just posted this, but it seems to fit here as well. Thomas Sprat’s account of the prose style that the Royal Society promoted:

    They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution the only remedy that can be found for this extravagance; and that has been a constant resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness; bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can; and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants, before that of wits or scholars.

    Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society

    I think that we can see the influence of the Royal Society at work (among other factors, to be sure) in the growing popularity of the plain style.

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    • Replies: @Eric Rasmusen
    It's a good question as to what happened between 1620 and 1710. English prose moved from being fancy to being clear. Both are good-- I like Shakespeare and Donne and Bacon too-- but they're different. Was part of it that Charles II spent time in France, or that Louis XIV's court was the center of style for Europe? Or was it the grand success of Pilgrim's Progress, by an uneducated man in the plain style?
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  4. If anyone has not yet read this classic criticism of bad English prose, update your education now. In the past, I’ve paired it with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for students.

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    • Replies: @dearieme
    "2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder."

    I wonder whether that was intended as satire. I'll have to take Orwell's word for it that it was not.
    , @Haploid
    That is a joy to read -- thank you for that. Also interesting that the quest for clarity, autotelic, broad-eyed, simpering a scosh, is a phenomena adjusted to each generation of reader; the more contemporary you are, the more you like Cracked lists, jabroni-dink and besides fuck all those commas and semi-colons, amirite?
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  5. anon • Disclaimer says:

    I got a perfect SAT-verbal score and I very rarely come across unfamiliar, non-technical words. I recently read Pinker’s TNR article about Ivies, and there were four words he used that I had to look up.

    “senescing”
    “prestidigitates”
    “empyrean” (I never read Dante)
    “belletristic”

    Not sure what this means, but I thought it was interesting.

    Also, lol @ yaqub’s name.

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  6. Or consider Franklin’s 1754 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, which ought to be the founding document of the social sciences in America but is ignored because of its anti-immigration policy advocacy and that the prose is hard to deal with.

    I don’t know; I’ve always seen Franklin as a model of lucidity in his writings. In the 18th century, his prose was praised for it’s simple plainness. Perhaps more pertinently, my students seem to respond quite well to the bits of Franklin that I assign them (The Autobiography, “A Witch Trial at Mt Holly”, “On the Slave Trade,” etc).

    On the other hand, I’ve never assigned them Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (too worried that they would just, as good 21st century readers, harp on the racial stuff), so maybe they would find that tougher going…

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  7. That’s nice, but as I heard a Berkeley undergrad say to her friend around 2000, “there’s no better or worse, there’s only different.”

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  8. A distinction needs to be made between good writing and correct writing. Correct writing is a chore to learn and just as important as good writing. Just getting it correct is hard, let alone good.

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  9. @yaqub the mad scientist
    If anyone has not yet read this classic criticism of bad English prose, update your education now. In the past, I've paired it with Strunk and White's Elements of Style for students.

    “2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.”

    I wonder whether that was intended as satire. I’ll have to take Orwell’s word for it that it was not.

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  10. Wildly off-topic Steve, but there was a very interesting interview in TABLET:

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/146441/qa-benjamin-ginsberg?all=1

    Some choice stuff here:

    In the prewar Soviet Union, Jews among other things ran the security services—they were the backbone of the NKVD, and so forth. Like the Sikhs and Gurkhas in India, Jews were a persecuted minority who could be trusted to shoot at their fellows. The commissars knew this full well and cheerfully engaged the Jews in these activities until later Stalin purged the Jews from the most important positions.

    I think the fetishization and appropriation of European Holocaust survivors as communal symbols by the American Jewish community had less to do with the recognition that these people deserved good medical care and housing—which many elderly survivors shamefully lack—than with the desire to compete in the great historical victimhood Olympics which has been so important in American law, politics, and culture since the 1960s. Jews have trouble with the idea that, in the American context, they are simply another wealthy and privileged white-skinned minority. After all we’ve been through, that’s unfair! It’s not us—even if we are wealthy and privileged. So, to negate this discomfort, the community built a gleaming museum to commemorate the suffering of European Jews during the Holocaust on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

    Well, this idea really could and should be a book of its own: In America today, the major East Coast ruling class faction is a fusion of Jews and WASPs. I call it the Judeo-Episcopate, and its manners are kind of fascinating. When I first encountered this grouping as an undergraduate at Harvard, there were clearly two sides—there were Jewish private-school kids from New York and L.A., and there were WASPy kids from prep schools in New England. I think it was more common for the Jewish men to date the WASPy girls, but it sometimes went the other way, too. As I’ve seen that class continue to cohere in the professional sphere, I say to myself, “Oh, that was a coherent social group, which turned out to wield some real power.”

    My son graduated from Harvard recently enough, and I quizzed him about this and he sort of looked blank. To him, the Jews and the WASPs are now the same people.

    The relationship goes back even further, to the period after the Civil War, when you had the “Our Crowd” group, the German Jewish families who were very closely allied financially and even socially with WASP industrialists. They all stole together and built railroads and whatnot.

    Of course, alongside the interesting material, you also have bonheaded comments like:

    I once wrote a long piece about Yasser Arafat. One of his favorite sayings was, “We are not the red Indians.”

    I think the reason that the Palestinians weren’t the red Indians was that the Israelis weren’t the North Americans. Had they pursued a comprehensive campaign of extermination like the Americans and Australians did before them, then no one would be around to complain.

    I’m guessing that Ginsberg is willfully blind to the fact that disease killed the lion’s share of the Amerinds. Indeed, it’s interesting to speculate what the demographics of the USA and Canada would look like if the Amerinds had not been particularly vulnerable to Old World pathogens.

    Still, interesting stuff.

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  11. “OT: Racist, underprivileged female Person-of-Color (based on the picture, that color looks white to me) ”

    She doesn’t look White to me, she looks like a light skin Nonwhite person similar to Rosie Perez for example.

    Her facial features are clearly that of a Multiracial Hispanic woman. Like Rosie Perez, her Nonwhiteness is more evident in the facial features than in the pigmentation.

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  12. @Raekwon
    OT: Racist, underprivileged female Person-of-Color (based on the picture, that color looks white to me) who was accepted at NYU and got a job at the NYT reveals that NYT editors believe in HBD!

    Also, refers to the NYT building as looking like a "cathedral" and wants unlimited immigration.

    http://www.salon.com/2014/09/28/latina_at_the_white_male_new_york_times_%E2%80%9Cwhy_are_people_thinking_it%E2%80%99s_ok_to_say_racist_sh_t_in_front_of_me%E2%80%9D/

    I actually read most of that and it was a fun fairy tale.

    The stories about the evil racists talking about genetics only happen when she is one on one with them, making sure no one else can come out and say what really happened. If the guy tries to defend himself, he would just be another white racist liar trying to slander a proud woman of color.

    The other things she tries to paint as racist are actually really tame, even by the uberliberal standards at the New York Times. The part about the black kid who is a horrible employee, but gets hired and stays employed because he is black, is just people trying to cover their butts. They knew they messed up and bad. They saw signs that he was a liar and a plagiarist, but they let is slide because he was black. When the guy said that he gave him too many chances, he meant that he let the kid keep working there even after he messed up. But our proud latina makes it out to be like he was saying that he should never give a black male a chance.

    But nothing anyone said in her fantasy comes close to the actual real racism thoughts against whites that this lady has. She HATES whites, to the point where she steps outside and sees white objects that remind her of the people she hates and it affects her mentally.

    She “studies” white women, like they are animals at the zoo to her. In her “studies” she has found white women wanting, since she doesn’t like them very much.

    This woman is one of those people who would cheer on white genocide in South Africa, someone whose thoughts and actions disgust even those of us in the HBD sphere.

    This should be a nice lesson for liberals that most of us already know. Those people of color who are your coworkers who you fawn over? Yeah, most of them HATE you. A combination of constant anti white propaganda mixed with in group loyalty.

    tl;dr I think she is lying about the “racist” comments, the only ones that are true she twisted and she has so much hatred for whites that if she was given access to a deadly virus to only worked on whites, she would release it into the air without a second thought.

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  13. A friend objected to this sentence in the Pinker article: “The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view.” The active writer is gendered as male, while the passive reader is female. So it’s not good enough to vary your pronouns, you’ve got to make sure that you’re not perpetuating any stereotypes while you’re doing it.

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    • Replies: @NOTA
    Somehow, though, I imagine Pinker will survive an anonymous reader or three disliking his pattern of use of gendered pronouns.
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  14. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:

    This is all very ironic since Anglos and Anglo-Americans were the masters of clear-empirical-rational-skeptical thinking whereas the French became masters of ridiculous theory, building theoretic castles in the air, and lots of other wacky stuff. France, not UK, produced the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and others.

    Maybe French-made-easier made it easier for the French to come up with ridiculous stuff. Maybe if their language was less lucid, they would have struggled more for clarity of meaning than using the ease of language to construct silly castles in the air.

    That said, I took some French in college–though I quit before I mastered it–, and I don’t believe French is a more lucid language. Maybe the French developed a more lucid ‘style’ earlier, but their language itself is less conducive to clear thinking that good ole plain English.

    English is a substance-language. It is about nouns and verbs. French is, in feeling and mood, a style-language. It is about adjectives and adverbs. Even nouns feel like adjectives in French. Very beautiful and fragrant, true, but style can never be as clear as substance. (No wonder the French came up with impressionism.)
    But the history of French thought tends to towards styles of thinking than the substance of what is thought.

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    • Replies: @syonredux

    In some ways, one could say they were obstacle to more lucid writing and thinking. And yet, the ‘weight’ put on the language may have had a dampening ‘Protestant’ effect, i.e. language should be used with sobriety and seriousness. It shouldn’t be used to show off one’s mental acrobatics.
     
    On the other hand, the plain Style was frequently associated with Protestant Non-Conformists, while high-flown rhetoric was seen as Cavalier-Tory....

    France, not UK, produced the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and others.
     
    Many people have commented on the irony that it is the" logical" French who have embraced obscurity...
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  15. Afrocentric militants at “The Atlanta Black Star” claiming that Europe and the Caucasus region historically have always had a strong Sub Saharan African presence.

    http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/09/26/6-ancient-civilizations-mistakenly-thought-to-have-homogenous-white-populations/6/

    They claim Armenia was touched by Sub Saharan DNA. So does this mean Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are not an interracial couple in their eyes ?

    They also claim that some ancient Brits were so dark that they were referred to as looking like Ethiopians.

    Black people are bipolar in their hatred of Caucasians. They claim Europeans were all living in caves while Africans were living like queens and kings in the words of Al Sharpton. Yet at the same time they love claiming European civilizations as historically once being part of the Black race.

    You don’t see East Asians trying to claim Caucasian civilizations as historically once being part of the Oriental race.

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  16. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:

    I think, in a way, the cumbersome-ish nature of English prose back in the days had a kind of sobering effect on the English and American cultural psyche.

    In some ways, one could say they were obstacle to more lucid writing and thinking. And yet, the ‘weight’ put on the language may have had a dampening ‘Protestant’ effect, i.e. language should be used with sobriety and seriousness. It shouldn’t be used to show off one’s mental acrobatics.

    Suppose one person is allowed to wear very light clothes whereas another person is made to wear heavier clothes. The lighter person will feel freer, but he may prance around like an aristocratic homo and show off. His relative freedom of movement may lead to superfluous use of that freedom.
    In contrast, the person in the heavy clothes will always be reminded to do things that really matter since his freedom of movement is more constricted.

    Though Declaration of Independence may be overloaded, it calls for serious attention to reading it and making sense of it. Thus, we are liable to take it more seriously if it had been written in a more light and lucid way.

    English today is a lot freer than in the past, but the manner of thinking is also lighter and sillier and more flippant.
    Would someone like Amanda Marcotte been possible if we still used English like Thomas Jefferson did?

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  17. anon • Disclaimer says:

    I read Rousseau’s Confessions in French some time ago. They were written in the 1760s. The prose was much more convoluted and harder to read than typical 19th, 20th or 21st century French prose. He didn’t make any complicated points in that book – it’s an autobiography – so to a modern eye the stylistic complexity was unnecessary.

    I grew up reading and speaking Russian and it’s my impression that Russian writers dropped the archaic pan-European needlessly convoluted style around 1800. It would be fascinating to trace this pan-European development to its source. Who started writing in the modern easier-to-read way? When, in what language? I have no idea.

    By the way, German prose is needlessly convoluted to this day.

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  18. I think the reason that the Palestinians weren’t the red Indians was that the Israelis weren’t the North Americans. Had they pursued a comprehensive campaign of extermination like the Americans and Australians did before them, then no one would be around to complain.

    Not this again. The native Americans were not subject to any “campaign of extermination”, and they were not killed off accidentally by disease. There were simply never many of them to begin with.

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/lreg29y

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    • Replies: @syonredux

    Not this again. The native Americans were not subject to any “campaign of extermination”, and they were not killed off accidentally by disease. There were simply never many of them to begin with.
     
    Mathew White on the matter:

    Estimate Death Toll from war, murder, genocide, aggravated disease and avoidable famine: 15 million (Matthew White, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities (W. W. Norton, 2012)

    The number of Indians who died at the hands of the European invaders is highly debatable, and it basically centers on two questions:

    How many people lived in America before the population plummeted?
    How many of the deaths during the plummeting can be blamed on human cruelty?
    Pre-Columbian Population:

    Pick a number, any number.

    Sometimes it seems that this is the way historians decide how many Indians lived in the Americas before the European Contact. As The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference puts it, "Estimates of the Native American population of the Americas, all completely unscientific, range from 15 to 60 million." And even this cynical assessment is wrong. The estimates range from 8 to 145 million.

    If you want to study the question of pre-Columbian population and its subsequent decline in detail, two good books to start with are David Henige, Numbers From Nowhere (1998) and Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987).

    The problem, of course, is that by the time that the Europeans got around to counting the Indians, there were a lot fewer to count

    I've graphed the estimates chronlogically to show that the passage of time and the gathering of more information is still not leading toward a consensus. Over the past 75 years, estimates have bounced around wildly and ended up right back where they started -- around 40 million.

    I've also graphed the population of Europe in 1500 because this is magic number to which many of the estimates aspire. Native American history is traditionally treated as marginal -- a handful of primitive kingdoms that were easily overwhelmed by the most dynamic civilization on Earth -- but if it could somehow be proven that the Americas had even more people than Europe, then history would be turned upside down. The European conquest could be treated as the tail wagging the dog, like the Barbarian invasions of Rome, a small fringe of savages decending on the civilized world, wiping out or enslaving the bulk of humanity.

    The advocates of large numbers, however, are often their own worst enemies. On page 33 of American Holocaust, David Stannard declares, "[P]robably about 25,000,000 people, or about seven times the number living in all of England, were residing in and around the great Valley of Mexico at the time of Columbus's arrival in the New World".

    Now, I've been to England, and I can vouch that the English have left their mark on the land. You can't throw a brick in England without hitting some relic of the earlier inhabitants -- castles, cathedrals, Roman walls and roads, Stonehenge, etc. -- not to mention books, tools, coins, weapons and all the little pieces of the past that turn up anytime someone plows a field or cleans their attic.

    Now go back and read what Stannard has written. I'm sure that the point that he's trying to make is that since there were seven times as many Mexicans as English, truly the Mexicans were seven times more civilized than the English, so if anyone deserved to be called "savages", it's the English. Unfortunately, the point that nags at me is "If there were seven times as many people in Mexico, shouldn't there be seven times as many relics in Mexico?" Yes, I've read the archaeological reports that discuss irrigation systems, and I've seen the big, colorful picture books showing jungle-encrusted ruins of ancient pyramids, but the fact is that seven times the population of England should have left behind a lot more stuff than that.

    I find the estimates for Virginia even more awkward because I live here. Stannard estimates the population of Powhatan's Confederation at 100,000, yet there's not a single site in the Virginia Tidewater that remotely hints at the complex infrastructure necessary to support even half this number. There's not one ruin of any permanent building. Artifacts of any kind are rare -- barely even a single burial mound worth pilfering. And it's not like there's some forgotten ghost town deep in the desert or jungle waiting to be discovered. This is Virginia. It's been settled, plowed and excavated for 400 years.

    I also find it difficult to believe that the Europeans obliterated all traces of the earlier inhabitants. After all, I've been to Germany too. I've seen that bombed-out cities still have a substantial presence of the past, and I doubt that the conquistadores could be more destructive than a flock of B-17s. [n.3]

    In any case, the median of all the estimates charted above is 40 million. It's the type of number that half the experts would consider impossibly big, and the other half would consider impossibly low, so it's probably exactly right.


    And then, within a century of the European Contact, the hemispheric population plunged to a fairly well-proven residue of less than 10 million. How many of these deaths count as indictable atrocities?

    The Death Toll:

    In American Holocaust, Stannard estimates the total cost of the near-extermination of the American Indians as 100,000,000.

    The problem here (aside from the question of whether there were even this many people in hemisphere at all) is that Stannard doesn't differentiate between death by massacre and death by disease. He blames the Europeans for bringing new diseases which spread like wildfire -- often faster than than the Europeans themselves -- and depopulated the continent. Since no one disputes the fact that most of the native deaths were caused by alien diseases to which they had never developed immunity, the simple question of categorization is vital.

    Traditionally we add death by disease and famine into the total cost of wars and massacres (Anne Frank, after all, died of typhus, not Zyklon-B, but she's still a victim of the Holocaust) so I don't see any problem with doing the same with the American genocides, provided that the deaths occurred after their society had already been disrupted by direct European hostility. If a tribe was enslaved or driven off its lands, the associated increase in deaths by disease would definitely count toward the atrocity (The chain of events which reduced the Indian population of California from 85,000 in 1852 to 18,000 in 1890 certainly counts regardless of the exact agent of death, because by this time, the Indians were being hunted down from one end of California to another.); however, if a tribe was merely sneezed on by the wrong person at first contact, it should not count.

    Consider the Powhatans of Virginia. As I mentioned earlier, Stannard cites estimates that the population was 100,000 before contact. In the same paragraph, he states that European depredations and disease had reduced this population to a mere 14,000 by the time the English settled Jamestown in 1607. Now, come on; should we really blame the English for 86,000 deaths that occured before they even arrived? Sure, he hints at pre-Jamestown "depredations", but he doesn't actually list any. As far as I can tell, the handful of European ventures into the Chesapeake region before 1607 were too small to do much depredating, and in what conflicts there were, the Europeans often got the worst of it. [see http://www.mariner.org/baylink/span.html and http://www.nps.gov/fora/roanokerev.htm and http://coastalguide.com/packet/lostcolony01.htm]

    Think of it this way: if the Europeans had arrived with the most benign intentions and behaved like perfect guests, or for that matter, if Aztec sailors had been the ones to discover Europe instead of vice versa, then the Indians would still have been exposed to unfamiliar diseases and the population would still have been scythed by massive epidemics, but we'd just lump it into the same category as the Black Death, i.e. bad luck. (Curiously, the Black Death was brought to Europe by the Mongols. Should we blame them for it? And while we're tossing blame around willy-nilly, aren't the Native Americans responsible for introducing tobacco to the world -- and for the 90 million deaths which followed?)

    Other Guesses:

    M. D. Aletheia, The Rationalist's Manual (1897): 30,000,000 Mexicans and Peruvians were slaughtered.
    David Barrett, World Christian Trends: Conquistadors killed 15M Amerindians
    Coe, Snow and Benson, Atlas of Ancient America (1986)
    Total pre-Columbian population: 40M
    Mexico: Original population of 11M to 25M ("lower figure commands more support") fell to 1.25M (1625)
    Peru: Pop. fell from 9M (1533) to >500,000 (early 17th C)
    Brazil: Original population of 2.5M to 5.0M ("recent commentators favoring the higher") fell to 1M
    Massimo Livi-Bacci, Concise History of World Population History 2d (1996)
    Mexico: Population fell from 6.3M (1548) to 1.9M (1580) to 1M (1605)
    Peru: Pop. fell from 1.3M (1572) to 600,000 (1620)
    Canada: from 300,000 (ca. 1600) to < 100,000 (ca. 1800)
    USA: from 5M (1500) to 60,000 (ca. 1800) [sic. Probably means 600,000 because he cites Thornton]
    R.J. Rummel estimates that 13,778,000 American Indians died of democide in the 16th through 19th Centuries:
    Total dead among native Americans in colonial era: 49.5M out of pre-contact population of 55M
    Democides in this: 5M
    Democides among Indians, post-colonial era: 8,763,000
    Democides in US: 15,000
    Skidmore & Smith, Modern Latin America (1997)
    Mexico: Population fell from 25M (1519) to 16.8M (1523) to 1.9M (1580) to 1M (1605)
    Peru: from 1.3M (1570, forty years after Conquest) to <600,000 (1620)
    Stannard, American Holocaust (1992): 100,000,000 deaths across the hemisphere across time
    16th Century death toll: between 60M and 80M
    Panama, 1514-1530: 2M Indians killed
    Mexico
    Central: Population fell from 25.0M (1519) to 1.3M (1595)
    SE: fell from 1,700,000 to 240,000
    North: fell from 2,500,000 to 320,000
    Peru, 16th C.: between 8.5M and 13.5M people destroyed.
    Fredric Wertham, A Sign For Cain : An Exploration of Human Violence (1966): South American death toll of 15,000,000.

     

    And here's Australia and New Zealand:

    Australia (1788-1921) 240,000 [make link]
    Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998)
    Australian mainland
    Ongoing frontier war: 2,000-2,500 whites and 20,000 Aborignies KIA ("best guess", probably higher)
    General population decline: from 1M (1788) to 50,000 (ca. 1890) to 30,000 (1920s)
    Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (1993)
    Decline of the Aborgines
    From 300,000 (in 1788) to 60,000 (in 1921)
    Extermination of the Tasmanians
    From 5,000 (in 1800) to 200 (in 1830) to 3 (in 1869) to none (1877)
    Clodfelter: 2,500 Eur. and 20,000 Aborignies k. in wars, 1840-1901
    Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country (2001): 20,000 Aboriginies intentionally killed by whites.
    Joseph Glascott, “600,000 Aborigines Died After 1788, Study Shows”, Sydney Morning Herald, February 25, 1987
    New Zealand (1800s) 200,000 [make link]
    Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998)
    Maori pop: 240,000 (pre-contact) to 40,000 (1896)
    Clodfelter, Maori War (1860-72)
    UK, NZ: 700 k.
    Maori: 2,000

     

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  19. @Greenstalk
    I think the reason that the Palestinians weren’t the red Indians was that the Israelis weren’t the North Americans. Had they pursued a comprehensive campaign of extermination like the Americans and Australians did before them, then no one would be around to complain.


    Not this again. The native Americans were not subject to any "campaign of extermination", and they were not killed off accidentally by disease. There were simply never many of them to begin with.

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/lreg29y

    Not this again. The native Americans were not subject to any “campaign of extermination”, and they were not killed off accidentally by disease. There were simply never many of them to begin with.

    Mathew White on the matter:

    Estimate Death Toll from war, murder, genocide, aggravated disease and avoidable famine: 15 million (Matthew White, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (W. W. Norton, 2012)

    The number of Indians who died at the hands of the European invaders is highly debatable, and it basically centers on two questions:

    How many people lived in America before the population plummeted?
    How many of the deaths during the plummeting can be blamed on human cruelty?
    Pre-Columbian Population:

    Pick a number, any number.

    Sometimes it seems that this is the way historians decide how many Indians lived in the Americas before the European Contact. As The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference puts it, “Estimates of the Native American population of the Americas, all completely unscientific, range from 15 to 60 million.” And even this cynical assessment is wrong. The estimates range from 8 to 145 million.

    If you want to study the question of pre-Columbian population and its subsequent decline in detail, two good books to start with are David Henige, Numbers From Nowhere (1998) and Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987).

    The problem, of course, is that by the time that the Europeans got around to counting the Indians, there were a lot fewer to count

    I’ve graphed the estimates chronlogically to show that the passage of time and the gathering of more information is still not leading toward a consensus. Over the past 75 years, estimates have bounced around wildly and ended up right back where they started — around 40 million.

    I’ve also graphed the population of Europe in 1500 because this is magic number to which many of the estimates aspire. Native American history is traditionally treated as marginal — a handful of primitive kingdoms that were easily overwhelmed by the most dynamic civilization on Earth — but if it could somehow be proven that the Americas had even more people than Europe, then history would be turned upside down. The European conquest could be treated as the tail wagging the dog, like the Barbarian invasions of Rome, a small fringe of savages decending on the civilized world, wiping out or enslaving the bulk of humanity.

    The advocates of large numbers, however, are often their own worst enemies. On page 33 of American Holocaust, David Stannard declares, “[P]robably about 25,000,000 people, or about seven times the number living in all of England, were residing in and around the great Valley of Mexico at the time of Columbus’s arrival in the New World”.

    Now, I’ve been to England, and I can vouch that the English have left their mark on the land. You can’t throw a brick in England without hitting some relic of the earlier inhabitants — castles, cathedrals, Roman walls and roads, Stonehenge, etc. — not to mention books, tools, coins, weapons and all the little pieces of the past that turn up anytime someone plows a field or cleans their attic.

    Now go back and read what Stannard has written. I’m sure that the point that he’s trying to make is that since there were seven times as many Mexicans as English, truly the Mexicans were seven times more civilized than the English, so if anyone deserved to be called “savages”, it’s the English. Unfortunately, the point that nags at me is “If there were seven times as many people in Mexico, shouldn’t there be seven times as many relics in Mexico?” Yes, I’ve read the archaeological reports that discuss irrigation systems, and I’ve seen the big, colorful picture books showing jungle-encrusted ruins of ancient pyramids, but the fact is that seven times the population of England should have left behind a lot more stuff than that.

    I find the estimates for Virginia even more awkward because I live here. Stannard estimates the population of Powhatan’s Confederation at 100,000, yet there’s not a single site in the Virginia Tidewater that remotely hints at the complex infrastructure necessary to support even half this number. There’s not one ruin of any permanent building. Artifacts of any kind are rare — barely even a single burial mound worth pilfering. And it’s not like there’s some forgotten ghost town deep in the desert or jungle waiting to be discovered. This is Virginia. It’s been settled, plowed and excavated for 400 years.

    I also find it difficult to believe that the Europeans obliterated all traces of the earlier inhabitants. After all, I’ve been to Germany too. I’ve seen that bombed-out cities still have a substantial presence of the past, and I doubt that the conquistadores could be more destructive than a flock of B-17s. [n.3]

    In any case, the median of all the estimates charted above is 40 million. It’s the type of number that half the experts would consider impossibly big, and the other half would consider impossibly low, so it’s probably exactly right.

    And then, within a century of the European Contact, the hemispheric population plunged to a fairly well-proven residue of less than 10 million. How many of these deaths count as indictable atrocities?

    The Death Toll:

    In American Holocaust, Stannard estimates the total cost of the near-extermination of the American Indians as 100,000,000.

    The problem here (aside from the question of whether there were even this many people in hemisphere at all) is that Stannard doesn’t differentiate between death by massacre and death by disease. He blames the Europeans for bringing new diseases which spread like wildfire — often faster than than the Europeans themselves — and depopulated the continent. Since no one disputes the fact that most of the native deaths were caused by alien diseases to which they had never developed immunity, the simple question of categorization is vital.

    Traditionally we add death by disease and famine into the total cost of wars and massacres (Anne Frank, after all, died of typhus, not Zyklon-B, but she’s still a victim of the Holocaust) so I don’t see any problem with doing the same with the American genocides, provided that the deaths occurred after their society had already been disrupted by direct European hostility. If a tribe was enslaved or driven off its lands, the associated increase in deaths by disease would definitely count toward the atrocity (The chain of events which reduced the Indian population of California from 85,000 in 1852 to 18,000 in 1890 certainly counts regardless of the exact agent of death, because by this time, the Indians were being hunted down from one end of California to another.); however, if a tribe was merely sneezed on by the wrong person at first contact, it should not count.

    Consider the Powhatans of Virginia. As I mentioned earlier, Stannard cites estimates that the population was 100,000 before contact. In the same paragraph, he states that European depredations and disease had reduced this population to a mere 14,000 by the time the English settled Jamestown in 1607. Now, come on; should we really blame the English for 86,000 deaths that occured before they even arrived? Sure, he hints at pre-Jamestown “depredations”, but he doesn’t actually list any. As far as I can tell, the handful of European ventures into the Chesapeake region before 1607 were too small to do much depredating, and in what conflicts there were, the Europeans often got the worst of it. [see http://www.mariner.org/baylink/span.html and http://www.nps.gov/fora/roanokerev.htm and http://coastalguide.com/packet/lostcolony01.htm

    Think of it this way: if the Europeans had arrived with the most benign intentions and behaved like perfect guests, or for that matter, if Aztec sailors had been the ones to discover Europe instead of vice versa, then the Indians would still have been exposed to unfamiliar diseases and the population would still have been scythed by massive epidemics, but we’d just lump it into the same category as the Black Death, i.e. bad luck. (Curiously, the Black Death was brought to Europe by the Mongols. Should we blame them for it? And while we’re tossing blame around willy-nilly, aren’t the Native Americans responsible for introducing tobacco to the world — and for the 90 million deaths which followed?)

    Other Guesses:

    M. D. Aletheia, The Rationalist’s Manual (1897): 30,000,000 Mexicans and Peruvians were slaughtered.
    David Barrett, World Christian Trends: Conquistadors killed 15M Amerindians
    Coe, Snow and Benson, Atlas of Ancient America (1986)
    Total pre-Columbian population: 40M
    Mexico: Original population of 11M to 25M (“lower figure commands more support”) fell to 1.25M (1625)
    Peru: Pop. fell from 9M (1533) to >500,000 (early 17th C)
    Brazil: Original population of 2.5M to 5.0M (“recent commentators favoring the higher”) fell to 1M
    Massimo Livi-Bacci, Concise History of World Population History 2d (1996)
    Mexico: Population fell from 6.3M (1548) to 1.9M (1580) to 1M (1605)
    Peru: Pop. fell from 1.3M (1572) to 600,000 (1620)
    Canada: from 300,000 (ca. 1600) to < 100,000 (ca. 1800)
    USA: from 5M (1500) to 60,000 (ca. 1800) [sic. Probably means 600,000 because he cites Thornton]
    R.J. Rummel estimates that 13,778,000 American Indians died of democide in the 16th through 19th Centuries:
    Total dead among native Americans in colonial era: 49.5M out of pre-contact population of 55M
    Democides in this: 5M
    Democides among Indians, post-colonial era: 8,763,000
    Democides in US: 15,000
    Skidmore & Smith, Modern Latin America (1997)
    Mexico: Population fell from 25M (1519) to 16.8M (1523) to 1.9M (1580) to 1M (1605)
    Peru: from 1.3M (1570, forty years after Conquest) to <600,000 (1620)
    Stannard, American Holocaust (1992): 100,000,000 deaths across the hemisphere across time
    16th Century death toll: between 60M and 80M
    Panama, 1514-1530: 2M Indians killed
    Mexico
    Central: Population fell from 25.0M (1519) to 1.3M (1595)
    SE: fell from 1,700,000 to 240,000
    North: fell from 2,500,000 to 320,000
    Peru, 16th C.: between 8.5M and 13.5M people destroyed.
    Fredric Wertham, A Sign For Cain : An Exploration of Human Violence (1966): South American death toll of 15,000,000.

    And here’s Australia and New Zealand:

    Australia (1788-1921) 240,000 [make link]
    Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998)
    Australian mainland
    Ongoing frontier war: 2,000-2,500 whites and 20,000 Aborignies KIA (“best guess”, probably higher)
    General population decline: from 1M (1788) to 50,000 (ca. 1890) to 30,000 (1920s)
    Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (1993)
    Decline of the Aborgines
    From 300,000 (in 1788) to 60,000 (in 1921)
    Extermination of the Tasmanians
    From 5,000 (in 1800) to 200 (in 1830) to 3 (in 1869) to none (1877)
    Clodfelter: 2,500 Eur. and 20,000 Aborignies k. in wars, 1840-1901
    Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country (2001): 20,000 Aboriginies intentionally killed by whites.
    Joseph Glascott, “600,000 Aborigines Died After 1788, Study Shows”, Sydney Morning Herald, February 25, 1987
    New Zealand (1800s) 200,000 [make link]
    Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998)
    Maori pop: 240,000 (pre-contact) to 40,000 (1896)
    Clodfelter, Maori War (1860-72)
    UK, NZ: 700 k.
    Maori: 2,000

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  20. anon • Disclaimer says:

    Off the top of my head, some features of the modern easier-to-read style:

    The length of the average sentence has gone down. Modern writers break up a complicated thought into more sentences than pre-1800 writers did. The number of dependent clauses per sentence has gone down as well.

    Constructions like “he did not have any intentions that were not of the best kind” became “he had the best intentions”. Unnecessary double negation was replaced with simple affirmation.

    The old style required more working memory, i.e. more IQ from the reader. A stupid reader would forget the start of a sentence before he got to its end. This would prevent him from making sense of the entire sentence. Making sense of modern German writing requires a higher minimum IQ than does making sense of stuff written in the other European languages. For some reason German has not modernized as much as the other European languages.

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    The length of the average sentence has gone down. Modern writers break up a complicated thought into more sentences than pre-1800 writers did. The number of dependent clauses per sentence has gone down as well.
     
    Nietzsche noted that his prose style changed after he started using a typewriter, becoming terser, more concise.

    Nicholas Meyer noticed that he couldn't mimic 19th century prose (this was when he was writing The Seven Percent Solution) while using a typewriter. His sentences were too short and choppy. To write in the more ornate 19th century manner, he had to compose by hand.
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  21. Here is a quote from H.L. Mencken where he divulges the secret of his success:

    The imbeciles who have printed acres of comment on my books have seldom noticed the chief character of my style. It is that I write with almost scientific precision – that my meaning is never obscure. The ignorant have often complained that my vocabulary is beyond them, but that is simply because my ideas cover a wider range that theirs do. Once they have consulted the dictionary they always know exactly what I intend to say.

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  22. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “I was going to write at more length about what else I learned from Clear and Simple as the Truth, but now somebody who is a much better writer than me has done the job.”

    It should be, “. . . better writer than I . . . .”

    Pedantic, true, but it does prove your point.

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    Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1: Angelo. Charges she more than me?
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  23. “The native Americans were not subject to any “campaign of extermination”

    Well, at least one important group of Native Americans did get exterminated by a guy named Julius Popper:

    Known as a modern “conquistador” of Tierra del Fuego in southern South America, he was a controversial but influential figure. He was responsible for the genocide of native Selknam people.

    Popper was born in 1857 to a Jewish family in Bucharest, son of professor Neftali Popper, a prosperous antiques merchant, and his wife.

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  24. @Priss Factor
    This is all very ironic since Anglos and Anglo-Americans were the masters of clear-empirical-rational-skeptical thinking whereas the French became masters of ridiculous theory, building theoretic castles in the air, and lots of other wacky stuff. France, not UK, produced the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and others.

    Maybe French-made-easier made it easier for the French to come up with ridiculous stuff. Maybe if their language was less lucid, they would have struggled more for clarity of meaning than using the ease of language to construct silly castles in the air.

    That said, I took some French in college--though I quit before I mastered it--, and I don't believe French is a more lucid language. Maybe the French developed a more lucid 'style' earlier, but their language itself is less conducive to clear thinking that good ole plain English.

    English is a substance-language. It is about nouns and verbs. French is, in feeling and mood, a style-language. It is about adjectives and adverbs. Even nouns feel like adjectives in French. Very beautiful and fragrant, true, but style can never be as clear as substance. (No wonder the French came up with impressionism.)
    But the history of French thought tends to towards styles of thinking than the substance of what is thought.

    In some ways, one could say they were obstacle to more lucid writing and thinking. And yet, the ‘weight’ put on the language may have had a dampening ‘Protestant’ effect, i.e. language should be used with sobriety and seriousness. It shouldn’t be used to show off one’s mental acrobatics.

    On the other hand, the plain Style was frequently associated with Protestant Non-Conformists, while high-flown rhetoric was seen as Cavalier-Tory….

    France, not UK, produced the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and others.

    Many people have commented on the irony that it is the” logical” French who have embraced obscurity…

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    "On the other hand, the plain Style was frequently associated with Protestant Non-Conformists, while high-flown rhetoric was seen as Cavalier-Tory…."

    I don't know what they are but I'll take your word for it.

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn't Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn't just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It's like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn't enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.

    Some of Tennyson and Milton is like that too though I haven't read much. It makes you wanna scream, GET TO THE POINT, JUNIOR!!!

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  25. Noam Chomsky on the modern vogue for obscurity:

    What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.

    And here is Chomsky’s legendary takedown of postmodernism:

    I’ve returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about “theory” and “philosophy,” a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions — though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.
    As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don’t have “theories” and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to “theory” and “philosophy” and “theoretical constructs” and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won’t speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before “postmodernism” had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: “if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret,” despite much “pseudo-scientific posturing.”

    To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,” but little that I can detect beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls’s important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).

    The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick’s “libertarian” response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That’s correct, as were his observations on what it means.

    The proponents of “theory” and “philosophy” have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a “secret” to me: I’ll be happy to look. I’ve asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of “a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to” the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world’s population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the “theory” or “philosophy” that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these “others” include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the “theoretical” obscurities entirely, or often on their own.

    Again, those are simple requests. I’ve made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.

    As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies — of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.

    These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows “elitism,” “anti-intellectualism,” and other crimes — though apparently it is not “elitist” to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don’t enter into the kind of world in which I’d prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the “theoreticians” there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is “elitist,” not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won’t amplify.

    To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can’t possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I’d like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound “theories” and “philosophy,” nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.

    The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges — but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

    It’s entirely possible that I’m simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I’m perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made — but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I’m missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it’s all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I’m just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I’m perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

    Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.

    Again, I’ve lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called “philosophy” and “science,” as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won’t spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims — to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

    Specific comment. Phetland asked who I’m referring to when I speak of “Paris school” and “postmodernist cults”: the above is a sample.

    He then asks, reasonably, why I am “dismissive” of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I’m not going to undertake it. I wouldn’t say this if I hadn’t been explicitly asked for my opinion — and if asked to back it up, I’m going to respond that I don’t think it merits the time to do so.

    So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.

    Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones — the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that’s who I’m referring to, and why I don’t proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it’s not obvious.

    For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I’d suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.

    Phetland also found it “particularly puzzling” that I am so “curtly dismissive” of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time “exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times.” So “why not give these guys the same treatment.” Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I’m aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I’m constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I’m also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren’t already obvious. Since I don’t happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don’t spend any time on it.

    Phetland suggests starting with Foucault — who, as I’ve written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault’s work is important. That’s exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a “dismissive” attitude towards all of this — in fact, pay no attention to it.

    What Phetland describes, accurately I’m sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it — apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I’d suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault’s scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don’t trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don’t know — this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let’s put aside the other historical work, and turn to the “theoretical constructs” and the explanations: that there has been “a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do” what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That’s true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that’s a “theory,” then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a “theory” too, since I’ve been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it’s so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it’s a truism). It’s been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it’s more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century — who understood all of this well — called “controlling the public mind.” The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that “the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers” relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become “a theory” or “philosophy,” others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.

    Some of Foucault’s particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the “theory” is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There’s nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven’t been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What’s interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, “free market” scams, and so on. That I don’t find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren’t placed in the intellectual firmament as “theoreticians.”

    To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as “important insights and theoretical constructs” that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the “insights” seem to me familiar and there are no “theoretical constructs,” except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is “wrong, useless, or posturing.” No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not “useless,” but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to “posturing,” a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don’t particularly blame Foucault for it: it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the “corruption” of this culture particularly since World War II, that’s another topic, which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t go into here. Frankly, I don’t see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That’s a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I’ve been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I’m not going to undertake an essay on topics that don’t interest me.

    Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about “theory” and “philosophy” are raised, I’ll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.

    Johnb made the point that “plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener”; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent “theories.” Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I’ve never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it’s true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, “to the rest of the country, he’s incomprehensible” (“he” being me). That’s absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I’m on a fair amount, and it’s usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I’ve repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and “frame of reference” issues because it’s already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that’s much harder; it’s necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.

    It’s certainly true that lots of people can’t read the books I write. That’s not because the ideas or language are complicated — we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem — though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don’t have a clue as to what it’s about, quite commonly; sometimes it’s pretty comical.

    A final point, something I’ve written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like “mathematics for the millions” (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That’s not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That’s an organizer’s dream, as I once heard Mike say. It’s also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

    End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.

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    • Replies: @The Last Real Calvinist
    Syon, I am no fan of Chomsky's toxic politics, but I agree credit is due for his seeing through the Theory Emperor's new clothes. I wish I had been able to read his takedown back when I was in grad school.

    But I find his belabored claims not to understand the popularity and influence of 'theory' to be odd and perhaps disingenuous. He's a very intelligent and presumably perceptive man; surely he can see the appeal of the esoteric -- even gnostic? -- intellectual guru?
    , @Luke Lea
    Chomsky's problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain's too.
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  26. “Also, refers to the NYT building as looking like a “cathedral”

    It actually looks like a giant aluminum cheese greater.

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  27. Here’s John Searle describing how Foucault told him that you have to be obscure to get anywhere in France:

    Now, as Open Culture notes, Foucault admitted to his friend John Searle that he intentionally complicated his writings to appease his French audience. Searle claims Foucault told him: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.” When Searle later asked Pierre Bourdieu if he thought this was true, Bourdieu insisted it was much worse than ten percent. You can listen to Searle’s full comments below.

    http://www.critical-theory.com/foucault-obscurantism-they-it/

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  28. I found Clear and Simple as the Truth extremely valuable. One of my writing problems is over-explanation; I fall into parenthesizing and digressing. I loved Thomas and Turner’s ordering me to simply state ideas without all the back-fill and qualifications I learned to add in my sleep in grad school (in the humanities, at least) (see, there I go parenthesizing again).

    I agree with Yaqub that Orwell’s classic pairs up well with Strunk and White, but I’d suggest that combo for younger writers. For the more experienced, pair Orwell for content/truthfulness with Clear and Simple for style.

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  29. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:
    @syonredux

    In some ways, one could say they were obstacle to more lucid writing and thinking. And yet, the ‘weight’ put on the language may have had a dampening ‘Protestant’ effect, i.e. language should be used with sobriety and seriousness. It shouldn’t be used to show off one’s mental acrobatics.
     
    On the other hand, the plain Style was frequently associated with Protestant Non-Conformists, while high-flown rhetoric was seen as Cavalier-Tory....

    France, not UK, produced the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and others.
     
    Many people have commented on the irony that it is the" logical" French who have embraced obscurity...

    “On the other hand, the plain Style was frequently associated with Protestant Non-Conformists, while high-flown rhetoric was seen as Cavalier-Tory….”

    I don’t know what they are but I’ll take your word for it.

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn’t Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn’t just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It’s like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn’t enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.

    Some of Tennyson and Milton is like that too though I haven’t read much. It makes you wanna scream, GET TO THE POINT, JUNIOR!!!

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    • Replies: @syonredux

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn’t Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn’t just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It’s like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn’t enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.
     
    Mark Twain on Cooper's Literary Offenses:

    "The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" stand at the head of Cooper's novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
    --Professor Lounsbury
    The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. ... One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo... The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
    --Professor Matthews
    Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
    --Wilkie Collins
    It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

    Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

    There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

    1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
    2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

    3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

    6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

    7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

    11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

    In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

    12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
    13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    14. Eschew surplusage.

    15. Not omit necessary details.

    16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

    17. Use good grammar.

    18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

    Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

    I am sorry that there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practiced by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor -- a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn't that neat? For several years, Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so -- and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some "females" -- as he always calls women -- in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn't strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain in the dense fog and find the fort. Isn't it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases -- no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

    We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper's books "reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention." As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews's literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and don't mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever "situation" in Cooper's books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of "the caves"; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry's queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at -- but choose for yourself; you can't go amiss.

    If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.

    Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

    The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

    There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

    The reader will find some examples of Cooper's high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in "The Pathfinder."

    A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having been first touched with paint.

    The color of the paint is not stated -- an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards -- one hundred and fifty-feet. Can the reader do it?
    The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge of the nail-head; the next man's bullet drove the nail a little way into the target -- and removed all the paint. Haven't the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Long-Rifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before the ladies.

    "Be all ready to clench it, boys!" cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend's tracks the instant they were vacant. "Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito's eye. Be ready to clench!"
    The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.
    There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.
    The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man's rife; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, "Be ready to clench." Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

    Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target."

    Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

    The respect for Pathfinder's skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight [the italics are mine] was so profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster's bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper's, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.


    They made a "minute" examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder's turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.
    But, alas! here is a disappointment; in incredible, an unimaginable disappointment -- for the target's aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet hole!

    �If one dared to hint at such a thing," cried Major Duncan, "I should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target."

    As nobody had missed it yet, the "also" was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.
    "No, no, Major," said he, confidently, "that would be a risky declaration. I didn't load the piece, and can't say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder."
    A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

    Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he "now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by the females":
    "That's not all, boys, that's not all; if you find the target touched at all, I'll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you'll find no wood cut by that last messenger."

    The miracle is at last complete. He knew -- doubtless saw -- at the distance of a hundred yards -- this his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole -- three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this -- somehow or other -- and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.
    The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

    Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh, and can't help himself. In the "Deerslayer" story, he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

    �She's in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain -- in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float about in the blue heavens -- the birds that sing in the woods -- the sweet springs where I slake my thirst -- and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!"

    And he preceded that, a little before, with this:
    "It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend."

    And this is another of his remarks:
    "If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; of if my inimy had only been a bear" -- [and so on]

    We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in- Chief comporting himself like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion, Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father's fort:
    �Point de quartier aux coquins!� cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
    "Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!" suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; "wait to see the enemy, fire low, and sweep the glacis."
    "Father! father" exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist. "It is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!"
    "Hold!" shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in a solemn echo. "'Tis she! God has restored me my children! Throw open the sally- port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!"


    Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for "marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for "primitive"; "preparation" for "expectancy"; "rebuked" for "subdued"; "dependent on" for "resulting from"; "fact" for "condition"; "fact" for "conjecture"; "precaution" for "caution"; "explain" for "determine"; "mortified" for "disappointed"; "meretricious" for "factitious"; "materially" for "considerably"; "decreasing" for "deepening"; "increasing" for "disappearing"; "embedded" for "inclosed"; "treacherous" for "hostile"; "stood" for "stooped"; "softened" for "replaced"; "rejoined" for "remarked"; "situation" for "condition"; "different" for "differing"; "insensible" for "unsentient"; "brevity" for "celerity"; "distrusted" for "suspicious"; "mental imbecility" for "imbecility"; "eyes" for "sight"; "counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies."
    There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now -- all dead but Lounsbury. I don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that "Deerslayer" is a "pure work of art." Pure, in that connection, means faultless -- faultless in all details -- and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper's English with the English he writes himself -- but it is plain that he didn't; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper's is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of "Deerslayer" is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

    I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

    A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

    Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.


    http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html
     
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  30. @anon
    Off the top of my head, some features of the modern easier-to-read style:

    The length of the average sentence has gone down. Modern writers break up a complicated thought into more sentences than pre-1800 writers did. The number of dependent clauses per sentence has gone down as well.

    Constructions like "he did not have any intentions that were not of the best kind" became "he had the best intentions". Unnecessary double negation was replaced with simple affirmation.

    The old style required more working memory, i.e. more IQ from the reader. A stupid reader would forget the start of a sentence before he got to its end. This would prevent him from making sense of the entire sentence. Making sense of modern German writing requires a higher minimum IQ than does making sense of stuff written in the other European languages. For some reason German has not modernized as much as the other European languages.

    The length of the average sentence has gone down. Modern writers break up a complicated thought into more sentences than pre-1800 writers did. The number of dependent clauses per sentence has gone down as well.

    Nietzsche noted that his prose style changed after he started using a typewriter, becoming terser, more concise.

    Nicholas Meyer noticed that he couldn’t mimic 19th century prose (this was when he was writing The Seven Percent Solution) while using a typewriter. His sentences were too short and choppy. To write in the more ornate 19th century manner, he had to compose by hand.

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  31. I find it hard to take Pinker seriously when he inserts female pronouns unnecessarily into his prose. It distracts from whatever he is trying to express and goes “I AM A FEMINIST! LOOK AT ME!” in the middle of it.
    Added to his try-hard 18th century vocabulary, his writing is irritating at best.

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  32. @syonredux
    Noam Chomsky on the modern vogue for obscurity:

    What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.
     
    And here is Chomsky's legendary takedown of postmodernism:

    I've returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about "theory" and "philosophy," a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions --- though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.
    As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don't have "theories" and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to "theory" and "philosophy" and "theoretical constructs" and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won't speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before "postmodernism" had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: "if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret," despite much "pseudo-scientific posturing."

    To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy," but little that I can detect beyond "pseudo-scientific posturing." That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls's important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).

    The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick's "libertarian" response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That's correct, as were his observations on what it means.

    The proponents of "theory" and "philosophy" have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a "secret" to me: I'll be happy to look. I've asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of "a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to" the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world's population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the "theory" or "philosophy" that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these "others" include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the "theoretical" obscurities entirely, or often on their own.

    Again, those are simple requests. I've made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.

    As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies --- of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren't, a possibility to which I'll return.

    These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows "elitism," "anti-intellectualism," and other crimes --- though apparently it is not "elitist" to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don't enter into the kind of world in which I'd prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the "theoreticians" there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is "elitist," not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won't amplify.

    To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can't possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I'd like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound "theories" and "philosophy," nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.

    The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

    It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

    Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

    Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

    Specific comment. Phetland asked who I'm referring to when I speak of "Paris school" and "postmodernist cults": the above is a sample.

    He then asks, reasonably, why I am "dismissive" of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I'm not going to undertake it. I wouldn't say this if I hadn't been explicitly asked for my opinion --- and if asked to back it up, I'm going to respond that I don't think it merits the time to do so.

    So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I've been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.


    Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I've met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible --- he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven't met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones --- the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I've dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that's who I'm referring to, and why I don't proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it's not obvious.

    For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I'd suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.

    Phetland also found it "particularly puzzling" that I am so "curtly dismissive" of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time "exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times." So "why not give these guys the same treatment." Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I'm aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I'm constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I'm also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren't already obvious. Since I don't happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don't spend any time on it.

    Phetland suggests starting with Foucault --- who, as I've written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault's work is important. That's exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a "dismissive" attitude towards all of this --- in fact, pay no attention to it.

    What Phetland describes, accurately I'm sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it --- apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I'd suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault's scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don't trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don't know --- this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let's put aside the other historical work, and turn to the "theoretical constructs" and the explanations: that there has been "a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do" what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That's true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that's a "theory," then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a "theory" too, since I've been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it's so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it's a truism). It's been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it's more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century -- who understood all of this well -- called "controlling the public mind." The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that "the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers" relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become "a theory" or "philosophy," others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.

    Some of Foucault's particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the "theory" is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There's nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven't been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What's interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, "free market" scams, and so on. That I don't find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren't placed in the intellectual firmament as "theoreticians."


    To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as "important insights and theoretical constructs" that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the "insights" seem to me familiar and there are no "theoretical constructs," except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is "wrong, useless, or posturing." No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not "useless," but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to "posturing," a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don't particularly blame Foucault for it: it's such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the "corruption" of this culture particularly since World War II, that's another topic, which I've discussed elsewhere and won't go into here. Frankly, I don't see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That's a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I've been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I'm not going to undertake an essay on topics that don't interest me.

    Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about "theory" and "philosophy" are raised, I'll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.

    Johnb made the point that "plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener"; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent "theories." Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I've never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it's true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, "to the rest of the country, he's incomprehensible" ("he" being me). That's absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I'm on a fair amount, and it's usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I've repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and "frame of reference" issues because it's already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that's much harder; it's necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.

    It's certainly true that lots of people can't read the books I write. That's not because the ideas or language are complicated --- we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem --- though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don't have a clue as to what it's about, quite commonly; sometimes it's pretty comical.

    A final point, something I've written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer's dream, as I once heard Mike say. It's also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

    End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.

     

    Syon, I am no fan of Chomsky’s toxic politics, but I agree credit is due for his seeing through the Theory Emperor’s new clothes. I wish I had been able to read his takedown back when I was in grad school.

    But I find his belabored claims not to understand the popularity and influence of ‘theory’ to be odd and perhaps disingenuous. He’s a very intelligent and presumably perceptive man; surely he can see the appeal of the esoteric — even gnostic? — intellectual guru?

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  33. […] Source: Steve Sailer […]

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  34. @syonredux
    Synchronicity, Steve? I just posted this, but it seems to fit here as well. Thomas Sprat's account of the prose style that the Royal Society promoted:

    They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution the only remedy that can be found for this extravagance; and that has been a constant resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness; bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can; and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants, before that of wits or scholars.

    Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society
     
    I think that we can see the influence of the Royal Society at work (among other factors, to be sure) in the growing popularity of the plain style.

    It’s a good question as to what happened between 1620 and 1710. English prose moved from being fancy to being clear. Both are good– I like Shakespeare and Donne and Bacon too– but they’re different. Was part of it that Charles II spent time in France, or that Louis XIV’s court was the center of style for Europe? Or was it the grand success of Pilgrim’s Progress, by an uneducated man in the plain style?

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    It’s a good question as to what happened between 1620 and 1710. English prose moved from being fancy to being clear. Both are good– I like Shakespeare and Donne and Bacon too– but they’re different. Was part of it that Charles II spent time in France, or that Louis XIV’s court was the center of style for Europe? Or was it the grand success of Pilgrim’s Progress, by an uneducated man in the plain style?
     
    Well, plainly a host of factors were at work. I tend to favor the role of Protestant Non-Conformists; unlike the Anglicans, their preaching tended towards plain and direct speech. Plus, of course, the one book that was known by members of all classes of English society was the King James Bible, whose prose is often strikingly simple and unadorned.

    And, as I noted earlier, there is the influence of the Scientific Revolution. Sprat* certainly seemed to feel that plain prose was better fitted to a scientific age than the elaborate conceits of writers like Sir Thomas Browne.


    *http://grammar.about.com/od/essaysonstyle/a/The-English-Manner-Of-Discourse-By-Thomas-Sprat.htm
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  35. @Priss Factor
    "On the other hand, the plain Style was frequently associated with Protestant Non-Conformists, while high-flown rhetoric was seen as Cavalier-Tory…."

    I don't know what they are but I'll take your word for it.

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn't Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn't just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It's like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn't enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.

    Some of Tennyson and Milton is like that too though I haven't read much. It makes you wanna scream, GET TO THE POINT, JUNIOR!!!

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn’t Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn’t just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It’s like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn’t enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.

    Mark Twain on Cooper’s Literary Offenses:

    “The Pathfinder” and “The Deerslayer” stand at the head of Cooper’s novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
    –Professor Lounsbury
    The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. … One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo… The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
    –Professor Matthews
    Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
    –Wilkie Collins
    It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

    Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

    There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

    1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
    2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

    3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

    6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

    7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

    11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

    In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

    12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
    13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    14. Eschew surplusage.

    15. Not omit necessary details.

    16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

    17. Use good grammar.

    18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

    Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

    Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

    I am sorry that there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practiced by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor — a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn’t that neat? For several years, Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so — and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some “females” — as he always calls women — in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn’t strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain in the dense fog and find the fort. Isn’t it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature’s ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person’s moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases — no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

    We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of “the caves”; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry’s queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer’s half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at — but choose for yourself; you can’t go amiss.

    If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” In the “Deerslayer” tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook’s outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become “the narrowest part of the stream.” This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.

    Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

    The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

    There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

    The reader will find some examples of Cooper’s high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in “The Pathfinder.”

    A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having been first touched with paint.

    The color of the paint is not stated — an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards — one hundred and fifty-feet. Can the reader do it?
    The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge of the nail-head; the next man’s bullet drove the nail a little way into the target — and removed all the paint. Haven’t the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Long-Rifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before the ladies.

    “Be all ready to clench it, boys!” cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend’s tracks the instant they were vacant. “Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito’s eye. Be ready to clench!”
    The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.
    There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.
    The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man’s rife; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, “Be ready to clench.” Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

    Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing — a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull’s-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. “It’s a dead miss,” said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, “No, Major, he has covered Jasper’s bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target.”

    Wasn’t it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

    The respect for Pathfinder’s skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight [the italics are mine] was so profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster’s bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper’s, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.

    They made a “minute” examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder’s turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.
    But, alas! here is a disappointment; in incredible, an unimaginable disappointment — for the target’s aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet hole!

    �If one dared to hint at such a thing,” cried Major Duncan, “I should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target.”

    As nobody had missed it yet, the “also” was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.
    “No, no, Major,” said he, confidently, “that would be a risky declaration. I didn’t load the piece, and can’t say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder.”
    A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

    Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he “now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by the females”:
    “That’s not all, boys, that’s not all; if you find the target touched at all, I’ll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you’ll find no wood cut by that last messenger.”

    The miracle is at last complete. He knew — doubtless saw — at the distance of a hundred yards — this his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole — three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this — somehow or other — and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.
    The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

    Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh, and can’t help himself. In the “Deerslayer” story, he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

    �She’s in the forest — hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain — in the dew on the open grass — the clouds that float about in the blue heavens — the birds that sing in the woods — the sweet springs where I slake my thirst — and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence!”

    And he preceded that, a little before, with this:
    “It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend.”

    And this is another of his remarks:
    “If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp and boast of the expl’ite afore the whole tribe; of if my inimy had only been a bear” — [and so on]

    We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in- Chief comporting himself like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion, Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father’s fort:
    �Point de quartier aux coquins!� cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
    “Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!” suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; “wait to see the enemy, fire low, and sweep the glacis.”
    “Father! father” exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist. “It is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!”
    “Hold!” shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in a solemn echo. “‘Tis she! God has restored me my children! Throw open the sally- port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!”

    Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called “Deerslayer.” He uses “Verbal” for “oral”; “precision” for “facility”; “phenomena” for “marvels”; “necessary” for “predetermined”; “unsophisticated” for “primitive”; “preparation” for “expectancy”; “rebuked” for “subdued”; “dependent on” for “resulting from”; “fact” for “condition”; “fact” for “conjecture”; “precaution” for “caution”; “explain” for “determine”; “mortified” for “disappointed”; “meretricious” for “factitious”; “materially” for “considerably”; “decreasing” for “deepening”; “increasing” for “disappearing”; “embedded” for “inclosed”; “treacherous” for “hostile”; “stood” for “stooped”; “softened” for “replaced”; “rejoined” for “remarked”; “situation” for “condition”; “different” for “differing”; “insensible” for “unsentient”; “brevity” for “celerity”; “distrusted” for “suspicious”; “mental imbecility” for “imbecility”; “eyes” for “sight”; “counteracting” for “opposing”; “funeral obsequies” for “obsequies.”
    There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now — all dead but Lounsbury. I don’t remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that “Deerslayer” is a “pure work of art.” Pure, in that connection, means faultless — faultless in all details — and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper’s English with the English he writes himself — but it is plain that he didn’t; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper’s is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of “Deerslayer” is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

    I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that “Deerslayer” is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that “Deerslayer” is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

    A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

    Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

    http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html

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    • Replies: @Haploid
    Hope this kind of copy-paste mongering goes away, with a minimizing carrot, cuz what arrogant pith.
    , @Priss Factor
    "Use the right word, not its second cousin."

    Twain sure knew how to pick the right word. 'Second cousin' is perfect.

    Writing is a matter of recalling the right word for the right expression, but many of us just get second cousins. The frustrating thing is we know the right words(stored somewhere in our brains), but they just won't avail themselves when we need them most.

    The mind is funny that way.

    , @David R. Merridale
    Stop posting 4000- and 5000- word comments.
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  36. “Some of Tennyson and Milton is like that too though I haven’t read much. It makes you wanna scream, GET TO THE POINT, JUNIOR!!!”

    –This is unworthy of you. Good God, it’s poetry. Think of “In Memoriam” as “Once Upon a Time in America”, with more philosophical depth and less homoerotic subtext. It’s a masterpiece.

    17th Century French literature was classically lucid par excellence. That kind of elegance didn’t fully mature in English verse until Pope, and in prose perhaps not until Hume and Johnson, or even Jefferson and Austen– these latter two really perfect, in my view, a harmonization of Latinate orotundity with Enlightenment clarity. In his “Essays” Hume assails the Elizabethan prose style, even in Francis Bacon’s “Essays”, which he found rather barbarous. But then, he thought Sophocles’ Greek was too bare. –Well, perhaps he’s right. Aeschylus certainly translates more poetically, more “Biblically”. But Hume’s judgments betray the barren spirituality of empiricism which, for all its flirtatious dazzlement (his dedication to the lady readers is immensely charming), ultimately is cold, frigid, and philosophically infertile.

    Of course, as the Baroque gave way to the Rococo, the French had less and less of true originality to say. The philosophes were elegant journalists, not real philosophers. And Voltaire, a supreme stylist, was considered the heir of Racine in the tragic theatre, yet his plays are little read or performed today, even in France.

    Steve, I know you’re warming up for the Pinker book on style, but head’s-up: it’s been done before, it’s come up at LotB, and damnit, Strunk’s original chapter “Use the active voice” simply does not mistake the passivity of “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” for the actual passive voice. He addresses, at that closing juncture, substituting strong verbs for “such perfunctory expression(s) as ‘there is’, or ‘could be heard’”– i.e. he enjoins avoiding the fault of ‘passivity’ in expression generally.

    –Indeed, since there’s some essay online that previously urged this misreading of Strunk (quoting that same sample sentence about the dead leaves), I suspect Pinker may be cribbing a bit. That pedantry about defining a “phrase” too– is Pinker so sure 21st Century psycholinguistics has a firmer grip on these fine points than a WWI Professor of English at Cornell?

    Anyway, since Pinker is scoring Stephen King as an effective prose stylist, I’m not buying the damn thing.

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    • Replies: @Priss Factor
    "This is unworthy of you. Good God, it’s poetry. Think of “In Memoriam” as “Once Upon a Time in America”, with more philosophical depth and less homoerotic subtext. It’s a masterpiece."

    You're probably right. I was thinking of my reaction when we were made to read it in 7th grade when I had no use and understanding of that stuff. Most of us were dozing off.
    I haven't come near it since and maybe I should.

    7th grade is too early for that stuff. One of the few things I remember from grammar school reading class is a bunch of boys trying to stifle their laughter to a short story called 'Joey's Ball'. This was beavis and butthead before beavis and butthead. I think our fat Jewish teacher--who looked like Wendy's Burger lady--knew why but pretended otherwise. "What is so funny?! What's with all this childishness?!! Stop it!!"

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED156605.pdf

    But the biggest howler was Truman Capote's Christmas story that begins "It's fruitcake weather, it's fruitcake weather."

    One Jewish hit the floor and laughed so hard his face turned blue.

    The idea of making young ones appreciate literature seems almost pointless, at least according to my personal memory.
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  37. @Eric Rasmusen
    It's a good question as to what happened between 1620 and 1710. English prose moved from being fancy to being clear. Both are good-- I like Shakespeare and Donne and Bacon too-- but they're different. Was part of it that Charles II spent time in France, or that Louis XIV's court was the center of style for Europe? Or was it the grand success of Pilgrim's Progress, by an uneducated man in the plain style?

    It’s a good question as to what happened between 1620 and 1710. English prose moved from being fancy to being clear. Both are good– I like Shakespeare and Donne and Bacon too– but they’re different. Was part of it that Charles II spent time in France, or that Louis XIV’s court was the center of style for Europe? Or was it the grand success of Pilgrim’s Progress, by an uneducated man in the plain style?

    Well, plainly a host of factors were at work. I tend to favor the role of Protestant Non-Conformists; unlike the Anglicans, their preaching tended towards plain and direct speech. Plus, of course, the one book that was known by members of all classes of English society was the King James Bible, whose prose is often strikingly simple and unadorned.

    And, as I noted earlier, there is the influence of the Scientific Revolution. Sprat* certainly seemed to feel that plain prose was better fitted to a scientific age than the elaborate conceits of writers like Sir Thomas Browne.

    *http://grammar.about.com/od/essaysonstyle/a/The-English-Manner-Of-Discourse-By-Thomas-Sprat.htm

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  38. @yaqub the mad scientist
    If anyone has not yet read this classic criticism of bad English prose, update your education now. In the past, I've paired it with Strunk and White's Elements of Style for students.

    That is a joy to read — thank you for that. Also interesting that the quest for clarity, autotelic, broad-eyed, simpering a scosh, is a phenomena adjusted to each generation of reader; the more contemporary you are, the more you like Cracked lists, jabroni-dink and besides fuck all those commas and semi-colons, amirite?

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  39. @syonredux

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn’t Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn’t just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It’s like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn’t enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.
     
    Mark Twain on Cooper's Literary Offenses:

    "The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" stand at the head of Cooper's novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
    --Professor Lounsbury
    The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. ... One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo... The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
    --Professor Matthews
    Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
    --Wilkie Collins
    It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

    Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

    There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

    1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
    2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

    3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

    6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

    7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

    11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

    In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

    12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
    13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    14. Eschew surplusage.

    15. Not omit necessary details.

    16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

    17. Use good grammar.

    18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

    Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

    I am sorry that there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practiced by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor -- a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn't that neat? For several years, Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so -- and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some "females" -- as he always calls women -- in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn't strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain in the dense fog and find the fort. Isn't it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases -- no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

    We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper's books "reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention." As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews's literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and don't mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever "situation" in Cooper's books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of "the caves"; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry's queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at -- but choose for yourself; you can't go amiss.

    If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.

    Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

    The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

    There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

    The reader will find some examples of Cooper's high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in "The Pathfinder."

    A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having been first touched with paint.

    The color of the paint is not stated -- an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards -- one hundred and fifty-feet. Can the reader do it?
    The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge of the nail-head; the next man's bullet drove the nail a little way into the target -- and removed all the paint. Haven't the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Long-Rifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before the ladies.

    "Be all ready to clench it, boys!" cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend's tracks the instant they were vacant. "Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito's eye. Be ready to clench!"
    The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.
    There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.
    The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man's rife; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, "Be ready to clench." Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

    Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target."

    Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

    The respect for Pathfinder's skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight [the italics are mine] was so profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster's bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper's, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.


    They made a "minute" examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder's turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.
    But, alas! here is a disappointment; in incredible, an unimaginable disappointment -- for the target's aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet hole!

    �If one dared to hint at such a thing," cried Major Duncan, "I should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target."

    As nobody had missed it yet, the "also" was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.
    "No, no, Major," said he, confidently, "that would be a risky declaration. I didn't load the piece, and can't say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder."
    A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

    Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he "now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by the females":
    "That's not all, boys, that's not all; if you find the target touched at all, I'll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you'll find no wood cut by that last messenger."

    The miracle is at last complete. He knew -- doubtless saw -- at the distance of a hundred yards -- this his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole -- three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this -- somehow or other -- and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.
    The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

    Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh, and can't help himself. In the "Deerslayer" story, he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

    �She's in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain -- in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float about in the blue heavens -- the birds that sing in the woods -- the sweet springs where I slake my thirst -- and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!"

    And he preceded that, a little before, with this:
    "It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend."

    And this is another of his remarks:
    "If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; of if my inimy had only been a bear" -- [and so on]

    We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in- Chief comporting himself like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion, Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father's fort:
    �Point de quartier aux coquins!� cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
    "Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!" suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; "wait to see the enemy, fire low, and sweep the glacis."
    "Father! father" exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist. "It is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!"
    "Hold!" shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in a solemn echo. "'Tis she! God has restored me my children! Throw open the sally- port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!"


    Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for "marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for "primitive"; "preparation" for "expectancy"; "rebuked" for "subdued"; "dependent on" for "resulting from"; "fact" for "condition"; "fact" for "conjecture"; "precaution" for "caution"; "explain" for "determine"; "mortified" for "disappointed"; "meretricious" for "factitious"; "materially" for "considerably"; "decreasing" for "deepening"; "increasing" for "disappearing"; "embedded" for "inclosed"; "treacherous" for "hostile"; "stood" for "stooped"; "softened" for "replaced"; "rejoined" for "remarked"; "situation" for "condition"; "different" for "differing"; "insensible" for "unsentient"; "brevity" for "celerity"; "distrusted" for "suspicious"; "mental imbecility" for "imbecility"; "eyes" for "sight"; "counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies."
    There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now -- all dead but Lounsbury. I don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that "Deerslayer" is a "pure work of art." Pure, in that connection, means faultless -- faultless in all details -- and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper's English with the English he writes himself -- but it is plain that he didn't; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper's is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of "Deerslayer" is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

    I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

    A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

    Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.


    http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html
     

    Hope this kind of copy-paste mongering goes away, with a minimizing carrot, cuz what arrogant pith.

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  40. @syonredux
    Noam Chomsky on the modern vogue for obscurity:

    What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.
     
    And here is Chomsky's legendary takedown of postmodernism:

    I've returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about "theory" and "philosophy," a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions --- though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.
    As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don't have "theories" and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to "theory" and "philosophy" and "theoretical constructs" and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won't speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before "postmodernism" had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: "if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret," despite much "pseudo-scientific posturing."

    To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy," but little that I can detect beyond "pseudo-scientific posturing." That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls's important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).

    The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick's "libertarian" response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That's correct, as were his observations on what it means.

    The proponents of "theory" and "philosophy" have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a "secret" to me: I'll be happy to look. I've asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of "a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to" the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world's population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the "theory" or "philosophy" that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these "others" include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the "theoretical" obscurities entirely, or often on their own.

    Again, those are simple requests. I've made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.

    As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies --- of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren't, a possibility to which I'll return.

    These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows "elitism," "anti-intellectualism," and other crimes --- though apparently it is not "elitist" to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don't enter into the kind of world in which I'd prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the "theoreticians" there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is "elitist," not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won't amplify.

    To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can't possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I'd like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound "theories" and "philosophy," nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.

    The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

    It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

    Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

    Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

    Specific comment. Phetland asked who I'm referring to when I speak of "Paris school" and "postmodernist cults": the above is a sample.

    He then asks, reasonably, why I am "dismissive" of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I'm not going to undertake it. I wouldn't say this if I hadn't been explicitly asked for my opinion --- and if asked to back it up, I'm going to respond that I don't think it merits the time to do so.

    So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I've been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.


    Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I've met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible --- he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven't met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones --- the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I've dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that's who I'm referring to, and why I don't proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it's not obvious.

    For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I'd suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.

    Phetland also found it "particularly puzzling" that I am so "curtly dismissive" of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time "exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times." So "why not give these guys the same treatment." Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I'm aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I'm constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I'm also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren't already obvious. Since I don't happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don't spend any time on it.

    Phetland suggests starting with Foucault --- who, as I've written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault's work is important. That's exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a "dismissive" attitude towards all of this --- in fact, pay no attention to it.

    What Phetland describes, accurately I'm sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it --- apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I'd suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault's scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don't trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don't know --- this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let's put aside the other historical work, and turn to the "theoretical constructs" and the explanations: that there has been "a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do" what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That's true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that's a "theory," then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a "theory" too, since I've been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it's so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it's a truism). It's been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it's more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century -- who understood all of this well -- called "controlling the public mind." The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that "the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers" relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become "a theory" or "philosophy," others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.

    Some of Foucault's particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the "theory" is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There's nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven't been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What's interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, "free market" scams, and so on. That I don't find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren't placed in the intellectual firmament as "theoreticians."


    To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as "important insights and theoretical constructs" that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the "insights" seem to me familiar and there are no "theoretical constructs," except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is "wrong, useless, or posturing." No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not "useless," but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to "posturing," a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don't particularly blame Foucault for it: it's such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the "corruption" of this culture particularly since World War II, that's another topic, which I've discussed elsewhere and won't go into here. Frankly, I don't see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That's a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I've been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I'm not going to undertake an essay on topics that don't interest me.

    Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about "theory" and "philosophy" are raised, I'll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.

    Johnb made the point that "plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener"; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent "theories." Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I've never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it's true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, "to the rest of the country, he's incomprehensible" ("he" being me). That's absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I'm on a fair amount, and it's usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I've repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and "frame of reference" issues because it's already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that's much harder; it's necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.

    It's certainly true that lots of people can't read the books I write. That's not because the ideas or language are complicated --- we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem --- though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don't have a clue as to what it's about, quite commonly; sometimes it's pretty comical.

    A final point, something I've written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer's dream, as I once heard Mike say. It's also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

    End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.

     

    Chomsky’s problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain’s too.

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    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
    Unlike Twain, Chomsky is lacking in artistic sense, in an awareness of the effect he's having on audiences. Chomsky is kind of an innocent.
    , @syonredux

    Chomsky’s problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain’s too.
     
    I don't know; Twain seems rather pithy to me, especially for a 19th century writer (just compare him to Henry James). Twain's contemporaries certainly thought that he was fairly direct in his writing.
    , @candid_observer
    Prolixity is a funny thing.

    Sometimes, maybe usually, I have a need, or at least a hankering, to have the essentially same idea said twice or more, and especially if it's a rather subtle idea. For me, hearing or reading something once just doesn't allow it to go down and stick. I remember my father-in-law, who was a professor, once telling me that he regarded redundancy as an important pedagogical technique. The observation struck me as quite true.

    I've really come to favor non-fiction writers who make essentially the same points over and over again with different examples, coming at them from different angles, etc. If they're saying something that seems to make sense in each case, then they are probably saying something true overall.

    And a solid truth is hard to find.
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  41. @Luke Lea
    Chomsky's problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain's too.

    Unlike Twain, Chomsky is lacking in artistic sense, in an awareness of the effect he’s having on audiences. Chomsky is kind of an innocent.

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  42. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:
    @Lucius Somesuch
    "Some of Tennyson and Milton is like that too though I haven’t read much. It makes you wanna scream, GET TO THE POINT, JUNIOR!!!"

    --This is unworthy of you. Good God, it's poetry. Think of "In Memoriam" as "Once Upon a Time in America", with more philosophical depth and less homoerotic subtext. It's a masterpiece.

    17th Century French literature was classically lucid par excellence. That kind of elegance didn't fully mature in English verse until Pope, and in prose perhaps not until Hume and Johnson, or even Jefferson and Austen-- these latter two really perfect, in my view, a harmonization of Latinate orotundity with Enlightenment clarity. In his "Essays" Hume assails the Elizabethan prose style, even in Francis Bacon's "Essays", which he found rather barbarous. But then, he thought Sophocles' Greek was too bare. --Well, perhaps he's right. Aeschylus certainly translates more poetically, more "Biblically". But Hume's judgments betray the barren spirituality of empiricism which, for all its flirtatious dazzlement (his dedication to the lady readers is immensely charming), ultimately is cold, frigid, and philosophically infertile.

    Of course, as the Baroque gave way to the Rococo, the French had less and less of true originality to say. The philosophes were elegant journalists, not real philosophers. And Voltaire, a supreme stylist, was considered the heir of Racine in the tragic theatre, yet his plays are little read or performed today, even in France.

    Steve, I know you're warming up for the Pinker book on style, but head's-up: it's been done before, it's come up at LotB, and damnit, Strunk's original chapter "Use the active voice" simply does not mistake the passivity of "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" for the actual passive voice. He addresses, at that closing juncture, substituting strong verbs for "such perfunctory expression(s) as 'there is', or 'could be heard'"-- i.e. he enjoins avoiding the fault of 'passivity' in expression generally.

    --Indeed, since there's some essay online that previously urged this misreading of Strunk (quoting that same sample sentence about the dead leaves), I suspect Pinker may be cribbing a bit. That pedantry about defining a "phrase" too-- is Pinker so sure 21st Century psycholinguistics has a firmer grip on these fine points than a WWI Professor of English at Cornell?

    Anyway, since Pinker is scoring Stephen King as an effective prose stylist, I'm not buying the damn thing.

    “This is unworthy of you. Good God, it’s poetry. Think of “In Memoriam” as “Once Upon a Time in America”, with more philosophical depth and less homoerotic subtext. It’s a masterpiece.”

    You’re probably right. I was thinking of my reaction when we were made to read it in 7th grade when I had no use and understanding of that stuff. Most of us were dozing off.
    I haven’t come near it since and maybe I should.

    7th grade is too early for that stuff. One of the few things I remember from grammar school reading class is a bunch of boys trying to stifle their laughter to a short story called ‘Joey’s Ball’. This was beavis and butthead before beavis and butthead. I think our fat Jewish teacher–who looked like Wendy’s Burger lady–knew why but pretended otherwise. “What is so funny?! What’s with all this childishness?!! Stop it!!”

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED156605.pdf

    But the biggest howler was Truman Capote’s Christmas story that begins “It’s fruitcake weather, it’s fruitcake weather.”

    One Jewish hit the floor and laughed so hard his face turned blue.

    The idea of making young ones appreciate literature seems almost pointless, at least according to my personal memory.

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    • Replies: @syonredux

    The idea of making young ones appreciate literature seems almost pointless, at least according to my personal memory.
     
    I think that it's more a matter of selecting the right kind of book, particularly where young boys are concerned. To put it crudely, whereas too many lady school teachers like sentiment and delicacy, young boys like action and adventure. I once toyed with the idea of assembling a list of books for boys ( say, ages 8 to 12) to read:

    Johnny Tremain (It takes a special kind of book to capture Bart Simpson's heart)

    Treasure Island

    The Call of the Wild

    "To Build a Fire" (I still remember when my 4th grade teacher assigned us this one. We were used to reading sappy, sentimental tales in our reader, but this one floored us. It was every kid's "favorite story ever" for months).

    "The Most Dangerous Game"

    Kidnapped

    A Wizard of Earthsea

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

    Have Spacesuit-Will Travel

    Starship Troopers

    "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

    Tom Sawyer

    Huckleberry Finn

    The Time Machine

    The Invisible Man

    A Wrinkle in Time


    Tunnel in the Sky

    "The Man Without a Country"

    etc, etc
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  43. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:

    My view of writing is this. It’s like fighting.

    There are boxers and there are sluggers.

    Though every boxer learns the ‘sweet science’, when they step into the ring, some have boxing moves and some don’t.
    It’s like sugar ray robinson and sugar ray leonard were natural boxers. The timing and rhythm came naturally to them. That level of talent cannot be taught.

    But there are guys like Jake Lamotta and Iran Barkley who are sluggers. They learned the techniques but the ‘sweetness’ just isn’t there. Their can only plow forward and keep swinging, hitting some and missing many more. It’s about grind than grace.

    Same goes for writing. Some people are born writers. Sure, they practice, but the art comes to them naturally. And this art of making the pen dance cannot be taught or learned. Some have it, some don’t.

    Most people are just sloggers with the pen, and it’d be foolish for them to attempt otherwise.

    So, all this yammering about writing is pointless.

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  44. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:
    @syonredux

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn’t Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn’t just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It’s like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn’t enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.
     
    Mark Twain on Cooper's Literary Offenses:

    "The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" stand at the head of Cooper's novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
    --Professor Lounsbury
    The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. ... One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo... The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
    --Professor Matthews
    Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
    --Wilkie Collins
    It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

    Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

    There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

    1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
    2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

    3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

    6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

    7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

    11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

    In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

    12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
    13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    14. Eschew surplusage.

    15. Not omit necessary details.

    16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

    17. Use good grammar.

    18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

    Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

    I am sorry that there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practiced by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor -- a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn't that neat? For several years, Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so -- and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some "females" -- as he always calls women -- in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn't strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain in the dense fog and find the fort. Isn't it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases -- no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

    We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper's books "reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention." As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews's literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and don't mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever "situation" in Cooper's books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of "the caves"; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry's queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at -- but choose for yourself; you can't go amiss.

    If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.

    Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

    The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

    There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

    The reader will find some examples of Cooper's high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in "The Pathfinder."

    A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having been first touched with paint.

    The color of the paint is not stated -- an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards -- one hundred and fifty-feet. Can the reader do it?
    The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge of the nail-head; the next man's bullet drove the nail a little way into the target -- and removed all the paint. Haven't the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Long-Rifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before the ladies.

    "Be all ready to clench it, boys!" cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend's tracks the instant they were vacant. "Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito's eye. Be ready to clench!"
    The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.
    There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.
    The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man's rife; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, "Be ready to clench." Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

    Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target."

    Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

    The respect for Pathfinder's skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight [the italics are mine] was so profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster's bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper's, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.


    They made a "minute" examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder's turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.
    But, alas! here is a disappointment; in incredible, an unimaginable disappointment -- for the target's aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet hole!

    �If one dared to hint at such a thing," cried Major Duncan, "I should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target."

    As nobody had missed it yet, the "also" was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.
    "No, no, Major," said he, confidently, "that would be a risky declaration. I didn't load the piece, and can't say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder."
    A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

    Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he "now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by the females":
    "That's not all, boys, that's not all; if you find the target touched at all, I'll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you'll find no wood cut by that last messenger."

    The miracle is at last complete. He knew -- doubtless saw -- at the distance of a hundred yards -- this his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole -- three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this -- somehow or other -- and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.
    The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

    Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh, and can't help himself. In the "Deerslayer" story, he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

    �She's in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain -- in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float about in the blue heavens -- the birds that sing in the woods -- the sweet springs where I slake my thirst -- and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!"

    And he preceded that, a little before, with this:
    "It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend."

    And this is another of his remarks:
    "If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; of if my inimy had only been a bear" -- [and so on]

    We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in- Chief comporting himself like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion, Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father's fort:
    �Point de quartier aux coquins!� cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
    "Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!" suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; "wait to see the enemy, fire low, and sweep the glacis."
    "Father! father" exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist. "It is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!"
    "Hold!" shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in a solemn echo. "'Tis she! God has restored me my children! Throw open the sally- port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!"


    Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for "marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for "primitive"; "preparation" for "expectancy"; "rebuked" for "subdued"; "dependent on" for "resulting from"; "fact" for "condition"; "fact" for "conjecture"; "precaution" for "caution"; "explain" for "determine"; "mortified" for "disappointed"; "meretricious" for "factitious"; "materially" for "considerably"; "decreasing" for "deepening"; "increasing" for "disappearing"; "embedded" for "inclosed"; "treacherous" for "hostile"; "stood" for "stooped"; "softened" for "replaced"; "rejoined" for "remarked"; "situation" for "condition"; "different" for "differing"; "insensible" for "unsentient"; "brevity" for "celerity"; "distrusted" for "suspicious"; "mental imbecility" for "imbecility"; "eyes" for "sight"; "counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies."
    There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now -- all dead but Lounsbury. I don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that "Deerslayer" is a "pure work of art." Pure, in that connection, means faultless -- faultless in all details -- and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper's English with the English he writes himself -- but it is plain that he didn't; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper's is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of "Deerslayer" is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

    I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

    A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

    Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.


    http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html
     

    “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

    Twain sure knew how to pick the right word. ‘Second cousin’ is perfect.

    Writing is a matter of recalling the right word for the right expression, but many of us just get second cousins. The frustrating thing is we know the right words(stored somewhere in our brains), but they just won’t avail themselves when we need them most.

    The mind is funny that way.

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  45. Still reading it, but I’ve already perma-linked it in my students’ Dissertation-writing online information. Of course the really bad writers are the established academics who are least likely to pay attention to Pinker.

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  46. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:

    Most people can’t write so they should just write naturally.

    It will be bad but at least it’s honest and direct.

    If people who naturally can’t write try to ‘write well’, they end up like the dog with bone over water in Aesop’s tale.
    Despite their effort, they won’t write well. On top of that, they’ll even lose the minor virtue of honesty and naturalness as their minds strain to write smart.

    It’s like if you can’t dance, just be natural and move like a tard. Don’t try ballet or tango cuz you’ll not only make a mockery of fine dancing but even lose your naturalness which is at least something.

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    • Replies: @Hacienda
    I agree with that. There are too many posters here trying to write smart. They are smart to begin with, but they are trying to be super-smart. Much is lost.

    It's why I used to prefer to post on Robert Lindsay's blog. Which was very naked, very natural. Often brilliant. Which unfortunately peaked when I was there and has gone downhill since my banishment.
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  47. There’s a major linguistic difference between French and English which helps explain the difference of style. English has a base of Germanic, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, with words that are usually short and ‘earthy’. On top of this is an encrustation of Latinate vocabulary, from French, Italian and Latin itself. The common people use mainly Anglo-Saxon words, while the Latinate words are (or were) the preserve of the educated and the upper classes. This created a kind of ‘dual code’, where writers could usually choose between a plain Anglo-Saxon word and a fancy Latinate one, such as the choice between ‘urge’ and ‘compulsion’ . Educated or semi-educated writers from the Renaissance through at least to the 19th century were strongly tempted to go for the Latinate option, as a way of showing off their class and education (the more so if they were actually low-class and self-taught – autodidacts indeed!) In the 20th century, as literacy and education became universal, the silliness of the ‘flowery’ literary language became apparent, and writers like Orwell turned towards a plainer style.

    In French, derived almost entirely from Latin, this duality does not arise. There is still a temptation for writers to show off their learning by using obscure and rare words (perhaps derived from Greek rather than Latin), but there is less of a difference between the ‘plain’ and ‘fancy’ style. The result is that to an English reader all French sounds a bit fancy, but it was possible for well-educated writers to use a style more direct and closer to ordinary people’s language even in the 17th century.

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  48. Pinker himself is a bad writer. These sentences are painful to read (and there are a lot more where they came from):

    * A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority.

    * It’s easy to see why metaconcepts tumble so easily from the fingers of academics.

    * English grammar is an enabler of the bad habit of writing in unnecessary abstractions because it includes a dangerous tool for creating abstract terms.

    He’s worse than Stephen Jay Gould. Even the Guardian recognizes it:

    My second example of exceptional writing is from the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. “A person whom one loves is a world. But Steven is more than that. He is a universe.” Rebecca is my wife, by the way. So here, perhaps, we find the first, golden rule of stylish writing: become a friend of mine.

    I have got a little ahead of myself here, so let me step back, retreat a little, perhaps even return to basics, if you like, and state that the primary – indeed the first – and most abiding precept for all writing is clarity, to be clear, understood and intelligible and to avoid any repetition, metapsycholinguistic jargon, sesquipedalian loquacity and repetition that are all too often more a sign of the insecurity and lack of security in those unsure of their subject knowledge and their ability to get their message across and lack the boldness and audacity to end sentences with prepositions with. Pinker Schminker

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  49. @Anonymous
    "I was going to write at more length about what else I learned from Clear and Simple as the Truth, but now somebody who is a much better writer than me has done the job."

    It should be, ". . . better writer than I . . . ."

    Pedantic, true, but it does prove your point.

    Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1: Angelo. Charges she more than me?

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  50. 17th Century French?

    I have read a bit, and I always find that the clearest, most lucid language tends to come from the Victorian era (English and American)*. The prevailing style at the time was clear and direct, yet entertaining enough that you feel drawn through the work. (specifically in history, philosophy, and so on. Not necessarily in fiction).

    Agree with him or not, JS Mill is quite easy to understand (compared to philosophers before and after). The histories of the time are quite readable (they also happen to have interesting subjects: wars, kings, intrigue, the rise and fall of civilization, and so on).

    Works before that tend to be too florid, with a language that is just old enough to sound a bit foreign. Works after that tend to be poorly written and either so specialized as to be incomprehensible (philosophy) and uninteresting, or about subjects that just aren’t at all compelling (or, in very recent times, just poorly written).

    joeyjoe

    *I’ve read that the peak of accomplishment with encyclopedias was some particular edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica from that era-about 1911 or so. I’ve never seen it, but based on simple writing style and organization from the era, that seems plausible.

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  51. Pinker may be smart, but he writes without style.

    Steve writes better.

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  52. @Priss Factor
    Most people can't write so they should just write naturally.

    It will be bad but at least it's honest and direct.

    If people who naturally can't write try to 'write well', they end up like the dog with bone over water in Aesop's tale.
    Despite their effort, they won't write well. On top of that, they'll even lose the minor virtue of honesty and naturalness as their minds strain to write smart.

    It's like if you can't dance, just be natural and move like a tard. Don't try ballet or tango cuz you'll not only make a mockery of fine dancing but even lose your naturalness which is at least something.

    I agree with that. There are too many posters here trying to write smart. They are smart to begin with, but they are trying to be super-smart. Much is lost.

    It’s why I used to prefer to post on Robert Lindsay’s blog. Which was very naked, very natural. Often brilliant. Which unfortunately peaked when I was there and has gone downhill since my banishment.

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  53. @Priss Factor
    "This is unworthy of you. Good God, it’s poetry. Think of “In Memoriam” as “Once Upon a Time in America”, with more philosophical depth and less homoerotic subtext. It’s a masterpiece."

    You're probably right. I was thinking of my reaction when we were made to read it in 7th grade when I had no use and understanding of that stuff. Most of us were dozing off.
    I haven't come near it since and maybe I should.

    7th grade is too early for that stuff. One of the few things I remember from grammar school reading class is a bunch of boys trying to stifle their laughter to a short story called 'Joey's Ball'. This was beavis and butthead before beavis and butthead. I think our fat Jewish teacher--who looked like Wendy's Burger lady--knew why but pretended otherwise. "What is so funny?! What's with all this childishness?!! Stop it!!"

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED156605.pdf

    But the biggest howler was Truman Capote's Christmas story that begins "It's fruitcake weather, it's fruitcake weather."

    One Jewish hit the floor and laughed so hard his face turned blue.

    The idea of making young ones appreciate literature seems almost pointless, at least according to my personal memory.

    The idea of making young ones appreciate literature seems almost pointless, at least according to my personal memory.

    I think that it’s more a matter of selecting the right kind of book, particularly where young boys are concerned. To put it crudely, whereas too many lady school teachers like sentiment and delicacy, young boys like action and adventure. I once toyed with the idea of assembling a list of books for boys ( say, ages 8 to 12) to read:

    Johnny Tremain (It takes a special kind of book to capture Bart Simpson’s heart)

    Treasure Island

    The Call of the Wild

    “To Build a Fire” (I still remember when my 4th grade teacher assigned us this one. We were used to reading sappy, sentimental tales in our reader, but this one floored us. It was every kid’s “favorite story ever” for months).

    “The Most Dangerous Game”

    Kidnapped

    A Wizard of Earthsea

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

    Have Spacesuit-Will Travel

    Starship Troopers

    “The Purloined Letter” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

    Tom Sawyer

    Huckleberry Finn

    The Time Machine

    The Invisible Man

    A Wrinkle in Time

    Tunnel in the Sky

    “The Man Without a Country”

    etc, etc

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    • Replies: @Priss Factor
    "I think that it’s more a matter of selecting the right kind of book, particularly where young boys are concerned. "

    In 7th grade almost no one is going to appreciate something like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FF-UUwtPWs

    Nearly everyone in class was suffocating listening to the recording. Maybe it was more the manner of reading--slow, weary, draggy, turgid--than the writing itself that drove us batty. It didn't help that I'd just made the transfer from a city school with lots of negroes to a suburban school with no negroes but plenty of Jews. I'd spent the good part of 6th grade with a substitute teacher who simply gave up cuz the negroes were running wild and boat kids from vietnam didn't know a word of English. The bulk of 'studies' amounted to kids flipping thru comic books and pointing to ugly characters and saying 'this yo mama', 'this yo daddy', and 'this yo whole generation'.

    Even so, whenever the 7th grade teacher played some crusty old recording of serious literature--esp by some British actor--, most boys and girls were visibly squirming and in Billy Madison mode.

    http://youtu.be/CIeg78e3JQk?t=33s

    I think appreciation of serious lit, music, and art is genetically inscribed in just a few people. France is supposed to be high culture nation but most hit movies there are from Hollywood, and French movies have increasingly come to imitate Hollywood.
    And it's not just a matter of IQ but sensibility.
    Even in high school, though high IQ kids took the requisite AP classes in English, you could tell most male geeks really preferred sci-fi and the most smart girls were into romance or mystery.

    I think even most people in the English department don't really care for literature. Why else would they have turned literary classes into ideological lessons about oppression and patriarchy?
    I remember a literature class in college where some Asian-Indian feminist professor from South Africa endlessly berated white kids--esp males--about 'racism', 'sexism', blah blah. But that was before things really went nuts with PC in the early 90s when older traditional lib professors were retiring and being replaced by jerkoff boomers.
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  54. @Luke Lea
    Chomsky's problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain's too.

    Chomsky’s problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain’s too.

    I don’t know; Twain seems rather pithy to me, especially for a 19th century writer (just compare him to Henry James). Twain’s contemporaries certainly thought that he was fairly direct in his writing.

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  55. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:
    @syonredux

    The idea of making young ones appreciate literature seems almost pointless, at least according to my personal memory.
     
    I think that it's more a matter of selecting the right kind of book, particularly where young boys are concerned. To put it crudely, whereas too many lady school teachers like sentiment and delicacy, young boys like action and adventure. I once toyed with the idea of assembling a list of books for boys ( say, ages 8 to 12) to read:

    Johnny Tremain (It takes a special kind of book to capture Bart Simpson's heart)

    Treasure Island

    The Call of the Wild

    "To Build a Fire" (I still remember when my 4th grade teacher assigned us this one. We were used to reading sappy, sentimental tales in our reader, but this one floored us. It was every kid's "favorite story ever" for months).

    "The Most Dangerous Game"

    Kidnapped

    A Wizard of Earthsea

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

    Have Spacesuit-Will Travel

    Starship Troopers

    "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

    Tom Sawyer

    Huckleberry Finn

    The Time Machine

    The Invisible Man

    A Wrinkle in Time


    Tunnel in the Sky

    "The Man Without a Country"

    etc, etc

    “I think that it’s more a matter of selecting the right kind of book, particularly where young boys are concerned. ”

    In 7th grade almost no one is going to appreciate something like this:

    Nearly everyone in class was suffocating listening to the recording. Maybe it was more the manner of reading–slow, weary, draggy, turgid–than the writing itself that drove us batty. It didn’t help that I’d just made the transfer from a city school with lots of negroes to a suburban school with no negroes but plenty of Jews. I’d spent the good part of 6th grade with a substitute teacher who simply gave up cuz the negroes were running wild and boat kids from vietnam didn’t know a word of English. The bulk of ‘studies’ amounted to kids flipping thru comic books and pointing to ugly characters and saying ‘this yo mama’, ‘this yo daddy’, and ‘this yo whole generation’.

    Even so, whenever the 7th grade teacher played some crusty old recording of serious literature–esp by some British actor–, most boys and girls were visibly squirming and in Billy Madison mode.

    http://youtu.be/CIeg78e3JQk?t=33s

    I think appreciation of serious lit, music, and art is genetically inscribed in just a few people. France is supposed to be high culture nation but most hit movies there are from Hollywood, and French movies have increasingly come to imitate Hollywood.
    And it’s not just a matter of IQ but sensibility.
    Even in high school, though high IQ kids took the requisite AP classes in English, you could tell most male geeks really preferred sci-fi and the most smart girls were into romance or mystery.

    I think even most people in the English department don’t really care for literature. Why else would they have turned literary classes into ideological lessons about oppression and patriarchy?
    I remember a literature class in college where some Asian-Indian feminist professor from South Africa endlessly berated white kids–esp males–about ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, blah blah. But that was before things really went nuts with PC in the early 90s when older traditional lib professors were retiring and being replaced by jerkoff boomers.

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  56. In my field, philosophy, one of our go-to resources for teaching writing to students is Jim Pryor’s “Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper” (URL = http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html). Here are a couple of comparisons between Pinker and Pryor (a very reputable professor of philosophy at the leading department of philosophy in the world, NYU’s); first, Pinker on metadiscourse:

    Thoughtless writers think they’re doing the reader a favor by guiding her through the text with previews, summaries, and signposts. In reality, meta­discourse is there to help the writer, not the reader, since she has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like directions for a shortcut that take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save.

    The art of classic prose is to use signposts sparingly, as we do in conversation, and with a minimum of metadiscourse.

    Compare this to Pryor:

    You should make the structure of your paper obvious to the reader. Your reader shouldn’t have to exert any effort to figure it out. Beat him over the head with it. … you can help make the structure of your paper obvious is by telling the reader what you’ve done so far and what you’re going to do next.

    Here’s Pinker on hedging:

    Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal. … Any adversary who is intellectually unscrupulous enough to give the least charitable reading to an unhedged statement will find an opening to attack the writer in a thicket of hedged ones anyway

    And here’s Pryor on how you should think of your reader:

    pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He’s lazy in that he doesn’t want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn’t want to figure out what your argument is, if it’s not already obvious. He’s stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he’s mean, so he’s not going to read your paper charitably.

    In many other ways, though, Pinker and Pryor agree with each other.

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    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
    I just might use the word "tend" more per year than any other writer in America.
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  57. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:

    If you’re not a sharpshooter, use a blunderbuss. You’ll hit something even if not the intended target.

    http://youtu.be/GCs2RIyeUwc?t=31s

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  58. Priss Factor [AKA "pizza with hot pepper"] says:

    Wait… blunderbuss… that could be the name for a Pilgrim Superhero.

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  59. syon – Estimates of the Native American population of the Americas, all completely unscientific, range from 15 to 60 million.”

    The native population of “the Americas” in 1492 was certainly reasonable large. The main population centers were in central America and the norther part of South America. The native population of what is now the USA and Canada was always tiny, perhaps five million people. That’s the relevant point here and one you missed because of your bizarre commenting style.

    You delivered what is fast becoming a trademark “syon” comment, consisting of very long quotes from other people while saying nothing at all yourself.

    Read More
    • Replies: @syonredux

    The native population of what is now the USA and Canada was always tiny, perhaps five million people. That’s the relevant point here and one you missed because of your bizarre commenting style.
     
    Actually, dear fellow, your comment went as follows:

    Not this again. The native Americans were not subject to any “campaign of extermination”, and they were not killed off accidentally by disease. There were simply never many of them to begin with.
     
    And it is incorrect. The population was small, but it was decimated by disease and famine. I know how much you loathe quotes, but they are so useful:

    United States, eradication of the American Indians (1775-1890) 350,000 [make link]
    Russel Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987)
    Overall decline
    From 600,000 (in 1800) to 250,000 (in 1890s)
    Indian Wars, from a 1894 report by US Census, cited by Thornton. Includes men, woman and children killed, 1775-1890:
    Individual conflicts:
    Whites: 5,000
    Indians: 8,500
    Wars under the gov't:
    Whites: 14,000
    Indians: 30-45,000
    TOTAL:
    Whites: 19,000
    Indians: 38,500 to 53,500
    TOTAL: 65,000 ± 7,500
    William Osborn: The Wild Frontier: atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee (2000)
    Deaths caused by specific settler atrocities: 7,193 (1623-1890)
    Deaths caused by specific Indian atrocities: 9,156 (1511-1879. Incl. Indian vs. Indian)
    Osborne basically defines an atrocity as murder or torture of civilians and prisoners. Most of your outright massacres are counted, but the Trail of Tears, for example, isn't.
    Trail of Tears (1838-39)
    Trager, The People's Chronology: 4,000 out of 14,000 Cherokee die on route.
    Osborne: anywhere between 1,846 and 18,000 Indians died, in total.
     
    That's the late 18th and 19th centuries, but the portrait is plain. If one assumes around five million Amerinds in the continental US in 1492, that figure has to be reduced to 600,000 by 1800. Given what we can see from the death toll in the 19th century, disease certainly seems to have been the main culprit.

    In the spirit of historical comparison, here's Australia:

    Australia (1788-1921) 240,000 [make link]
    Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998)
    Australian mainland
    Ongoing frontier war: 2,000-2,500 whites and 20,000 Aborignies KIA ("best guess", probably higher)
    General population decline: from 1M (1788) to 50,000 (ca. 1890) to 30,000 (1920s)
    Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (1993)
    Decline of the Aborgines
    From 300,000 (in 1788) to 60,000 (in 1921)
    Extermination of the Tasmanians
    From 5,000 (in 1800) to 200 (in 1830) to 3 (in 1869) to none (1877)
    Clodfelter: 2,500 Eur. and 20,000 Aborignies k. in wars, 1840-1901
    Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country (2001): 20,000 Aboriginies intentionally killed by whites.
    Joseph Glascott, “600,000 Aborigines Died After 1788, Study Shows”, Sydney Morning Herald, February 25, 1987

     

    The numbers look quite similar. A relative handful at the actual hands of Westerners, but most from disease and famine.

    You delivered what is fast becoming a trademark “syon” comment, consisting of very long quotes from other people while saying nothing at all yourself.
     
    When others are so eloquent, what is there for me to add?
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  60. @Luke Lea
    Chomsky's problem, one of them, is prolixity. Twain's too.

    Prolixity is a funny thing.

    Sometimes, maybe usually, I have a need, or at least a hankering, to have the essentially same idea said twice or more, and especially if it’s a rather subtle idea. For me, hearing or reading something once just doesn’t allow it to go down and stick. I remember my father-in-law, who was a professor, once telling me that he regarded redundancy as an important pedagogical technique. The observation struck me as quite true.

    I’ve really come to favor non-fiction writers who make essentially the same points over and over again with different examples, coming at them from different angles, etc. If they’re saying something that seems to make sense in each case, then they are probably saying something true overall.

    And a solid truth is hard to find.

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    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
    Redundancy is an important feature in screenwriting. Aaron Sorkin's successful script for "Moneyball" overcame the problem of how do you make a movie about baseball statistics, an alien topic to the wives of the guys who really want to see the movie because they read the book. Well, you pick out the six most important things about sabermetrics, then say each one five times, but in interestingly slightly different ways.

    The most comprehensible superhero movies like The Avengers do much the same.

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  61. @SoCal Philosopher
    In my field, philosophy, one of our go-to resources for teaching writing to students is Jim Pryor's "Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper" (URL = http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html). Here are a couple of comparisons between Pinker and Pryor (a very reputable professor of philosophy at the leading department of philosophy in the world, NYU's); first, Pinker on metadiscourse:

    Thoughtless writers think they’re doing the reader a favor by guiding her through the text with previews, summaries, and signposts. In reality, meta­discourse is there to help the writer, not the reader, since she has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like directions for a shortcut that take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save.

    The art of classic prose is to use signposts sparingly, as we do in conversation, and with a minimum of metadiscourse.
     
    Compare this to Pryor:

    You should make the structure of your paper obvious to the reader. Your reader shouldn't have to exert any effort to figure it out. Beat him over the head with it. ... you can help make the structure of your paper obvious is by telling the reader what you've done so far and what you're going to do next.
     
    Here's Pinker on hedging:

    Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal. ... Any adversary who is intellectually unscrupulous enough to give the least charitable reading to an unhedged statement will find an opening to attack the writer in a thicket of hedged ones anyway
     
    And here's Pryor on how you should think of your reader:

    pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He's lazy in that he doesn't want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to figure out what your argument is, if it's not already obvious. He's stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he's mean, so he's not going to read your paper charitably.
     
    In many other ways, though, Pinker and Pryor agree with each other.

    I just might use the word “tend” more per year than any other writer in America.

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  62. @candid_observer
    Prolixity is a funny thing.

    Sometimes, maybe usually, I have a need, or at least a hankering, to have the essentially same idea said twice or more, and especially if it's a rather subtle idea. For me, hearing or reading something once just doesn't allow it to go down and stick. I remember my father-in-law, who was a professor, once telling me that he regarded redundancy as an important pedagogical technique. The observation struck me as quite true.

    I've really come to favor non-fiction writers who make essentially the same points over and over again with different examples, coming at them from different angles, etc. If they're saying something that seems to make sense in each case, then they are probably saying something true overall.

    And a solid truth is hard to find.

    Redundancy is an important feature in screenwriting. Aaron Sorkin’s successful script for “Moneyball” overcame the problem of how do you make a movie about baseball statistics, an alien topic to the wives of the guys who really want to see the movie because they read the book. Well, you pick out the six most important things about sabermetrics, then say each one five times, but in interestingly slightly different ways.

    The most comprehensible superhero movies like The Avengers do much the same.

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  63. Steve says:

    Basically, you have to pretend (and not only pretend, but you have to feel you deserve to act like) some kind of aristocrat of superb culture conversationally addressing some other gentleman of breeding about topics of interest to the handful of people able to rise above self-interest and partisanship.

    I read that book a while back and I didn’t get that impression. I got the impression it was about clearly pointing to facts that anyone could see, not assuming your audience was an idiot, talking to others as if they were capable of seeing what you see, etc.

    The goal, from what I remember, was to be a clear headed, intelligent person and assume you were talking to the the same. That’s all.

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  64. @Gilbert Ratchet
    A friend objected to this sentence in the Pinker article: "The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view." The active writer is gendered as male, while the passive reader is female. So it's not good enough to vary your pronouns, you've got to make sure that you're not perpetuating any stereotypes while you're doing it.

    Somehow, though, I imagine Pinker will survive an anonymous reader or three disliking his pattern of use of gendered pronouns.

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  65. @Greenstalk
    syon - Estimates of the Native American population of the Americas, all completely unscientific, range from 15 to 60 million.”


    The native population of "the Americas" in 1492 was certainly reasonable large. The main population centers were in central America and the norther part of South America. The native population of what is now the USA and Canada was always tiny, perhaps five million people. That's the relevant point here and one you missed because of your bizarre commenting style.

    You delivered what is fast becoming a trademark "syon" comment, consisting of very long quotes from other people while saying nothing at all yourself.

    The native population of what is now the USA and Canada was always tiny, perhaps five million people. That’s the relevant point here and one you missed because of your bizarre commenting style.

    Actually, dear fellow, your comment went as follows:

    Not this again. The native Americans were not subject to any “campaign of extermination”, and they were not killed off accidentally by disease. There were simply never many of them to begin with.

    And it is incorrect. The population was small, but it was decimated by disease and famine. I know how much you loathe quotes, but they are so useful:

    United States, eradication of the American Indians (1775-1890) 350,000 [make link]
    Russel Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987)
    Overall decline
    From 600,000 (in 1800) to 250,000 (in 1890s)
    Indian Wars, from a 1894 report by US Census, cited by Thornton. Includes men, woman and children killed, 1775-1890:
    Individual conflicts:
    Whites: 5,000
    Indians: 8,500
    Wars under the gov’t:
    Whites: 14,000
    Indians: 30-45,000
    TOTAL:
    Whites: 19,000
    Indians: 38,500 to 53,500
    TOTAL: 65,000 ± 7,500
    William Osborn: The Wild Frontier: atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee (2000)
    Deaths caused by specific settler atrocities: 7,193 (1623-1890)
    Deaths caused by specific Indian atrocities: 9,156 (1511-1879. Incl. Indian vs. Indian)
    Osborne basically defines an atrocity as murder or torture of civilians and prisoners. Most of your outright massacres are counted, but the Trail of Tears, for example, isn’t.
    Trail of Tears (1838-39)
    Trager, The People’s Chronology: 4,000 out of 14,000 Cherokee die on route.
    Osborne: anywhere between 1,846 and 18,000 Indians died, in total.

    That’s the late 18th and 19th centuries, but the portrait is plain. If one assumes around five million Amerinds in the continental US in 1492, that figure has to be reduced to 600,000 by 1800. Given what we can see from the death toll in the 19th century, disease certainly seems to have been the main culprit.

    In the spirit of historical comparison, here’s Australia:

    Australia (1788-1921) 240,000 [make link]
    Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998)
    Australian mainland
    Ongoing frontier war: 2,000-2,500 whites and 20,000 Aborignies KIA (“best guess”, probably higher)
    General population decline: from 1M (1788) to 50,000 (ca. 1890) to 30,000 (1920s)
    Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (1993)
    Decline of the Aborgines
    From 300,000 (in 1788) to 60,000 (in 1921)
    Extermination of the Tasmanians
    From 5,000 (in 1800) to 200 (in 1830) to 3 (in 1869) to none (1877)
    Clodfelter: 2,500 Eur. and 20,000 Aborignies k. in wars, 1840-1901
    Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country (2001): 20,000 Aboriginies intentionally killed by whites.
    Joseph Glascott, “600,000 Aborigines Died After 1788, Study Shows”, Sydney Morning Herald, February 25, 1987

    The numbers look quite similar. A relative handful at the actual hands of Westerners, but most from disease and famine.

    You delivered what is fast becoming a trademark “syon” comment, consisting of very long quotes from other people while saying nothing at all yourself.

    When others are so eloquent, what is there for me to add?

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  66. I think Clive James has argued — in some place or another — that the ambiguities, ironic/satirical possibilities, and lack of clarity in English prose has been more conducive to a tradition of liberty or at least an inoculation against totalitarianism; Orwell was cited at some point…

    French & Italian are comparatively “clearer.” Russian is hella clear

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  67. @syonredux

    I recall trying to read the guy who wrote THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. James Fenimore Cooper. It was really cumbersome stuff and gave me no joy. It wasn’t Hemingway-ish.
    And yet, because I had to slog through it, it put me in a more sober frame of mind. I had to actually make an effort and couldn’t just breeze through it as with most modern lit(even by serious authors). It’s like having to eat an entire bowl of oatmeal. It was as if someone was making sure that I didn’t enjoy literature too much as that might be sort of sinfulish.
     
    Mark Twain on Cooper's Literary Offenses:

    "The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" stand at the head of Cooper's novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
    --Professor Lounsbury
    The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. ... One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo... The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
    --Professor Matthews
    Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
    --Wilkie Collins
    It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

    Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

    There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

    1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
    2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

    3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

    6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

    7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

    11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

    In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

    12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
    13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

    14. Eschew surplusage.

    15. Not omit necessary details.

    16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

    17. Use good grammar.

    18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

    Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

    Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

    I am sorry that there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practiced by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor -- a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn't that neat? For several years, Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so -- and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some "females" -- as he always calls women -- in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn't strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain in the dense fog and find the fort. Isn't it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases -- no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

    We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper's books "reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention." As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews's literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and don't mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever "situation" in Cooper's books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of "the caves"; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry's queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later; and at -- but choose for yourself; you can't go amiss.

    If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.

    Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

    The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

    There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

    The reader will find some examples of Cooper's high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in "The Pathfinder."

    A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having been first touched with paint.

    The color of the paint is not stated -- an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards -- one hundred and fifty-feet. Can the reader do it?
    The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge of the nail-head; the next man's bullet drove the nail a little way into the target -- and removed all the paint. Haven't the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Long-Rifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before the ladies.

    "Be all ready to clench it, boys!" cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend's tracks the instant they were vacant. "Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito's eye. Be ready to clench!"
    The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.
    There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.
    The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man's rife; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, "Be ready to clench." Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

    Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target."

    Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

    The respect for Pathfinder's skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight [the italics are mine] was so profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster's bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper's, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.


    They made a "minute" examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder's turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.
    But, alas! here is a disappointment; in incredible, an unimaginable disappointment -- for the target's aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but that same old bullet hole!

    �If one dared to hint at such a thing," cried Major Duncan, "I should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target."

    As nobody had missed it yet, the "also" was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.
    "No, no, Major," said he, confidently, "that would be a risky declaration. I didn't load the piece, and can't say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder."
    A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

    Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he "now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by the females":
    "That's not all, boys, that's not all; if you find the target touched at all, I'll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you'll find no wood cut by that last messenger."

    The miracle is at last complete. He knew -- doubtless saw -- at the distance of a hundred yards -- this his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole -- three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knew this -- somehow or other -- and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.
    The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

    Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh, and can't help himself. In the "Deerslayer" story, he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

    �She's in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain -- in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float about in the blue heavens -- the birds that sing in the woods -- the sweet springs where I slake my thirst -- and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!"

    And he preceded that, a little before, with this:
    "It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend."

    And this is another of his remarks:
    "If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; of if my inimy had only been a bear" -- [and so on]

    We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in- Chief comporting himself like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion, Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father's fort:
    �Point de quartier aux coquins!� cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
    "Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!" suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; "wait to see the enemy, fire low, and sweep the glacis."
    "Father! father" exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist. "It is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!"
    "Hold!" shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in a solemn echo. "'Tis she! God has restored me my children! Throw open the sally- port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!"


    Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for "marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for "primitive"; "preparation" for "expectancy"; "rebuked" for "subdued"; "dependent on" for "resulting from"; "fact" for "condition"; "fact" for "conjecture"; "precaution" for "caution"; "explain" for "determine"; "mortified" for "disappointed"; "meretricious" for "factitious"; "materially" for "considerably"; "decreasing" for "deepening"; "increasing" for "disappearing"; "embedded" for "inclosed"; "treacherous" for "hostile"; "stood" for "stooped"; "softened" for "replaced"; "rejoined" for "remarked"; "situation" for "condition"; "different" for "differing"; "insensible" for "unsentient"; "brevity" for "celerity"; "distrusted" for "suspicious"; "mental imbecility" for "imbecility"; "eyes" for "sight"; "counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies."
    There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now -- all dead but Lounsbury. I don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that "Deerslayer" is a "pure work of art." Pure, in that connection, means faultless -- faultless in all details -- and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper's English with the English he writes himself -- but it is plain that he didn't; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper's is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of "Deerslayer" is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

    I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

    A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

    Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.


    http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html
     

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