Hemingway, media culture, and the impoverishment of modern English
It’s been awhile since a conversation at the Shocklines message boards elicited a response from me that I wanted to preserve here at The Teeming Brain, but just yesterday it happened again and resulted in my writing an article-length piece that briefly traced my personal, lifelong evolution and growth as a reader.
The inimitable Des Lewis started the conversation (which, be advised, will at some not-distant point slip away into Shocklines’ unreachable past) almost a week ago by asking people if they as readers prefer the more dense “baroque” prose of a previous era or the stripped-down and streamlined functional prose of modern popular writing. He kicked off the conversation by quoting a passage from George Steiner about novelist Lawrence Durrell’s baroque style. Steiner uses the opportunity to talk about the wider issue of English prose’s evolution away from ornate styles under the influence of Hemingway.
Here’s the passage, followed by my response to the conversation it kicked off:
But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell’s personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader’s senses like brocade.
This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.”
— George Steiner, “Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel” (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell)
And now my response, which came after quite a few people had already weighed in with their thoughts and opinions:
I’m with those who say they favor baroque prose more when reading some types of literature and a more streamlined prose when reading other types of literature. I love the baroque stuff when reading horror fiction, especially of a gothic or gothic-related sort. Poe wouldn’t be Poe, nor Lovecraft Lovecraft, nor Ligotti Ligotti, nor Campbell Campbell, without the lushness of the prose style. The same can be said of Blackwood, Machen, Mary Shelley, and more. Then again, Fritz Leiber was no slouch himself, nor is Peter Straub, nor is Stephen King, and they opt for the more modernized, streamlined style.
Orwell comes to mind as somebody who was as influential as Hemingway in his towering influence on the streamlining of English-language prose, and I think Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, is perfection itself in both its form and its content. So it depends on the intention, genre, specific literary work, and so on.
Having said all that, I agree wholeheartedly and zealously with this part of what Des quoted:
Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.
Actually, I agree passionately with the entire passage you provided, Des. I’m finding that as I age and mature as a reader, I’m growing ever more potently and painfully aware of the phenomenon Steiner describes. Its truth in the culture at large is simply self-evident. But it’s also a personal matter I’ve observed in myself.
From my earliest youth, I considered myself an avid reader. One of my early passions was classical mythology. But the books I read weren’t translations of Homer or Aeschylus but modern adaptations — and simplifications — for children and early adolescents. One time in fourth or fifth grade, I discovered a copy of the Odyssey on my classroom’s bookshelf. I recognized the title and then read the back cover copy and saw that the book contained some of the stories I knew and loved. So I eagerly sat down to read it. After two pages I was utterly baffled and gave up on the thing. I didn’t return to Homer until college.
Similar examples could be multiplied. Why, when I was allowed to choose my own course of reading as a high school senior in a modern literature class, did I devour The Vampire Lestat and It with gleeful abandon but find myself slogging none too happily through As I Lay Dying? Why did I try to read Frankenstein twice in high school and get bogged down, and then return to read it immediately after graduating from college and find it a joy even though the prose was comparatively challenging compared to my normal “pleasure” reading (although I was already a longtime, confirmed fan of Lovecraft, Poe, etc.), and then return after that to read it multiple times, and also to write about it, and find the prose as clear as day? Why is it that in as recent a span as the last five and ten years I have seen my own capabilities as a reader expand to the point where books that formerly would have seemed formidable and offputting because of their dense prose are now inviting and easy to read? And why has this gone in tandem with my growing recognition of the impoverishment of mainstream contemporary English language use?
Obviously I’m not alone in this. I’m just talking about my own personal experience. And when I reflect and introspect, I see the whole thing being attributable to a generalized move from a culture where print and concepts were more central to one where images are more central. It’s the whole Amusing Ourselves to Death/Fahrenheit 451 thing all over again. It’s not necessarily dystopian through and through — I appreciate and agree with the nuance Steiner invested in the quoted passage — but it’s definitely happening. For confirmation one can just compare most of today’s mainstream, best-selling books with the popular best-sellers of an earlier era and note the differences. Dickens is of course the arch-example from nineteenth-century England. He was wildly popular with the everyday crowd, and yet his prose is demonstrably more complex — I’m talking quantifiably, in terms of the various “reading level” measurements that teachers commonly apply to texts to find out whether they’re suitable for students of certain ages and capabilities — than the overwhelming majority of current best-selling books, both fiction and nonfiction. And what you find when you examine the matter is that this shift is bound up with the move towards a culture where text-based communication has become subsumed under the wider and ever-expanding purview of an all-pervasive mass media realm where visual images are more dominant and therefore texts are progressively changed to fit comfortably into that milieu. (Have you checked out the way even popular magazines like People have altered themselves in the past two decades to become simpler and more akin on every page to TV screens or Webpages?)
In addition to the quoted Steiner passage, and in addition to the work of Neil Postman, Daniel Boorstin, et al., I think contemporary scholar Christine Rosen hits the nail right on the head in her 2005 article “The Image Culture,” where she is as nuanced as Steiner and also as unblinking in her assessment of what’s happening to language use right now:
Nor is concern about the image culture merely a fear of losing our grip on what is familiar-that known world with its long history of reliance on the printed word. Those copyists who feared the printing press were not wrong to believe that it would render them obsolete. It did. But contemporary critics who question the proliferation of images in culture and who fear that the sheer number of images will undermine the sensibility that creates readers of the written word (replacing them with clever but shallow interpreters of the image) aren’t worried about being usurped by image-makers. They are motivated largely by the hope of preserving what is left of their craft. They are more like the conservationist who has made the forest his home only to discover, to his surprise, that the animals with which he shares it are rapidly dwindling in number. What he wants to know, in his perplexed state, is not “how do I retreat deeper into the forest?” but “how might I preserve the few survivors before all record of them is lost?”
So it is with those who resist an image-based culture. As its boosters suggest, it is here to stay, and likely to grow more powerful as time goes on, making all of us virtual flâneurs strolling down boulevards filled with digital images and moving pictures. We will, of course, be enormously entertained by these images, and many of them will tell us stories in new and exciting ways. At the same time, however, we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas; the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do; and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, a society that looks forward every second to an immediate replication of what it has just done, but one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.
Returning to my personal narrative above, it’s apparent that I, as an avid television watcher and consumer of the books that were offered to me as a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, was simply conditioned to read in the manner and on the level of what was offered to me, and to read with one half or more of my brain and sensibility always firmly tuned into image-based media culture and therefore primed to have my readerly experienced deeply affected by this cognitive background. Due to quirks of my own nature, I have worked over the years, sometimes unconsciously, at expanding my ability to read more complex prose with ease, and can attest that there’s a real and palpable shift that occurs when formerly difficult texts and prose styles suddenly slide into clear focus. And I have been more than a little interested to reflect on the fact that those people who were literate in a former age — and the idea that average literacy rates in, for example, 18th century America were dismal compared to today’s is unfounded — were reading these difficult types of texts with ease at a far earlier age than I was. The intertwined gain-and-loss nature of the transformation that’s happening today, as described by Rosen and Steiner, is undeniable. But in many ways I think it weighs more heavily on the loss side, since the conceptual abilities associated with the reading of text are more sophisticated, delicate, and refined than the ability to see and experience an image, and the latter’s displacing of the former in terms of its cultural centrality therefore represents a devolution that will be very difficult indeed to get past and recover from.
Posted on August 16, 2008, in Arts & Entertainment, Internet & Media, Society & Culture and tagged anti-intellectualism, Charles Dickens, Dystopia, Ernest Hemingway, language, mind and media, Neil Postman, Ray Bradbury. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.