Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Legacy of Words

Tony Judt is a distinguished historian and author of my generation, who is writing heroically. He has ALS, which is an awful degenerative disease I've seen in too much detail. It's a mysterious and varied disease. Some who get it young, like Stephen Hawking, live with it for a long time. Others deteriorate rapidly, and according to this article, that's the case with Tony Judt.

He's been published a lot recently in the New York Review of Books, another reason to revere that publication. He giving us his beautifully expressed wisdom while he can. He's apparently lost his ability to speak clearly as a result of the disease, but he has been writing with great clarity.

What follows are excerpts from his essay in the July 15 issues, simply titled Words. The first part sets a personal context, and warns of the misuse of rhetorical skill. But---

"All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought: “Don’t worry how you say it, it’s the ideas that count.”

"Forty years on from the 1960s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or the training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly just why it inhibits intelligent reflection." Judt acknowledges that it was our generation that"played an important role in this unraveling" but that the reaction to artificiality has led to the demeaning of clarity and precision.

"For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst."

The lack of precision in vocabulary and expression generally devalues the responsibility--the courtesy--to communicate, and is reflected not only in the purportedly "natural" modes but in the most deliberately artificial:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication. But whereas an earlier generation of popular scholarship distilled authorial authority into plain text, today’s “accessible” writers protrude uncomfortably into the audience’s consciousness. It is the performer, rather than the subject, to whom the audience’s attention is drawn."

That eloquently expresses my own objections to the hegemony (to use one of their pet words) of the shill-masters of semiotics, deconstructionism and related fads that have largely driven out articulate criticism and analysis. Judt turns next to the Internet and the culture it is so rapidly transforming:

In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy."

Judt ends his essay with a final cultural reference, and a very personal observation:

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have."

We in our generation now fear and face degenerations of one kind or another. So it is fitting that we raise our voices while we can against the cultural degenerations that threaten the future.

And now you know why I began by saying that Tony Judt is writing heroically.

[Above photo of Judt in better days from here.]

Update: Tony Judt died on August 6, 2010. His New York Times obituary; his most recent article in the New York Review of Books; and the NYRB web site home page which currently links to all his recent articles for that publication. May he rest in peace, this hero of words.