Monday, January 21, 2013

Sentence of the week

I don't know if I will really do a sentence every week but I was inspired by Ann Althouse's going through Gatsby and picking out sentences and commenting on them. We hear a lot about writers who supposedly crank out great sentences these days. More often than not, the claim is pure nonsense. But there are great sentences.

For example,
It is, in fact, asking for trouble if you are more altruist than the society that surrounds you.
It is the "in fact" and "altruist" that makes this sentence work. 

Normally, to insert "in fact" into a sentence is bad writing. The snappy come back: "If you have to tell people that your factual claims are factual claims, then you don't really believe them yourself."

But take it out and look what happens:
It is asking for trouble if you are more altruist than the society that surrounds you.
That signals irony. It signals heavy-handed, smug, insufferable irony.

The "in fact" tells us that the seeming irony is perhaps not. At first, we flatter ourselves by hearing ironic intent and thinking, "Yes, that is how we good people get treated." But the "in fact" sticks in your throat, stopping you from swallowing too easily. It is the foul-tasting medicine that keeps the spoonful of sugar from going down.

The sentence occurs in Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End. The protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, is meeting his eldest brother whom he has not been close to. The tension in their conversation arises because some noble gestures that Christopher has made have been misinterpreted by others as signs that he is involved inappropriately with two women.  The elder brother has no problems with a man, even a married man, having affairs so long as he behaves discreetly. Christopher has not behaved discreetly for the simple reason that he was not having affairs and yet he has done these very noble things for others and that has led many to assume that he is only doing them because of a sexual involvement.

I keep using the word "noble" instead of some other alternative such as "kind" because he doesn't do them out of kindness. He does these things out of a sense of noblesse oblige. For example, when his wife runs away with another man and Christopher is asked if he will divorce her, he says, "Only a blackguard would divorce a woman." He wouldn't, we know, mind at all getting rid of his wife but his view is that nobility does not behave that way. So he doesn't behave that way.

When, as a consequence, people assume the worst of Christopher, Ford wants us to consider that perhaps he really is asking for it.

Ford uses the word "altruist" pointedly, just as I used "noble". It would be a different thing altogether to say,
It is asking for trouble if you are more moral than the society that surrounds you.
We wouldn't  feel quite so easy with that sentence. Not because we couldn't imagine that it might happen that the most moral person in the room should be shat upon or even that we might cheer along when they are shat upon. But to say that sentence and have it seem ironic, you'd need to sneer as you said "moral". That would make the delicious sense of ambiguity that Ford's sentence has impossible. "Altruist" doesn't need the sneer because while individual acts of altruism are generally admirable, there is something suspect about arguing that being self-sacrificing is a good way to live in general.

(That final point, by the way, was what Ayn Rand argued. I know a lot of people like to hate and mock her, but she's right on this point. Rand's epistemology is simplistic and deserves mockery but her philosophical anthropology is profound and challenging.)

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