Sunday, December 17, 2006

Respect My Authority! (part one)

Rob's post below about George Orwell's Why I Write has inspired me to revisit one of my favorite essays, David Foster Wallace's Authority and American Usage (Or Why George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is Redundant). It's such a masterful piece of writing, and sufficiently complex, that I hope to exigesize it a bit here over the next couple of days.

Let us start with the basics... AAAU(OWGOPATELIR) (which I'll refer to from here on out at Authority... is ostensibly a book review for Harper's Magazine of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. The fact tht the essay is 62 pages long should tip the reader off to the fact that Wallace intends to... well... delve. And delve he does. This essay isn't so much a review as an anatomy of the Language Wars and then an encapsulation of how Garner deftly navigates said wars. Or, as Wallace himself states on the second page, to talk

"about the historical context in which ADMAU appears, and this context turns out to be a veritable hurricane of controversies involving everything from technical linguistics and public education to political ideology, and these controversies take a certain amount of time to unpack before their relation to what makes Garner's dictionary so eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar can even be established[.]"

In other words... don't you know there's a war on??. And this pre-War-On-Terror essay wants to tell you about the war that is being waged day in and day out for the very language we use to communicate.

***Why You Should Trust DFW On This One***

It helps that in navigating these heady and complicated waters we have for our guide an author like Wallace. First off, he is an expert in English Language Usage. He is what his own family refers to as a SNOOT, which is to say an English Language "trekkie" of unfathomable proportions (SNOOT might stand for "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time" or it might stand for "Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance"... thank god I didn't sit at that family dinner table). He is also a professor of English and the author of three collections of short stories, two books of essays and two novels, one of which is Infinite Jest which you may have read. I have read it. I say this not to brag about navigating its thousand pages (plus endnotes!) but merely to state that this is no impartial observer of Wallace you are dealing with. I love his writing.

Well, to be more honest, I love his essays. Love them enough that I had my mom call a friend and send me a three week old NY Times Magazine because an essay of his (about Roger Federer, perhaps you read it?) appeared on the cover. His fiction is trickier. There are bits of Infite Jest that I positively adored (Eschaton, which this popular blog is named after, the sections dealing with Boston AA etc.) but ultimately, I felt cheated by its lack of ending (did I mention its over 1000 pages long?!). Or, as a friend of mine's husband put it "this book broke my heart". His short fiction collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men contains both moments of genius and real clunkers. Which is probably the sign of a true experimental spirit, but it can also grow wearying.

(If I was able to, I'd have inserted a Wallacian footnote at the end of that paragraph to discuss his biography of infinity, which I also read, and did not understand one bit but thought was beautiful nonetheless)

What additionally makes Wallace such a great guide is that, stylistically speaking, he's a genius. Wallace uses language like few others, and his style has become a bit of a trademark. Basically, how it works is that Wallace's prose style represents an almost neurotic need for exactitude in his own writing. He's on a quixotic quest to communicate objectively a subjective experience using a subjective medium, namely written language. This leads to lots of twists and turns in his language and enormous numbers of his trademark footnotes, and it also leads to some wonderful humor. One of Wallace's best devices is to take a rather technical sentence, one filled with big words like dysphemism or sesquipedelian and then throw in a very colloquial word or phrase like bat-shit insane or whatever. ("Or whatever" is itself a frequently used colloquialism in his prose).

So the great thing about this is that you have someone whose entire (constantly failing) project seems to be taming language itself writing a review of a book by someone claiming to resolve all the usage wars going on in the US. Neat, huh?

***DFW's Thesis

Unlike in DFW's other main essay about writing which seems to be eighty pages of brilliance without a thesis, Wallace, clearly lays his out in this essay. Which is that

Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in US English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit". A Democratic Spirit is one that combine rigor and humility, i.e. a passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS's criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity-- you have to be willing to look honeestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.

He goes on for a few more paragraphs about how being Dogmatic is infinitely easier than being Democratic and each sentence is like a little piece of gold, and you could write an entire essay about each one, and I probably will reference some of this stuff on my other blog at some point but this unpacking of Wallace will go on forever if I do all of that now. Also, I'll probably violate his intellectual property rights over the essay at some point. Or something.

Anyway, this central thesis is brilliant because its actually complicated to try to address. He must show the at-root-political nature of this debate. He must show why a Democratic Spirit is required. And he must show how ADMAU (the book he's reviewing) has said DS in spades.

What makes it extra-brilliant is that DFW is himself performing a feat of Democratic Spirit in his own essay writing. This is why he must be so self-depricating about his SNOOTitude. He must, as part of his DSness, acknowledge how others see him. And he must struggle over the course of the essay, to apply his own DSness to the Language Wars and see what can be discovered. And those things discovered is what we'll get into in future installments.


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