18 Oct

Escape from the ideas factory

Recently I wrote a piece about the impenetrable pedant Peter Strawson and received a comment from a friend, a literary critic. He said he had some history with Strawson who had once told him he shouldn’t write about the jargonising linguistics guru Noam Chomsky because he, my friend, is not a professional in the study of linguistics. I shall refer to this as the Academic Fallacy – the notion that those formerly referred to as “scholars” but now as “academics” each has his own “field” or “specialism” and he should not stray beyond it. Well, I admit there are specialities: quantum physics for example or endocrinology. But if a man writes about the use of words – as Chomsky does – then anyone else who is a competent user of words must be allowed to comment on what is being said. The test is not based on what academic faculty a commentator hails from, but the sense of what is being said.

The definition of an academic is someone whose mind is so fine that it has never been penetrated by a single idea, and consequently academic prose is the death of thought. There is a widespread superstition that some people are so clever that no one can understand them. Rowan Williams’ groupies frequently give him as an example. But Williams deserves the Regius Professorship of Obscurantism or to be head honcho in the Circumlocution Office. It is said of him that he speaks ten foreign languages; and indeed he writes English as if it were one of them. This belief that some people are so clever that they are beyond our ken is part of the Academic Fallacy: for the mark of cleverness is the ability to make oneself understood. It is erroneously imagined that there are such objects as “ideas” which may subsequently be “put into words.” Not so. The words themselves, in the order in which they are spoken, are  the ideas – because the choice of words determines what is being said. There is no distinction between the substance of a piece of writing and the style in which it is written – as if style were some sort of additional ornamentation.  A good style simply means clarity and immediacy of expression. Style and idea are one and the same. the word made flesh. And you can achieve style only by the constant effort to think clearly. Williamsese exists because the former Archbishop’s mind is a muddle.

Orwell – he was talking about politics but what he says applies to literary endeavour in all its forms – satirised academic prose. He took the sparse line from Ecclesiastes: “I looked and saw…” and translated it into academy-spk: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion…” Too many people aspire to write in the putrescent style of that translation.

The best writers never were or are academics. They were learned and wise, which is not at all the same thing. In better days, we referred to them as men of letters. Francis Bacon in his Essays; George Berkeley in Three Dialogues; Newman in his Apologia. T.S. Eliot, R.G.Collingwood and Ian Robinson in everything they produced. Women of letters too. Jane Austen; George Eliot (except when she is tempted to write the positivist utopia); Christina Rossetti; Janet Frame and Muriel Spark. But not Elizabeth Anscombe who complicates and so corrupts the obsessively subtle Wittgenstein or Hilary Mantel who renders Thomas Cromwell as if he were already the leading man in a Sunday night adaptation on BBC2.

In The Book of Common Prayer, truth is delivered with sublime simplicity: “With this ring I thee wed”; “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…” The divine economy in words of one syllable.

Here’s a bit of Robinson to end with:

“The world is not the same as planet earth; astronauts take the world with them. The world is made by and made up of human beings, in co-operation, I believe, with the divine. About that, Professor Hawking has nothing to say. He has therefore no grounds for declaring either any particular thing, or everything, either significant or insignificant.” Holding the Centre by Ian Robinson.