The re­spon­si­bil­ity to use words ac­cu­rately

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

Avery great as­set is the abil­ity to write well. Just as the gift of speech first sep­a­rated man from an­i­mal, so has the abil­ity to set speech down in writ­ten form grad­u­ally raised man up from his first be­gin­nings as brute to the high level of science, art, and so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion which he now pre­car­i­ously oc­cu­pies.

The best lit­er­a­ture in­volves seek­ing the most ac­cu­rate words to de­scribe the hu­man con­di­tion. This is not any easy busi­ness; T.S. El­liot called it “the in­tol­er­a­ble wres­tle with words and mean­ing.” But the search is im­mensely worth­while. Gus­tave Flaubert, one of the great­est fig­ures in all lit­er­a­ture, de­scribes per­fectly the na­ture of try­ing to write well:

When I come on a bad as­so­nance or a rep­e­ti­tion in my sen­tences, I am floun­der­ing in the false. By search­ing I find the proper ex­pres­sion, which was al­ways the only one, and which is also har­mo­nious. The word is never lack­ing when one pos­sesses the idea. Is there not, in this pre­cise fit­ting of parts, some­thing eter­nal, like a prin­ci­ple? If not, why should there be a re­la­tion be­tween the right word and the har­mo­nious word? Or why should the great­est com­pres­sion of thought al­ways re­sult in a line of po­etry?

Lit­er­a­ture is not only the great­est of all the arts, it is the most ba­sic sim­ply be­cause lan­guage is a medium through which we all deal con­tin­u­ally in daily life. Ma­nip­u­la­tion in lan­guage, or any de­vi­a­tion from true mean­ing, is much more in­flu­en­tial than ma­nip­u­la­tion or de­vi­a­tion in the other arts. It is be­cause this most in­flu­en­tial of the arts is ex­pressed through writ­ten lan­guage that we have a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to pre­serve the use of words ab­so­lutely un­cor­rupted.

I love the vivid pic­ture of lit­er­ary creation we have been left in a friend’s me­moir of the Rus­sian writer Isaac Ba­bel at work:

“Ba­bel would go up to his desk and stroke his man­u­script cau­tiously as though it were a wild crea­ture which had still not been prop­erly do­mes­ti­cated. Of­ten he would get up dur­ing the night and reread three of four pages by the light of an oil lamp .... He would al­ways find a few un­nec­es­sary words and throw them out with ma­li­cious glee. He used to say, ‘Your lan­guage be­comes clear and strong, not when you can no longer add a sen­tence, but when you can no longer take away from it.” Vig­i­lance over the proper use of lan­guage must in­volve an as­sump­tion of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. When, in the Re­nais­sance, man be­gan to speak – through the lit­er­a­ture of time – with in­di­vid­ual voices, rather than as types as they had done in the me­dieval moral­ity plays, there was a dar­ing new as­sump­tion of per­sonal ac­count­abil­ity for what was ut­tered. Words, from that time on, have been ac­cepted as a rev­e­la­tion of our pri­vate na­ture and an in­dex of the re­spon­si­bil­ity we must be pre­pared to as­sume for our na­tures and our opin­ion.

In any so­ci­ety, there are al­ways pow­er­ful forces which try to im­pose a uni­for­mity of view; a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of ac­cepted think­ing, an es­tab­lished or­der of lit­er­ary ex­pres­sion. But such forces can­not pre­vail if real lit­er­a­ture is to flour­ish. Writ­ers have to pre­serve de­tach­ment, si­lence, pri­vacy, per­sonal opin­ion and an imag­i­na­tion which knows no hori­zons and ac­cepts no di­rec­tion. The sub­or­di­na­tion to a way of think­ing that one has not worked to­wards one­self is to sur­ren­der to uni­for­mity and of­fi­cial­dom. And if and when such sur­ren­der takes place, there will be lit­er­a­ture no more, only the marks on pa­per of drudges, place­men and unin­spired hacks.

In 1572, the great painter Veronese was called be­fore the Holy Of­fice at Venice to ex­plain why in a paint­ing of the Last Sup­per of the Lord he had in­cluded beg­gars, whores, loi­ter­ers, peo­ple scratch­ing them­selves, de­formed peo­ple, a man with a nose­bleed, a cou­ple of drunks, and so on – sub­jects then held un­fit to ap­pear in a holy paint­ing. When the grave charge of blas­phemy was pressed on him and Veronese was asked why he had shown such pro­fane mat­ters in a holy pic­ture, he replied very sim­ply: “I thought such things were likely to be so.” Through the ages it has al­ways been the way be­tween author­ity and the true artist as it was then be­tween the Holy Of­fice and the painter Veronese: the one al­ways try­ing to im­pose a pre­con­ceived image, the other dar­ing to de­pict the truth as he sees it.

When a na­tion is func­tion­ing prop­erly, when it is en­cour­ag­ing cre­ativ­ity as well as gen­er­at­ing crea­ture com­forts, it will both be pro­duc­ing in­de­pen­dent, force­ful, clear, ac­cu­rate, skilled and imag­i­na­tive writ­ers and reg­u­larly sup­ply­ing the means for such men and women to ex­press their in­di­vid­ual, in­spired, thought-pro­vok­ing, far-imag­in­ing and uniquely crafted views in sto­ries, his­tory, plays and po­etry.

In the end, there is one im­mense truth which ev­ery man, and par­tic­u­larly any writer, should make cen­tral to his life–the re­spon­si­bil­ity to use words ac­cu­rately. It is through lit­er­a­ture that the real value of the word has been best pre­served as it is in the best lit­er­a­ture that we find the most re­fresh­ing spring of truth. If lit­er­a­ture fades in a na­tion, when a na­tion pays lit­tle at­ten­tion to en­cour­ag­ing its writ­ers, that na­tion for all its su­per­fi­cial signs of busi­ness and bus­tle is with­er­ing at its roots.

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