The Shape of Things

In high school I went through a Cormac McCarthy phase. When I read books I read reviews of them obsessively, mostly to see if there’s anything useful about them I’m missing because I’ve trained myself to read for a particular thing. When I finished McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, I kept reflecting upon this 1998 New York Times review:

“But by continuing to write in the grand style, McCarthy sometimes gives the violence in his books a grandeur it doesn’t deserve. Of the horror stories that have become a staple of McCarthy’s fiction, the Texas writer John Graves once observed: ”They’re dust-mote-sized when you compare them to the violences two wars in two generations have wrought among our race. I once saw 4,000 Japanese stacked like cordwood, the harvest of two days’ fighting, on one single islet of one single atoll awaiting bulldozer burial.” Graves’s message — that all misery is local — is not so different from McCarthy’s. But the plainness of his prose is more eloquent about the pitilessness of history and fate than McCarthy’s often portentous rhetoric. If we’ve learned nothing else about suffering in the 20th century, it’s that it’s ordinary.”

Overall it is a positive review. I am always disturbed on a visceral level by suggestions, though, of an alteration in style; this is not to say I am suspicious of critiques of function (“the style obscures the story”) or personal taste (“I hate long sentences, they bore me”) but that I am concerned by normative style arguments. This is the wrong style; this style is bad. This style is doing bad things.

Statements like those are not always wrong. But they’re almost always much more profound than they’re commonly credited as. This is because they are attempting to regulate discourse, often discourse that is attempting to make some contribution to the status quo, either for or against. Style is quite often part of the contribution. So when we say: your style is bad, we are often saying: the effect you’re trying to achieve should not be achieved. This reality is especially weighty when your job is to contribute to discourse, when you’re someone who is a part (however small) of the way public discussion is shaped.

So much hinges here on the last word of the review, ordinary, the signifier of the status quo. Mosle says violence is ordinary; therefore McCarthy’s style is a bad one, because it makes it seem like something it isn’t. This tells us that by ‘ordinary’ she doesn’t mean common, because McCarthy makes violence very common. What she means is something more like meaningless, hinted at by both the shape and content of pitilessness. McCarthy’s style gives violence a kind of meaning, a real cosmic presence and its own kind of awe. But this is not an accident; he hasn’t merely misapprehended modernity’s evaluation of violence and made the mistake of imbuing it with more meaning than its currently thought to be due. It is, rather, part of his entire objection to modernity: that violence gets a particularly stunning treatment in a series of novels about the loss of a rich civilization to a comparatively sterile age is totally natural, probably necessary. It’s a part of the point he’s raising. You can’t rob him of that and leave him with the same project.

When your profession is to contribute, even in very small ways, to public discourse, you’re obligated to evaluate how your style comports with the ordinary. This is because public discourse helps us settle out what we should think of as the ordinary, the regular, the status quo. It’s in these conversations that we determine normalcy. Corey Robin, on Arendt and careerism:

“The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.”

This is poignant, and it struck me especially in terms of people who make or present ideas for a living. Certainly the expectation is to comport yourself with a certain mannerliness, to perform even opposition within a kind of collegial parameter that suggests, as I have argued before, the equality of positions even when you don’t believe in such a thing. The threat that presents itself when you express yourself in one of the non-friendly, non-gentle, non-civil styles is this: you won’t have a career. We’ll all stop listening to you, you’ll be seen as a nutty ideologue, or if you’re a woman, just another purveyor of catty ‘snark.’ Ditch the snark; say it like we want you to say it.

Which is another way of putting: discuss this as though it’s ordinary. Some people were upset about the Rand post, saying that the way in which it was written was too mean or too severe, too snarky, bitchy, un-funny; uniformly arguments of bad style. The good style, one concludes, would have all the opposite elements: detached or passionate in the genteel way of friends who debate in pubs; subtle, searching, uncertain, just one proposal among many. That’s the way people tend to like to read about positions in politics, because that style makes everything seem very ordinary. If we’re discussing Christian attachment to Rand in the way that we discuss things which have merit, which are part of the landscape of valid and legitimate opinions, then it’s perfectly fine that Christian politicians can claim both Jesus and Rand. In that case, the pro-Jesus+Pro-Rand crowd is part of the schema of the normal, a regular feature of the status quo. Nothing to see here, nothing to change.

But it’s madness. Maybe this is what McCarthy would say about the type of atonal, blithely bland violence you can get out of any old modern marvel that sells the faux-profound non-shocker, “hey man, violence is whatever, it’s just how the world is.” Ordinary, in other words — but this just isn’t the way he sees it, not so far as I can tell. And I don’t think Christian Rand apologia is legitimate or valid, and I don’t want to write as though it might be among those things we can reasonably disagree about, and I don’t want anyone to see it as ordinary. Maybe I don’t have any real control over that (probably not) but I do have to account for how I present what I do, how I play my teensy tiny role in making up the ordinary. Yeah, there’s a certain careerist impulse not to be dismissed as, y’know, another catty-snarky lady blogger, but I’m comfortable that’s not what I am, and I am aware of the service careerism does for particularly brutal forms of ordinariness. For me certain positions don’t belong in the canon of the regular, and I try to use style to advance that.

Given how strenuously people object to style, it must be doing something.