Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Resolution, Listen

My resolution is to read more poetry, more Shakespeare, more Lincoln. I should revise this somewhat to say that I resolve to listen to more Shakespeare, to words. I don’t read aloud often enough, will do more, but will also have more things read to my ears. And now that I walk miles each day (and have an iPod!), I am already listening more. Today it is Richard III. The last few days it was Huckleberry Finn, well read! Twain, our literary Lincoln, understands something about sound, language, and writing. That’s why his books don’t seem "literary" to those who don’t understand that sound comes first and last in language. Walter J. Ong explains, correctly, in my view: "Written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language." Writing cannot exist without orality, but oral expression can exist without writing. The poets, Shakespeare, and Lincoln, understand this. Hence their crisp, sweet, and winning words. Their words do not seem manufactured. To the literate, the alpha and omega of language is written, it is that great invention, the alphabet. And the sound is then changed to something seen. Big change.

This essay (it pretends to be a book review) on Emerson and Hawthorne is a good read. It explains in part why I have always leaned away from the former and toward Hawthorne (and Longfellow and Melville). Hawthorne thought Emerson "imbued with false originality." Yet, as a friend recently pointed out, there is one Emerson essay that is worth the read, Shakspeare; or, the Poet. Perhaps the most famous lines from the essay are these (addressed to those who regret that we don’t know enough about Shakespeare’s life):

"So far from Shakspeare’s being the least known, he is the one person, in all modern history, known to us. What point of morals, of manners, of economy, of philosophy, of religion, of taste, of the conduct of life, has he not settled? What mystery has he not signified his knowledge of? What office, or function, or district of man’s work, has he not remembered? What king has he not taught state, as Talma taught Napoleon? What maiden has not found him finer than her delicacy? What lover has he not outloved? What sage has he not outseen? What gentleman has he not instructed in the rudeness of his behavior?"

Back to Walter J. Ong. He notes that the famous McGuffey’s Readers, published in the U.S. in some 120 million copies between 1836 and 1920, "were designed as remedial readers to improve not the reading for comprehension which we idealize today, but oral, declamatory reading. The McGuffey’s specialized in passages from ’sound conscious’ literature concerned with great heroes(’heavy’ oral characters). They provided endless oral pronunciation and breathing drills." I note in passing that rhetoric (as education at one time could be justly described) has declined, in favor of the more private inclination of writing (also see Plato’s Phaedrus). An interlocutor is essential when you are thinking, using language as sound (rather than language as writing). Talking to yourself for hours an end is difficult, and you may not remember what you thought; you need another person to think out loud, and to help you remember if any thoughts were memorable enough to remember. Here is where mnemonic patterns, shaped ready for oral recurrance come to play. Ong: "Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall, even physiologically."

Try this aloud by Yeats, Against Unworthy Praise. Don’t try to read it as you think it should be read aloud, just read it aloud to your own ears. Now do the same with this. Happy New Year!

Discussions - 2 Comments

Regarding the importance of the sound of words: one of the finest practical examples of this comes from President Reagan, in his manuscripts from “Reagan, In His Own Write.” Before he became Pres., he used to do short radio commentaries. The scripts for his shows were handwritten by him. The beautiful thing about them is that the editors included his handwritten changes. The reader can almost literally watch how Reagan would painstakingly rework his words, finding more condensed expressions to make his point clearer by the sound. Reagan flawlessly wrote for the ear, not the eye. That collection is the most marvelous practical lesson I’ve ever seen in how to write powerful, beautiful speeches, from the last presidential master of the art of rhetoric.

Fascinating post. I would add that the character of a regime differs according to whether its literature is meant to be read silently or spoken. Walter Benjamin once called the novel quintessentially modern because it’s read silently. Not so with Shakespeare or Homer. And not so with the (American) novelists you mention. Lots to think about here.

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