Books April 2008

Keeping a Civil Tongue

An English critic decries the decline of his language—and his civilization.

A recent article in the travel section of The New York Times began as follows:

It may be the ugliest, most dangerous city you’ll ever love. Gray high-rises stretch to the horizon, graffiti blankets downtown, where those who can afford it drive bulletproof cars … But São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest and most modern city, also has plenty of flair. Sip caipirinhas at a glamorous bar surrounded by the city’s upper crust, accessorized with $10,000 Panerai watches on one arm and a fashion model on the other. Shop at obscenely luxurious stores like Daslu, a boutique so exclusive that customers often arrive by helicopter. Or sit in a cafe on Oscar Freire Street and watch the rich and the beautiful pass by.

This is not just the worldview of Madison Avenue but its style and tone as well. Note how “flair” is treated as something any brand-conscious fool can buy, while obscenely serves much the same function as sinful in chocolate-cake-mix commercials. Even exclusive is used in its ad-copy sense.

This bouncy, valueless style appears to be spreading. Many readers are already so at home in it that other voices tend to rub them the wrong way. (An increasingly common response to earnest argument, as a visit to the blogosphere will confirm, is not to disagree at any length, but to jeer the arguer for getting worked up.) Our language itself is losing its power to express moral disapproval. Obscene and sinful are headed the way of decadent and outrageous; perhaps depraved will be watered down next.

Such changes affect the way we think, because we do so in words. This is why Karl Kraus, the founder of modern Sprachkritik, or “criticism of language,” was so hard on the Viennese press of the 1920s and 1930s. He is alleged to have said that “if those who are obliged to look after commas had made sure they are always in the right place,” the Japanese would not have set Shanghai on fire. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the New York Times article speaks for itself. People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.

The same goes for nations in general. “Decline of language is the decline of the life of the people who use it.” The quote is from the British literary scholar Ian Robinson, the Anglophone world’s foremost critic of language. In his first book, published in 1973, he surveyed everything from women’s magazines to love poetry, and found it reflective of a Britain in moral and cultural decay. Although this may sound like gloomy reading, The Survival of English is one of the most entertaining books on language ever written. Its demolition of TheNew English Bible is especially good. (“In poetry the [NEB] keeps launching off into the sidetracks of metre before bumping back on to the motorway of journalistic prose.”) In a chapter on British newspapers, Robinson takes aim at “that compound of indulgent contempt and failure to argue which is our modern enlightenment’s habitual response to criticism.” As an example, he cites the London Times’s defense of its own modernization (read: vulgarization):

‘There are a few of our readers, particularly those who have read The Times for a very long while, for whom all changes seem equally unwelcome; to them we can only offer our understanding.’ That contrives to suggest, without exposing the suggestion to argument, that everyone who doesn’t like the changes is a) unreasonably averse to any change whatsoever, b) an insignificant minority and c) since they are in their dotage in need of d) being humored.

The Survival of English was generally well reviewed; even a hostile 24-year-old critic named Martin Amis was moved to concede that Robinson’s chapters on political rhetoric and journalese were “thrilling pages, elegant, witty and surely argued.” Had Robinson followed this initial success with a popular-oriented book, perhaps giving more play to his sense of humor, he might have gained enough of an audience to start changing things. But believing instead that meaningful change can come only from the “clerisy,” or educated elite, he has spent most of the past few decades trying to talk sense into British universities, and their English departments in particular. Deconstruction, political correctness, “new historicism”: Robinson has argued persuasively—often in the excellent journal Words in Edgeways—against these and other contemporary orthodoxies. Unfortunately, the same triumph of the half-educated that he criticizes has prevented his work from exerting much influence. When his history of English criticism was published (The English Prophets, 2001), a reviewer wondered “why this truly cultivated author is so little known.” The question answers itself.

Robinson is a conservative Christian, but one doesn’t have to be religious to know the feeling aroused in him by popular culture that “if this is the world, I live somewhere else.” I felt the same way the other day while watching Little Miss Sunshine on DVD. Much honored by award committees (always a bad sign), the film invites us to chuckle fondly at a foul-mouthed heroin addict who teaches his little granddaughter a mock striptease. And yet the only people who actually object to this sort of thing are the religious right. We of non-faith either applaud the “pushing of the envelope” or look the other way; it’s just culture, after all. It seems to me, then, that when Robinson writes in his new book of a nation that has “lost its mind, a state that prevents it from taking anything seriously”—of an “auto-destruction of thinking” that he calls “The Misery”—he could just as easily be talking of America. Untied Kingdom, as this bold and eloquent book is called, diagnoses The Misery in all areas of British life, while calling on the remnants of the country’s educated to restore thoughtful judgment. The author doesn’t mind being called a reactionary, and says readers shouldn’t mind, either: “There is no need to accept that the word modernize as used by [political] leaders … has any meaning beyond drifting with the stream.”

Presented by

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).

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