Books April 2008

Keeping a Civil Tongue

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

The Misery is for Robinson inextricable from the spread of careless language. In Britain as in America, for example, the words race and culture are so often misused as to have become almost interchangeable (a British newspaper headline: “Blunkett in Race Row Over Culture Tests”). Britons who oppose mass immigration are thus accused of racism, as the pop singer Morrissey was last year when he lamented the loss of Britain’s unique identity. Insisting on the distinction between a multiracial community and a multicultural one, Robinson asks how the latter can be a true community at all, especially when some cultures in the mix are themselves “anti-multicultural.” He writes scathingly of the ruling party’s failure to grasp that Islam and the English way of life are mutually exclusive value systems. In 2006, Jack Straw, a Labour politician, blithely called on Muslim women to abandon their veils. Robinson:

He did not tell us whether any of the Muslim ladies asked him to remove his trousers, which would have been the obvious retort, for to some Muslim women the veil is just part of womanly modesty. It was argued that veiled women cannot show their facial expression. But equally, Mr Straw cannot show the no doubt quite expressive state of his genitals … He does seem to think that all the immigrant groups are English really.

We Americans shouldn’t feel too complacent about the relative success of our melting pot, which has never had to melt down such an enormous chunk from the Islamic world. Nor do we take the words e pluribus unum as seriously as we used to. The many immigrants who now refuse to learn more than a little transactional English are in effect saying that an economic community is all they want to be part of. We are told not to worry: these new citizens will boost our own prosperity too. So what if we can’t talk to each other? Americanness, which once meant so much that only a shared language could carry it all, is contracting to a mere matter of wanting a bigger income—or should I say more “flair”? The obvious irony is that a nation without one unifying language will end up poorer in economic terms as well.

“A healthily-working civilization,” Rob­inson wrote in The Survival of English,

generates its standards and values at its centres and they are then lived and modified into commonsense by all its people. At present the situation often seems to have been reversed, with the centres restrained from utter madness and breakdown only by commonsense.

Untied Kingdom deals with some of the centers in question. One is British fiction, the tone of which, Robinson asserts, is now set by Martin Amis. I would have preferred to read in detail about a less obviously bad novel than Yellow Dog, but Robinson’s appraisal of the novelist’s work is sound enough. It is applicable to some American writers too:

A certain dreariness overtakes the consistent, relentless cleverness. The insistent drawing of attention to itself on the part of the style, the lack of sympathy for any of the characters, the action set in a subhuman life without morality or belief, gets more and more tedious as the pages stretch out the same formulae … Amis’s stories remain inert, the characters nagged at by the Jamesian precision of phrasing which yet does nothing to bring them to life.

When a conservative Christian laments the absence of morality in a novel, one may well assume that he wants Christian moralizing, but Robinson’s favorite writer is D. H. Lawrence, hardly a Bible-thumper. What he does expect from a literary novelist is a strong interest in the moral significance of life. He finds more of this in Nick Hornby than in Amis, but still not enough: “The contemporary English novel is a great bore because morally shallow.”

My main complaint with Robinson’s treatment of contemporary British fiction, and of literary criticism and the British press, is that it is too short. Enough has changed in the 35 years since The Survival of English to merit another lengthy discussion of written language. Here Robinson casts his nets a little too widely. There is indeed a great English tradition of literary scholars—“prophets,” Robinson calls them—passing general comment on culture, but it is more difficult to do this now than it was in Matthew Arnold’s day. Criticizing pop and rock music, for example, requires a little more research than Robinson seems able to stomach. He is certainly right to point out the sheer inescapability of the stuff: a North Korean can block out the personality cult more easily than a Western prole can get through the day without some millionaire “rebel” shouting in his ear. (The ring tones will get him if nothing else does.) But to prove a lack of standards in pop lyrics, one would have to instance a more respected song than “Goodbye England’s Rose,” that now- forgotten elegy to Lady Di; nor do Marilyn Manson’s avowals of evil, which Robinson lets himself be baited by, reflect anyone’s morals but the singer’s own—if those.

I know that Untied Kingdom was written as “an epistle to the English,” and that if anything is ruder than reading other people’s mail, it’s finding fault with the contents. I also understand that although few Englishmen go to church, Christianity is more central to England’s cultural tradition than to America’s. All the same, I wish Robinson had made a little less of his faith in this book. In both our countries, the materialist left and the money-mad right unite in telling us that the whole point of national life is economic growth. Our academic elites, for their part, still spout the deconstructionist line that words mean whatever we like, hence no form of expression is better than another. (They don’t actually believe this; any professor who argued that “nappy-headed hos” was but a launchpad for playful imaginings would have lost his job faster than Don Imus himself.) Those of us who regard language and culture as great potential forces for good should be looking for common ground from which to fight back, instead of gratuitously annoying each other. And it is gratuitous to assert, in such a book as this, that morality is impossible without faith in Jesus; the Christian reader does not need to be told, and the non-Christian rolls his eyes.

Robinson’s criticism of homosexuality seems pointless for much the same reason. Like him, I believe that Christians—and Muslims, for that matter—have the right to call homosexuality a sin; it is not as if they use a nicer word for what we straight nonbelievers get up to. But if they want to argue from their castle of faith, they should stay there, and not keep popping out for what they think are appeals to common sense. “The [homosexuals] I have known tend towards melancholy, and for very good reasons.” I was running my eyes down the page while recalling the gays I know, most of them quite cheerful people, when the drawbridge swung up again: “If called upon to defend tradition, I just appeal to the authority of revelation.” That should have been said in the preface, which in its present form leads one to expect a different kind of book.

Of course, the author has every right to go on restricting his readership. (Prophets are always choosy about their followers; Jesus spoke in parables so the multitude would not be saved.) I hope Robinson can at least be prevailed upon to go back to the sort of work he undertook so magnificently in The Survival of English and for which he remains uniquely well qualified. There are many things believers and nonbelievers will never agree on, but when it warns against slovenly language, the voice of faith sounds to this heathen ear a lot like the voice of reason. I would certainly rather pin my colors to “Be not seduced: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33) than sit through another of the new “romantic” comedies in which every third word is fuck.

I would also rather join the reactionaries than those who want to reduce the printed sentence to an elongated Rorschach blot. In a Harper’s cover article in 2005, Ben Marcus, the chair of the creative-writing program at Columbia University, called for a literature “free of coherence, so much more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are … enigmatic rather than earthly.” The unthinking choice of forging is typical; much as our postmodern friends like to promise rich ambiguities beyond our conceiving, their own minds run on rails. But like our politicians, they recognize the importance of coherent English, if only as an obstacle to their career aspirations. These meaning-forgers are everywhere. Be not seduced.

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