Tag Archives: writing

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”

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Tolkien and the ‘Actualism of Story-Growing’

From a post at The Flame Imperishable:

“It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply ‘discovers.’ But this is not how the fictions of our minds work.” Read the entire post: Actualism of Story-Growing.

Please also see: 

Paul Holmer on how literature functions

Umberto Eco on theory and narrative

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters

Words

“No word has the exact value of any other in the same or in another language.” — George Santayana, in The Sense of Beauty
 
 

Stumbled Upon: 2012 and 2014 EWTN Interviews With Bestselling Author Dean Koontz

I’ve only read one novel by Dean Koontz, titled Lightning, a fun read I picked up years ago. But Koontz’s reputation in the publishing business is hard to miss because he sells millions of copies of his books, which inevitably wind up on the bestseller lists. While searching for something completely different, I stumbled upon these EWTN interviews, one from 2012 and another from 2014, in which Koontz talks about his life, his work, good versus evil, and the Roman Catholic influence in his books. It’s really interesting to hear how he appropriates his Catholic faith in his writing—and to note how he doesn’t.

Heads up—the 2012 video, above, is entirely devoted to Koontz, while the 2014 video, below, includes an interview with him as part of a one-hour news program, so you’ll have to fast-forward or scroll ahead to see him in the latter.

Also see Dean Koontz’s 5 Favorite Books.

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

I finally got through it. Starting it again recently, I got hooked and read in the evenings until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is an extraordinary book, more powerful to my mind than The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters combined. It’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Somewhere along the way, I think I read or heard that Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, a poet, helped Lewis edit the book. I imagine she contributed to its strength.)

If you’re interested in mythology and the ancient world, you’ll probably enjoy Till We Have Faces, and you’ll certainly appreciate it.

Here’s the opening paragraph and excerpts from the second paragraph:

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

“Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain…. I will write in Greek as my old master taught it to me. It may some day happen that a traveler from the Greeklands will again lodge in this palace and read the book. Then he will talk of it among the Greeks, where there is great freedom of speech even about the gods themselves….”

This narrator is Orual, Queen of the fictitious land of Glome, which shares a world with the Greece of ancient history. Writing in old age, Orual will tell the story of her life, and especially her relationship with her youngest sister, Psyche.

Glome’s goddess is Ungit, and she requires of her priests animal, and sometimes even human, sacrifices.

The “old master” mentioned above is called the Fox, a red-headed Greek brought to Glome as a slave. Working for the king (Orual’s father), he teaches Orual and her sisters when they are children. Fox is skeptical of the religious worldview of Glome, if not strictly skeptical of the existence of the gods. His Hellenistic philosophy seems to lean toward a rationalistic worldview, maybe similar to Stoicism.

But what Orual experiences throughout the book is a universe with rich metaphysical and religious realities woven into her adventures yet countered by her own skepticism.

 

(Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and since has appeared in several editions.)

Using the language I know

I thought at this point I had made my sense of things clear: For several types of reasons, I’m just not sure about the Christian faith anymore.

However, most of my life, I have lived and learned within the context of at least four distinct forms of Protestant Christianity.

I find nothing inconsistent about being doubtful while critiquing Christian leaders based upon the inconsistencies between their public claims and their ministries.

Especially when those Christian leaders made my doubts seem more legit, not less.

I once read an interview with the man behind the band Iron & Wine. He said some folks had asked him why he uses biblical language and allusions in his songwriting when he is not a believer.

The thrust of his answer, as I recall it, was something like this: it’s the language available to me, and it fits the settings and characters of my songwriting.

I certainly see the richness of various Christian traditions. In a world gone gnostic, with so much of our communication taking place in disembodied formats, Christianity still has rich veins of language and symbolism and ritual, however despised by the new iconoclasts of both evangelicalism and atheism.

In a world gone gnostic, the thought of logos made flesh ought to fascinate anyone who appreciates tactile, sensory experience.

Beyond that, I would say to any young writers in my classrooms, use the materials you have — stories from your lives, images, settings, characters, cadences, symbols, archetypes, and songs.

Sometimes, if you’re diligent in setting the context, the truth will show up.

That feeling when… (self-concept versus self-knowledge)

Sometimes, the self-concept doesn’t know what the self has been doing.