Mark Greif has written a long, lovely meditation on the heyday of public intellectuals and their audience in mid 20th century America. That period, in his view, was best epitomised by the Partisan Review.
My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.
It was born of unique influences: a world emerging from unutterable darkness and eager for the light; a prodigious influx of the finest European intellects before and during the war; and, a widespread sense that bettering oneself was not only desirable, but possible. We can hardly wish for such a confluence to reoccur; no period of intellectual excellence could justify the cost. Nevertheless, Continue reading
In this dryly amusing essay, Steven Pinker tries to figure out “Why Academics Stink at Writing”.
He quickly discards the conventional explanations: that “bad writing is a deliberate choice” designed to “bamboozle”; that “difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of [the] subject matter; and, that “the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. There’s a smidgen of truth in each but none stands up to proper scrutiny.
For Pinker, the gold standard of expository prose is the classic style:
The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
While academic writers generally do want to convey some particular information, this straightforward goal is undermined by a deeper need. “[T]he writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.” Continue reading