Philosophy Writing

Phyllis Rose — In Writing About Ideas, Some Silences Are Golden

This post is a lovely piece about writing by Phyllis Rose.  Here’s a link to the original, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001.

It’s a wonderful essay about how to write effectively, using as a case in point her analysis of Louis Menand’s book, The Metaphysical Club, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.  Her reaction to the book is similar to mine, which is that it’s both brilliant and maddening.  Great insights and bewildering presentation.  A lesson to all of us, that even an author who is one of the best there is at writing about ideas can get it wrong sometimes.  The problem, she shows us, is trying to tell a story about ideas within an artificial narrative framework.

The essay starts with one of the great  opening paragraphs about how to get yourself out of a jam in your writing: 

When I am in doubt about how to begin something, I always begin with the word “when.” This immediately sets me off in the realm of time, narrative, one thing happening after or before or at the same time as another, and inhibits me from presenting what I have to say in too abstract a fashion. So I teach my nonfiction-writing students, and so I practice as a nonfiction writer. Chronology is your friend, I tell my students. Chronology will always come to your help when you don’t know how to organize material or how to keep readers interested in it.

Narrative can be a great way to lead the reader into your analysis, she says, but it can also be a “cheap trick, a flattening and simplification of truth so extreme as to be false.”  Lots of issues don’t fit neatly into a chronology and trying to make them fit fails to do them justice.  Menand is talking about pragmatism, America’s primary contribution to philosophy. There are four key figures in this story — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey — who are all interesting figures in their own right but who don’t fit into a comfortable story line.  The first three were contemporaries, who belonged to a discussion group called “The Metaphysical Club,” but Dewey was a generation removed. 

Menand tries to link the emergence of pragmatism to the experience of the Civil War through Holmes, but awkwardly enough he was the only one who actually fought in it.  In the effort to keep the narrative structure going in spite of the difficulties it posed for his discussion of pragmatism, Menand has to string together a series of disconnected narratives about the key actors, which are more distracting than compelling in making his point.

Clearly, Menand is fascinated by every one of these stories and hopes he can lead us to share his fascination. But, except for some irrelevant pleasures — the Dartmouth case had me singing my brother’s college song to him over the phone (“Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a great and pious man; he went into the wilderness to teach the In-die-ann”) — I was not fascinatable; the stories seemed burdensome. In every case, the author seemed to go back to the beginning, like Polonius in Hamlet, who cannot announce the actor’s arrival at Elsinore without starting off, “When Roscius was an actor in Rome.” You get so you feel it coming, the prose gathering itself up into a tighter ball, to lunge out into a narrative.

Sometimes, she concludes, writers need to stop trying so hard to sell the interpretation they are so laboriously constructing and leave a little space for readers to create their own stories.  “Some silences are golden.”

Enjoy.

Menand Cover

In Writing About Ideas, Some Silences Are Golden

By PHYLLIS ROSE

When I am in doubt about how to begin something, I always begin with the word “when.” This immediately sets me off in the realm of time, narrative, one thing happening after or before or at the same time as another, and inhibits me from presenting what I have to say in too abstract a fashion. So I teach my nonfiction-writing students, and so I practice as a nonfiction writer. Chronology is your friend, I tell my students. Chronology will always come to your help when you don’t know how to organize material or how to keep readers interested in it.

At the same time, we all know that chronology is a cheap trick, a flattening and simplification of truth so extreme as to be false, and that, unless strenuous efforts are taken to counteract the effect, chronology suggests causality or at the very least “significance” — the opposite of that randomness that is the essence of life. To say that a woman gets up in the morning, eats a bagel, and takes the bus to work is to set up the expectation that something worthy of note will happen later in her day. To observe, as E. H. Carr pointed out a generation ago in “The Historian and His Facts,” that Caesar crossed the Rubicon implies that his crossing has some significance in a larger sequence of events. My father crossed the East River every day for years without anyone recording the fact until now. In other words, what we choose to consider “facts” are linked to an argument that dignifies them.

This way of thinking about narrative is, if I understand Louis Menand’s witty, brilliant, and life-enhancing presentation of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), very much in the tradition of the pragmatists, who emphasized the strategic and the contingent. Many stories are always possible. We choose one for our own purposes. But Menand can’t seem quite to figure out what story he should tell in this book, and to me it reads like a collection of essays struggling to be born.

Pragmatism was a term that William James popularized at the end of the 19th century to describe the belief that truth is proved by action. Pragmatists think it’s an error to regard a belief as “true” only if it mirrors reality. “No belief, James thought, is justified by its correspondence with reality, because mirroring reality is not the purpose of having minds,” Menand writes. Our ideas help us live. They are instruments for coping, modes of adapting to reality rather than, in James’s words, “revelations or gnostic answers to some ‘divinely instituted world-enigma.’ ” John Dewey, too, believed that “we don’t act because we have ideas; we have ideas because we must act.” An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork.

Narrative, similarly, is strategic, a way of making a point we want to make. Sometimes, if what we have is a series of interests to explore, a temperament to convey, a narrative can get in the way, forcing us to make points we don’t especially need to make and distracting attention from the majesty of our scattered interests. There is no narrative in Montaigne’s essays, for example, yet no one who has read them all through would say they lack unity or a point.

Menand’s book is subtitled A Story of Ideas in America. Someone who knows the marketplace better than I do tells me that The Metaphysical Club is a good title, a selling title, implying that the book will admit its purchaser to a select group of educated people who care about serious thought. The club after which the book is named was a discussion group in Cambridge, Mass., that three of the four major pragmatists in the book belonged to in 1872: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the legal theorist and later Supreme Court justice; William James, the psychologist and theorist of belief; and Charles Sanders Peirce, who helped bring probability theory to the center of American thinking. The fourth pragmatist, Dewey, was never anywhere near the discussion group; he belonged to a different generation. The title focuses attention on the discussion of ideas in post-Civil War America, but the Metaphysical Club itself has almost nothing to do with Menand’s story.

That story is ostensibly about how the intellectual life of America was changed by the Civil War. “The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North along with it. It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking that would help people cope with the condition of modern life.” Crudely to simplify, what the Civil War did was to create a distrust of ideologies.

Menand begins with a fascinating account of Holmes’s wartime experience. He was repeatedly wounded and watched friends suffer and die. He entered the war a fervent abolitionist; the war destroyed his belief in beliefs. “Certitude leads to violence,” he learned, and nothing is worth dying for. It’s confusing, then, to begin the second part of the book, about James, and learn immediately that he never fought in the Civil War. What he did instead — Menand presents this as the developmental equivalent of fighting in the war — was to accompany the renowned scientist Louis Agassiz to Brazil on a quixotic expedition to find evidence of glaciers in the tropics, a discovery that Agassiz believed would help him discredit Darwin. For James, however, the expedition — in 1865, at about the time the Civil War was ending — served to discredit Agassiz.

This section introduces to the book the very important subject of The Origin of Species. Published in 1859, Darwin’s book, in addition to presenting the theory of evolution, more startlingly offered an explanation of creation that depended only on chance and probability. Eliminating the need to believe in a supreme intelligence who had created life on earth, it rendered obsolete the idea that the universe is the result of an idea.

The next section of The Metaphysical Club is about Benjamin Peirce and his son Charles, statistician-philosophers. Inevitably, Menand’s discussion puts a heavy emphasis on the law of averages and probability theory. It’s interesting stuff, but by this point one may reasonably ask, “Where is the story in this story of ideas?” The Peirces’ story — especially their participation in the Howland case, in which they used probability theory to show that a will had been forged — seems to have less to do with the Civil War than with the controversy over Darwin and the desacralized view of humanity that his work produced.

The reaction to Darwin in America is the buried story in this book, the road not taken, the theme left undeveloped. It is a great and important story, but not very sexy. War is sexier. So is the centrality of the American experience — to Americans. That is the story Menand purports to tell — the effect of the Civil War on the intellectual culture of America. But using the experience of war to explain changes in thinking doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. “As the First World War would do for many Europeans sixty years later, and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans a hundred years later, the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it,” he writes. Substitute “Vietnam War” for “Civil War” and see what you think of the statement: “The Vietnam War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.” Really? Didn’t the disillusionment with government, the distrust of corporate America, and the disassociation from the imperialist enterprise precede the war, in the early 1960s, making what we call “Vietnam” — a war for distant territory and probably dumb policy objectives — the hard sell to the American people that it was? Wars are convenient marking points for change, but do they cause change? All wars produce a certain skepticism or disillusionment in those who fight them. Can anybody, fighting in no matter how good a cause, suffer an injury or a friend’s death and not think, “Can anything be worth this?” (Even labor pains have been known to produce such thoughts.) Who can say that the Civil War was especially anti-ideological in its effect, and not typically so? This, without getting into questions about whether or not modern America is anti-ideological. Passionately held beliefs are still leading to violence. Would the families of people killed by Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber agree that our world has become anti-ideological?

Nothing later in The Metaphysical Club matches the clarity of the relationship between personal experience and philosophical result in the opening section, on Holmes and the Civil War. It sets the book off on a wrong foot. Also, it’s sloppy biography. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, if people drew clear conclusions from experience, no one who divorced would ever remarry.

Writing for a so-called popular audience (that means an extremely limited audience of about 15,000 well-educated people who like to read serious books) as opposed to an academic audience has traditionally demanded narrative. Traditionally, the university has encouraged abstract, theoretical writing with clearly defined and logical transitions. More recently, narrative has found a place even in academic discourse, thanks to the work of great storyteller-theorists like Simon Schama, Stephen Greenblatt, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Stephen Jay Gould. But sometimes stories are unnecessary, and I think The Metaphysical Club is a case in point. The book suffers from hyperactive narrative. The first narrative — the effect of the Civil War on Holmes — breaks off without sequel. After that, semi-attached narratives spring up like buttercups — or tumors: the Howland-will case and the Dartmouth College case, in which an argument over who ran Dartmouth led to a judicial decision protecting corporations from government. Clearly, Menand is fascinated by every one of these stories and hopes he can lead us to share his fascination. But, except for some irrelevant pleasures — the Dartmouth case had me singing my brother’s college song to him over the phone (“Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a great and pious man; he went into the wilderness to teach the In-die-ann”) — I was not fascinatable; the stories seemed burdensome. In every case, the author seemed to go back to the beginning, like Polonius in Hamlet, who cannot announce the actor’s arrival at Elsinore without starting off, “When Roscius was an actor in Rome.” You get so you feel it coming, the prose gathering itself up into a tighter ball, to lunge out into a narrative. Pullman Strike? That will mean paragraphs on railroads, paragraphs on Pullman, paragraphs on Pullman cars and Pullman porters, and finally pages on the strike. It is so hard to believe that Menand, one of the best essayists around, doesn’t know better than to stop going backward all the time, that Christopher Caldwell and James Fallows, discussing the book in Slate, advanced the idea that he was intentionally letting the seams show. Modernist writing, like deconstructed clothing, insists on letting you see its construction. An interesting idea. In this case, it’s like saying that a fat person refrains from undertaking a regime of diet and exercise because he doesn’t want to fool you into thinking he is thin.

This is a book that people will praise for its ambition as a way of alluding to its inadequacies of execution. Why nitpick when a book finally comes along that is serious, intelligent, intellectual in the best sense? I asked myself that, and found the answer in Menand’s own wonderful discussion of Darwinism and pragmatism, and the many examples of false deductions from Darwin that we encounter along the way: because I want to read more books that are written the way I like to read them, and for that to happen I must discourage certain chance variations and encourage others. Many people will like other parts of this book, but I liked it best as an introduction to pragmatism, when it left biography and narrative alone and frankly treated ideas, which few people writing now do with more clarity and verve than Menand.

Books are not written at a sitting. Simenon, the French mystery novelist, was reported to have locked himself in a room for two weeks at a time, had meals delivered to his door, and when he emerged, did so with a completed novel. He was the exception. Most books take years to write and are the products of enthusiasms and obsessions whose action over time can be considered geological: They create a mound here, a canyon there. The sections or features resulting from the writer’s daysor months-long tidal surges do not always work in the book as a whole. The writer gets fascinated with some minor point and spends weeks doing research and writing about it. Sometimes it comes to seem like a major point. Sometimes the writer is fooling himself. If he or she wants to produce a great book, that section will be sacrificed, no matter how much time it took. All that work gone with nothing to show for it. It’s hard to bear.

From day to day you can feel the quality of your writing change. Sometimes it just isn’t coming. Sometimes you feel pleased with yourself and with life. Sometimes you want to chuck it all. A pro knows that every day’s work counts, and that the best way to get the book written is just to plug away and not be critical of it until a mass of it is there to criticize and shape. It helps if you can tell yourself that no one but you is aware of the daily fluctuations in quality, and it’s probably true.

For if books take years to write, even the longest take only days or hours to read. That helps create the illusion of coherence where there really is little or none. The reader, no matter how careful, merely skims compared with what the writer does. The reader wants there to be coherence. He has a powerful impulse to put together a “story.” The only thing that will stop him from putting together a story is the writer’s insistence on a different story from the one the reader sees.

So, after chronology, the nonfiction writer’s most powerful tool is silence. Instead of hammering away at every transition, making the logical connection between one section and the next as clear as a railroad track, the writer is better off leaving a space break and allowing the reader to intuit connections. For a certain temperament (mine, for one) this trusting of the reader is the greatest spiritual discipline that writing demands.

Phyllis Rose is a professor of English at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) and The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time (Scribner, 1997). http://chronicle.com.

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