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Writing in an On-Line World

Let me begin by reading a few concise sentences about the human self that does the writing from a wonderful collection called, Conversations with Walker Percy (1971, p. 49). “Of course, the point of my book” (Love in the Ruins), Percy writes,

is that the quest for the self is probably self-defeating. I mean if religion has any validity at all, then the quest for the self is nonsense, you know. It’s the quest for God, or as Kierkegaard, I think, said: the only way the self can become self is by becoming itself transparently before God. So, to answer your question, I suppose a good deal of my novel-writing could be a satire on the theme of the so-called quest for the self, or self-fulfillment, et cetera, et cetera. A great deal of bad novel writing is about searching for one’s self.

Notice that the subject matter of this passage is the relationship between good novels and nonsensical ideas.

Percy even hints that if we think poorly, we will probably write poorly, or at least, that what we write will not pass the test of good philosophy. Hence, it may well do more harm than good. This relationship between writing and thought seems to recall the old warning that “even the devil can quote Scripture.” And Scripture is, in general, pretty well-written, even when the devil cites it, perhaps especially when he cites it. Indeed, as a fallen angel of light, we must presume that the devil, were he to try his hand at, say, E-mail, could write persuasively. This paradox means at a minimum that good writing is not valuable ultimately because it is, in the abstract, good writing, but because, in being good writing, it guides us to the truth which, as such, transcends both good and bad writing.

At one time or another, I have lectured on precisely “What Is a Lecture,” likewise “On Teaching,” “On the Intellectual Life,” and “On Reading.” So I presume it is time to accept an invitation to say something about “writing.” What is noteworthy about the present time is that writing, at least letter-writing, has in some degree been rediscovered with Web sites and with on-line E-mail, that most speedy and most ephemeral way to communicate with people we do or do not know, here and across the globe. I have a nephew in mainland China with whom I correspond as easily and as instantaneously as I do with his sister in West Hollywood or his brother in Dallas or his cousin over across the Washington Beltway in Maryland. The circle of friends to whom we might frequently write no longer requires that we patiently await the post, affectionately known as “snail-mail” — though I admit that there is something nice about the unhurried time it takes to await, read, and answer letters. The art of letter-writing, at its best, includes a time for pondering what we have first received. E-mail indiscriminately includes within the orbit of its new-found literary immediacy, the household, the neighborhood, the city, and the world, no doubt including the Columbia or Discovery spacecraft, if we chance to know someone up there.

In many ways, E-mail is more convenient and more intimate even than the telephone. No doubt, widespread use of some sort of videophone is around the corner. We will see with whom we speak. We will be “in person” around the world, not in eighty days, but right now. Teleconferences are common. Already our streets, malls, and airports are filled with every variety of folk walking along or standing by a pillar happily or noisily or annoyingly chatting with someone on the other unknown end of a cellular phone. Things have gotten so bad that you feel you are eavesdropping on someone else’s private conversation while you are merely strolling down the avenues minding your own business. You can be in a three-seat bank in an airplane flying over Wichita, Kansas, as you unavoidably overhear a parent in the middle seat reminding the son at college in Florida to send his semester grades home, or else.

Already it is possible to send the same message by E-mail on a lap-top as by phone. Then there was a New Yorker cover showing an elegantly-dressed, very formal couple seated at table in a very expensive Manhattan restaurant, with attentive waiter in tux, violinist softly playing near-by. Meanwhile both the man and the woman, holding hands but looking distantly in different directions, were talking to someone else far away on different cellular phones. “Separate tables,” the title of an old movie about loneliness, have collapsed into the same table. The husband of my niece in Florida showed me, with their experimental television hook-up, how they could order, pay for, and have delivered to their doorstep in twenty minutes, whatever kind of pizza we might desire. Talk about civilization advancing! But I am not knocking it. It is amazing. Soon it will be unnecessary to leave one’s home for any imaginable purpose, including college and shopping. Ralph McInerny, in fact, thinks that some sort of interactive television university may be the only hope for any real religious education at the university level, assuming that we can keep the government from controlling that area also.

What I want to say about writing, however, relates to the passage from Walker Percy that I cited in the beginning in which Percy perceptively hinted that we write bad novels if we have bad philosophy. It is possible, of course, to find patches of good writing in a thoroughly bad novel, nor will we necessarily write good novels if we have good philosophy, though it helps. If we never read a lousy novel, moreover, we will probably never really know what a good one is by comparison Writing indeed is an art that must be acquired, by practice and repetition. Percy himself said he sometimes rewrote a story two or three hundred times.

Art, the habit of making well, and prudence, the habit of living well, do not have the exact same criterion of excellence. A bad man can be a good artist, but probably not precisely insofar as he is a bad man. Prudence looks to how our free human actions relate to what we are, what we do or achieve in our lives. Art looks to whether we put into a poem or a painting, an essay or a symphony, what we intended to put there and whether what we made is beautiful, regardless of the status of our own soul. If something is in fact beautiful, we do not deny it on the grounds that the artist was known to be a rake or a miser or drunk. This distinction does not mean, however, that we need to deny the personal failings and wrongs if there is real evidence for it.

Likewise, we can find very good writing in unlikely places, say, in comic novels. Take the following sentence from P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle: “Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.” I chuckle at such an extraordinarily amusing comparison between the multiple parental love of a prolific codfish and the cool aloofness of the British aristocracy towards a few younger sons. I nonetheless read Wodehouse with a dictionary and a pencil in hand both because he says things so felicitously and because he uses so many words I have never seen before used in quite the same remarkable way. How we write is no doubt directly related to how carefully we read and observe.

If, however, we do set out to write a novel for the purpose of discovering ourselves, the worst thing that can happen to us is actually to find ourselves, only then to realize that there is nothing much there unless we understand that the very meaning of self is a search for what it is not ourselves. This is the lifetime endeavor to fill the self through love and knowledge with what is not the self. The reason the human parent does not, like the male codfish, have three million five hundred thousand offspring, actually has something to do with the intense nature of love among human beings. The neglect of any human children, including younger sons of the British aristocracy, as Wodehouse playfully intimates, has dire consequences.

Actually, the reason that I started to think about writing was because I happened across an essay of Hilaire Belloc, in his lovely collection, The Silence of the Sea. The essay is entitled “On Books,” an essay sportively devoted to the use of books as objects, not as sources of reading. A book, Belloc pointed out, can be used, if needs be, to throw at someone; it can be used raise a chair up a bit higher, or to keep maps flat while we try to find out how to get off Highway 95 to go to the Lincoln Memorial. Belloc, whose name in our library card catalogue brings up over seven hundred titles, warns, with some humor, that “of all fatiguing, futile, empty trades, the worst, I suppose, is writing about writing.” Since this writing about writing is precisely what engages us here, we are obliged to consider the point of Belloc’s concern about this strange exercise.

Writing about writing is a sort of second level abstraction, not unrelated to Plato’s warning about the painters who stood two steps away from the reality about which they painted. Plato thought such a distance confused the soul and deprived it of its immediate confrontation with what is Belloc continues:

Writing itself is a bad enough trade, rightly held up to ridicule and contempt by the greater part of mankind, and especially by those who do real work, ploughing, riding, sailing — or even walking about. It is a sound instinct in men to feel this distrust and contempt for writing; and as for writing about writing, why, it is writing squared; it is writing to the second power, in which the original evil is concentrated.... There is even, I am told, a third degree of horror. Writing about what other people have written about writing: “Lives of the Critics,” “Good English,” “Essays on Sainte Beuve” — things of that sort. Good Lord, deliver us.

We might note that some of Belloc’s own very best writings were his essays on precisely “real work, ploughing, riding, sailing,” and even in “walking about.” Who can ever forget the descriptions of Delft, Arles, Lynn, and Ely in The Hills and the Sea? There are no better books on “walking” than Belloc’s own The Path to Rome and The Four Men, almost as if to say that if you are going to write well, you must first do the ordinary things that the “greater part of mankind do.”

The great French writer, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, previously in the sixteenth century also wrote an essay “On Books.” Similar to Belloc’s criterion of experience, he particularly liked the writings of Julius Caesar because the man wrote of what he knew, namely of men and war. Remembering that Walker Percy was also a doctor, Montaigne asks, “What can a man expect from a physician who writes of war, or from a mere scholar, treating the designs of princes?” Evidently, not much. Montaigne then goes on to give some advice about reading books that need not be read again. I might recall first, however, a remark of C. S. Lewis, who said that you have not read a great book at all, if you have only read it once. But Montaigne is talking of books, perhaps not great books, that he figures are indeed worth at least one reading. At the end of a book he has just read for the first and last time, he tells us, he takes the time to jot down his general impressions of the book and of its author.

After reading the famous Italian writer Guicciardini, from whom Machiavelli learned so much, for example, Montaigne praised him for his vast erudition. He was in fact present at most of the events he wrote about. Montaigne pointed to what Guicciardini thought himself to be best at, namely his literary digressions. Though these sometimes were quite good, they were, on the whole in Montaigne’s view, a bit too artificial. Guicciardini was too “fond” of what he was writing. Then Montaigne adds this remarkable reflection on Guicciardini, a passage that reveals quite well that doctor of souls, Walker Percy’s insight about how a man’s fundamental philosophy shows through what he writes:

I have also observed this in him, that of so many souls and so many effects, so many motives and so many counsels as he judges, he never attributes any one to virtue, religion, or conscience, as if all these were utterly extinct in the world; and of all the actions, how brave soever in outward show they appear in themselves, he always refers the cause and motive to some vicious occasion or some prospect of profit. It is impossible to imagine but that, among such an infinite number of actions as he makes mention of, there must be some one produced by way of honest reason. No corruption could so universally have infected men that someone would not have escaped the contagion: which makes me suspect that his own taste was vicious, whence it might happen that he judged other men by himself.

Even in translation, that is marvelously said, is it not?

Montaigne’s quite lucid observation about Guicciardini, no doubt, is but a reflection on the classic teaching about the effects of The Fall, that men are prone to evil in many ways but that human nature is not corrupt as such, that there is always a possibility in freedom and grace to reject the vicious temptations that are admittedly prevalent. What of course Montaigne has done here, to be sure, is to examine the writings of a man to see what they reveal about him, about his self or his soul. Those who take up the craft of writing, thus, should be mindful that there will always somewhere be a Montaigne or a Walker Percy out there to read what we write and to see what it reveals about our own souls and the understanding of reality that what we write displays.

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a book no writer can afford to be without, we find an entry entitled, “Worn-out Humour.” In writing, we are urged to choose our jokes and witticisms carefully and to forget those that have become stale, or what we used to call in my Iowa youth “corney.” The entry begins by recalling Queen Victoria’s famous protestation, “We are not amused.” Fowler points out that whatever it was that did not amuse the good Queen would have been in fact quite amusing to most people. Otherwise its not also amusing the Queen would not have been an issue. Whatever it was, Fowler points out, just did not “amuse the person whose amusement matters.”

Having given us this solid reflection, Fowler proceeds to make a point about writing. In writing, whose opinion matters? “The writer’s Queen Victoria,” he carefully explains, “is his public, and, he would do well to keep a bust of the old Queen on his desk with the legend ‘We are not amused’ hanging from it.” Why, we might ask, is this bust of the Queen on our desk an aid to our writing? Because the public for whom we write will not be “amused if he (the writer) serves it up the small facetiae that it remembers long ago to have taken delight in. We recognize this about anecdotes, avoid putting on our friends the depressing duty of simulating surprise, and sort out our stock of chestnuts and still possibles. Anecdotes are our pounds, and we take care of them; but of phrases that are our pence, we are more neglectful.” That is, we all have stories or jokes we like to repeat that are in truth “chestnuts.” Fowler advises us simply, “Don’t use them.” But we still may have old stories or jokes that we can really tell again, the “still possibles,” that will work in this explanation or before that audience. These we can use if we are good writers.

Let me make one more point about the relation between reading and writing. In the previous citation that I just used from Fowler, he used the word “facetiae.” Similar to what I said about reading Wodehouse with a pencil in hand, I had to look that word up as it was not quite familiar to me. It comes from a Latin word meaning something witty or amusing, a remark or a writing. Fowler used the word perfectly to make his point. In recalling it, I wish again to remind any writer that when he comes across a word in Fowler or Wodehouse or Walker Percy or Montaigne that he does not know, the first thing he must do is to admit that he does not know it, look it up, and reflect on how it is used so well. And even when we know what a word like “cheerfully” means, we need to notice how wonderfully it is used when it appears in a sentence in Wodehouse to describe the reaction of the male codfish on beholding his three million, five hundred thousand little ones in contrast to the dour attitude of the British aristocracy who produce younger sons that Wodehouse himself describes with a good cheer and delight that is almost indescribably funny and human.

The suggestion that we also learn how to write by reading is not designed to encourage plagiarism, but to alert us to what it means to write well. We need not pretend that we dream up most of our ideas or our facts from out of the depths of our own relative emptiness. “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation,” Voltaire once said. “The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor’s, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” We might notice this about copyrights, those legal fictions designed to protect the author of the originality of what he writes, that we can copyright what we write, but not our ideas as such. Ideas as such are not anyone’s private possessions. The very purpose of knowledge is that we have the same ideas about truth. Ideas are presented to us as good or bad, true or false, in whatever language or wording they might be found. When we sit down to state the idea, it will be in our own way. Words change. Ideas do not.

Yet, it is good to have about us, within reason of course, many books. James Boswell recalls the following admonition:

Dr. Johnson advised me to-day (Monday, September 22, 1777), to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. “What you read then (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject molds in your mind, it is a change if you again have a desire to study it.” He added, “If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.”

The books that we have about us are our immediate foundations for instruction. Ideas mould in our mind but they change too, and our memory of them, so we need the books to be there, to go back to them. They keep us grounded, just as what we write keeps before us the fact that our ideas are meant to be communicated to others. We are never content just to express them to ourselves. Indeed, if we had no one to write to, express ourselves to, we would soon go mad.

Dr. Johnson made another point that I think worth emphasizing. It concerns the “eager desire for instruction.” As a professor, I have often wondered about what it is that makes a student stop reading for grades and begin to read because he is struck by something, because he wonders about something? Johnson did not deny that we might “prescribe a task” to read something that we would not otherwise read easily. We could decide, for instance, within the next month, one way or another, to read The Brothers Karamazov or Dorothy Sayers’ The Whimsical Christian. But we would be reading it, at first at least, from duty, not delight. An ex-student of mine, now working for a Congressman, called me up the other day to tell me how pleased he was that a man who works with him came in the other morning and told him that he had reread Thucydides. My friend was pleased by the simple fact that his colleague actually read Thucydides because he enjoyed it. I have often been struck by the fact that a book I have been asked to review will be a great aid in reading the book. We learn to like many books that we are required to read — which is, ultimately, if I might put it this way, is the only justification for a professor to teach a class to young men and women.

Thus, Johnson is right, a man’s reading should mainly arise from his “immediate inclination.” Johnson made the same point a couple of years later, on April 16, 1779, in fact, in another way. The remark concerned an earlier stage in a youth’s education: “I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards” (II, p. 290). Notice that Johnson does not necessarily disagree with Walker Percy about good and bad books. In fact, he agrees with him. There is no sense, however, in talking of good and bad books to someone who reads no books or who must always be forced to read out of a motive of need or profit rather than a motive of entertainment or wonder. The “sure good” is to get the boy’s attention engaged. Once that is accomplished, we can begin to discuss the difference between good and bad books. I suppose once we can get him to begin to write just for the delight of it, only then can we begin to deal with the question of good and bad writing.

I would like to make one final point about books, and reading, and writing. I was lately talking with Mr. Nicholas Scheetz, the Manuscript Librarian at the Georgetown University Library. I asked whether the library preserves the discs that writers today normally use initially to write their works. He replied that this was a very perplexing question and one not at all settled in the profession. As anyone knows who has been writing on word processors or computers for many years, the technology of this way of doing things changes so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep up with it. Scheetz said that twenty years at the most is the length of a disc before it not only becomes obsolete but unreproducible except in some rare archive that has preserved the machines we now use daily to read them. He said that from the point of view of an archivist, in many ways the “hard copy” remains the best way to preserve someone’s letters and materials.

Several years ago, I had been on a committee in the National Endowment for the Humanities that was concerned with preserving even books written on various grades of paper. Books and newspapers and letters, as physical objects, are themselves, in terms of decades and centuries, quite ephemeral and passing. No doubt the future of both books and on-line materials will be itself a question of reproducing the technology in which much of writing today exists, though hopefully this will not be any impossible problem. In fact, it is probably true to say today, that a book or an essay first appears in on-line form and only secondarily in print form. Books are published from discs not from paper manuscripts, even though what we read is often still in print form. Indeed, I doubt if it will ever be possible and certainly not advisable for everything to appear simply on-line. A book has a certain independent existence whose integrity is guaranteed by its very physicalness.

In conclusion, let me again remind you of Fowler’s admonition about not using old “chestnuts,” whether on-line or in print. We need first to remind ourselves that with today’s technology we could probably record every word we ever spoke in our lives. We could keep it on a couple of discs. This alone is proof of Walker Percy’s point that paradise cannot possibly consist in eternally finding ourselves, in eternally listening to our own disc played over and over. Fowler, of course, does not mean that we should neglect irony and humor with the lessons they teach us, sometimes the most profound of lessons. Aristotle himself, I believe, intimated that someone who understands the point of jokes is potentially a good metaphysician because he can see how things relate to one another as parts of a whole. Indeed, some of the most profound of lessons can be taught through humor. Let no one who hears me ever forget Wodehouse’s prolific male codfish cheerfully loving his three million five hundred thousand little codfish..

Bennett Cerf, in one of his books, a book appropriately entitled for our purposes here, A Treasury of Atrocious Puns, recounts the following scene:

The famous if sometimes unintelligible Gertrude Stein was about to cross the Champs-Elysées in Paris one afternoon when she paused to rub a mosquito bite on the back of her neck. Just then an automobile out of control careened down the avenue, missing Gertrude Stein by a matter of seconds — inches. Miss Stein’s companion, Alice B. Toklas, murmured thankfully, “An itch in time saves Stein.”

Well, that is indeed an old chestnut, whether in print or on line. On hearing it, I hope none of you has to indulge, as Fowler put it, in the “depressing duty of simulating surprise” because you have heard it all before.

Notice that Bennett Cerf remarks that Gertrude Stein is both famous and “sometimes unintelligible.” May I leave you with this thought? We never know whether we might or might not become famous or even infamous. We write indeed so that someone will read us, but writing is such that we never really know if they will, or if they do, who they might be. Our best reader will almost invariably be someone we never heard of. But we can always, on-line or on paper, seek to be intelligible. No one, not ever Gertrude Stein, with her itch in time, ever deliberately chose to be unintelligible to everyone. To be intelligible to one another is the purpose of our kind. This is why we are called, precisely, the rational animal.

And being intelligible does not mean that we need not be amusing, even in our seriousness, unless to achieve this lofty goal of intelligibility, we constantly inflect old chestnuts on our readers and friends. We want to pass from laboring to know because we set ourselves a task, to knowing because we love the truth and seek to write it down. Let us be like Guicciardini and notice all the things that go on about us, but let us not, like him, conclude that all things proceed from vicious occasion and profit, that no one at no time ever did anything simply because it was good to do. Let us not write our bad novels merely to be writing about writing or to inflict ourselves on ourselves as the sole objects of our discoveries. Rather let what is ourselves become part of the world that is, the world that is not ourselves, the world in which we actually live and in which we delight.

Schall, S.J. James V. “On Writing in an On-Line World.” From Vital Speeches, LXIII (June 1, 1997), 503-507.

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