Are rules really like bread, meant to be broken?

At the end of my last post, after whingeing about things that slipped past the copy editor, I said I was reaching for ‘a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf’ as an antidote. I’ll write about the collection – Being There – in good time, but right now I want to share a lovely bit of rule-smashing from ‘Questions on the Way to an Exhibition’ on page 77. The subject is what happens when we encounter a work of art, whether it’s a piece of sculpture, a poem, a play or novel, a music or dance performance:

Our spirit soars. We are enlightened, made lighter. The old distinction between body and spirit is resolved in us, and at the same time, in losing ourselves so completely in what is outside us, we feel the resolving of a second distinction – between subject and object, I and the world.

That I couldn’t be me, no matter what the syntactical rule says. The I has to be a subject or the whole sentence loses its meaning. The terrible thought struck me that maybe a similar thing is happening when people say ‘between you and I’: the sense is that the person speaking is a subject, not an object. And then comes the dread possibility that I will never again be able to correct, or even secretly curl my lip at, someone who says ‘between you and I’.

2 responses to “Are rules really like bread, meant to be broken?

  1. I feel very presumptuous to question David Malouf, but I don’t like that ‘I’. I find it clunky. Especially since he’s using ‘us’ in the rest of the extract. I prefer ‘ourselves and the world’ or ‘self and the world’.

  2. I don’t find it clunky, Kathy, but it does draw attention to itself (like Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’) and I imagine DM’s editor had something to say about it. You’re right: it’s ‘we … us… ourselves … us … we’ and then ‘I’. But the switch to singular is necessary, because he’s talking about the subjective experience of a work of art, and that happens in individual minds. ‘Self and the world’ would do it, but ‘I and the world’ (I think) is cooler.

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