Tag Archives: Steven Pinker

David Malouf’s Being There

David Malouf, Being There (Knopf 2014)

1btDavid Malouf could write about the phone book in a way that held his readers rapt. He is a master of what Steven Pinker  (borrowing from Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner) calls the classic style: his readers are invited into conversation with him as he shows us something about the world. He is a brilliant, warm, generous conversationalist; the ‘something’ in this book is the world of art.

Being There is the third collection of Malouf’s writing published by Knopf in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday. Almost half of it is devoted to essays (including reviews, lectures, one-off newspaper columns and catalogue essays) on other people’s creations. Parts II consists of the librettos of two operas, Voss and Mer de Glace. Part III is a playscript, a ‘free version’ of  Euripides’ Hippolytus.

A strong theme in the first part is the importance of our physical presence to the appreciation and enjoyment of art. Malouf articulates this theme most clearly in the 1989 essay that lends its title to the collection. Referring to orchestral music, he writes that after being ‘in love with the perfection of a great performance on record’ we have come back to ‘gloomy old covert halls’, to

share as fellow citizens an experience that is only available on the big city, as unique a product of our civilisation as the skyscraper or the cantilever bridge. An orchestra, in the person of its conductor and each of its ninety to 120 players, performing one of the great works of our heritage, making music, but in an environment that has not been bled of all those elements of noise out of which organised sound arose – the street noises we have just stepped away from, voices in the foyer, the whispers and shuffling before the conductor is quite ready, the slight disturbance of the air that is created by 2000 men and women breathing, even the occasional cough; that substratum of undifferentiated sound against which made music has to assert itself, and against which we bring ourselves to attention. Somehow, to experience the fulness of what music offers we have to be there. Presence is everything.

I love that. My most enjoyable night ever at the opera (not that I’ve been to the opera all that often) is a far cry the one Malouf describes, but I think he would have enjoyed it. It wasn’t in ‘the big city’, but in the Innisfail Shire Hall on a sweltering tropical night in the 1970s. All the windows of the hall were open, so the street noises, though distant, weren’t left behind; and the air in the hall was more than slightly disturbed by hundreds of fans wielded by audience members, who weren’t above an occasional comment. I don’t think anyone considered the performance to be perfection. The costumes looked as if they’d been scrounged from the combined storage rooms of every choral society in north Queensland, and the cast had a similar catch-as-catch-can feel. But from the Grand March from Aida that began proceedings to the final moments of the main event, Bizet’s Carmen, it was exhilarating. It was impossible not to be aware of the physicality of the event – David Malouf’s word ‘presence’ is right on the button.

The sixteen essays of Part I give accounts of Malouf’s presence at, among other places, a ‘happening’ in London in 1965, Barrie Kosky’s much-derided 1995 production of Nabucco (which he defends brilliantly), the Sydney Opera House (‘a single building … providing a city almost overnight with what it lacked, a defining centre’). He responds to the work of architect Glen Murcutt, photographer Bill Henson (long before Kevin Rudd pronounced his work ‘absolutely revolting’), painter William Robinson, and others. He is always interesting.

I haven’t seen Voss or Mer de Glace, and unsurprisingly found the librettos pretty inscrutable. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, because essays in the first part of the book have prepared the ground. Part of Malouf’s point about the importance of presence is the idea that a play, an opera or a piece of music is more than its script or libretto. In ‘Opera’ (1988), he writes:

That what is sung in opera shares with speech the use of words ought not to confuse us into believing that what the music expresses is what is in the words. The music has a drama and a purpose of its own. What it gives voice to, beyond mere social exchange or the expression of highly charged particular emotions – devotion, doubt, desire, jealousy, pity, anger, resolution, triumph, grief – is the spirit in action.

The Hippolytus, commissioned by the Bell Shakespeare Company and first performed in 2002, is a wonderful read, and for my money is a standing reproach to the domesticated versions of the Greeks that have been appearing on Sydney stages in the last few years. I’m sorry to have missed the production – maybe I can live in hope of a revival.

I met David Malouf in the street recently, and he referred to himself as ‘very old’. May we all age so gracefully, and so creatively.

Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Allen Lane 2014)

IMG_1330I love a good argument about punctuation, spelling, syntax or the meaning of words. Does MS Word really allow minuscule to be spelled with two Is? How about the person who wrote to the paper complaining that septic tank should be aseptic tank or at least have an apostrophe to mark the missing letter? What is the difference between ‘my Aunt Mabel’, ‘my aunt Mabel’ and ‘my aunt, Mabel’, and are they all permissible? Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style doesn’t tackle any of these questions, but I reckon he’d be up for the conversation.

For the record, my favourite style guide is Joseph M Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pinker doesn’t attempt that book’s succinct guidance, but he brings a cognitive scientist’s perspective to the subject, and his cool, witty, reasonable approach is a joy. Well, mostly a joy: the middle chapter, ‘The web, the Tree and the String’, explains the intricacies of English syntax in a way that verges on the tedious if you already have a grasp of the subject, and is probably impenetrable if you are looking for enlightenment. Apart from that skippable chapter, the book is rich with insight.

Pinker focuses on the ‘classic style’, in which, he says:

The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. … [P]rose is a window onto the world.

In the classic style, the writer simulates two experiences: showing the reader something and engaging in conversation with the reader. There are plenty of other legitimate styles – Pinker names contemplative, romantic, prophetic, oracular, oratorical, practical, plain, ironic and postmodern – but thankfully this book sticks with just the one, which, Pinker says, is ‘an ideal that can pull writers away from many of their worst habits’.

He identifies a number of those habits, conveniently listed as ‘metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologising, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives’. That’s quite a list and for my money an extremely useful one. It’s characteristic of Pinker’s approach that he warns against memorising it as a list of don’ts – better, he says, to keep in mind the guiding metaphor in the quote above.

There’s a great discussion of incomprehensible prose. Rejecting the popular explanation that much academic and bureaucratic writing is deliberately impenetrable for self-protective or self-promoting reasons, he reaches for the tool known as Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Hanlon’s Razor was new to me in that form, so I was interested to read more about it in Wikipedia, and delighted to see that Goethe wrote a version of it in 1774.)

The kind of stupidity Pinker has in mind is what economists call the Curse of Knowledge:

a difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

This sounds simple, yet – and here Pinker’s cognitive science background comes into play – psychologists regularly discover more or less the same thing with new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, and so on. In the writing context, ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem to obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day.’

Pinker has a lot to say about the Curse of Knowledge, and makes some useful suggestions for how to guard against it, but in the end, sadly, there’s no silver bullet to remove the curse. But how good it is to be reminded starkly:

The form in which thoughts occurs to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.

After an excellent chapter on coherence, which I plan to reread carefully, Pinker gets to the fun bit of any book on style in a final chapter, ‘Telling Right from Wrong’. After a sweet demolition job on the pedants who write to the newspapers (of whom the ‘septic tank man,my example, not Pinker’s, is my favourite), in which he takes apart the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist myth, he pronounces on a hundred usage issues – mostly what he gives is the current consensus among linguists, but where experts disagree he gives his own best judgement.

This chapter is a proofreader or copy editor’s delight. I’m grateful for his clarity about the subjunctive. I cheer aloud when he, a USer, curls his lip at US punctuation conventions for the end of quotations, or takes issue with rigid rules about that and which, or talks sense about among and between. I want to be in the room with him to argue about datum and data. I’m chastened by his entries on decimate and unique, and my dissatisfaction about fortuitous remains unallayed. While I don’t understand his argument about between you and I, from now on I’ll stop bridling when people say it. You’ll have your own examples.