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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

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Part Five. Style, Irony, Metaphor, and Meaning

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1‘Style’ is very much a nineteenth century term, not that it can be deemed to have been unknown before or after that momentous period, but rather that it seems, at that particular time, to usurp the areas of other, presumably more technical terms as the century moves along. In the second half of the century it becomes a cover-term, not only for the technicalities of the arts and literature, but also for the many skills required for the mastery of those technicalities, and even the verve, the panache that goes into that mastery and eventually colours the life-style and character of the artists themselves. This is in accord with the origin of the word, as the name of an implement in the art of writing and calligraphy, and describes very accurately its connections with the characteristic mixture of the crudely scientific and the elegantly decadent that seems to set its stamp on the period. When the stylus, like pen or pencil, is finally abandoned by the litterateurs of the following century for the typewriter and the word processor, there is suddenly much less cause for worrying about style in the sense of the individuation of language (or of brush-strokes). How the automation of various skills of composition and spelling, with the help of mechanical spell-checks and thesauri, will eventually affect the skills of writing in our time, is far from clear, but without any doubt it will be of paramount importance for any predictions of cultural development.


2The terms that were the predecessors of ‘style,’ or at least its rivals, terms like ‘diction’ and ‘taste,’ had a much more rigorously definable range of meaning, which made them quite unpopular with the romantics. One is reminded of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s concerted attacks on these eighteenth century concepts.

3‘Diction’ very forcibly retains the classical demarcations between different styles appropriate to different genres and even different areas of subject matter or social occupations. As there were, in traditional Aristotelian aesthetics, three major genres, the epic, the dramatic and the lyric, there had to be likewise three major dictions or styles: the elevated, the plain and the medial (terms and definitions could, of course, vary a great deal).

4The distinctions could also be illustrated in various ways. A very popular scheme from the Middle Ages was the Rota Virgiliana—the Wheel of Virgil—in which the three major genres of Virgil’s literary production were highlighted as models for the three levels of diction. The language of the medial diction is the sweet bucolic language of his Eclogues. The diction of the arator or ploughman is the one found in his Georgics, and the elevated or sublime diction of the soldier or lord is the one to be found in the Roman national epic, the Aeneid. As far back as classical antiquity, however, there had been attempts to add to this too meagre scheme of things: in Demetrius Phalereus’ treatise On Style (De elocutione), for example, the most widespread handbook of style known from late classical times, there are four levels of diction: the medial being split in two: the elegant (glaphyrós) and the forcible or terrifying (deinós).

5Whatever the divisions, this taxonomy of diction eventually came to seem inadequate as a measure of style: even before Buffon minted the phrase that the ‘style est l’homme même’ (11), we may find examples of the use of ‘style’—Demetrius had used the term ‘character’ in order to denote his four categories of diction—which point in the direction of individuation for marking individual idiosyncrasies of language (or art). ‘Character’ is, in etymology and use, closely akin to ‘style,’ as its primary meaning is a sharp stylus and the incised mark it makes (charactêros). The Aristotelian term êthos, which is normally translated ‘character as habitual manner or disposition,’ has a very different use and provenance.

6Demetrius’s recommendations of the use of ‘forcible’ style (with Demosthenes as a prime example) is certainly to be descried in one of the most influential investigations of style from the mid-nineteenth century: Herbert Spencer’s long essay of 1852, ‘The Philosophy of Style,’ which is now largely forgotten but was read and quoted far into this century by, for instance, the Swedish modernist Pär Lagerkvist, who refers to it constantly and admiringly in his early manifesto of 1913, Ordkonst och bildkonst (Verbal Art and Visual Art).

7The dynamic/mechanical conception of language Spencer adheres to, and his uniform argument from a general concept of progress, now seem wide of the mark. How can we find rational arguments for his view that Saxon words are more primitive and forceful than Latin ones, or that the word order of English (with the adjective preceding the noun) is more natural than, say, the word order of French? This relegates the entire essay to that context of evolutionary thought that we somewhat inaccurately refer to as Darwinist, the same context to which we must relegate the curious defence of the linguistic and symbolic abilities of brute animals and mute infants in Samuel Butler’s lecture from 1890, ‘Thought and Language.’ Still, Spencer’s version of language is very persistent as his model of style is resolutely anti-taxonomic and in favour of individual and intuitionist criteria of values. Curiously, he seems in the end to fear the too forceful individuation of language and appears to want to end with the ideal of a style adaptable to any mode and character of expression.

8Spencer’s prescriptions, and to some extent also his prejudices, are followed in their anti-taxonomic bias by most subsequent writers on style (with some notable exceptions, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins). Spencer echoes through Remy de Gourmont and John Middleton Murray (especially in his lectures at Brasenose in 1921, which almost embarrassingly resemble Spencer even in their title), and continue to echo through Leo Spitzer, Barthes, and Riffaterre’s earlier pronouncements. These views are admirably contrasted, sometimes to mutual detriment, in Gérard Genette’s essay ‘Style et signification’ (‘Style and Meaning’), no doubt one of the most significant contributions to the study of style for some years.

9Remy de Gourmont’s series of articles ‘Les funérailles du style,’ (‘The Funerals of Style’), later the book Le problème du style (The Problem of Style), were occasional works, as he himself points out, in refutation of a quite conventional and soon forgotten book by Albalat. It served to codify, however, the opposition of the conventionalities of nineteenth century style in identifying the ornamental view of language and metaphor as a bourgeois aberration. Gourmont’s importance as a mediator between symbolism and naturalism has not yet had its proper recognition, nor has his view of style as ‘une spécialisation de la sensibilité’ [‘a specialty of sensibility’], and of art as ‘l’exercice spontané et ingénu d’un talent naturel’ [‘the spontaneous, ingenious exercise of a natural talent’] (32). For Gourmont’s intellectual version of primitivism—soon to be absorbed by his admirers among the modernists and imagists, Eliot, Pound and T.E. Hulme among them—bridges the seemingly contrary movements of symbolism and naturalism. His dissociation-of-ideas theory is echoed far into later decades, and I would maintain that latter day deconstruction owes much to his crisp and refractory iconoclasms to his theories. In spite of his natural bias, his book is a deconstruction of the often-repeated naturalist definition of style attributed to Buffon, immodest perhaps in its belief in the intellect: ‘Le signe de l’homme dans l’œuvre intellectuelle, c’est la pensée. La pensée est l’homme même. Le style est la pensée meme [‘The sign of man in intellectual work is thought. Thought is man himself. Style is thought itself’] (673).

10The more specialised approach to style that has been engendered by developments in modern linguistics is, in its scientific bias, clearly indebted to the Spencerian model of language and style, not least the once-vigorous branch of statistical stylistics. Its problem has been that, as it takes the definition of style to be the deviation from a linguistic norm, it also has to leave the question of the wider definitions of style unanswered (or circular, as Genette points out with great ingenuity, when he argues that style is simply what is studied in stylistics). Serious attempts at widening not only the definitions, but also the applications, of the concept of style as in Georges-Gilles Granger’s Philosophie du style (Philosophy of Style) have hardly had the attention they deserve. The impasse has led to some intemperate attacks on the subject itself, most prominently by Stanley Fish. The analysts of deviance are content with treating a very small subset of sentences within poetic discourse, sentences that are in no way typical of poetry and imaginative fiction at large.


11Recent years have seen a great swelling of the literature on metaphor, in books, in symposia, and in periodicals—but not all of these studies add much to the clarification or reinterpretation of the actual mechanisms at work in metaphor. The expectations of demarcation and elucidation of metaphor within the framework of linguistic syntactical analysis, which were strong in the early history of transformational generative grammar, have remained unfulfilled. This has to do with the attempts to create a hierarchy for different levels of grammaticalness, which had to be abandoned at a fairly early stage, together with analyticity criteria and classification of natural specifica in the lexicon—in itself a very instructive little chapter in the intellectual history of language study. Chomsky himself always showed a healthy scepticism towards these developments: he remarked as early as Aspects of the Theory of Syntax that he thought linguistic theory was unlikely to be able to handle metaphoric extensions, or stylistic variations, as long as ‘reliable criteria for paraphrase are not forthcoming’ (42). In more recent years, literary theorists and philosophers of all camps have taken over the struggle to bring the concept of metaphor into some intellectual respectability.

12It is easy to see that metaphor falls into one of the two grooves we could notice in de Gourmont’s account of style; it can either be regarded the way nineteenth century rhetorical theory insisted, as an ornamental amplification of the argument of the text; or in accord with esoteric romantic theory, as an organic outgrowth of the linguistic utterance, providing a bridge to a perhaps unknowable reality. The two main theories of metaphor which have been most popular in recent years, the ‘comparison’ theory and the ‘interaction’ theory, fall neatly, although perhaps not too snugly, into these two categories.

13The main problem with metaphor as a functional element of language is its submerged character. It has been a commonplace at least since German romanticism to insist on the ability of language to absorb metaphors in its active structure. It does not feel right to regard such sunken or petrified metaphors as irrevocably dead: as long as metaphor is a living, functional force in language, as long as it is begetting or generative, a dead metaphor can always be reactivated. But this comes at some cost, perhaps often at too great a cost, if you remember the Victorian habit of putting skirts on chair-legs in the name of modesty.


14Irony is one of the master tropes recognized by Giambattista Vico in his Scienza nuova (The New Science):

Irony certainly could not have begun until the period of reflection, because it is fashioned of falsehood by dint of a reflection which wears a mask of truth. Here emerges a great principle of human institutions, confirming the origin of poetry disclosed in this work that since the first men of the gentile world had the simplicity of children, who are truthful by nature, the first fables could not feign anything false; they must therefore have been, as they have been defined above, true narrations. (90)

15The ironist is, in a sense, not concerned with style at all, only with truth. Already Theophrastus, in his Characters, defined the ironist as a liar and a pretender. More recently, Richard Rorty has tried to provide the ironist with a formidable task in reconstituting a moral philosophy on a relativist basis, building a ‘final vocabulary’ sceptical of all previous ones. ‘The generic task of the ironist is the one Coleridge recommended to the great and original poet,’ says Rorty, ‘to create the taste by which he will be judged’ (97). The task seems to me most inauspicious and surprisingly similar to the homespun existentialism that Norman Mailer expounded some decades ago (and dependent, too, on criteria of style plainly redolent of the more murky backwaters of American pragmatism). It is sobering to consider the peculiarities of all schemes of irony, in that they are, to a greater degree than other forms of troping, dependent on tacit understanding, or complicity. Nobody has said it more elegantly than the late Paul Grice:

While I may without any inappropriateness prefix the employment of a metaphor with to speak metaphorically, there would be something very strange about saying, to speak ironically, he is a splendid fellow. To be ironical is, among other things, to pretend (as the etymology suggests), and while one wants the pretence to be recognized as such, to announce it as a pretence would be to spoil the effect. (54)


16The title of this essay vaguely reverberates with echoes of an 1822 play by a minor German romantic writer, Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Scherz, ironie, satire und tiefere bedeutung (Joke, Irony, Satire, and Deeper Meaning), which was rediscovered by André Breton and claimed as a forerunner of surrealism. The play is a fairly gross and grotesque concoction of various motifs from melodrama and folklore. The devil is caught in a cage, enticed there by sixteen rubber sheaths—at this time a fairly new commodity—and from there proclaims a worldview now fairly close to postmodernist orthodoxy of the French letter variety: that is, the world is a cheap romance novel from a lending library, now being perused by a pretty lady, while Hell is the ironic part of the book. In this the play seems even to resort to parody of its own ironic stance. The author is bold enough to advertise this fact in the short preface, where he says that the play derides itself (verspottet sich selbst) and thus is impervious to further criticism.

17The concept of romantic irony, as introduced by Friedrich Schlegel, is no doubt central to the formation of subsequent modernist claims, and the archetype of the ironist is now, as it was then, Hamlet. As ironist, however, he could not proclaim his irony, or advertise it: the fabula itself, in the first place (and we must with Vico accept it as in some sense true and consistent) would prohibit it, insofar that such an admission would be catastrophic to his mission, if that is to be identified with feigning madness in order to find out the truth. Taken as a description of the poet’s predicament, irony is a fatal trap, a catch-22, rather than an instrument for recovering value from experience.

18We can recognize this as the predicament of many of the clowns in literature, from Shakespeare to Beckett—and in that way Hamlet is a clown, even if he does belong to a higher social order. But it is the plain-spoken clown Lavatch, ‘a shrewd knave and unhappy’ (108), in All’s Well That Ends Well (again a title not without prospects of irony) who gives the clue when speaking to the untrustworthy and cowardly Parolles of his ‘similes of comfort’ when abusing him. Immediately before, Lavatch has deliberately misconstrued Parolles’ the figural expressions (as ‘high-falutin’ as his name indicates) which prompts Parolles to say:

Nay, you need not stop your nose, sir. I spake but by a metaphor. Clown: Indeed, sir, if your metaphor stink I will stop my nose, or against any man’s metaphor. (113)

19Speaking the truth is a dangerous game, and sometimes involves less than pleasant odours. In Grabbe’s play, the unfortunate clown Gottliebchen, less articulate and more abused than Lavatch, receives many a flea in his ear before he is asked by the schoolmaster to shut his mouth, preferably with his hand, because that looks more allegorical and poetic. But that allegoresis—so dear to our postmodernists and deconstructors—must be resisted.

20The vigorous detroping of the clown we find so frequently in Beckett, often with the same scatological odour as in Grabbe, is an inversion that is as powerful as irony, as elegant as abstraction. We also find it, if with more fragrance, in Wallace Stevens’ harmonious world, where the first requirement of the supreme fiction is that it must be abstract: ‘We seek / The poem of pure reality, untouched / by hope or deviation, straight to the word.’ This statement has its even more succinct corollary, untouched by the deviations of style, insisting that the deeper meaning sought is the plainest meaning of all: ‘So sense exceeds all metaphor’ (471).

21Hell, as in Grabbe’s play, or in William Empson’s poem ‘This Last Pain,’ is of the party of irony, as powerfully negated and exposed as fiction: ‘Imagine then… / What couldn’t possibly be there / And learn a style from a despair’ (32).


Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Empson, William. Collected Poems. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

Gourmont, Remy de. ‘Les funérailles du style,’ Mercure de France. Serie Moderne, vol. 43 (1902): 5–35, 329–69, 640–73.

Grice, H. Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Leclerc, Georges-Louis, Comte de Buffon. ‘Discours sur le style,’ Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol. 4. Paris: L’Imprimerie Royale 1777: 1–20.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. All’s Well That Ends Well. Ed. by John L. Lowes. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Trans. by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. New York: Anchor, 1961.


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