Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Which I Declare with 100% Confidence the Direction of Literary History

Many times when I write a post, I think that I know the author well enough to comment confidently on his or her place in literature, in history, in philosophical view and purpose, and in my heart. But I don’t know Sir Walter Scott well enough to do any of that. I know that he was the most popular novelist in Britain in the early nineteenth century, and I know that I read two of his novels before I read Quentin Durward (Ivanhoe when I was about twenty, and The Bride of Lammermoor when I was about forty). But I don’t have a sense of a Scott style or of Scott’s message to the world or what it was about his books that captured the imagination of British readers before Victoria gave her name to an era.

So I’ll just comment briefly on my first, tentative thoughts about how Scott fits in with the stream of English-language fiction as seen in my mind. And Tentative Thought No. 1 is that his use of archaic language seems like the beginning of a trend. Words like cortege and tabard and dint elicit a complex depth of flavor in my mouth, and lines like these rain sweet showers on the desert that the age of politics in 280 characters has scorched into my brain:
Have I not crossed swords with Dunois, the best knight in France, and shall I fear a tribe of yonder vagabonds? Pshaw!—God and Saint Andrew to friend, they will find me both stout and wary.
Now this kind of language starts to sound a little silly in Hollywood swashbucklers of the 1930s. But all trends do begin to feel stale after a while. The point is, I don’t think it felt stale in 1823. Part of my willing suspension of disbelief in reading a novel like Quentin Durward is my attempt to put myself in the position of the reader of that time, in this case, to feel the old vocabulary as if it felt archaic for the first time – as if it were newly old. (Owen Barfield says this, oh, so much better in Poetic Diction, which I’m scheduled to reread next month.)

If I remember correctly, Robinson Crusoe and Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield also speak this way a literary generation or two earlier. But, although the conversation of Boswell and Johnson and friends (friends including Oliver Goldsmith) proves that such language is no longer the London fashion in the late eighteenth century, I parse thee and thou and yonder as within the realm of possibility for devout down-country folk of the time like Crusoe and Vicar Primrose.

With Scott, though, I get the idea (partly because the characters are actually supposed to be speaking French) that the heirloom language is offered not as a stab at realism but as a conventional sign and reminder that the book is a work of historical fiction. And I can imagine that, as a nineteenth-century reader, I would want my fifteenth-century characters to speak in an antique way even if it weren’t precisely accurate. If I read a historical novel written this year, 2018, about, say, Lincoln, I wouldn’t demand that the language perfectly mimic the President’s manner of speech, but I would balk less at “These matters are weighty indeed” than at “This information is key.”

As I started rereading the Tarzan books last year, I was surprised at how often I encountered formal or archaic words and turns of phrase. I don’t remember any specific vocabulary at the moment, but a quick glance just now through the first two or three novels uncovered these quaint constructions:
What they are doing I know not.
They would but laugh in their sleeves.
The stern retribution which justice metes to the murderer.
“I am not married, Tarzan of the Apes,” she cried. “Nor am I longer promised in marriage.”
Now, again, I’m just hypothesizing a connection in the history of literature out of my own head. Maybe the world of literary scholarship has already noticed this pattern and either established or disproven it. I don’t know. I enjoy reading literary criticism from time to time, but ideas taste sweeter if, as George Washington would have said, I chew them myself. So here’s the hypothesis: what Scott did to signal past times began, over the course of a century of historical novels, to be taken as the lofty speech of the courageous heroes of those costume dramas. Burroughs, then, to make his point that a loincloth-clad man raised by an ape can act as nobly as an English lord, had him speak like an eighteenth-century lord.

Of course, Tarzan is in fact an English lord, and I don’t know what Tarzan’s creator meant by it all. Whether ape is nature and blue blood nurture or vice versa – whether civilization is merely clothing for evolved apes or the true biological standard from which criminal types have devolved – I’m not sure even Burroughs knew. But the point is that the archaic cadences represent nobility.

OK, Tentative Thought No. 2 will actually fulfill my promise of brevity. I read Quentin Durward close to the time I listened to Galsworthy’s “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” and a difference in the use of characters struck me that I believe might actually indicate a historical direction. Galsworthy presents characters as shaped by circumstance, genetics, and culture; they struggle with themselves. A Galsworthy character’s dialiog is sometimes a surprise even to himself. Scott, on the other hand, presents characters as set, not needing any explanation. They are chess pieces whose move types are given, known, and unchanging. Where Galsworthy has characters speak so he can reveal them, Scott’s characters speak to reveal something external. The two approaches seem emblematic of, respectively, a classical time when psychology categorized personalities and a modern age in which psychology explained the making of personalities. In the intervening time, the hero of a Victorian writer like Dickens is neither given nor shaped wholly by envorinment but must shape himself. David Copperfield must discipline his heart.

Yes, that was relatively brief. But I feel the need to conclude by going back to TT No. 1 for a moment. Whatever the elegant, eloquent, patinated language of Defoe, Goldsmith, Scott, Dickens, Galsworthy, and even Burroughs means, I need it – maybe not as much as I need sunshine, air, and water, but as much as I need companionship and confidence and mental stimulation. But I don’t find it in the news. I don’t hear it in church. I don’t see it in the classroom. I certainly don’t read it on internet message boards. I’m swimming in a fetid swamp of ineloquence, and I can only hold my breath so long before I come up to the surface to fill my lungs with the freshness that makes me “both stout and wary.”