Monday, January 28, 2019

Elliptical Approaches

Poorly taught Americans (almost a redundancy these days) sometimes tell amazed college professors that the proper form for a paper is (1) to tell what you’re going to say, (2) to say what you have to say, and (3) to tell what you have just said. It’s a gross misunderstanding of the form, to begin with. But what this pattern misrepresents isn’t even a universal custom: only American essays typically follow the introduction-body-conclusion format. In some parts of the world, a writer launches into a topic and then adds accretions of nuance and complexity layer-by-layer. Some cultures prefer a spiral approach to the core idea of an essay, establishing every point of context first and only presenting the thesis near the end.

The British have a lovely way of starting an essay a thousand miles away from the ultimate topic and then surprising the reader with a turn halfway through. The first half is often just as instructive and entertaining as the second, even if its topics don’t find their way into the piece’s title, and I almost always find this form much more delightful than the utilitarian American scheme.

Earlier this month I read an excellent essay in the British idiom by Robert Louis Stevenson. I got the tip to read the piece from Chesterton in his book on Victorian literature, and I read Stevenson’s magnificent “The Lantern Bearers” just after enjoying his novel Black Arrow. Doubly mysterious, the essay takes an elliptical path to the elliptical path that eventually leads to the main point, and since the title refers only to the middle, Stevenson delivers a very satisfying second surprise.

First we hear of the geography of a seaside resort town which Stevenson visited for a week or two at a time for several years as a child. His vivid description puts the whole scene before my eye in great detail and makes me want to visit. After a few paragraphs, I even felt some of the relaxation and comfort I would experience on my own summer getaway. Then the author of so many great adventure novels for (as we see it now) children tells about a custom among the adventurous boys visiting the quaint town. Each one lit a lantern and hid it under his coat while wandering on the strand or along the village streets, every meeting between lantern bearers resulting in unspoken, internal acknowledgement that the pair shared a great secret.

But as wonderful and romantic as that image is, Stevenson has his own secret light to reveal in the second big shift of the piece and makes the custom of the lantern bearers a figure for the secret flame every person carries around at all times. This summit of the essay deals a bit with poetry, as Stevenson delivers his own version of the “mute inglorious Miltons” vision, and has some to say about the weeds of life choking out the life-energy of youth. But Stevenson’s main point, I think, is to remind us that every person we meet has – or is – a hidden treasure. I could go into more detail, but of course, you’d be much better off spending a quarter of an hour reading “The Lantern Bearers” instead of reading my little blog post, so I won’t be offended if you get up and leave now.

I have a schedule of reading precisely because it leads me to just such moments as my discovery of “The Lantern Bearers.” This beautiful essay is itself a burning lantern hidden away under the coat of the more famous works of RLS, and I wouldn’t have uncovered it if I hadn’t planned to read Chesterton’s guide and hadn’t had a Stevenson novel slated the very next month. It’s the best thing I’ve read in quite a while and already a front-runner for my end-of-year rewards next December.

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