Friday, April 15, 2016

Bathos: Look Before You Lark

From Tower of Turtles.
Oh dear me, David Brooks wants to know
What Is Inspiration?
Like a 10-year-old boy wondering what sex is going to be like, or perhaps an elderly priest who has been perfectly chaste since that one strange moment when he was still in seminary and whose recollections are no longer quite clear.
there are some moments — after much steady work and after the technical skills have been mastered — when the mind and spirit take flight. We call these moments of inspiration. They kind of steal upon you, longed for and unexpected.
Kind of.

Speaking of technical skills, note the cloud of impersonality through which the thought descends from "there are moments" (where?) past "steady work" (whose?) and "skills mastered" (by whom?) to when the anonymous subject's "mind and spirit take flight" in a blur, no doubt, of cliché exhaust. As mind and spirit (traveling in couples, like ducks?) achieve liftoff, the paragraph thuds to earth, where "we" (David Brooks and his writer friends?) stop to call such moments "moments of inspiration"—as if that were some kind of specialist jargon—and at last, clambering back out of the mud puddle of the adverbial downtoner "kind of", lay the whole thing on the longed-for and unexpected reader, "you". No, wait, it's the moments of inspiration that have been longed for but not expected, and we, the reader, who are obviously looking in the wrong place.

Is David Brooks really the worst writer at the Times after all? Does slow and steady win the race, leaving Friedman with his amphetamine-scrambled metaphors and Dowd with her itchy nastiness mere also-rans? I think what makes Brooks so special is his sincere conviction that he is a writer—not a source of information or insight in the way Friedman or Dowd claim to be but above all a wordsmith, whose virtue is the ability to lay it all out for us in a sturdy Strunk-and-White prose, clean and honed like Shaker furniture.

And yet the disorderly pile-on collisions of incongruous adjectives!
Inspiration is a much-used, domesticated, amorphous and secular word for what is actually a revolutionary, countercultural and spiritual phenomenon.
 The panicky attempts at focusing, out of an SAT essay!
But what exactly is inspiration? What are we talking about when we use that term?
The slide into quicksand!
Well, moments of inspiration don’t quite make sense by normal logic. They feel transcendent, uncontrollable and irresistible.
He's the exact opposite of that heroically simple writer he dreams of being, simultaneously flabby and hysterical.
Vladimir Nabokov believed that inspiration comes in phases. First, he wrote, there’s the “prefatory glow,” the feeling of “tickly well-being” that banishes all awareness of physical discomfort. The feeling does not yield its secret just yet, but a window has been opened and some wind has blown in.
Then, a few days later, Nabokov continued, the writer “forefeels what he is going to tell.” There’s an instant vision, the lightning bolt of inspiration, that turns into rapid speech, and a “tumble of merging words” that form the nucleus of a work that will grow from it over the ensuing months or years.
The phrases from Nabokov mix with Brooks's dead language like chunks of truffle in a bath of leftover instant ramen and dishwater. Incidentally he didn't get it from Nabokov but from a Readers' Digest version, Maria Popova's BrainPickings website, the as it were Andrew Sullivan of the higher culture.

Extra points for "some wind has blown in" as the most inept metaphor in the piece (when wind enters the room it doesn't sit quietly for several days before acting). Compare the original text, which tells you what the wind did:
This feeling of tickly well-being branches through him like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation. As it spreads, it banishes all awareness of physical discomfort — youth’s toothache as well as the neuralgia of old age. The beauty of it is that, while completely intelligible (as if it were connected with a known gland or led to an expected climax), it has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime, however, a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled. Presently all dissolves: the familiar worries are back and the eyebrow redescribes its arc of pain; but the artist knows he is ready. 
Just as the phrase "banishes all awareness of physical discomfort" turns into mush when Brooks steals it without its exemplification, so the wind metaphor separated from its effect (on "every exposed nerve") sputters out and dies. Oh, and turning "a window has opened" into the passive "a window has been opened" shows the attention to detail that can lift everyday bad writing into the bathetic sublime.

Or like the ten-year-old explaining what sex is going to be like to a crowd of curious eight-year-olds, because that's the cream of the jest, or should I say cream cheese: that this awful writer is setting himself up as the authority, for his eager readership, on what being an artist is like.

Listen for when the wind blows into the hut, around 11:50 (Keiner ging—doch einer kam: Siehe, der Lenz lacht in den Saal/"Nobody left—but something entered: Look, Spring has laughed its way into the room!").

When people are inspired they are willing to take a daring lark toward something truly great. They’re brave enough to embrace the craggy fierceness of the truth and to try to express it in some new way.
Or a lark of faith. Or a Great Lark Forward. Or a flying lark at a galloping doughnut hole, Davy. And if you run across the craggy fierceness of the truth give it a hug from me, but be sure to wear some protective gear.

Driftglass is at his very best, imagining how this piece came to be written.

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