"In reality, a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions,
as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever."
"It is hard to picture a doubt bearing the burden of a labor."
I want to show you something. First, here's the "miserable" passage Jonathan gave us last week:
Perhaps we ought to say, "You do not say what you mean or mean what you say, for you have not attended to the saying of it." Except that, too often lacking conviction ourselves in the efficacy of attention to words, we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory, and we grow impatient. For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? How do you demonstrate such mattering except by giving examples, by patiently showing it to yourself and to students so caught up in the skepticism you have taught them that they have lost the faith necessary for working their skepticism through?
And here's the rewrite (slightly rewritten again) I proposed on Tuesday:
Students sometimes fail to say what they mean or mean what they say because they don't pay enough attention to how they say it. This happens to the best of us, of course. Too often we find ourselves saying something that we think will quickly satisfy the critical theorist rather than something that might patiently communicate what we think. The danger in teaching students that words matter is that it activates our doubts about the efficacy of literary labor—and the doubts of our students. Too many examples of words that don't seem to mean enough may undermine their faith in the capacity of words to mean something altogether. And students need exactly this faith in language to work their skepticism through.
In the comments, Matt and Jonathan agreed that this is probably a better, certainly a clearer, way of saying it. Where the first was mainly an expression of self-doubt, the second becomes a suggestion (or at least a gesture at a suggestion) for how to deal with such doubts. Now, it is of course precisely unclear whether that is what the original passage meant. (I.e., the original was unclear about its meaning.) Worse, since the second passage was not really produced by editing the original but by rewriting it to express what I think it means, it has very definitely lost the "voice" of the original. Jonathan accurately described that voice as "angst-ridden".
"To make anything very terrible," said Edmund Burke, "obscurity seems in general to be necessary." He grounded Milton's mastery of "the sublime" in "the power of a well-managed darkness", a phrase I have carried with me since I first read it. What the original passage lacks is not darkness (it is wholly obscure) but better management. Unfortunately, by erasing the voice of the original and replacing it with my own, by substituting what I understand in the passage for what the authors, perhaps, are trying to confess they don't quite understand, by replacing their trembling faith with my cock-sure commonsense, if you will, I have also removed any trace of the obscurity, the terror, the anxiety, the personality of the original. Unlike the passage from Sorrentino's essay on Williams that pleases Jonathan with its "force and clarity", my rewrite of Dauber and Jost lacks the power to stir the passions. Its clarity is the enemy of enthusiasm, as Burke put it.
But here's what I want to show you. The bulk of a prose paragraph should support one main point. To borrow from the world of stage performance, most of the paragraph is a "set up" for an effect. The effect doesn't have to come at the end; sometimes you want the effect to "ring out" a bit, like a cymbal, as the reader reads on through another couple of sentences. Now, what if our aim is precisely to stir up the (not always unconstructive) passion of "doubt", even "angst". What if we want to make the reader (and writing instructor in this case) tremble a little. Well, we'll need to evoke the sublime, and this means, Burke says, that we'll need to obscure something. We need to manage some darkness.
Consider another version of the passage we've been talking about:
Students sometimes fail to say what they mean or mean what they say because they don't pay enough attention to how they say it. This happens to the best of us, of course. Too often we find ourselves saying something that we think will quickly satisfy the critical theorist rather than something that might patiently communicate what we think. For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? Too many examples of words that don't seem to mean enough may undermine our faith in the capacity of words to mean something altogether. Students need exactly this faith in language to work their skepticism through.
Do you see what I did there? It remains true, as Jonathan points out, that "it is hard to picture a doubt bearing the burden of a labor" but this difficulty of "seeing", of forming an image, now becomes a definite effect. We have now recovered the "angst-ridden" voice of the original by placing it in the context of some more, shall we say, "prosaic" writing that lets it "sound" or resonate. Instead feeling merely uncomfortable about what Harold Bloom calls the "scene of instruction" we can feel a focused shot of anxiety.
With the humble hope that that last sentence is not itself too "terrible", thus endeth the lesson.