Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Prose and Progress

"Prosaic writing," said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture." Against this, he sets "a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others". This way of constructing the difference between prose and poetry appeals to me, I must admit, but there is a danger in interpreting it as an argument against "prosaic writing". (When Adam Banks admonishes us to "retire" the essay and instead cultivate a "funky" sense of freedom in our students, even invoking Lorca's "duende", I imagine many people hear him as saying something like that.) After all, if given the choice between "limiting" yourself to "already accepted" meanings, on the one hand, and calling out to "each individual freedom", on the other, it seems obvious what your ambition should be. I get it. (I, too, have invoked the duende. I, too, have suggested we "put some stank on it".) But let's not abandon our culture altogether.

After all, culture is a collective accomplishment that needs, for the most part, to be conserved. When we learn to write prose, we are learning to say what our culture has already become capable of saying, what it is already "acceptable" to say. When we compare the available range of expression in prose today, with what that of, say, one-hundred years ago, we have to recognize that progress has been made. Even the diversity of voices that are allowed to express themselves in prose, i.e., that may speak as though the signs they are using are accepted in the culture, has vastly expanded over the past century. It is true that this required a great deal of "poetic" subversion of the institution of prose by great writers. Merleau-Ponty treats "great prose" as the way we realize the gains made by the "ostentatious display" of poetry's freedom. It "captures" and makes "accessible" meanings that hadn't yet been "objectified". If in poetry we call out to each other's desire to be free, in prose we help each other understand our limits. Every now and then someone figures out how to institutionalize something new, making it available to all.

The state of our prose is the current stage of the progress we have already made. In the composition classroom, I believe, we have to spend most our time consolidating those gains, passing on the ability to express "the meanings already accepted in a given culture". If we don't do this, and instead give the students the impression that they should be fighting against the limits of the prose essay, always transgressing the boundary of acceptable usage, forever trumping the composure of a well-crafted paragraph with the momentary excitement of a picture or a video or a song, then we are simply robbing them of their heritage. We are not teaching them the foundation of our own composure, perhaps because we ourselves have lost faith in it, overwhelmed by "the pace of change". Well, prose was always the means by which we slow things down, the way we find the time to get it right, after our poets have told us that there is something terribly wrong.

Perhaps it is true that poetry is progressive and prose is conservative. I prefer to think of the "limits" of prose as the frontier of the progress we have made. There is no shame in trying to enjoy the freedom we already have. Otherwise, what is the point of achieving it?


Presskorn said...

I am going to try to “out-pro-prose” you on this one…. Commitment to culture IS freedom. People yearning for poetry fear the decrease in negative liberty that result from writing in orderly prose. What they miss is the massive increase in *positive* freedom that one gains in such commitments. Consider Brandom’s (Reason in Philosophy, p.59) reading of Kant’s 'Was ist Aufklarung?' and its guiding notion of majority [Mündigkeit]: When a young person gains legal majority and thus achieves Mündigkeit, she is subjected to all sorts of new norms and a resulting decrease in negative liberty. But the ability to bind and subject herself to the constraints of these legal norms also means a huge increase in positive freedom: she can now take out a mortgage, start a business, get married etc. Something similarly, ideally at least, goes for regular training and commitment to orderly prose conceived of as remarks in an already existing scientific conversation: it means a massive increase in the positive freedom of your writing.

Thomas said...

I'm romantic enough to smirk a little at your invocation of the "positive freedom" to "take out a mortgage ... get married etc.". But I get your point. Certainly, the ability to write orderly prose is useful in the exercise of your practical liberties.

Presskorn said...

Well, I am able to smile at it as well. We're off-topic, but as you will remember, my at least official position on marriage etc. is Hegelian: I.e. it is a temptation, but a premature one, to assume by default that such societal institutions are rotten and devoid of genuine normative content.

Thomas said...

Okay. I'll agree on marriage (reluctantly). It may still be the best way to have children (and raise them to the age of ten or so), all things considered, and under the current conditions (which the revolution would of course replace). The mortgage racket, by contrast, strikes me as at least in some stage of decay. In any case, to oppress an institution will certainly need to have normative content.

Bringing it back to our topic, we can imagine a world in which marriage affords no particular liberties, no particular advantage to lovers who would be together. But I'm not sure I can imagine a world in which the essay does not make us better able to express ourselves about the facts as they are.

Presskorn said...

You seem to be right. And you're obviously right about the current state of the mortgage institution.

One perhaps somewhat sophistic caveat though. Couldn't it rather be like this:

When we are imagining that "marriage affords no particular liberties, no particular advantage to lovers who would be together", aren't we still imagining them to be living in (a series of) marriage-*like* circumstances? E.g. sometimes living together and not indulding in inordinate amounts of promuscuity (which is just like marriage!)? Aren't we imagining something along those lines? Just without the lovers in fact being married. [But that is of no importance: Pangrammatically, marriage is an act, not a fact.]

Equally, I could perhaps imagine "a world in which the essay does not make us better able to express ourselves", but then I'd just be imagining us writing in an essay-*like* form instead...