Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Elasticity of Prose

In Tuesday's post I pointed out that Dexter Kimball appeared to be familiar with the basic principles of what we today call "stress". He talks about how hard work of any kind, including intellectual work, "results in the breaking down of tissues" and releases toxins into the blood (Kimball 1939: 244). And he points out that rest is the means by which these toxins are "cleansed" out of the system. He could, perhaps, also have noted that rest also allows our tissues to rebuild, and, typically, that this rebuilding makes them stronger. When we exercise, our muscle fibres are torn apart. They repair themselves with extra fibres, which strengthens them.

"Fatigue within the 'elastic limit'," Kimball tells us, "is wholesome for anyone and good health cannot be maintained without some bodily effort." This idea of an "elastic limit" can also be applied to your prose. Remember that I think of your prose not as something that happens on the page but as the ability of your mind and body to make something happen on the page. Your "prose" is your ability to write coherent paragraphs on subjects you know something about. You can keep your prose healthy or you can let it degenerate. And the relevant "effort" here—the activity that keeps your prose healthy—is, of course, writing.

But you must write within your limit. Don't write for a whole day until you reach the point of exhaustion—and don't write "on your nerve" for days at a time. How often do we meet scholars who tell us that they are "tired" of the text they're working on? They "can't look at it" anymore. They need us to tell us what it means. These are writers who have exhausted their prose. They can't "bear it" any more.

Usually, these writers have overloaded their text with what they know. It's not that their text actually express a lot of knowledge now; normally these texts are not well-written enough for that. It's that their authors have unloaded everything they know on the subject in their work with a single text, straining it beyond its elastic limit. And in so doing (without knowing it) they've more than just overloaded their text. They've overloaded their prose. That's why they can't even read the text any longer.

We can provisionally distinguish the elasticity of prose from its plasticity. Elasticity is the propensity of a material to return to its original shape after being subjected to a particular strain. (The classic example, of course, is the elastic band. You stretch it and when you let go it returns to its original shape.) Plasticity is the tendency of a material to stay in the shape you bend it to (that's why manufactures like to make so many things out of "plastic"). We sometimes think of our prose as a highly plastic material precisely because it is so easy to move words around on the page. What we forget is that our minds are always trying to keep up. And this means that if you move too many words around, for too long, you are really "stretching" the elastic bonds between your words, pulling them in too many directions. Eventually they snap. Or, which is perhaps sadder, they lose their elasticity.

Materials don't just stretch elastically but absord pressures elastically too. When you put a load on a beam, it deforms a little. But when you take the load off, it returns to its original shape. Your prose is supposed to be able to carry something (the weight of your knowledge). It is not merely supposed to contort itself into whatever shape the reader wants or expects from you. If you try to make it do this, you will stress your prose by forcing it to be too long at the limit of its elasticity. This means there'll be no "give" in it when readers begin to critique your text, i.e., to expose it to the weight of the their knowledge.

To avoid fatigue (of the kind that reduces elasticity by exceeding its limits), Kimball offers a good piece of advice, which ought to resonate especially with scholars. "It should be remembered also that change of work is relative rest and under the old methods, where the worker performed several tasks daily, recovery from one task took place to a certain extent while performing another...Under modern conditions, however, where men are compelled to work at one machine or, worse still, where the work is of a repetitive nature..." (1939: 244) Do not work at "one machine" all day. I.e., do not spend a whole day writing. Write for a few hours and then shift to another machine. A book is a great machine for resting some of the muscles of your prose while exerting others.

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