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TSE  March 2001

TSE March 2001

Subject:

Re: Eliot's letters--Gordon's Biography

From:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Fri, 9 Mar 2001 02:00:59 EST

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In a message dated 3/8/01 10:21:41 PM Eastern Standard Time, 
[log in to unmask] writes:


> So I 
> wrote what I saw--because it is what he saw; it had not changed. 

1) I'd be a bit more conservative in stating this proposition. In reading a 
landscape, as in reading a book, no two people prioritize in exactly the same 
way, or notice/remember exactly the same things. This is because, as I 
believe  you've noted yourself, none of us is perfectly objective, if there 
is such a thing as perfect objectivity. 

I think it makes sense that you'd want to look at what he saw. After watching 
a performance of Tristan und Isolde, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that it 
improved my understanding of what Eliot had written about the opera. But I 
certainly didn't "see what he saw," except in an excruciatingly limited or 
approximate sense. Even though Wagner's libretto "had not changed," it wasn't 
the same time or place or opera house or performers or performance. Also, I 
have no reason to believe that my knowledge of opera, degree of interest in 
opera, or reason for attending the performance matched up with Eliot's in any 
way. It's never given to any of us to see through another person's eyes or 
think with another person's mind. A certain degree of overlap occurs, and 
it's this overlap that makes communication possible. 

2) I understand your point that it's by no means clear what a fact is, and 
indeed there's a literature about exactly that. But Arwin might be using the 
word in an everyday sense which is also legitimate. 

My personal feeling about expository writing ("the facts") is that it's most 
persuasive when the material is presented in a balanced, measured way without 
extraneous emotionalism. One of the most powerful examples I know of is 
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. She marshalled her facts so well that there 
was no doubt where she stood--she wanted people to know the damage that 
pesticides were doing to the environment. It's a very pure book in the sense 
that she never once resorts to histrionics. We don't have to twiddle our 
thumbs listening to how sad she feels about dead birds, or how angry she is 
at pesticide manufacturers. She didn't need that kind of gratuitous fluff, 
which is almost always a deficit in expository writing. And it wasn't that 
she had any better set of facts than would have been available to anyone 
else. It's that this woman has a powerful mind and knew how to put her facts 
together so they added up to a picture that made sense. A good model for 
anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.

I don't think Gordon is as extreme in her emotionalism as Julius, who could 
have written a better book had he been able to keep his anger under control. 
But Gordon began with a similar setup of who she thought were the victims and 
who she thought was the oppressor. And for my taste she made it a bit too 
obvious about where her sympathies lay. As an authorial strategy, this 
amounts to  jumping the gun. I like to see the data laid out in whatever 
order makes sense to the commentator, and in a reasoned manner. Then I like 
to be allowed to make up my own mind about whether or not I agree--about 
where I think the commentator is persuasive and where I think he or she 
isn't. I don't take well to emotional blackmail, which is how I perceive 
extraneous emotionalism when it intrudes into expositiory writing. I don't 
want these broad hints from the commentator that I ought to be angry at 
whatever angers him, or that I ought to pity whomever she pities. It's 
intrusive, and makes me feel as if the commentator wants to make me over far 
too closely into his or her own image. I'd rather be allowed to do my own 
slow thinking, in my own slow manner and in my own slow time. 

I agree with you that Gordon had a lot of interesting and valuable material, 
and I often refer to her book. And I hope in trying to articulate my 
reservations I haven't inadvertently overstated them. Also, it's not always 
clear where to place biographers. On the one hand, I wish Gordon had had an 
editor who could have persuaded her to cool it a  bit, to be less obvious 
about which "side" she was on (or that she thought the world had "sides")--in 
short, to take the book in the more reasoned direction that I find so 
exemplary in Carson. On the other hand, the publisher may have wanted the 
book to appeal to a wide public audience rather than to a niche or  academic 
audience. And many publishers seem to think, rightly or wrongly, that when a 
biography is meant for the general public, it "shouldn't sound too academic." 

pat

--part1_4d.875df4c.27d9d9ab_boundary
Content-Type: text/html; charset="US-ASCII"
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<HTML><FONT FACE=arial,helvetica><FONT  SIZE=3 FAMILY="SANSSERIF" FACE="Arial Narrow" LANG="0"><B>In a message dated 3/8/01 10:21:41 PM Eastern Standard Time, 
<BR>[log in to unmask] writes:
<BR>
<BR></FONT><FONT  COLOR="#000000" SIZE=2 FAMILY="SANSSERIF" FACE="Arial" LANG="0"></B>
<BR><BLOCKQUOTE TYPE=CITE style="BORDER-LEFT: #0000ff 2px solid; MARGIN-LEFT: 5px; MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px; PADDING-LEFT: 5px">So I 
<BR>wrote what I saw--because it is what he saw; it had not changed. </FONT><FONT  COLOR="#000000" SIZE=3 FAMILY="SANSSERIF" FACE="Arial" LANG="0"></BLOCKQUOTE>
<BR></FONT><FONT  COLOR="#000000" SIZE=3 FAMILY="SANSSERIF" FACE="Arial Narrow" LANG="0"><B>
<BR>1) I'd be a bit more conservative in stating this proposition. In reading a 
<BR>landscape, as in reading a book, no two people prioritize in exactly the same 
<BR>way, or notice/remember exactly the same things. This is because, as I 
<BR>believe &nbsp;you've noted yourself, none of us is perfectly objective, if there 
<BR>is such a thing as perfect objectivity. 
<BR>
<BR>I think it makes sense that you'd want to look at what he saw. After watching 
<BR>a performance of Tristan und Isolde, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that it 
<BR>improved my understanding of what Eliot had written about the opera. But I 
<BR>certainly didn't "see what he saw," except in an excruciatingly limited or 
<BR>approximate sense. Even though Wagner's libretto "had not changed," it wasn't 
<BR>the same time or place or opera house or performers or performance. Also, I 
<BR>have no reason to believe that my knowledge of opera, degree of interest in 
<BR>opera, or reason for attending the performance matched up with Eliot's in any 
<BR>way. It's never given to any of us to see through another person's eyes or 
<BR>think with another person's mind. A certain degree of overlap occurs, and 
<BR>it's this overlap that makes communication possible. 
<BR>
<BR>2) I understand your point that it's by no means clear what a fact is, and 
<BR>indeed there's a literature about exactly that. But Arwin might be using the 
<BR>word in an everyday sense which is also legitimate. 
<BR>
<BR>My personal feeling about expository writing ("the facts") is that it's most 
<BR>persuasive when the material is presented in a balanced, measured way without 
<BR>extraneous emotionalism. One of the most powerful examples I know of is 
<BR>Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. She marshalled her facts so well that there 
<BR>was no doubt where she stood--she wanted people to know the damage that 
<BR>pesticides were doing to the environment. It's a very pure book in the sense 
<BR>that she never once resorts to histrionics. We don't have to twiddle our 
<BR>thumbs listening to how sad she feels about dead birds, or how angry she is 
<BR>at pesticide manufacturers. She didn't need that kind of gratuitous fluff, 
<BR>which is almost always a deficit in expository writing. And it wasn't that 
<BR>she had any better set of facts than would have been available to anyone 
<BR>else. It's that this woman has a powerful mind and knew how to put her facts 
<BR>together so they added up to a picture that made sense. A good model for 
<BR>anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.
<BR>
<BR>I don't think Gordon is as extreme in her emotionalism as Julius, who could 
<BR>have written a better book had he been able to keep his anger under control. 
<BR>But Gordon began with a similar setup of who she thought were the victims and 
<BR>who she thought was the oppressor. And for my taste she made it a bit too 
<BR>obvious about where her sympathies lay. As an authorial strategy, this 
<BR>amounts to &nbsp;jumping the gun. I like to see the data laid out in whatever 
<BR>order makes sense to the commentator, and in a reasoned manner. Then I like 
<BR>to be allowed to make up my own mind about whether or not I agree--about 
<BR>where I think the commentator is persuasive and where I think he or she 
<BR>isn't. I don't take well to emotional blackmail, which is how I perceive 
<BR>extraneous emotionalism when it intrudes into expositiory writing. I don't 
<BR>want these broad hints from the commentator that I ought to be angry at 
<BR>whatever angers him, or that I ought to pity whomever she pities. It's 
<BR>intrusive, and makes me feel as if the commentator wants to make me over far 
<BR>too closely into his or her own image. I'd rather be allowed to do my own 
<BR>slow thinking, in my own slow manner and in my own slow time. 
<BR>
<BR>I agree with you that Gordon had a lot of interesting and valuable material, 
<BR>and I often refer to her book. And I hope in trying to articulate my 
<BR>reservations I haven't inadvertently overstated them. Also, it's not always 
<BR>clear where to place biographers. On the one hand, I wish Gordon had had an 
<BR>editor who could have persuaded her to cool it a &nbsp;bit, to be less obvious 
<BR>about which "side" she was on (or that she thought the world had "sides")--in 
<BR>short, to take the book in the more reasoned direction that I find so 
<BR>exemplary in Carson. On the other hand, the publisher may have wanted the 
<BR>book to appeal to a wide public audience rather than to a niche or &nbsp;academic 
<BR>audience. And many publishers seem to think, rightly or wrongly, that when a 
<BR>biography is meant for the general public, it "shouldn't sound too academic." 
<BR>
<BR>pat</B></FONT></HTML>

--part1_4d.875df4c.27d9d9ab_boundary--

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