I think we agree about the status of "facts." I think we disagree on what
one then does with that understanding of facts. I should have been more
clear about what I "saw." In 1979, at least, to get to Whalsay, one took the
train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, took a boat overnight 400 miles on the
north sea to Lerwick, got a bus north, got off at a place of about 5 or 6
houses, hired a car to the ferry to Whalsay and then took the ferry. Since
the bus only ran every 3 days, I got myself landed on a tiny island with a
few houses and no store or bar or school or any public building except the
post office and no way back. Also no hotel, motel, or b&b. A non-native
on the island was still so rare and strange that people peered at me from
behind curtains. I had the name of one family and walked up to their door.
Valda Grieve had told me, "just go there and they'll take care of you." And
they did. My point is that the north sea looked pretty much as it had in
1932. Whalsay was still windswept and empty and like something out of a
film of the beginnings of the earth. The same people lived there doing the
same things as when Christopher went.
It was not like seeing a play. And my point applied only to the physical
world. But of course my eyes were not Christopher's. That was my initial
There is a blackmail of the nonemotional; on this Orwell was brilliant in
"Politics and the English Language." The idea that there is some truth that
is purely objective [and therefore more true] and that emotions are an
intrusion is a view with which I totally disagree. As did Orwell. I think a
poet who spent years working out a theory about the fusion of intellect and
emotion probably thought so as well in some part of his mind.
I don't see Carson as even remotely analogous. Eliot was not a landscape
or a bird, to be observed and described. But then, feminist theories of
science have pretty much exploded the idea of an objective science too.
Read Evelyn Fox Keller on Barbara McClintock, for example.
So what you are apparently talking about, as far as I can tell, is your own
preference, to which you are entitled. But it is not any more likely to get at
whatever truths we can find. The idea that "science" is either detached
from emotion or more true than what we know through emotion as well as
cognition is not, in my view, even a serious one anymore.
Date sent: Fri, 9 Mar 2001 02:00:59 EST
Send reply to: [log in to unmask]
From: [log in to unmask]
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's letters--Gordon's Biography
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."