This week I started back in on a book I worked seriously on two summers ago and then abandoned for a while. My goal for now is to produce a draft chapter for the core of the book. I’m aiming for roughly 6000 words about the nature of academic writing. The book itself is to be a “how to” book for writing papers that will, I hope, be equally useful to first-year students and full professors. The trick is to define “academic writing” in a way that emphasizes the similarities between students and scholars.
The first week went quite well. I’m writing for an hour every morning between 7:00 and 8:00. I’ve written about 3000 words, but not in a sense that constitutes 15 or 20 discrete paragraphs. (Technically, I’ve only had time to write 10 x 27 minutes.) Some of the words make up paragraphs that are, as it were, second attempts at paragraphs. I’ve written a paragraph and then rewritten it within a single writing moment, or I have written one that was way too long and split it into two, keeping both for now to decide what to do with them later. At this rate, I’ll have twice the 6000-word goal before Christmas. Then I’ll have to read it through and reduce it to 30-40 paragraphs, i.e., 30-40 claims that I think are true about writing in an academic context.
I like the way it feels to work on the book this way. I’m saying things that I’ve known comfortably (or at least confidently believed) for some time, and which I have of course lectured and written about (here) often before. I’m working from the center of my strength for an hour every morning it. It’s a good way to start.
Unaffected by “the march of events,”
He passed from men’s memory in l’an trentiesme
De son eage; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.
Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
The year I turned thirty, when I was studying “thought translation” in Tübingen, I took the time to read some philosophy in German. In the bookstore, I was seduced by the plainly printed editions of individual essays, like the Günther Neske “opuscula” series “aus Wissenschaft und Dichtung”, in which I read Heidegger’s Die Frage Nach der Teknik. I also bought the Klostermann Texte edition of Edmund Husserl’s Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft. Long before reading it, Ezra Pound had taught me about Basil Bunting’s formula “dichten = condensare,” which he discovered, we are told, when he was “fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary,” and let’s imagine that, as I walked along the Neckar, past Hölderlinturm let’s say, after fumbling with a dictionary of my own, the words “Philosophie als strenge Dichtung” came to me. You can believe that or not, but you can look the next thing up yourself. Husserl’s essay consists of 97 paragraphs, numbered in the margins, which filled 50 pages of Logos when it was originally published in 1911. The 1965 Klostermann edition includes a “content analysis” that provides a condensed, one-sentence* summary of each paragraph. Enough said.
This is the last of twenty deliberate paragraphs that I planned to write, one a day, over the past four weeks. Before that, I had written a spontaneous daily blog post — less structured and less disciplined. Both experiences have, of course, been instructive. Over the next four weeks, I will be writing two paragraphs during an hour every morning. My goal with this process is to write about 6000 words towards a book for students and scholars about how to write papers. This time, however, I will not be posting my work daily to the blog. Instead, I will write a weekly blogpost about the process.
*Since I dared you to look it up, I should probably come clean that “one sentence” is a bit of a stretch. It’s how I prefer to remember it — as a key sentence outline.
His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.
Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound suggested that “poetry remained an inferior art until it caught up with” Flaubert’s prose. Following Stendhal, he argued that prose, not “poetic ornament,” is the best medium “if you are trying to give a clear and exact idea of the ‘mouvements du coeur‘; if you’re trying to show what a man feels, you can do it only by clarity” (p. 97). This way of putting it probably inspired Hemingway’s idea that a story is a “sequence of motion and fact” that represents the emotion that the writer is trying to convey. It also resonates with Eliot’s idea that a play must provide an “objective correlative” for a character’s feelings, and philosophy can be considered an art in precisely that sense, except that what it correlates are concepts, not emotions. Early on Wittgenstein said you could do philosophy simply by arranging a series of scientific propositions, i.e., by showing the reader what it is “possible” to say, what makes “logical” sense. Philosophy, we might say, is trying to occasion, not the movement of the heart, but the stillness of the mind.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ', όσ' ένι Τροίη
Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.
--Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly
A paragraph makes a statement, states a claim. It conducts what Bertrand Russell called “the essential business of language”, namely, “to assert or deny facts.” Because it opens such a claim to the criticism of peers who are qualified to say whether it is false, a paragraph is fundamentally “transactional.” A paragraph takes a position and allows the reader to take theirs in accordance with or in opposition to it. This is not how Wittgenstein’s philosophical “remarks” operate; you are not supposed to ask yourself whether you agree with them or not. You don’t have to make up your mind about whether they are true or false. You only have to understand them; you have to get them to make sense. You have to be able to think them. They are like the strophes of a poem, which are neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad, but should make you feel something. Thus, in poetry, the emotion is brought to presence; in philosophy, the concept.
No, hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait:
--Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly
In a prose paragraph, a claim is supported, elaborated, or defended in terms that the reader presumably understands and is, importantly, qualified to challenge. This is not how the poetic paragraphs of Williams Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell or Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lawn of Excluded Middle work. Prose uses words in their conventional senses to say ordinary things; poetry, even in the form of a series of paragraphs, “detaches [things] from ordinary experience to the imagination,” as Williams explained in Spring and All. Waldrop, meanwhile, was profoundly influenced by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, composed as a series of remarks that were intended to show, not say, how our concepts work. “If one tried to advance theses in philosophy,” he said, “it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.” A poem doesn’t make us happy or sad; it makes us feel better, better able to feel. Likewise, philosophy doesn’t get us to think that something is true; it improves our thinking. The arrogance of the philosopher! Is the reader a savage?