A Moveable Feast at Degree Zero

Imagine a college English class that has been studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After reading the play and discussing it for a couple of weeks, the professor gives the students a simple in-class assignment. “How did Hamlet feel about his mother? Write a paragraph that answers this question.” The professor is a longtime reader of this blog, so the students have been told exactly what a paragraph is: a composition of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. Also in keeping with my recommendations, the students are given half an hour to complete the task. That is, the professor is asking them to demonstrate that they know how Hamlet felt about his mother.

Let’s try to appreciate the difficulty of the students’ task as writers. If they don’t know the answer, this problem doesn’t really arise, or arises in a corrupted form; their writing will be an attempt to conceal their ignorance rather than exposing what they know to the criticism of other knowledgeable people. But suppose a student knows that Hamlet loved his mother; what difficulty now remains? How is this hard? In my last post, I cited Hemingway and Barthes on the “writer’s problem” and the “problematics of literature” respectively. Hemingway would say that the student’s problem is to “write truly” and make that truth part of the reader’s experience; Barthes said that writing is “the morality of form” and that the student must situate the nature of their language in a social area. Neither yet seems very helpful.

But Hemingway had some more specific advice to writers. In A Moveable Feast, he says: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” In our case, this is the “key sentence” and we already know how to write it:

Hamlet loved his mother.

Now what? Well, remember that a paragraph is at least six sentences long and at most two hundred words and it says this one true thing. The student knows how to fulfill this requirement in a simple, mechanical way:

Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother.

Obviously, this will not get a very high grade. But it is better than nothing; indeed, it is significantly better than nothing. It says something true about Hamlet and displays an understanding of the basic form of a paragraph. “Now every form is also a value,” says Barthes in Writing Degree Zero, “which is why there is room, between a language and a style, for another formal reality: writing.” We might say that our minimalist student has not filled out the room between their language and their style. “Within any literary form,” Barthes continues, “there is a general choice of tone, of ethos, if you like, and this is precisely where the writer shows himself clearly as an individual because this is where he commits himself” (p. 14). We might also say that our student’s commitments are imprecise, vague.

Let us suppose our student tried to do something a little harder, something more “committed”. I always tell students to imagine what their reader will find difficult about the key sentence. Is it hard to believe or hard to understand or hard to agree with? Suppose the student chooses the last of these. Notice that this is a “choice of social area”, a site for a moral reflection on the form of the paragraph. At bottom, the writer is deciding who the reader is. Obviously, if the reader is likely to disagree with the claim that Hamlet loved his mother, we cannot simply assert this proposition six times and think we’ve accomplished something. We have to defend the claim against the reader’s objections.

For now, let’s not give ourselves too much freedom, too many resources to work with. Let’s limit ourselves to six sentences and let’s keep them simple and declarative, just like our key sentence. We will keep the form of each sentence about the same as in our previous effort, but we will introduce more content rather than merely repeating it.

Hamlet resented his mother’s marriage. She had married his uncle. His uncle had taken his crown. But Hamlet loved his mother. Her betrayal hurt him. It broke his heart.

Notice what is happening here. Much of the paragraph deals with the reasons the reader might have for thinking that Hamlet did not love his mother. It tries to situate the claim within those reasons and even tries to use them to support it. Hamlet’s resentment now does not belie his love for his mother but confirms it. His jealousy becomes evidence for it. Only someone we love can hurt us like this, we are arguing; only love can break our hearts. This reasoning is of course left implicit, but that’s a choice the writer has made, perhaps on the strength of Hemingway’s advice about the dignity of icebergs. Not incidentally, it becomes a rather ham-fisted imitation of Hemingway’s style. “In stating as fully as I could how things really were,” Hemingway explains in an interview, “it was often very difficult and I wrote awkwardly and the awkwardness is what they called my style. All mistakes and awkwardnesses are easy to see, and they called it style.”

I think you can see where this going. I’ll take it a step further in my next post, perhaps attempting a no more elegant imitation of Barthes. I want to emphasize that writing well is simply making the most of the freedom we have within the form we are given (or take upon ourselves). “Writing as freedom,” said Barthes, “is one of the most explicit [moments] in history, since history is always and above all a choice and the limits of this choice.” Writing is about making choices — about what to say and how to say it.  “This is very hard to do,” said Hemingway during the Spanish civil war, “and I’ve worked at it very hard.” I’m trying to get us to appreciate this difficulty in the composition classroom and find ways to overcome it in practice.

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