The responsibility to use words accurately

A very great asset is the ability to write well. Just as the gift of speech first separated man from animal, so has the ability to set speech down in written form gradually raised man up from his first beginnings as brute to the high level of science, art, and social organisation which he now precariously occupies.

The best literature involves seeking the most accurate words to describe the human condition.  This is not any easy business; T.S. Elliot called it “the intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.” But the search is immensely worthwhile. Gustave Flaubert, one of the greatest figures in all literature, describes perfectly the nature of trying to write well:

                When I come on a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I am

      floundering in the false.  By searching I find the proper expression, which

      was always the only one, and which is also harmonious.  The word

      is never lacking when one possesses the idea.  Is there not, in this precise

      fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principle? If not, why should there

      be a relation between the right word and the harmonious word? Or why should

      the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?

Literature is not only the greatest of all the arts, it is the most basic simply because language is a medium through which we all deal continually in daily life. Manipulation in language, or any deviation from true meaning, is much more influential than manipulation or deviation in the other arts.  It is because this most influential of the arts is expressed through written language that we have a special responsibility to preserve the use of words absolutely uncorrupted.

I love the vivid picture of literary creation we have been left in a friend’s memoir of the Russian writer Isaac Babel at work:

    “Babel would go up to his desk and stroke his manuscript cautiously as though

     it were a wild creature which had still not been properly domesticated.

     Often he would get up during the night and reread three of four pages by

     the light of an oil lamp…. He would always find a few unnecessary words and

     throw them out with malicious glee.  He used to say, ‘Your language becomes


     and strong, not when you can no longer add a sentence, but when you can no


     take away from it.”

Vigilance over the proper use of language must involve an assumption of personal responsibility.  When, in the Renaissance, man began to speak – through the literature of time – with individual voices, rather than as types as they had done in the medieval morality plays, there was a daring new assumption of personal accountability for what was uttered. Words, from that time on, have been accepted as a revelation of our private nature and an index of the responsibility we must be prepared to assume for our natures and our opinion.

In any society, there are always powerful forces which try to impose a uniformity of view; a common denominator of accepted thinking, an established order of literary expression. But such forces cannot prevail if real literature is to flourish. Writers have to preserve detachment, silence, privacy, personal opinion and an imagination which knows no horizons and accepts no direction. The subordination to a way of thinking that one has not worked towards oneself is to surrender to uniformity and officialdom. And if and when such surrender takes place, there will be literature no more, only the marks on paper of drudges, placemen and uninspired hacks.

In 1572, the great painter Veronese was called before the Holy Office at Venice to explain why in a painting of the Last Supper of the Lord he had included beggars, whores, loiterers, people scratching themselves, deformed people, a man with a nosebleed, a couple of drunks, and so on – subjects then held unfit to appear in a holy painting. When the grave charge of blasphemy was pressed on him and Veronese was asked why he had shown such profane matters in a holy picture, he replied very simply: “I thought such things were likely to be so.”  Through the ages it has always been the way between authority and the true artist as it was then between the Holy Office and the painter Veronese: the one always trying to impose a preconceived image, the other daring to depict the truth as he sees it.

When a nation is functioning properly, when it is encouraging creativity as well as generating creature comforts, it will both be producing independent, forceful, clear, accurate, skilled and imaginative writers and regularly supplying the means for such men and women to express their individual, inspired, thought-provoking, far-imagining and uniquely crafted views in stories, history, plays and poetry.

In the end, there is one immense truth which every man, and particularly any writer, should make central to his life–the responsibility to use words accurately. It is through literature that the real value of the word has been best preserved as it is in the best literature that we find the most refreshing spring of truth. If literature fades in a nation, when a nation pays little attention to encouraging its writers, that nation for all its superficial signs of business and bustle is withering at its roots.

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