Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Talking allowed

To the despair of my friends, I am prone to big speeches. In fact, one of the reasons for this blog was to spare them yet another monologue when we are in the pub. And as for my poor students; a simple question can lead to a long peroration, sometimes relevant and amusing, but by no means always. And so I read this touching and eloquent essay by Christopher Hitchens, on the joy of speaking and its intimate relationship with writing, with great pleasure and empathy. Every academic should read this as Universities can be dedicated to the eradication of good written English by enforcing the use of the impersonal and passive voice that deadens prose. Not Hitchens though,
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
And so his illness is a particular tragedy and of course I feel sympathy, but the main emotion his essay evoked was fear; a deep terror that I should lose my voice, my unique link with the world.

I wish him well for the selfish reason that I do not want to be deprived of regularly reading his prose, whilst his own hopes, characteristically, reflect something more universal.
What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.


Vita Brevis said...

the essay is dated June 2011. Have I missed something?

The Plump said...

I would like to pretend you get scoops on Fat Man - or even a glimpse into the future. Sadly, it is just that the on-line version of the June edition of Vanity Fair is posted in May.