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“I did not know until this year that Keats spoke with a cockney accent”: Richard Rodriguez’s Prose

March 9, 2010

Cover of the Penguin Paperback.

Cover of the Princeton UP paperback I carried through graduate school.

On a friend’s recommendation I lately picked up—that is to say, “1-clicked”—a copy of Richard Rodriguez‘s 2002 book, Brown: the Last Discovery of America. I confess I’d not read Rodriguez since I taught an essay of his to first-year students when I was a graduate student in the 1980s. The essay, from The Hunger of Memory (1982), was in the reader our university assigned in its composition classes. “Unit adoption,” the practice was called. All the T.A.’s worked from it. All these years he has remained for me that essay, that experience, and, of course, a person on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and other PBS programs. I think I come to Brown fresh, or relatively so. I will say at the outset that I find its arguments unimpeachable, and that I will not have much to do with them here. Let Mr. Rodriguez sum them up for me, in six sentences from the preface to Brown: “Race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there lurks the possibility of romance.” I shall abscond with this passage into other precincts soon enough. It rings true.

Today I mean to deal with the prose, which is attic, or baroque, in the estimable Morris Croll‘s sense of those terms—matters I treat at length elsewhere in The Era of Casual Fridays. Some call the style “loose.” Francis Christensen, for example, in his contribution to W. Ross Winterowd‘s Contemporary Rhetoric: A Conceptual Background with Readings: “The loose sentence,” he says, “characterized the anti-Ciceronian movement in the seventeenth century. This movement, according to Morris W. Croll, began with Montaigne and Bacon and continued with such men as Donne, Browne, Taylor, Pascal. To Montaigne, its art was the art of being natural; to Pascal, its eloquence was the eloquence that mocks formal eloquence; to Bacon, it presented knowledge so that it could be examined, not so that it must be accepted.” All of this holds for the paragraphs I’m about to examine, though bear in mind that Croll (in the book pictured to the right, above) gives by far the best account of the style in general. I read the following last night, from Chapter One of Brown, “The Triad of Alexis de Tocqueville.” I reprint the whole passage here. Then I will then read through it again, as it comes, sentence by sentence.

The nescience of a book can undermine its clarity, can spoil our pleasure in it. Our age looks for exclusion. And there is a certain gumption missing from our age as a result, and from the literature of our age.

Helen Keller wrote that dust spoiled the feel of things for her. Simone Weil wrote that the music and the pageantry of a Nazi youth parade were viscerally thrilling to her.

Already reading in grammar school there were rooms in my reading life into which I would have been reluctant to admit Frederick Douglass, for I knew in those rooms he was mocked. You must wait here, Mr. Douglass. I made myself the go-between. I must come to the conclusion that the suite of mockery, though refined, though pleasing to me in most ways—a room of Thackeray’s perhaps—retained poisonous vapours of another age, and would not have admitted me. And yet these apartments existed uniquely in my imagination, nowhere else. In books, you say. But books must be reimagined, misunderstood, read. Readers repair to books as men and women to monasteries, none with an identical motive. I was the reader of Thackeray. These rooms, these weathers, these confidences from the dust must burn my ears if they were read out loud. But in my privacy I could regret they could not be revised. I strained to restore them to the conditional. Clouds that might pass. The authors could not know what Frederick Douglass would have taught them. Were they damned? Was the crudeness of their imaginations commensurate with the way they made toast? Were books a sort of limbo, characterized by unchangeability? Books! They were damned, authors, not to know that what they dropped could not be revised.

I did not know until this year that Keats spoke with a cockney accent.

The first paragraph first: “The nescience of a book can undermine its clarity, can spoil our pleasure in it. Our age looks for exclusion. And there is a certain gumption missing from our age as a result, and from the literature of our age.” “Nescience” (as the components of the word imply) means ignorance, as in O.E.D. sense 1. “Absence or lack of knowledge, ignorance; a form or instance of ignorance.” I rarely encounter the word; the O.E.D. calls it rare as Rodriguez uses it here. The point is not that the word is slightly archaic or difficult (it may be the former, but not the latter). The point is that one notices it in the context of this passage, whose diction ranges from the racy (“gumption”) to the broadly urbane (“Our age looks for exclusion”); and whose modes range from colloquy (“In books, you say. But books…”) to exclamation (“Books!”) to questions both closed and open, serious and serio-comic (“Were they damned? Was the crudeness of their imaginations commensurate with the way they made toast?”—about which more later).

But again that first paragraph. Notice how loose its ligatures are. With the slightest revisions I can reorder its periods without doing much violence to the sense: “Our age looks for exclusion. There is a certain gumption missing from our age as a result, and from the literature of our age. The nescience of a book can undermine its clarity, can spoil our pleasure in it.” Or: “There is a certain gumption missing from our age, and as a result from the literature of our age. The nescience of a book can undermine its clarity, can spoil our pleasure in it. Our age looks for exclusion.” The sentences are short, and for the most part paratactic. Not a single subordinating conjunction mars the prose here.

Recruitment poster for the Hitler Youth.

Simone Weil, anarchist, labor activist, religious mystic, one-time Bolshevik, philosopher, veteran of the war against Franco, and of the French Resistance.

Then paragraph two following upon the first, in the passage I selected: “Helen Keller wrote that dust spoiled the feel of things for her. Simone Weil wrote that the music and the pageantry of a Nazi youth parade were viscerally thrilling to her.” The inconsequence, the surprise in the yoking, is merely apparent. Both are observations about purity, cleanliness, order, discipline: their allure, even in monstrous form, to such a woman as Simone Weil; and their necessity, in modest forms, to such a woman as Keller (who had only tact to rely on). These sentences take their place in the larger arguments made in Brown in favor of “impurity,” of blending, of boundarilessness. Sentence one of the book is a fragment, subtitle to the preface, offered up as a topic for meditation, which of course it is: “Brown as impurity.” “I write of a color,” Rodriguez continues, “that is not a singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color produced by careless desire, even by accident; by two or several. I write of blood that is blended.” And yet he reminds us of the “visceral thrill” that Weil—born a Jew, by politics a leftist and an anarchist, by experience a cosmopolitan: in short, everything the Nazis hated;—and yet Rodriguez reminds us of the “thrill” Weil reports having felt on witnessing the Hitler Youth on parade, the whole meaning of which event was purity, discipline: radical whiteness, not unruly brown. One wonders. Does Rodriguez suppose, or simply invite the reader to entertain, the possibility that that thrill was partly erotic? It is no slander to say so. Hardly. Encountering this sentence, thinking of Weil and the Hitler Youth, I recall what he earlier says, in closing his preface—the words I already quoted: “Race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For that is what race memorializes.” Thomas Pynchon makes the same argument in far bleaker form—after all, he is writing about the Nazis—in Gravity’s Rainbow: the war for him was white supremacy coming to a head (and out of sub-Saharan Africa); white supremacy consummating itself. But that’s an aside, and here are Weil and Keller. Weil? Astonishing. Rodriguez admires them, and also finds in them a touch of that rage for purity against which Brown is written. Keller and Weil are impure purists, and to that extent representative, though also sui generis (we have never seen their like).

Then I hesitate. I’m thrown back. Prose in this style does that to you, precisely because it forgoes the ligatures of argument and reason that make the Ciceronian style what it so antithetically is. Keller needed her purity. She was a tactile mover. Still, the dust isn’t spoken of as a problem, an obstacle, a difficulty to be gotten round. Dust “spoils” the feel of things. As for Weil, she found the purity she saw on parade “thrilling.” Are the two women alike or not? To what degree and how? Here they come, out of the pages of Brown, pari passu, unlikely-likely partners. They dangle. Exemplary women who—as Rodriguez recalls here, among all he might recall of them—once confessed a love of purity, but were on the right side of every question: socialists, pacifists, advocates—even unto death in Weil’s case—for those who live in the margins under color of “brown.” But no matter, really. The point in prose like this is, as John Jay Chapman says, to “throw your sitter into a receptive mood by a pass or two which shall give you his virgin attention.” Rodriguez has mine here. Weil, Keller, dust, the Hitler Youth with their visceral thrill: two sentences, unanticipated, unfollowed-up. Except by indirection, in the third paragraph I quoted. Rodriguez brings it home and (bonne chance!) I find my own hero, Douglass, agitator non pareil, and himself “brown” (Native American, European, African):

William Makepeace Thackeray, photograph by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst.

Frederick Douglass, in the 1850s.

Already reading in grammar school there were rooms in my reading life into which I would have been reluctant to admit Frederick Douglass, for I knew in those rooms he was mocked. You must wait here, Mr. Douglass. I made myself the go-between. I must come to the conclusion that the suite of mockery, though refined, though pleasing to me in most ways—a room of Thackeray‘s perhaps—retained poisonous vapours of another age, and would not have admitted me. And yet these apartments existed uniquely in my imagination, nowhere else. In books, you say. But books must be reimagined, misunderstood, read. Readers repair to books as men and women to monasteries, none with an identical motive. I was the reader of Thackeray. These rooms, these weathers, these confidences from the dust must burn my ears if they were read out loud. But in my privacy I could regret they could not be revised. I strained to restore them to the conditional. Clouds that might pass. The authors could not know what Frederick Douglass would have taught them. Were they damned? Was the crudeness of their imaginations commensurate with the way they made toast? Were books a sort of limbo, characterized by unchangeability? Books! They were damned, authors, not to know that what they dropped could not be revised.

A single, carefully managed metaphor governs this paragraph: the “rooms” and “suites” of the “house” Rodriguez “dwells” in as a reader, etc. A strange house it is, with its suites of mockery into which brown may enter, but no, not black. That would be Thackeray’s suite. Mr. Makepeace, with his suite of mockery. Rodriguez enters, notwithstanding a fear that he’d not be allowed admittance if the room were real. He leaves Douglass outside, and later regrets that the books he loved, the “poisonous” ones, could not be “revised.” Keller hated dirt, Weil loved a parade, Rodriguez has a weakness for Thackeray. Well, whose house ever actually is in order? “And yet these apartments existed uniquely in my imagination, nowhere else,” we read, only to find ourselves addressed: “In books, you say. But books must be reimagined, misunderstood, read.” The engagement that the prose has all along required is given voice: I/you, Rodriguez/me.

Well, do I say, “In books”? And with what I can only hear as a tone somewhat dismissive? Am I implicated in this? Who’s into this “you”? Readers who want their writers (and their writers’ libraries) orderly, unblended? That isn’t me; keep that “you” to yourself, I want to say. Or readers on the “white” side of the color-line, where in fact I do stand, looking for instruction from Douglass and Rodriguez?—for, yes, of course, here I am, reading them both. And reading about the second reading the first while confessing himself compelled—awful compulsion, but there it is, and he’s right, he’d not want Douglass “mocked”;—while confessing himself compelled to leave the great abolitionist behind when he enters a British “suite of mockery” given over to a dead white man born in brown Calcutta, as Thackeray was. The sad fact—and Rodriguez knows it, because he’s read his Douglass;—the sad fact is that Douglass was pretty generally at large in England in the late 1840s, when Thackeray was penning away. He spoke at Covent Garden. He spoke everywhere from Wales to Scotland to Ireland to London. Agitating and educating. No fewer than three editions of his 1845 Narrative appeared there. British supporters bought his freedom, which allowed him to return in relative safety to America—that nation whose white practices, as he said, would disgrace “a nation of savages.”

British toast rack, available on Ebay for 10 pounds, at this date (3/9/2010).

So, were these “white” Victorian writers “damned”? “Was the crudeness of their imaginations commensurate with the way they made toast?” What goes around comes around. There’s mockery in this suite of phrases: from “damnation” to “toast.” But does the wit depend on (California) American vernacular (“They’re toast”), or on standard-issue North American quibblings as to British cookery, or on both? Attic and baroque stylists prefer to leave these things open for scrutiny—or until we make it round to meet them where they are. Anyway, all I know of British toast is that it is served vertically, in racks (of ceramic or metal), and that one Margaret Crumpton (Dickensian name, that one) has authored an eighty page treatise called British Toast Racks for Collectors and the History of Toast, which, as the publisher tells us, discusses “a peculiarly British way of serving bread—and illustrates over 1,000 ceramic toast racks from the late eighteenth century to the present day.” (Where’s my friend Atmore when I need him to clarify these things? Back in England.)

Ground plan, Saint Gall Monastery, near St. Georgen, Switzerland. I do not know which rooms house "the suite of mockery." Appoint them 12 & 13. Leave the rest for the browning of Douglass.

So far, I’ve said nothing of these sentences: “But books must be reimagined, misunderstood, read. Readers repair to books as men and women to monasteries, none with an identical motive. I was the reader of Thackeray.” Reimagined, misunderstood, read. That series unfolds unstably, such that I hardly know—except for a certain hunch—whether Rodriguez means to put them in equation, as who should say: You can’t do the third without doing the others. I’m game for that. Even Harold Bloom is game for that (or was in the 1970s an 1980s). But readers “repair to books as men and women do to monasteries, none with an identical motive.” Rodriguez repaired to a monastery called “Thackeray.” From motives he doesn’t state outright. True, no such motives are “identical.” Men and women get themselves to nunneries and monasteries for all manner of reasons: the erotic; the fear of the erotic; love of God; contemptus mundi; because they hear a voice that makes their vocation, and the world never sees them again. But out of the monastery that was Thackeray, Rodriguez came. He “was” the reader in question. That sounds like a confession, and not only because it moves, here, in the orbit of “monasteries.” The ligatures (of logic, syntax, grammar) are loose enough to allow for real play in the prose. As for example earlier on: “I made myself the go-between,” he says, linking Douglass and William Makepeace Thackeray. “Go-betweens” are diplomats, bearers of tidings, matchmakers, make-peacers. Rodriguez made himself one. He put himself on the border, neither here nor there. Your true “go-between” is always “brown,” and “brown” comes of “goings-between.” All this Rodriguez lets us know, but in prose that never bespeaks itself. “These rooms, these weathers, these confidences from the dust must burn my ears if they were read out loud,” he says. “But in my privacy I could regret they could not be revised. I strained to restore them to the conditional. Clouds that might pass.” Regretting privately that a book cannot be revised is one way of loving it, and yet the meaning of the observation isn’t altogether out of harmony with the one that precedes it: the books in these suites of mockery “must burn my ears if they were read out loud.” One man is always two readers, or more. What else are these paragraphs about but reading brown?

But do old books become “unconditional,” such that they might be “restored,” even at the “strain,” to “the conditional”? Or are they unconditionally written, all their allowances made, all their inclusions and exclusions kept? We want our books conditional. To read one is to condition it. But books with their “unchangeability”! That’s what authors are damned never to know. What they dropped—their “nescience”—can never be revised back in. This leaves me with the last sentence, which in fact concludes this section of the chapter. Rodriguez again throws his “sitter into a receptive mood by a pass or two” which shall give him his “virgin attention.” “I did not know until this year,” Rodriguez says, “that Keats spoke with a cockney accent.” A forgivable nescience, of course, a charming nescience. But its apparent inconsequence leaves me wondering. Will this fact, this new hearing of Keats, make the poet again conditional for Rodriguez? I think so. Cockney Keats, and no Pygmalion. The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain. And “pains” rhymes with “drains” in stanza one of “Ode to a Nightingale.”

In closing I add one thought. The passage I’ve been reading suggests to me the presence behind it of a common-place book or journal: the condensation, the records of what Weil said, and Keller; the breadth of allusion; the consequential in-consequence, the goings-between and passages. There needn’t have been a commonplace-book or journal behind it, of course. But the best prose always reads as if there had been.

N.B. For other pages within The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to prose style, click here, here, and here. For the general category “prose style,” click here. For an entry on Douglass, click here. For a link to Ossie Davis reading Frederick Douglass’s immortal 1852 speech, “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July?”, click here. I reprint now a brief extract from it: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.  Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ian Wolcott permalink
    March 11, 2010 7:03 PM

    I’m going to have to find a copy of the Rodriguez book.

    No one else quite does what you do here, Mark – for which I thank you. These long, patient examinations of texts and references are as enriching as they are a pleasure to read.

    • March 11, 2010 9:04 PM

      Thank you kindly, Ian. Much obliged, as we say where I grew up. Coming from The New Psalmanazar, well, I consider this one of those fine felicities that fall into one’s path. I aspired to do Rodriguez’s sentences justice. Here’s hoping I have. You give me heart.

      By the way, and on another head, I picked up and started reading the book Epstein refers to (in a note) toward the end of his essay: “You Are Not A Gadget.” The prose there is relatively uninteresting, but the arguments are very interesting indeed. Written by the legendary software designer (and “Web 2.0” contrarian) Jaron Lanier.

  2. Dave Lull permalink
    March 12, 2010 5:57 PM

    My thanks, too, Mark, for your wonderful, close readings.

    By the way, I wish I’d had your WHAT I WANT (AS A TEACHER OF LYRIC POETRY)* to guide my reading when I was an undergraduate; but reading it now is still timely because I’m still capable of learning a thing or two– and even changing a habit or two.

    ====
    * https://marksrichardson.wordpress.com/what-i-want-as-a-teacher-of-lyric-poetry/

    • March 13, 2010 12:06 AM

      Hi Dave,

      Thank you for stopping by, as always. I’m glad to hear that you think WHAT I WANT (AS A TEACHER OF LYRIC POETRY) is of some use. The earliest draft of that dates from about 2000, when I was still working at Western Michigan University.

      With best regards,
      Mark

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