Friday, June 23, 2006

The generation that didn’t trust adjectives
(E. B. White Revisited: Part 2)

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

This famous line, cribbed from Horace -- “it is sweet and right to die for your country” -- was widely repeated as England was swept up in the war fever of 1914. The sentence is nearly 30 percent adjectives, far more than the 6 percent average alluded to by Geoff Pullum. You could say that World War I was launched on an optimistic tide of noble adjectives.

The optimism died in the muddy trenches and bloody no man’s land of the Great War, which made a mockery of every adjective that had been used to justify it on both sides. Not long before he died near the end of the war, the poet Wilfred Owen savagely turned Horace’s words around at the end of his caustic, haunting "Dulce Et Decorum Est," one of the great antiwar poems.
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It wasn’t just E. B. White who came to distrust adjectives. It was the entire generation of his peers, who suffered a kind of collective post-traumatic stress reaction that made them distrust all abstractions, all descriptive modifiers and put their trust in the concrete -- specific nouns and verbs, things and actions. Hemingway described this feeling at the end of “A Farewell to Arms.”
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
In “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell writes eloquently of how the trauma of the war, its total assault on all accepted turn-of-the-century beliefs in progress and human rationality, helped lay the groundwork for modernism in the arts and literature.

Adjectives had come to be associated with deadly lies, just as in architecture, the 19th century’s fondness for ornamentation had come to look like tawdry window dressing for a corrupt social structure. The new ideal was stripped-down, minimalist, and above all, “honest.”

Modernism was an esthetic with legs. It reigned for decades, and when E. B. White first revised “Elements of Style” in the late fifties, the modernist International Style ruled unchallenged in New York. Today, we see many of the severe glass and steel boxes of that time as cold and sterile. But in their time, they perfectly obeyed the dictum that form should (seem to) follow function, sans ornamentation. In other words -- build with nouns and verbs, and forget about adjectives and adverbs.

As it turned out, modernism dated rather quickly after alternatives appeared. The unadorned severity of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building gave way to the sensuous curves of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and Hemingway’s stripped-down prose came to strike us as pretentious and artificial, unless we’re in just the right retro mood.

So it wasn’t advice for the ages. But it had a pretty good run in its time.


h de m said...

OK I have nothing interesting to say here other than this is a fascinating post.

Hollis said...

Just surfed onto your blog when searching 'distrust of adjectives'. I'm not sure if I agree with you on the dating of modernism in literature in reference to Hemingway's style of terse prose. If modernism is a reaction to the baroque and the frivolous then it can be found as a natural recurrence in many fields as a way to refresh from the overly-affected expressions of any age playing aesthetic gymnastics trying to undermine the more visceral elements that touch the heart. I can understand how it might be seen as pretentious when not explicitly mentioning the pain or overwhelming beauty of something, but those things are still detectable- it probably just requires a little faith in the reader. Your references to architecture are a fascinating juxtaposition but I'd be more interested to hear what post-modernist (or post-post or whatever they're calling that) writers you think have taken the model and elaborated in a positive way. Regards.