Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Friday, February 05, 2010

What Prose Style Can Teach Us About Moral Character: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Macaulay.

I do not like F. Scott Fitzgerald. I find him an irritating sot, a malignerer, and a kind of prose poet whose sentimentality repulses me. But I get that Fitzgerald has made virtues out of his necessities, and even though his vices may repel they nevertheless glitter with the sprayed-on gloss of honest and vital emotion.

So I sat down to read 'The Diamond As Big As the Ritz' with little expectations of more than a pretty read a la the Great Gatsby. And so it was!

Macaulay's prose reminds me of Gibbon's, but Gibbon's is the purer style. They are very similar, so contiguous that the distinct quality of Macaulay's is obscure. Gibbon's style is nobler, less opinionated, and more just; Gibbon's fine way of applying multiple verbs to a single actor is so stylish and unique that it has no compare anywhere; I am so impressed by Gibbon's style that I can only find him a better writer - I was about to say a better man - than Macaulay.

I do not dislike Macaulay. I don't know him well enough from the one essay. But I receive an overall impression of journalistic quality in his work which leaves me cold.

Please let me clarify that view.

Macaulay's essay on Machiavelli goes to pains to contextualise Machiavelli in the social context of his times. When he compares the social context of his (Macaulay's) own time with Machiavelli's time, I became skeptical. Macaulay is trying to be an apologist for Machiavelli by shifting the blame for Machiavelli's 'evil' onto the entire Italian people in Machiavelli's time and place; and instead of making sense of Machiavelli's morality, by asserting that every age has its own morals he relativises moral considerations into nonexistence. Macaulay implies that every age has its own morals, which are incommensurate to another age's morality; if this is the case, why do we even bother to judge the morality of people and nations outside our own time and place? How can we learn moral lessons from history if morality is incommensurate from age to age? It is a nonsense argument.

And the review of Machiavelli's works, while interesting, seems a little irrelevant; we are only really interested in the political thought, and the moral questions around that. Macaulay rambles here.

So too the comparison of Machiavelli with Montesqieu. Macaulay reckons Montesqieu is popular because of the sentimental fads of his day, not because of the excellence of his book, the Spirit of Laws. But if this were true, then why is Montesqieu in the Great Books and Macaulay is introducing them? Macaulay accuses Montesqieu of matching a far-flung example to a principle, instead of finding principles to fit the proximate political circumstances. This is just to say that Montesqieu argues his case as best he can, and Machiavelli does too; to question the evidence is not to invalidate the theory's weight, and Macaulay does not broach the theory behind the Spirit of Laws.

So as you have read so far my impression of Macaulay is that he writes like a journalist. No doubt more will be revealed.

I don't mean to be censorious of these guys. I believe the character of a writer matters, and vices and errors in superb writers are even more obvious because of the overall excellence of their prose. Both Fitzgerald and Macaulay are urbane and erudite sophists, and fine stylists. If either man were a poor writer then their defects would not be so clear.

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