Why Bother?

Getting and staying motivated depend on knowing why we would take the trouble to do something—begin exercising in the dead of winter, say, or better the way we write and think. Why, really, should we care? A few pages well worth reading about this question are to be found in the last chapter of Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (4th ed., Longman, 2000). Lanham offers two reasons, one practical (writing clearly will hold your reader’s attention longer than foggy prose), the other psychological or even philosophical. It’s the latter that will concern us here.

“Are you willing,” Lanham asks, “to sign your name to what you have written?” That’s an interesting thought, because it involves our self-conception, who and what we believe we are. We humans have, strange to say, a relationship with ourselves. We have this odd ability to face ourselves and see that the fixed identity we sense ourselves to be also changes according to the circumstances. We are, magnificently or tragically, twofold (as Aquinas observed), and we swing back and forth between who we find ourselves essentially to be and who we have to be—what role we must play—given the moment we find ourselves in. This double movement involves our character (the Latin for which gives us our word morality), and so how we present ourselves, in our behavior and in our language, reveals in some good measure who we are as we stand before our subject. Lanham writes:

When we say that writing is sincere, we mean that somehow it has managed to express this complex oscillation, this complex self. It has caught the accent of a particular self, a particular mixture of the two selves. Sincerity can’t point to any specific verbal configuration, since sincerity varies as widely as human beings themselves. The sincere writer has not said exactly what she felt in the first words that occurred to her. That might produce a revolutionary tirade, or ‘like, you know’ conversational babble…. Nor has a sincere writer simply borrowed a fixed language, as when a bureaucrat writes in the Official Style. She has managed to create a style which, like the social self, can become part of society, can work harmoniously in society and, at the same time, like the central self, can represent her unique selfhood. She holds her two selves in balance; this is what ‘authority’ in prose means.

Holding oneself in balance. And if this, as Lanham maintains, is at the heart of style, then caring about the way we write is a moral question because it involves our character. He continues:

The moral ingredient in writing, then, works first not on the morality of the message but on the nature of the sender, on the complexity of the self. ‘Why bother?’ To invigorate and enrich your selfhood, to increase, in the most literal sense, your self-consciousness. Writing, properly pursued, does not make you better. It makes you more alive.

The best answer, then, is that language and self are kin, if not indeed twins. The best answers are intelligent ones, and Lanham’s argument takes us where we might not quickly run: inside ourselves. But from there the world proceeds, and the art of language, like all the arts, is a skillful means to tell others what we understand. We cannot wish to do that and at the same time stand aside from the quality of our language, ourselves. For that reason, how we choose to do something ultimately matters.


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