Lanham and Orwell

Revising Prose (1979)I learned a great deal about voice from Richard Lanham, especially two of his books: Style: An Anti-Textbook and Revising Prose. In the latter, Lanham outlines a multi-step technique he refers to as the “Paramedic Method” or “PM.” Once I learned the technique, I never let go, reading my papers out loud, marking each stumble over an awkwardly constructed sentence, and then returning to those sentences, PM in hand, and taking them apart step by step. The practical technique aside, I have wondered for some time now about the influence of George Orwell on Lanham’s larger, more complex argument about the way we use language now and in a culture that values speed and the shiny surface of things.

The distaste Orwell expresses in “Politics and the English Language” for euphemism, the bedrock of
political language, echoes in Lanham’s argument that writing matters as a communal and humane practice. “In our time,” Orwell, writes, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He then offers us a list of atrocities (imperialism, purges, deportations, atom bombs) that “can, indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” He gives concrete examples of the enormous schism between act and representation; between what we do and how we represent those actions to ourselves, individually and collectively:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Pacification, rectification, elimination—the verbs have been turned into nouns, Latinate nouns that communicate effectively, all the while neatly and hygienically buffering us from bombarded villages, trudging peasants, suffering prisoners.

Orwell was writing shortly after the World War II, yet Lanham in his work situates in the present that same schism between act and representation. Lanham, the brilliant rhetorician, draws our attention to the beauty of a consciously wrought style despite the fact that we live in an age for which the default definition of “rhetoric” has become verbose, pompous, insincere. We are tired of being lied to by politicians and advertisers. Our understandably paranoid defense is to reject lengthy and complex sentences. Lanham, however, does not advocate for short sentences. He advocates for balance and clarity. The PM is meant to help us see the idea we are trying to express in each sentence. Once we see the idea, we have another decision to make about how to cast it within the structure of a sentence. And it is in that very instance of seeing and then making a conscious ethical choice about how we use language, to obscure or to reveal, that Lanham returns to repeatedly—as does Orwell.

The speaker who relies on euphemistic platitudes has for Orwell “gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.” To insist that all sentences must be short (a dismayingly reductive misunderstanding of Hemingway’s style) leads to political debates that sound more like an off-, off-, off-Broadway reading of bumper stickers or sound bites. It is euphemism—albeit without the bombast and complexity. But both forms reduce us to machines, spouting language we don’t understand, and offers the scant comfort of conformity. Here is an example of that mechanistic sort of writing:

Jones writes a touching article where he utilizes several techniques that have an impact on his audience and include persuasion, such as pathos, rhetorical questions, and ethos, to demonstrate the similarities between actual violence and aggressive television violence scenes are alarming signs these television programs are dangerous for children.

If we skim the sentence instead of actually reading it, we get a sense of complexity, effort, thought. If we slow down and actually read it, something shifts. Here, in highlights, is what Lanham has taught me to see:

Jones writes a touching article where he utilizes several techniques that have an impact on his audience and include persuasion, such as pathos, rhetorical questions, and ethos, to demonstrate the similarities between actual violence and aggressive television violence scenes are alarming signs these television programs are dangerous for teenagers.

This sentence actually expresses three ideas: 1) Jones writes a touching article; 2) He uses several techniques; and 3) These television programs are dangerous for teenagers. It would take time to
Style: An Anti-textbook (1974)develop each of these ideas, yet we live in a culture that moves at a frenetic pace. The ideas expressed raise logical questions: What is “touching” about the article? Does Jones have a particular connection to the material? Which “techniques” exactly? Who is his audience? Are them sympathetic to his argument or not? Why would those “techniques” be relevant to that particular audience? Which idea is most important to the writer? There are many more questions, and those questions will not be articulated, the answers left unexplored, for the same reason: they require time. The writer avoids taking a position. As discussed in the posting on Boal and Freire, the writer of that sample sentence has learned conformity.