Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/January 1910/The Theory of Style

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THE THEORY OF STYLE
By Professor WALTER LIBBY

NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

ALTHOUGH signs of reaction are by no means wanting, the dominant form of criticism at the dawn of the twentieth century seems to be what is usually called literary impressionism. To keep his mind sensitized to all the influences his reading can bring to bear upon it, to disengage his impressions, and to set them forth in the choicest phraseology at command, are now recognized as constituting the supreme virtue of the critic. This attitude of impressionism towards literature is distinctly opposed to the literary dogmatism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and may be regarded as tending to supersede the subsequent phase, the so-called historical criticism, which traces calmly, if at times somewhat schematically, the evolution of poets and literatures, and even the more distinctly scientific criticism, which looks upon works of art as indices of the souls of artists and nations to be explained on the bases of esthetics, psychology and sociology. One remarks in all the more recent tendencies in literary criticism a certain degree of catholicity. Literature is no longer to be dogmatically approved or disapproved, but it is to be appreciated and placed according to recognized principles or a frankly individualistic point of view.

Of course impressionism is very far indeed from being democratic. Its high priest, the well-read, well-endowed, susceptible critic is still in some sense a public guide. He is a superior sort of camera, and a newly-acquired language may aid, like a new lens, to improve the quality of the impression. He starts, however, with no a priori principles of taste, and he may even be disdainful of esthetics. His desire for freedom from standards carries him perhaps too far in his contempt for theory. At any rate, it is not obvious that an emotionalistic esthetic which recognizes the conveyance and transmission of a mood as the essential of art is at variance with the spirit of genuine impressionism. In fact such an esthetic might ask, in view of the dearth of fixed principles, and the great stress laid in recent criticism on the mere ability to record impressions, whether literature about literature has not itself become art and renounced all claim to be called scientific. The difficult and tedious task of collecting and classifying impressions and striking averages and seeking bases of agreement from the broadest possible data is largely to be done before a science can be deduced from the mass of esthetic judgments.

Now, as a matter of fact, the great literary artists have possessed such a knowledge of the minds of their readers, such a skill in applying it to common human nature, as to at least ensure the popularity and in some cases the immortality of their works. The poet who feels that his verse will stand "to times in hope" speaks with a certainty that few formal doctrines can claim. Poets know by natural tact and through experiment the esthetic probability of achieving desired emotional effects by certain literary means. It is true that there are limitations to their success. Eacine, Lamartine, La Fontaine, can never appeal to the English mind as to the French. Many well-equipped Germans will continue to find their translations of Shakespeare—for us grotesque—better—for them—than the original. The ultra-democrat and the moujik philosopher may be blind to the charm of Elizabethan art. Nevertheless, the greatest literary artists made their appeal not to the adventitious, but to the permanent in human nature, and a psychological study of their masterpieces should enable us to make explicit and doctrinal what with them was implicit and more or less intuitive.

Criticism itself has developed from a consideration of oratory. It was an attempt on the part of the rhetoricians to analyze the work of the orator with the intention of profiting by his successes and of taking warning from his failures. Some general theory of style is presupposed. The profundity to which this study was carried led to the clear recognition among the Greeks and Romans of the psychological significance involved in oratory and rhetoric. The orator is a philosopher with something added. The rhetorician must know the true and the false, he must understand the human mind even if his sole purpose be to deceive. The artist who ventures to play upon us must have a just appreciation of our tendencies and susceptibilities.

That recent rhetoricians take a less serious view of their vocation can be shown by a reference to their pages. One proclaims, for example, that "every piece of style may be said to impress readers in three ways—intellectually, emotionally, esthetically." This dictum forms the basis of a theory of style that cost its author ten years of study. A little further study along philosophical lines might have convinced him that a distinction between the emotional and the esthetic is not so radical as his classification implies. In fact, a glance at recent rhetorics might indicate that as far as the rhetoricians are concerned the same condition prevails now as Spencer complained of over half a century ago: No general theory of expression seems yet to have been enunciated. It was the desire to discover the psychological basis of the heterogeneous rules of the rhetoricians that led him to formulate his theory of the economy of mental energies and sensibilities. The little essay that sets forth his theory, refused by one magazine and dubbed by the editor of a second with the grandiose title Philosophy of Style, would hardly call for serious comment, only that it is still highly praised by American rhetoricians and that Spencer in his publications of 1902 reaffirmed his belief in the conclusions reached by him in 1853, though indeed he confessed that the question of style had never by him been made a real object of study.

Spencer maintains that the desideratum that underlies the specific rules of rhetoric is to so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, and he proceeds to inquire whether economy of the recipient's attention is not the secret of the effect sought in the choice of words, their collocation, the arrangement of clauses, figures of speech and the rhythmical sequence of syllables. The short, familiar, imitative, specific, Saxon words are more forcible because they economize the reader's powers. The English idiom which puts the adjective before the noun is better than the French, because on reading the expression un cheval noir one tends first to think of a bay horse and an effort must be made to repaint the image, so to speak, while on reading a black horse the idea suggested by the adjective, being abstract, is suspended in its application until the noun gives us the substance for our concrete picture. On the same principle the predicate, which presents the subject under a certain aspect, must come first. Great is Diana of the Ephesians is more impressive than what is sometimes called the natural order. This theory of style is at first glance very plausible. That one should not waste mental effort seems obvious. But the more closely one examines it the more paradoxical does Spencer's so-called philosophy of style become. One feels this when he proposes to call the inverted style the direct, and the natural order the indirect. The philosopher himself is forced to recognize that his theory has limitations. It is not always the shortest epithet that is the most effective; It is grand may be less impressive than It is magnificent. Moreover, he confesses that beyond a certain point more is lost than is gained by the inverted order; the effort to carry in suspense is greater than that needed to correct a series of misconceptions in approaching the complete statement. He goes so far as to say "A greater grasp of mind is required for the ready comprehension of thoughts expressed in the direct manner, where the sentences are anywise intricate." This style admittedly demands a "considerable power of concentration." That is, it calls for a high degree of attention. Spencer says further "even when addressing the most vigorous intellects the direct style is unfit for communicating thoughts of a complex or abstract character."

In fact, as we proceed we find that this theory of style becomes hopelessly involved because of the failure to distinguish between clearness and force, and, again, between clearness and simplicity, and to recognize that style must suit itself not merely to different capacities but to different purposes. The theory's defects become apparent when Spencer comes to consider figurative language. The main object of figures of speech is to bring one "more easily to the desired conception," that is, they tend to simplicity and clearness rather than to impressiveness and stimulation of the feeling. The metaphor owes its superiority over the simile to the great economy it achieves. Whately, on the other hand, had maintained that "all men are more gratified at catching the resemblance for themselves, than in having it pointed out to them." Spencer opposed this view. He probably recognized that underlying it was a principle that could be formulated in direct antithesis to his theory of style, not economy of mental energies and sensibilities, but the greatest possible stimulation. Not the minimum of effort, but the maximum of response! Attention is correlative with interest and it must be aroused rather than economized. It is not mere clearness of exposition, but the power to evoke, that is the supreme virtue of style.

Later in his essay Spencer stumbles on the secret of his so-called direct manner. "Mental excitement spontaneously prompts the use of those forms of speech which have been pointed out as the most effective." In other words, the inverted order is the emotional order distinguished by force, while the natural order is the intellectual order distinguished by clearness. When one reads what the essay contains concerning the economy of the mental sensibilities, the paradoxical character of the whole theory is greatly emphasized. Climax is more fruitfully described as an exploitation of the mental sensibilities than as an economy of the same. It is the cumulative effect of a summation of stimuli. What is the value of saying that antithesis and variety economize the attention rather than that they arouse the attention? The greatest possible emotional effect is the main purpose aimed at in the employment of the various figures of speech.

When Spencer comes to speak of poetry and proclaims its superiority to prose, into which view his brief for the inverted order leads him, there become marked the inadequacy and lack of discrimination of his whole theory of style. The principles that explain a prose style fail to account for a poetic style inasmuch as their purposes are different. To adopt Spencer's phraseology for a moment, economy of the mental energies is frequently at variance with economy of the mental sensibilities. Or, as I very much prefer to say, the appeal to the understanding is not always consistent with the appeal to the emotions; and in poetry clearness of expression is very often sacrificed to force. This conflict is apparent if we consider the question of rhythm. According to Spencer rhythmical structure is an economy of the reader's or hearer's attention. The strain required by the total irregularity of prose is diminished. If Spencer implies here by the indefinite word economy that the recipient's intellectual powers are utilized to the utmost and the attention of the understanding is aroused to its fullest capability by the metrical form of poetry, I can not agree with him. Its very monotony tends to lull the discrimination to rest. If Spencer in explaining the value of rhythm means by economy of attention a failure to exercise the intellectual energies, he is inconsistent with himself. Yet in his account of the effects of rhythm I agree with him. In its soporific effect on the intellect, in its holding of the understanding in abeyance, lies the virtue of metrical language. Poetry is necessarily metrical because it is necessarily emotional. Spencer himself recognizes not merely, as previously stated, that emotion naturally chooses the bepraised direct order, but that the natural language of emotion is metrical if the emotion be not violent. "Whilst the matter embodied is idealized emotion, the vehicle is the idealized language of emotion," he says in speaking of poetry.

Before dismissing Spencer's theory of style let us make a further effort to render it plausible. In the first place the essay was written, not as a philosophy of style but as a study of the causes of force of expression. From this point of view it is comprehensible to proclaim the superiority of poetry to prose, to make much of rhythm, and to be a little transcendental in the application of the inverted order. Again, no one can gainsay the principle of economy clearly set forth and rightly applied. But it is misleading in the highest degree to use economy in a double sense, as failure to exercise, and as exercising to the greatest possible advantage.

Now, it is true that in both prose and poetry there must be the greatest possible economy of both the mental energies and the mental sensibilities. But in poetry economy of the sensibilities means their greatest possible utilization, and economy of the mental energies their comparative suspension and elimination. While, vice versa, the principle of economy as applied to prose demands economy of the mental sensibilities in the sense of their comparative suspension and economy of the mental energies in the sense of their utmost utilization. In other words in poetry clearness must at times be sacrificed to force, and in prose the emotional must yield to the intellectual impression. This opposition between clearness and force is based on the psychological fact that the emotions interfere with the judgment. Attention to the sensational aspect of an impression may blind us to the perception. The subjective mental attitude militates against the objective. When Spencer recommends the use of Saxon words—a recommendation which in 1902 he confesses not to have himself followed—and at the same time praises the use in prose of the inverted order, he is really regarding the subject from two points of view. The short, familiar Saxon word may bring us more readily to the idea, it may be perfectly clear and all the more so because not emotional. But "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" is poor in its intellectual content, while it voices in the Bible story the ignorant fury of the populace. In the consciousness of this double aspect of the question Aristotle describes perfection of style as being clear without being mean. Now Saxon words tend to meanness and may, even on account of their simplicity, fall short of clearness. It is very obscure to say that an object is round, because round may mean circular, spherical, cylindrical, discoid, etc. Similarly Saxon words may be simple at the expense of clearness and precision. It seems perfectly natural that Spencer should find the language of the twelfth century inadequate to the needs of the twentieth. But even when clear, the Saxon, perhaps on account of its very familiarity, lacks the distinction that Aristotle recognizes as a requisite of perfect style. Choice of words is largely a matter of context, but magnificent may be preferable to grand or to the Saxon great on many grounds, among which its emotional suggestiveness should not be neglected. At any rate the attempt to hold university men of the twentieth century to the vocabulary of the subjugated portion of the population of England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is an absurdity that no theory of style can sanction, whether it lays emphasis on clearness, force or elegance.

More important than the mere choice of words in lending elevation and distinction to language is the use of figurative expressions. In the words of Aristotle "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone can not be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius—for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances." Spencer similarly recognized that genius naturally tends to produce that style of composition which on analysis proves the most effective. The kinds of sentence which are theoretically best are those generally employed by superior minds, and by inferior minds when excitement has raised them.

When we regard the theory of style from the standpoint of recent psychology, a whole series of problems are seen to be involved—the nature of literary genius, association by similarity and its relation to the feelings, and connected with all these—and offering, perhaps, the best point of attack for our present purpose—the functioning of the creative imagination.

One might expect some light on the workings of the imagination from those who approach psychology from a pragmatist position and especially from such as treat the genetic and functional phases of psychology, particularly in view of the part played by the imagination in shaping our conduct—a part so great that we may be said to rehearse in imagination our vices and virtues before putting them into practise. In fact, the justification of recent psychologists in retaining the classifications and subdivisions of faculty psychology would seem to be the hope of confirming popular convictions in reference to mental science and of showing how the memory, will, reason and imagination contribute in their functioning to the needs of the organism. Such expectations still lack something of fulfilment. Chapters on the imagination continue to give a large, perhaps undue, proportion of space to the discussion of imagery. Works on psychology that confess a disposition to make the functional their text are disappointing and inadequate in their treatment of the imagination. In this field we may confidently await fresh developments, as functional psychology, pushed far enough, should tend to bridge the chasm between a dry science of the states of consciousness as such and a vital knowledge of human nature.

A psychology genetic other than in name may enable us not merely to realize the part played by the imagination from the dawn of psychic life and its contribution to the physical and social adjustment of the individual, but also to trace the connection of this faculty—I venture to write the word without quotation marks—with the life-preserving and life-promoting emotions.

It would be rash to claim that recognition in the lower animals implies imagery and that consequently all progressive adjustments, such as form the criteria of intelligence, imply the exercise of imagination. In fact, the indefiniteness of our conception of our own images when we speak of gustatory and tactual imagery, and the increasingly impalpable nature of the conception as in comparative psychology we descend the animal scale, make apparent in this matter the futility of all dogmatism. But it seems certain that growth in intelligence is correlative with the breaking up of the total situation, to which the animal reacts, into disparate and independent images, which can be grouped and elaborated after the manner of, in judgments, the later concepts. This means the gradual displacement of association by contiguity through association by similarity, which culminates in the imaginative constructions of genius.

This development of the consciousness is naturally most marked where the need of adjustment is most imperative. At this point of vital interest the feelings also are naturally engaged, and consequently an intimate relation is to be expected between the imagination and the feelings. We need not pause now to consider the interdependence of the functioning of the imagination and the genesis of the emotions. If necessity is the mother of invention, fear, anger, sympathy, pride and love in their various guises bring it to birth. The inner connection between the emotion and the imagination seems to lie in the kinesthetic image or, as some might prefer to say, the kinesthetic sensation. Here the distinction between image and sensation is hard to make. Introspection reveals that all perception is accompanied by kinesthetic sensations from the eye, ear and other organs of sense. The corresponding visual, auditory and gustatory images have also a kinesthetic accompaniment. Needless to say, the kinesthetic image is similarly accompanied and an extraordinary power of introspection would be required to observe a distinction.

The close association between the motor sensation and the affective phases of consciousness betrays itself in the terms used to indicate the latter. The following may be cited: émotion, Gemütsbewegung, commotion, répulsion, aversion, Abstossung, agitation, Unruhe, moving, stirring, aufregend, rührend, erschütterend and émouvant. Even touching and touchant (duco) might be added, though in them as in das Gefühl, le sentiment and feeling, the tactual predominates over the kinesthetic as the fundamental idea. The fact, however, can not be ignored that feel and toucher mean to pass the hand over and have consequently an important motor implication.

It is not then surprising to hear it maintained that the kinesthetic (strain and relaxation) is a necessary ingredient, not certainly of feeling-tone, which, though it depends upon sensory and ideational activities, can not be analyzed into motor elements, but of the complex emotional state, of which the feeling tone, or affection, is the characteristic feature. Whether the physiological complex that gives an emotion its special value can be analyzed into merely three pairs of elements, strain and relaxation, exaltation and depression, the agreeable and the disagreeable, or whether other ingredients might be mentioned, as the secretions and excretions and the cerebral circulation, the part played by the first pair is undoubted. In fact from the genetic point of view it might have been anticipated that the sthenic emotions would be accompanied by muscle strain and the asthenic by a corresponding relaxation; so much of the physiology of both fear and anger can be explained in terms of preparedness for action.

The value of such a view for the present study is that it enables us to trace the relation of the emotions to the imagination. The kinesthetic element forms, on the one hand, part of that physiological complex which gives to emotion color and zest, while on the other hand it supplies material for imaginative elaboration and renders more vivid imagery from other sensory sources. In fact it is solely the presence of this element of feeling that distinguishes the imagination from the understanding. The image, the raw material of the one, differs from the concept, the raw material of the other, just in that vividness which an accompanying kinesthetic sensation is able to impart. Moreover, a critical examination of an imaginative masterpiece will reveal, that a poet is guided by his feeling in the choice of subject, in his selection and rejection of the aspects of the theme which are to receive emphasis, in his use of phraseology and epithets—in fact, in the employment of all the devices of poetic art. The conveyance of a mood is the substance of art. For this contribution to truth we stand indebted to an emotionalistic esthetic. Now it must be added that this conveyance of a mood is just the function of the artistic imagination, as can be illustrated by an investigation of a poetic treatment of historical material. All additions, all subtractions, character-groupings, emphasis, subordination, retardation and precipitation of the events of the plot, local color and diction—everything that makes the finished product a work of the imagination—is brought about through the selective power of the mood to be conveyed. Painting would furnish similar examples of the working of the imagination. The feeling of exuberant exultation interprets for me Böcklin's "Im Spiele der Wellen"—the grotesque forms, the color scheme, every tint and shade, the atmosphere, every detail. Again, the feeling of dauntless resolution is the key to Dürer's "Ritter, Tod und Teufel." From the point of view of the mood to be conveyed nothing in the picture seems superfluous or irrelevant. The feeling guides the imagination of artist and connoisseur.

The view here maintained of the interdependence of the artistic imagination, the feelings and the kinesthetic elements of consciousness finds further confirmation when we consider esthetic appreciation as accompanied by a sympathetic imputation of our states of consciousness to the object contemplated, whether this be a part of nature or a work of art. This ascription of our motor states lies at the basis of personification and dictates the terms of imaginative description. Columns and spires and mountains are felt to rise majestically, or the headland frowns with beetling brows, the landscape or the sea smiles, and the sun laughs a pitiless laugh. It is a commonplace of psychology that the imaginative use of terms like sweet, bitter and sour is explained by the similarity of the physiological concomitants of certain affective states and of certain gustatory sensations. Of these similar concomitants the kinesthetic element constitutes the important feature. A sudden grief that we would regret and cast from us is bitter, months of deferred hope and suspended activity the poet describes as sour. That this sympathetic imputation of our own states of consciousness to the object contemplated involves, not merely imaginative and kinesthetic elements, but also an emotional element, is best indicated perhaps by the German word Einfühlung. This term expresses far better than imputation, or inner imitation, or illusion, or conscious self-deception, the attitude of the mind at the moment of esthetic appreciation. I ascribe its superiority to its recognition of the feelings as the basis of artistic satisfaction.

The close relation between the poetic imagination and the feelings is also seen when we consider that conditions that reduce to a minimum the perceptions, and the activities of the critical understanding, arouse both the feelings and the imagination. In dreams, in reveries, in visions of the night, at twilight, upon vague, obscure, ambiguous, sensory stimuli, they are set in motion. Mists, echoes, clouds, moonlight, shadows and reflections play a great role in poetic art. A faint perfume or the sound of a distant bell may bring a scene before the imagination with almost hallucinatory vividness. A slight sensory hint like the song of a bird heard in the heart of London may have such reminiscent power as to kindle the feelings and imagination so as to transform the dust into mist, the street into a stream, and the buildings into hills and mountains. That poets are especially subject to these illusory influences the investigations of Professor Dilthey serve to demonstrate.

It is the vague and indefinite in nature that calls forth the feelings and affords scope for the exercise of the imagination. Similarly it is the suggestive power, the alluring ambiguity, of poetry that constitutes its great charm. Not clearness, but obscurity, is the supreme virtue of the poetic style. Our study, then, of the creative imagination confirms the view, arrived at in the first part of the discussion, that economy of the mental sensibilities is frequently at the expense of the economy of the mental energies. To get the greatest possible emotional and imaginative effect the understanding must in literature, as it is in music, be held largely in abeyance.

Besides this general question of the theory of style, which lies at. the basis of literary criticism, many others of course call for psychological treatment. The psychiatrist already speaks with authority in reference to the portrayal of abnormal characters in literature—cases of congenital paresis, senile dementia or folie du doute; the psychologist should speak no less decisively in reference to types of normal character and their development. In fine, hardly a question raised by literary criticism would fail to be elucidated and advanced by expert psychological investigation. Certainly, if criticism is to be rescued from its present state of mere impressionism and placed on a scientific basis, the psychologist must share in the task.