December 12, 2005

Writing qua Writing

So I finally got around to reading Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists. It reproduces his 2001 New Republic essay "The Passion of Joschka Fischer," which I have long admired, and adds to it several chapters concerning the aftermath of the "Fischer Affair," and the experience and reaction of several other figures of the New Left to the Kosovo and Iraq wars. A note indicates that he wishes readers to regard it as a companion volume to his 1996 masterpiece of New Left cultural-political exegesis, A Tale of Two Utopias, and so it is. The maddeningly complicated contradiction-ridden process whereby "New Leftism became post-leftism" has never been so lucidly and keenly appreciated.

Actually, when I say "long admired," that's an understatement. The original essay basically blew my mind when I read it in the New Republic in September, 2001. It seems odd that the story of a German politician's scandal could illuminate my own experience as a post-counterculture California suburbanite, but so it did, or so I thought anyway. For the first time I understood something of the process whereby the complicated, weird shadows of the New Left in its period of unwitting decline were cast, in some way, though rarely clearly identified, on nearly every aspect of my life, from early childhood, through adolescence, punk rock, university and beyond. The following week, September 11th came along. Terror and Liberalism presently emerged, elucidating its complicated shadows in turn. He doesn't know it, but we've been through a lot together, Paul Berman and I.

I'm not going to review the book, or try to analyze or critique the argument, or anything like that. It stands on its own and you can judge its merits without any help from me. Right now I'm thinking of writing qua writing, and what follows is really more about me than Paul Berman. It's kind of weird to say, as his subject is terrorism and political violence, but Berman's writing is a joy to read. It really is, though.

Here's a bit that I thought was particularly brilliant. Berman is discussing a recent colloquy between Doctors Without Borders founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, both noted European soixante-huitards who, he argues, exemplify revealing variations on the post-New Left experience. Kouchner mentions that many of his fellow activists have religious rather than orthodox left-wing backgrounds:

but, having made this observation, Kouchner had nothing else to say, and neither did Cohn-Bendit - quite as if the two of them, in contemplating the humanitarian enthusiasms of people from religious backgrounds, had tiptoed to the edge of their political understanding, and could only pause and wonder about what might lie beyond.
A simple, powerfully-imagined depiction of a familiar yet hard-to-describe state of mind. It's non-fiction, but, as the flap copy proclaims, it's also kind of like what you might find in a novel. By, say, Conrad or someone like that.

There are many such quotable Conrad-y chunks. Berman is easy to quote, but maddeningly difficult to summarize. The prose proceeds in a stately, leisurely, literate yet chatty manner, leaving the impression of lavish embellishment, prolixity, even. Yet when you try to condense any part of it into a meaningful abridgment, it turns out that your summary is longer than the original. This is because he tells stories within stories within stories; the relevance of these overlapping, intersecting personal narratives to each other and to his overall themes of totalitarianism, terror, reaction, and resistance are only gradually teased out. The fact that it all makes a kind of sense in the end comes as a sort of surprise, once you step back and realize what has happened. That's like a novel, too.

So Berman is a great writer by any measure. But there is one consistent peculiarity in his style, a petty observation, I know: he tends to break his paragraphs in the wrong place. What I mean is, quite often - not always, and not even more often than not, but often enough that you notice - quite often the final sentence of a paragraph will introduce a new topic, rather than sum up or "cap" the paragraph it is in. I don't want to tell him his job, but these "topic sentences" really should begin the succeeding paragraphs.

It's like this:

There were three reasons for X. The first was a. The second was b. And, perhaps most importantly, there was c. These were the three reasons for X. But what about the French?
The next paragraph will then explain about the French, but end with something like "Hannah Arendt saw things differently." And the next paragraph discusses how Hannah Arendt saw things but ends "meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, there were further developments." And so on. That's an exaggeration, but it's the kind of thing I mean.

It must be deliberate, since it happens so often and he is obviously a very careful writer. There is even (at least) one point where the opening line of a chapter finds itself, to the reader's surprise, tacked on to the final paragraph of the previous chapter.

Perhaps the technique is intended to heighten suspense, to draw the reader through, and I guess it does do that. But I find it disorienting. It weakens the "punchlines" or "money shots," of which there are many, by burying them, rushing past them without pausing for the audience to applaud or catch its breath. The effect is peculiar: while the argument is sharp and lucid and more clearly expressed than anything else you're likely to read on the subject; and while the writing is robust and incisive, and the insights deep and original and often quite moving; yet you get a slightly fuzzy, blurry feeling nonetheless, as though something is slightly out of focus.

When I read, I often like to pause from time to time after this or that paragraph, put the book down for a moment, and stare off into space, thinking what I like to imagine are deep, important thoughts about what I have just read. I realize now (and it's not by any means Paul Berman's fault, I know) that I subconsciously have relied on the little space at the end of one paragraph, and the indentation at the beginning of the next to signal the proper moment for this activity.

"Now Frank," the printed page is trying to tell me by means of little chunks of blank page amidst the printed parts, "if you want to pause to meditate upon the insight and majesty of the prose you have just read, now would be the perfect time; the author has told you everything you need to know, at this stage, in order to do this. When you are finished, please pick the book up once again and resume where you left off, and we will continue with the next chunk, which will follow logically from the previous one, to be sure, but which will, in its own small way, introduce and develop a further stage of the overall argument." The result of placing the indentation at capricious or illogical spots in the otherwise superbly organized flow of sentences is that it requires a degree of vigilance to make sure you know when you're supposed to put the book down and stare off into space to meditate on the insight and majesty of the prose. So in addition to the fuzzy feeling I described above, there is also a slight, yet clearly perceptible, sense of anxiety.

I've been reading Berman enthusiastically and exhaustively for years, and I've noticed this anxious, fuzzy feeling before, but it wasn't till now that I put my finger on the precise cause.

(Strangely, I've noticed a similar peculiarity in another New York writer whose work I love and whose overall outlook I find similarly congenial to mine: I mean Ron Rosenbaum, who, also like Berman incidentally, does not always shy away from sentence fragments the way you might expect him to. Perhaps it's a New York liberal hawk thing I'll never understand.)

Anyway, it's interesting that a simple organizational thing like the decision to break paragraphs according to an unconventional plan can affect one's mood to such an extent, even when you are enthusiastically with the program, so to speak. It does mine, anyhow. Your results may vary, of course, and probably will: I'm a bit weird.

That said, I cannot recommend this book highly enough, along with Terror and Liberalism and A Tale of Two Utopias. They are brilliant, the best of their kind, and there are few writers whose writing, qua writing, I enjoy more. Wonky paragraphs and all.

Posted by Dr. Frank at December 12, 2005 12:43 AM | TrackBack

Frank, check out his New Republic cover story on French anti-anti Americanism, it's kickass. Though oddly enough it has no mention of pop star philosopher Benard Henri "My wife once deep kissed Ted Nugent" Levy.

Posted by: W. James Au at December 12, 2005 03:07 AM

About the paragraph breaks: you may have just put your finger on the reason why I - uncomprehendingly - have always felt a little jittery reading Berman. (It could also be that I'm just too dense to understand it all.)

Posted by: Paul at December 12, 2005 01:57 PM

Ah, you don't get enough qua these days.

Posted by: Duncan at December 12, 2005 09:43 PM

I took a major in French at an English-language Canadian university where most of the French profs were from France. Some of them actually taught prose composition (and marked it hard). They told us to deliberately link one paragraph to the following one in exactly the way you find peculiar in Berman's writing. In French this method is considered a logical and desirable thing. If you don't read French, you might check out a book in translation by (for instance) Jean-Francois Revel, who uses this technique to good effect.

Posted by: CJ at December 17, 2005 07:42 AM