- Montaigne: Philosophy, Philology, Literature
A philosopher is, after all, only one special kind of writer, to whom the same procedure may be applied, which is so often used by critics of “literature” [ . . . ] To think with words and in words is a procedure as old as human philosophy. 1
You need not spend much time in the miserable business of writing to find out just how beguiling and treacherous words can be. One of the dumbest people I have ever met was the man who told me in response to my question about the progress of his work: “Oh, I’ve finished the research, all I have to do now is write it up.” As if writing—anything, even the most straightforward report or essay or factual narrative—could ever be simply a matter of recording and ordering material that is pre-existent somewhere else: in notes, on cards, on a disk, in the mind. As if words, the supposedly natural vehicle of information, the objective equivalent of ideas and thoughts, were just sitting around waiting to be picked out and strung together in adequate sentences.
If writing ordinary prose in one’s native language were such a routine matter, why should it have caused me so much pain over the years? Why so many anguished hours to squeeze out a meager paragraph? And why, all of a sudden, the outpouring of ripe, satisfying pages, after so many barren days of retching and straining, pages that seem like a gift from the bountiful gods, bestowed on me despite my stupidity and worthlessness, in compensation, as it were, for my suffering. But in more rational moments, I am forced to remember that the books and articles that have appeared under my signature are a reality, a matter of record. So how did all those pages ever get written? Mostly, I am obliged to say in retrospect, through obstinate neglect of everything I was ever taught [End Page 83] about how language works and how composition takes place. I can also say, again in retrospect, that I seem to have been following two guiding principles, one the function of the other: 1) never make an outline; 2) instead, make lists of words that your eventual sentences and paragraphs must inevitably contain if they are ever to convey your thoughts. I arrived at this curious procedure, more or less unconsciously, at a time of complete desperation, when I felt constitutionally incapable of writing a doctoral dissertation. I was not as yet familiar with Mallarmé’s statement that poetry is written not with ideas, but words. An adapted version of this insight has served as the basis both for an approach to writing which is my own, idiosyncratic business (what in my native Newyorkese would be called my personal mishugas), and a method of reading which I have been trying for more than thirty years now to make the business of others in my specialty of early modern French literature. I must leave it to the world to decide whether it is in fact true that language drives thought, and not the other way around. It has always been enough for me to observe that written texts at least behave as if this were actually so.
Here again, the appeal to experience is compelling. Why do we so often and so easily fall in love with our own words and expressions? Why do we find it so hard to give them up, to edit and simplify our sentences, boil our statements down to the information they contain? Why is brevity, “the soul of wit” (Shakespeare), so painful to achieve? Why will a roomful of adults squabble and haggle for hours over individual words in a committee report that no one will ever read? Why do we cling to our language as to our lives? No doubt because we endow words with a formulaic potency far in excess of their actual impact. Of course it is impossible to know such things, but there is every reason to believe that phrases like “categorical imperative” and “objective correlative” were the real generative power behind the formal arguments and theoretical positions they are routinely used to recapitulate...