Assumed Stand versus Real Situation

Classic style is defined by its assumed stand on the elements of style, not by the actual situation. In the real situation, it may be that there is no symmetry between writer and reader, that the reader is incompetent, that the scene is formal, that the writer is terrified, that the purpose is persuasion or defense or fraud, that the motive is ambition or vanity. The real situation can be anything. The classic writer nonetheless assumes the classic stand, complete with classic scene. It may be that Liebling was principally interested in getting you to admire Liebling rather than boxing. No matter. His writing takes the stand that fame is not the motive, persuasion not the purpose; on the contrary, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation. It may be that in fact we read a classic piece for its style, and even that the writer’s real purpose is to lead us to admire the style rather than the subject. No matter. The classic writer adopts the stand that we are not reading for the style but rather for what he presents, and certainly that he is not writing for the style but rather for what he presents. Almost no one alive cares in the least about the dispute between the Sorbonne and the Jansenists that so motivated Pascal to write Les Lettres Provinciales, but the book is immortal because people read it for the writing. The real situation does not matter.

Often, a real setting will require a writer to represent a group or speak to a group; hence the prose may have surface marks of the actual scene—words like “we”; references to the audience as a group; a formula at the beginning and another one at the end marking the occasion. E.g., “The trustees of the museum invite the members of the audience to meet the actors at a reception following the performance.” This does not make the prose any less classic, because a style is defined by its assumed scene, not its real situation. As long as the voice presents itself as a single voice, not the rumble of bureaucracy, and sounds as if it is speaking for itself, not at the will or direction of some other authority, and sounds as if it is speaking to another classic mind, even if in reality it is speaking to a wide and diverse audience, the classic scene stays intact.

In the paragraph you have just read, I am in fact speaking for all teachers and analysts of classic prose; I represent my group and its accumulated learning. We teach classic prose, and I am presenting what we teach. I am also speaking to an audience of at least twenty or so students, some of whom I have never met and whose names I do not know. You know who you are. The facts that I represent a group, or say “we,” or speak to a wide audience, or even call you “students” does not make the prose any less classic. These are merely surface marks required by the real situation. Does this paragraph sound like one person talking informally to another? Is the assumed relationship between writer and reader symmetric? (It does not matter at all that I am actually the professor and you are actually the students.) In the assumed stance of the prose, is the writer competent? the reader competent? the language adequate? the motive truth? the purpose presentation? Does the prose have a clean onset and a clean dismount? The real situation and the surface marks that it imposes on the writing are beside the point. Style is defined by the writer’s stand, not by the moment in which the stand is actually assumed.

It is an invaluable power in a writer to be able to establish the assumed scene, cast, purpose, and motive. The assumed stand can effectively displace the reality. You may be assigned to do a piece of writing, but in fact almost no one wants to read a piece of writing that takes the stand that it is an assignment. You may in fact want something from the reader, but the reader may be disposed to resist, and so it can be much more effective to take the stand that you want nothing at all. You may be terrified and insecure, but by assuming the classic stand, you may hide that from the reader and perhaps even lose your terror and insecurity.

Assignment: Imagine yourself in five real situations, each one further from the assumed stand of classic style. In each situation, assume the classic stand, and write from that assumption.