Presentation versus Description

Classic style is not descriptive style. The word “description” covers so much ground that Pascal could be said to give a “description” of the Jansenist position and Liebling a “description” of the modest threshold in the passages quoted below as exhibits in the Museum, but I want to narrow the meaning of “descriptive style” to a stand in which the writer is a delivery device, a videocamera, a conduit passing salient and canonical features of what he perceives through to the reader. Sometimes the description is cast as a running account of the writer’s perceptions. Sometimes it conforms to a general template (“Suspect is a 5′ 10″ male, white, medium-build, with short brown hair, tattoo on left forearm, last seen wearing baseball cap and track suit”). In descriptive style, the writer is not responsible for including an element in the description, in fact has no obligation to present but merely to report or describe. The writer’s justification for including an element in the description is simply that it is a salient or canonical feature of what is to be described. The writer is no more to blame for including something in the description than the videocamera is for the image it relays.

The classic stylist, by contrast, first perceives an interesting, not necessarily grand, truth that is worth presenting. This perception almost always involves conceptual nuance—the classic stylist would otherwise have no reason to speak, since there is no call to point out what everyone already sees. The classic stylist then presents the truth she has perceived. She does not simply report it, pass it along, hand it over. The chef who perceives in the lettuce, endive, grapefruit, and olive oil a combined taste does not plop them in front of the diner. Instead, she works invisibly to make that taste perceptible to the diner, gives the salad a presentation on a plate, and hands it to the waiter for its complete presentation to the diner. The restaurant takes full responsibility for the quality of the dish and the appropriateness of the presentation—it has no excuse for presenting something not worth eating.

If I ask for a description of a car accident I can object if you don’t tell me the point of impact and the nature of the damage. If I ask for a description of a building I can object if you don’t tell me how many floors it has. But a presentation of the car accident or the building has none of these obligations. A description of a wound and a presentation of the same wound come with different requirements, different scenes, different motives, different justifications, different responsibilities.

A classic presentation can recruit, partially, from descriptive style, as when Liebling tells us that someone has long hair and white teeth, is about six feet tall and dressed in rags, but in such a case Liebling is presenting rather than describing because Liebling is responsible for having selected these elements, feels no obligation to meet the standards of canonical description—indeed might leave out everything a description would be obliged to include and instead provide us with features that would never have appeared in a description. It is possible that an excerpt from a classic piece could count as an adequate description, but its adequacy as a description would be accidental. It would not have been motivated to be adequate in that way.

A description of a chair cannot omit the fact that it is brown or has no legs, but a presentation of the chair might present nothing except the superb, nearly invisible craftsmanship evident in the way its back is sculpted to fit the human body. Can you “see” craftsmanship? In the classic stand, of course you can: everything that can be presented is assimilated to the model of perception. Vision is the prototype.

The descriptive stylist conveys what you would see if you were in his position. He is a substitute pair of eyes. By contrast, when a classic stylist presents, say, the interior of a store, although she takes the stand that of course what she presents is actually there in the store to be seen, it is not automatically assumed that you would have seen any of it had you walked into the store on your own, or that you would have known where to look for it, or even that you would have known that it could be found anywhere. The classic stylist takes the stand that you could not fail to perceive what she presents once she has presented it to you.

This assignment is intended to draw the distinction between presentation in classic style and description in descriptive style. Choose a concrete, definite, visible object; present it in classic style. Then treat it in descriptive style. Repeat the assignment for different subjects, advancing along a gradient toward invisible concepts. A typical scale might be: a pencil, a chair, a tree, a bird, a dress, the way a particular animal moves, the way a particular person talks, a place (Mount Vernon Square in Baltimore), a city (Washington, D.C.), someone’s character, a legal concept like perjury.

Practice your scales.