Sunday 10 October 2010

On a review of biblical proportions

A correspondent has just written in with a puzzling remark. The message was from the American composer David Lang, and he wrote like this:

I just read on an american website that I am quoted in your new book 'begat' for messing up a biblical reference, when I was interviewed after winning the pulitzer prize for music.

It left me totally baffled, as I never would have said any such thing. So I looked it up in my book. I found it in the section where I review ways in which the idiom touch the hem of his garment has been adapted. I list several examples, and then say:

'These days, the expression has been extended even to things that don't have hems. When Bob Dylan got a Pulitzer prize in 2008, the New York composer David Lang, who was also a prizewinner, commented: I am not fit to touch the hem of his shoes. And popstar Bono is once reported to have said that his group U2 was not fit to touch the hem of the Beatles.'

To my mind, these are clever and daring extensions of the idiom. My book is full of examples of this kind. This was one of the reasons why I wrote it: to see just how far people have actually taken such idioms to heart and adapted them in everyday life. It is usually a totally conscious and creative process, and it certainly applies in David Lang's case. How do I know? Because he told me so:

'the ridiculousness of my comment was completely intentional. the interviewer laughed when I said it, which was of course the intended response. I am not sure if in your book it is better to be a voluntary bible mangler or an involuntary one but I wouldn't want you or any of your august readers to think I am any more of a dunce than I really am.'

Absolutely not. But where on earth did the notion of mangling come from?

It remained a puzzle for only a few hours. From OUP in New York I was sent a review of Begat in The Nation, the American weekly periodical which has described itself as 'the flagship of the left'. It was by a poet called Ange Mlinko. And there is the offending passage:

'Crystal even quotes the bungled puns of unfortunate individuals like David Lang, the composer who said, on winning the Pulitzer alongside Bob Dylan, "I am not fit to touch the hem of his shoes."'

Bungled? Unfortunate? Note that this is the reviewer speaking, not me. But in a tweeting world, the source of the opinion can easily get blurred.

However, how extraordinary to see such a narrow-minded attitude appearing through the pen of a poet! I always thought poets were supposed to enjoy other people's creative use of language. Apparently not in her case. All the adaptations of biblical expressions - and I give hundreds of examples in my book - are called by her 'so trite and corrupted as to necrotize the language'. Wow. Her generalization, incidentally, includes lots of creative writers - my examples include adaptations from Byron, James Joyce, and Henry James, to name just three - but that doesn't matter. They all, in her words 'mangle common biblical references'.

Mangle. Doesn't that tell you everything about where she is coming from? But what a shocking shocking thing to hear from a poet.

I'm quoting there. From this paragraph:

'He [Crystal] has come not to praise good style or blame bad style but merely to cite usages and round them up in a bean-counting exercise that ultimately comes to a shocking, shocking conclusion: "Very few idiomatic expressions unquestionably originate in the language of the King James Bible."'

Well I don't see what's so shocking about stating a fact. And beans are worth counting when so many other people get the totals wrong. I've heard people say that 'thousands' of idioms in English come from the King James Bible. That's a long way from the truth. MP Frank Field has quoted Melvyn Bragg as saying that the KJB is 'the DNA of the English language' - in other words, it's there in every word we say or write. Mlinko would probably agree. She says, in one of those vague statements that sound good but which mean little, 'The influence [of the KJB] ... runs deep in the weave of things'. Interpret that, if you can.

When she does give a few examples of what she means by 'style', I see straightaway that she is talking about something which I expressly omit from my book - and spend a few pages discussing why: quotations.

'Abraham Lincoln used locutions from the King James Version in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural to lend theological resonance to his vision of justice and reconciliation. Herman Melville's biblicisms, particularly his references to Job, invoke the Bible in order to subvert the standard Christian interpretation of it ("Christ's redeeming love of antithetical to the truth about the world").'

Yes, indeed, these are quotations and explicit allusions, and they provide a very important strand in the history of English literature. But this is not what my book was about. I always think it's bad reviewing practice to criticize an author for not writing the book the reviewer wishes he had written. Mlinko knows very well I am limiting my project. She actually says, at one point:

'Idiom, Crystal acknowledges, is not the only measure of linguistic influence, and he limits the scope of his conclusion accordingly.'

But that doesn't stop her dismissing me - and all linguists, it transpires - as being uninterested in style. Ah, there's the hidden agenda!

'The "gloriousely writen" text [her allusion is to Langland in Piers Plowman] doesn't seem to be the bailiwick of linguists. If there's an offense that unites scientists and post-structuralists against a common foe, it's belle-lettrism. Yet the concern with text as texture--what we've come to call its style--is fundamental not only to the pleasure of reading but to the understanding of what is written, which at its best is a fabric: composed of many strands. Discerning those strands requires knowledge--and judgment. Style is an apotheosis: it is the revelation of any author's "construction of reality."'

I totally agree with those last three sentences. But the first is breathtaking in its ignorance of what has gone on in literary stylistics over the past forty years, much of which has been concerned with exploring the notion of texture. She's obviously had some bad linguistic encounters of the third, or even fourth kind. For my part, having written two books on style, in the broader sense Mlinko hankers after, and tried to disentangle the many strands that make up the style of the most glorious writer of all in English, it's a bit disturbing to find someone writing off a domain of critical experience so dismissively.

If the review had been just about me, I wouldn't have bothered to respond. I appreciate every review I get, positive or negative, but life's too short to reply to them all, even given the marvellous opportunity provided by blogging. But when a reviewer starts calling my quotees bunglers and unfortunate, trite and corrupted, somebody's got to defend them. I'm not expecting emails from Byron and Henry James to complain about their misrepresentation, but I hope this post will prevent others being misled in the way that David Lang was.