Acquiring the Superfluous

Remember: it was the "wafer thin" that did him in.

[Alexander Theroux’s essay “Theroux Metaphrastes” was published as an appendix to David R. Godine’s 1975 edition of Theroux’s 1972 novel, Three Wogs. It would be obtuse for me to attempt a capsule summary of a defense of expansiveness, and so I hope that the present superfluity will instead be taken as the advertisement for the essay itself it is intended to be; seek it out, I exhort you.]

“Eschew surplusage,” snapped Twain, that anti-European, anti-Catholic pinchfist from the American Midwest, with his unlovely spray of scentless botanicals. Blink the incidentals! Fract that chicken! Scumble that depth-of-field! Rip off that wainscoting! Slubber that gloss! Steam down those frills!

Ah, but these, you see, are not the cries of people with lexical gifts and the leisure, the languor, necessary to art. The artist, in fact, unlike Pushkin’s gambler, must be ready to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous. The periphrastic Mr. Micawber is not funny, ha-ha, to me. Like me, he’s a throwback. He’s a thirteenth century schoolmaster, lessoned well in Dionysius Thrax’s Techne Grammatike, a fatty fellow shaking out poems and encyclopediana at every turn, flung, as he was, into a society of aphasiates, monoglots, and verbal slugs, each locked into the crochets of his bankrupt vocabulary and isolated on the Mt. Hecklebirg of his head.

It’s an aesthetic often demonized: “’Acquiring the superfluous?’—humbug! Mr. Theroux: we have no time for the superfluous; give us the facts. Quickly! Quickly! The five Ws (and the one H), please.” At the risk of being labeled a Luddite, isn’t that the same bill of goods that the technophiles have sold us? “Timesaving” devices (this one) that demand their own time (more of it than they save). Wouldn’t you rather read one beautifully-wrought sentence than ten instruction manuals? Why, then, sacrifice the superfluous for clarity? To make it easier for readers to find “the story” (as though it did not reside in the ranks of words thus deleted)?

Reading Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe, one finds this tidbit: “Baroque extravagance was suppressed officially in English in the late seventeenth century by the Royal Society.” Quoting a pronouncement from the Bishop Sprat (history is a record of felicitous conjunctions, isn’t it?), Levine reminds us that English not only values economy of expression (Sprat’s “primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words”), but positively prohibits its flaunting.

In defending Three Wogs from charges of bloviation advanced by one of Sprat’s modern counterparts, Theroux adduces “one balanced sentence inflated like a good balloon only up to the size of its identity—and no more.” That sentence: “The utter impossibility of alteration, determined through centuries of unquizzical resignation and fortified by a trust in the fancy of a capable God, makes of the grey day in London an inexorability that translates into the accepted gratitude of a traditional pain known to an untraditional pleasure not.” Theroux’s translation: “The English can’t change their rainy weather, and so they accept it,” which, aside from being superfluous as a thought, hardly has the sense of the first sentence, as a translation is hardly the original — traduttore, traditore.

Levine makes the connection explicit: “the superfluous” is at the heart of classical rhetoric. Terseness may be prized on the television screen, but only because its (inane) arguments are made mostly without words (words which are, inevitably, wrong) — the difference between “Hang in there!” and

We do not wish this kitty longiloquent (it has omitted the “baby,” obeying Bishop Sprat); by the same token, presented with a living, breathing human being, we rarely wish for a dissertation. “Get to the point,” we say, sharpening our eyes on body language and setting, tone of voice, “micro-expressions,” etc., all of us Holmeses of confabulation. But presented with only the printed word, don’t we need some superfluity? When words are all one has, doesn’t one need a few “extra”? [Is this why the literary reading is so often a cause for toe-tapping, watch-checking? Don’t we so often feel that we’d much rather be reading the words being doled out than hear them? It is only when there is an element of performance– value added– that we can focus, enjoy, listen.] And so, though Theroux would undoubtedly disagree, I say that “one balanced sentence inflated… only up to the size of its identity” is the soul of concision. The superfluous is not always superfluous. Sometimes it is strictly as the crow flies — the shortest distance between two points. Anything less wouldn’t get us all the way there.

11 thoughts on “Acquiring the Superfluous

  1. I have nothing but unabashed praise for your writing Gabe.

    Is the Godine edition the only one that has the essay? I have, for some strange spin of the sun, never seen Three Wogs anywhere.

    bloviation – I did not know you were a fan of Pres. Harding

    This piece raises many questions and hopefully some ire from those minimalmeisters. Is the cruel irony of present day culture that often the most unintelligent and shoddily-hewn minds (Limbaugh, almost all politicians, degenerate tv talk show hosts [Dr. Phil, The View, et al.) get the most air-play, extemporizing endlessly-often imposing their needlenose “views” onto a fawning audience and roundly criticizing the moral outrages of the moment, most often opinions that (gulp) go without saying? –This is my best/worst Theroux rant impression.

    That said, Phil Donahue did make me feel a few things as a teenager.

    • Which leads to the question–if Limbaugh was a fictional character, would he indeed be a creation to be proud of? My money’s on yes. Though in one sense he is a fictional character…of his own devising, I think. Ann Coulter would also be a coup of contrivance.

      • Here’s John Jeremiah Sullivan on the subject, in what I think is my favorite essay (so far) of PULPHEAD, “Getting Down to What Is Really Real”:

        “Have you watched television recently? From what can be gathered, they’re essentially emptying group homes into the studio. It has all gotten so very real. Nobody’s acting anymore. I mean, sure, they’re acting, but it’s not like they’re ever not acting.”

        One certainly hopes that someone, somewhere, is proud of these Victorian villains, the whole windbag bunch. Their producers, perhaps? Their writers? Their underwriters?

        • Good question Tim. The windbag had to come before the satire, yes? Think of “The Bailbondsman” – his rants are so poetic. There is great art behind them. Or the rants of a Cassavetes character. Gaddis’s misfits galogging in the party scenes in The Recognitions. I think if we isolated a Limbaugh rant, it would rise very quickly and suddenly deflate. Is their any art to his rhetoric? I really don’t know. The political tracts of Milton and Rousseau are one thing, and seemingly light years from where we are now. I guess that’s why pop culture people are more interesting (and appealing) as phenomenon.but not for the thing them-self. Junk food.

          I checked the Sullivan, Gabe. Pretty good press for a book of essays. Joan Didion and Chuck what’s his name seem the some of the only essayists who get big press (I’m forgetting some people-Foster-Wallace as well-with the obvious caveats). Currently, that is. In the 60’s, it seem essayists were much more regarded, just plain REGARDED.

  2. “Theroux Metaphrastes” was written for the Godine paperback edition. I don’t know if the Holt edition (the most recent one, 1997) reprints the essay, but I would guess that it doesn’t, based on the page count. The essay was also printed separately as a chapbook, but it is much more expensive than are the used copies of the Godine that I’ve seen (the Godine is also just a beautiful example of what a paperback can be– http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780879231415-3; you’re welcome).

  3. “Theroux Metaphrastes” is an incredible display of wit and erudition, betraying an intelligence biased toward mastery, virtuosity, and versatility, all of which certainly still need to be interrogated as much as any other set of values or qualities, but these qualities and values are nevertheless in scant supply, these days. Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Thomas Browne, Henry James, and many others are floating within Theroux’s prose. Who out there, besides William Gass and Mary Caponegro, matches him? Instead of wit, we get snark. Instead of erudition, we get know-it-all bluster.

    I loved Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe (I reviewed it here http://www.newpages.com/bookreviews/archive/2009_11/nov2009_book_reviews.htm); and I quoted the Bishop Sprat quote as well for my as-yet-unpublished review of Joanna Ruocco’s The Mothering Coven. Here’s a bit from my review:

    Sprat’s pronouncement was a cry against “extravagance,” a rejection of “all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style.” It called for a “return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words.” Modernize its antiquated prose and you will perhaps have a perfect mirror of the current major publishing house climate, their biases and prejudices.

  4. Here’s Stanley Elkin talking about his style in his 1974 interview with The Paris Review:

    My editor at Random House, Joe Fox, used to tell me, “Stanley, less is more.” He wanted to strike – oh, he had a marvelous eye for the “good” stuff – and that’s what he wanted to strike. I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess because I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin, and enough is enough. There’s a famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in which Fitzgerald criticizes Wolfe for one of his novels. Fitzgerald tells him that Flaubert believed in the mot précis and that there are two kinds of writers – the putter-inners and the taker-outers. Wolfe, who probably was not as good as Fitzgerald but evidently wrote a better letter, said, “Flaubert me no Flauberts. Shakespeare was a putter-inner, Melville was a putter-inner.” I can’t remember who else was a putter-inner, but I’d rather be a putter-inner than a taker-outer.

  5. Yes indeed, John: Theroux takes pains to separate himself from the merely verbose — those hot-air machines Greg mentions above. And spares the publishing houses no poison:

    “Thirty publishers rise to remind us that good fiction doesn’t sell. They neglect to remind us, such is the fiscal buck-passing, that they have creepily but cunningly flooded the market with such fleshapoidal book titles as Mattress Lunch; Plastic Haircut; Spanky, Spanky; Wet Shashlik; or, another genre, Divvy Up Dollars, and Eat More!; Curating Ferns; This Was Sawmilling; I Screwed Wall St.; Financial Anthelmintics; and last, those classics, Creative Screaming; Learn Zmudz; The Confessions of Married PhDs; and The I-Love-to-Commit-Adultery Cookbook—all of which gives us an apt demonstration of Gresham’s Law.”

    (I’m so glad I could get that in here somewhere — The I-Love-to-Commit-Adultery Cookbook! — it’s one of my favorite passages in the essay.)

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