Style is the feeling of the world.
The representation of a country, a people, a continent, or the world on the move in the media rests – a priori – on nothing human : the factual description of any phenomenon tells you nothing intimate or key about it, apart from a tremendous amount of documentary evidence which is soon locked back up in the archives. Only literature gives reality its full dimension, at the same time allusive, lethal, unpredictable, marvellous, and wildly open to interpretation. Just as the description of a language does not tell us anything about the breadth of its uses through history, mores or its mythical and legendary foundations, any purely formal rendition fails the basic test of transmission because of a tautological, incomplete or cryptic form of communication.
Literature, along with the arts, is just reality becoming aware of itself in its enigmatic, symbolic and secular activity. The origin of the world is to be found in the mind of a poet admiring Courbet’s painting or the depths of the Milky Way. There is no other place of places than speech in the process of designation. Ancient Greece is still alive in Homer. Without Shakespeare – who only knew his own tongue – so many languages would be deprived of a metaphorical break as a source of transversality and illumination. While science establishes itself in a necessary object-based face-to-face loaded with so many presuppositions, literature emerges in all haste and speaks of the vanity of power and of the sleepy utopia of the most biting freedoms.
Through questioning, dream-like deconstruction, inexpiable passion, humour or challenges, literature teaches us that there never is any absolute power ; that hierarchies are acts of violence ; that the organs of intimidation that institutions of knowledge are should never be accepted without a quarrel ; and that writers or artists at work know one single, obvious thing : the absolute closeness of humans with their fragility, their struggles, their lack of knowledge at the heart of their lives, given that we all share a condition marked by the scars of language. The most glaring difference are mere nuances, the exquisite rustling of nuances : provided they are both on the lookout in symbolic spaces, there is no more than an angel’s breath between an illiterate child and a brilliant scholar in the minute, unidentifiable thing we call culture.
Novels explore the infinite field of Nuance, this human truth every one of us experiences directly and differently without realising how fragile and transient it is ; as does poetry which reveals its surprising nature through language. Therefore, there can be no decent writer without style, whatever its breadth – as majestic as the nebulae or as tight as metaphorical constriction. In the best instances, clinical writing can avoid repetition through prosody and rhythm. Writers distort language and put it through the kaleidoscope, forever and unexpectedly changing combinations and associations, offering hope and structuring in spirit the unfathomable wanderings of phenomena.
Just as composition commands eurhythmic representation in Pierro della Francesca or Cézanne’s works, novels-as-object include a living structure, a driving energy derived from writing itself. As Sartre said, writers are made not by what they choose to say but by how they choose to say it : “Every sentence hold the entirety of language and refers back to the universe.” Therefore an acute strategy of style summons, for an instant or for centuries of delight, all knowledge acquired both out of a legitimate concern for their durability and thanks to the floating investigation into the unknown lands of sensitivity. Flaubert dreamt of writing a book about nothing, a book which “would hold through the internal strength of style”. As he marvellously put it : “in and of itself, style is an absolute way of seeing things”.
Nothing is more foreign to classical French, kept in courtiers’ tight grip to support national conquests, than the fates of language. Style is not just the wordsmith’s showcase or the rules of clear speech ; it is a native and structuring impulse, the quiet interaction of feeling, intuition and concept, the switch from lexicon to the dizzying heights of syntax, a unique way of moving within a language for an unprecedented interception and capture of meaning. Content is therefore nothing but what the particular intensity of language’s impulses and trajectories in a given body, mind and memory yearns for at a given moment, in a given life context, and aiming for something that is immediately part of writing, of its haste or hesitations, of its destructive tetany or the lightning bolts of multifaceted speech, leaping from height to height as Empedocles’ speech.
For Proust style is an issue of vision not technique, it is “the revelation of the qualitative difference in the way the world reveals itself to us.” As we can imagine, the distant prospect of the finished work pervades the worrisome act of writing in the present, it is a creative dialectics, a Weltanschauung, a constant toing and froing between form and content, between appearance and substance or rather between obverse and reverse. Indeed, the writer presents the readers with a strange mirror wherein, compared to the slow pace and backtrackings of the workshop, everything occurs wholly and hurriedly, the inevitability of events being triggered by the spinning or fanning of pages until the synaptic lights go out. The writing that is more or less irresistible – as a painting or an architecture of words, as an abstract construct of concepts or as a succession of platitudes – is acknowledged as style as soon as a qualitative and emotional change occurs in the readers’ flow of consciousness : something new seeps into the reading, repetition gives way to rhythm, focused images blaze onto the white screen of the page, and language shines through poetics in action.
You could almost say style is the other, the reconstruction by the reader of the necessarily intertwined values of expressions and beliefs at play in the text, given that, whatever the language, very few tales, short stories or novels are not surreptitiously poetic.
Granted, literature does not cover the entire scope of the written word. We could easily come to believe it is but an exception in the ideological and functional space of discourse. Yet when it appears, unexpectedly or after a lengthy maturation, amid the din of misunderstandings, general distraction or the silence of censorship, you can be sure style is at play ; a project carried by a wild desire for fulfilment towards some known, or unknown, but always dangerous prospect. Indeed style is the sign of a sovereign march across the minefields of our representations and the unstable realm of the unconscious, the netherworld of the psyche against whose backdrop an inventive reality emerges, gesticulates or disappears according to a thousand fictions.
But what more is style but the resistance of language to the phatic attraction of words and grammar ? We must first challenge the ineptitudes and approximations found in quotations compendia.
Style is an instrument, not an end in itself. »
Only a literary orderly could say that. If style is an instrument then Proust and Rimbaud are operating theatres. No, style is no more an instrument than art, in and of itself, would be “an instrument of propaganda and education”. On the contrary, it distorts all instrumentations and is life itself, replicated ad infinitum in the mysteries of a language.
Cocteau pleasantly said : “Style is not a dance, it is a gait”, probably referring to the catwalk or the rolling shoulders of the angel Heurtebise. Yet the author of La Difficulté d’être knows that style is the constant tension of the mind, the dance of a million Theseuses before the labyrinth of work. He will readily admit to it in Le Grand Écart : “It can happen that a road offers so many different views on the way out and the way back that hikers on the way back will feel lost.” That is how the written road feels to lost readers.
In a letter to Lucilius, Seneca claims “Style is the clothing of thought”. Thought dressed up is no more than rhetoric. Style is movement, gesture, thought itself !
Stendhal, that least somatic of writers, stated ad absurdum that “The best style is that which goes unnoticed.” And the ludicrous idea of covering the Civil code with a coat of “transparent varnish”. Would anyone claim that the best music or the best poetry is the one that goes unnoticed ? Without style, without a specificity assumed to its rightful climax, without the constraint of being awake which underpins the moment on the obsequious angels’ wings, there would only be Father Delille on the one hand and the town clock on the other. Going unnoticed is the epitome of Stendhalian style, its inimitable dramatic strategy.
In a vaguely Beylian way, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his Situations that “Obviously, style determines the value of prose. But it mustn’t get noticed.” “As words are transparent”, he adds along the same lines, “and sight goes through them, it would be preposterous to slip frosted glass in amongst them.” More DIY. He writes that “With prose, aesthetic pleasure can only be unadulterated if it comes on top.” On top ? It sounds like a little extra thrown into the bargain at the cattle market !
“Therefore, language is beneath Literature. Style is almost beyond it : images, delivery and lexicon are born from the writer’s body and past, and become progressively the reflexes of his art”. We recognise Roland Barthes’ handsome rhythm but cannot follow him. Is the exclusive call to becoming other, expressed by Rimbaud, Marina Tsvetayeva or Antonin Artaud, therefore merely abandonment to some intimate formalism prior to the deliberate consummation of the mind ?
The author of Writing Degree Zero echoes the thought : “under the name of style a self-sufficient language emerges that delves only into the private and secret mythology of the author, into the hypophysics of speech where the first association of words and things form, where the major verbal themes of a lifetime are established once and for all.”
With Barthes and a host of arbiters of letters, the appearance of archaeo-semiotic thought on the battlegrounds of arts meant, strangely, that as the symbolic dimension was rightly being freed from reproductive fatality, innatism and outdated essentialist ideas, the University was managing to put literature, the object of its studies, under close supervision through the use of determinist shortcuts, almost derived from the slumber of sociobiology. For instance : “style is always somewhat crude : it is shape without meaning, the product of an urge not of intent (…) It refers to biology or to the past not to History (…) it is not the product of choice or reflection about Literature. It is the decorative voice of an unknown and secret flesh _ (…) Style is truly of a germinal nature, it is the transmutation of a Mood.”
So, at degree zero, you have a light-hearted reconciliation with a kind of literary physiologism which Paul Valéry practiced, following in Taine and Balzac’s footsteps. He was happy to see “the dealings and productions of the so-called ‘mind’ as the dealings and productions of an organic system”. But can we ever understand what freedom the void produces in the harmonic cracks of language ? We suspected writing contained “the being and the appearances of power”, in doctrinal spaces, as a privilege, as a function of time, reign, social status, barbaric elitism or deep sleep. Yet style is elsewhere. All remains to be invented in reality ! A child brighter than lightning warned us a long time ago : “The language will be a soul for the soul (…), thought holding on to thought, and pulling.”
Not much further, Léon Paul Fargue, the master of delectable internal claudication, says : “a perfect sentence sits atop the greatest vital experience.” For Victor Hugo, our perpetual contemporary, “truly great writers are those whose thought occupies every recess of their style.” Let us close with the evanescent Emily Dickinson, the magic scribbler, for she alone, beyond language and beyond all authoritative pronouncements, uttered the only truth. What, really, is style ?
A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away