Re: “Poetics” in the Goofball Name of This Blog. . .

(Mighty) Shelley said, in A Defence of Poetry:

…The life of Camillus, the death of Regulus; the expectation of the senators, in their godlike state, of the victorious Gauls; the refusal of the republic to make peace with Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, were not the consequences of a refined calculation of the probable personal advantage to result from such a rhythm and order in the shows of life, to those who were at once the poets and the actors of these immortal dramas. The imagination beholding the beauty of this order, created it out of itself according to its own idea; the consequence was empire, and the reward everlasting fame. These things are not the less poetry, quia carent vate sacro [because they lack a sacred bard]. They are the episodes of that cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of men.

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Ted Cruz and Patrick Henry

The usual rightist history mess has just come from Ted Cruz, invoking the antifederalist Patrick Henry in making a claim on the U.S. Constitution. [If you’ve seen my Twitter rant on this, you’ve basically seen this.] I prefer to believe Cruz is more disingenuous than ignorant: as I suspect of Grover Norquist too, Cruz may know full well that he’s fighting a rear-guard battle on behalf not of the Constitution but of antifederalism.

Patrick Henry is one of Cruz’s avatars of liberty, no doubt because of the “or death” speech. And yet Patrick Henry fought tooth and nail to demolish the Constitution that Cruz says we need to “reclaim.” Henry was open about his disdain for the Constitution. He refused to show up at the Constitutional convention and tried his best to prevent ratification.

That’s because Henry understood how the Constitution works. Provisions like the “necessary and proper” and “interstate commerce” clauses, he complained, give the federal government virtually unlimited power over the states.

Where “constitutional conservatives” like Cruz claim that those clauses have been unconstitutionally stretched, Henry knew better. Overwhelming federal power is constitutional, Henry said. That’s what the Constitution does. That’s why he hated it. And the amendment process, which some today like to think got rid of federal overreaching and re-empowered the states, while some today think of the amendment process as getting rid of federal overreaching and re-empowering the states, Henry thought that process was a joke.

So imagine Henry’s fury when Madison and Jefferson, having tried in the late 1780’s to soothe all fears of excessive federal dominance, decided they didn’t like what Washington, Hamilton, Adams, et al, had been doing, and started claiming in the 1790’s that the states could constitutionally nullify federal law. No, Henry reminded them: states can’t do that. That’s the whole problem, fools. That’s why I told you not to promote and ratify this thing. You can’t get out of it now. Suck it up.

With more or less his dying breath, the old antifederalist Patrick Henry (at Washington’s behest) rose from his bed to condemn Madison’s novel states-rights theory. His final speech is far better documented than the “or death” speech of the 1770’s. You blew it, Henry told Madison and others. Now that the Constitution he’d warned them against was ratified, it was law.

Or: Unlike “constitutional conservatives” today, Henry a) knew what the Constitution said, b) hated it openly, c) supported it as law. Henry is one of my favorite founders, not because I agree with him about the lost sanctity of Virginia sovereignty, etc. — he was another slave-driving, high-Whig squire, with no use for democracy — but because as such, he was almost alone among the famous founders in being intellectually honest. He stood on his principle even to the point of honoring a Constitution he hated. With the exception of John Dickinson — also on “the wrong side of history” — Henry is literally, I think, the only founder who shows that kind of consistency.

I don’t think that’s what Cruz is saying about him, though.

Grammar: Gaffes vs. Crimes

Further — but more briefly! — re that commas-and-false-modification post. Reading the great essayist Zadie Smith in “The New Yorker,” on the brilliant comedy duo Key and Peele, I find this: “Key’s father married his stepmother.”

Unlike what I was talking about in my blog post — “proper” grammar perverted to inauthentic purposes — that’s an innocent gaffe. The pronoun “his” can’t have “Key” as its antecedent, as here “Key” is part of the possessive “Key’s,” not a noun but an adjective, which can’t serve as the antecedent to a pronoun; meanwhile, a perfectly good-looking noun is kicking around, near the pronoun, eager to offer itself as the antecedent, but that’s not the intended meaning. I don’t think Smith is saying, in this case, that some guy married his stepmother.

This error doesn’t reflect a crime against honesty; it’s just a slip. I raise it because in writing that post, I’ve realized that grammar rules aren’t my subject. (If this kind of error were all over any magazine, the magazine would become unreadable, but that’s not the case.) We all make slips. Funny, given my Freudian bent, but in this case I don’t think the slip is all that revealing (despite the Oedipal drama it seems to point to!). A bogus intention elaborately hidden within structurally flawless grammar — that’s where I think the more interesting conflicts are revealed.

Resisting the Felicitous and the Deft: Sentences, Punctuation, and Meaning

There’s an entertaining and intelligent article in a recent New Yorker about the uses and abuses of punctuation, among other things. The piece, written by a veteran copyeditor at the magazine, will be as dull as dishwater to many, and fascinating to those like me, who work on how to make sentences say what we mean.

Really say what we really mean. Not seem to say what we more or less mean.

As the New Yorker piece suggests, that task poses endless difficulties. But the piece also exposes what I see as important failures in the tactics we use to make sentences say what writers mean.

* * * *

The author, Mary Norris, defends what she calls “close” editing for punctuation and other aspects of sentence construction. Here’s one of her examples:

“Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.”

Norris and The New Yorker favor placing those commas after “died” and “cancer” over this cleaner and more common approach: “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret.”

The example comes up because the writer Ben Yagoda called The New Yorker‘s reasons for putting commas after “died” and “cancer” nutty, and at first glance Yagoda seems sound. He ascribes the magazine’s insistence on the extra commas to a hysterical concern that otherwise “the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”

But that’s not quite the rationale. It would be nutty indeed to fear that without those commas, a reader couldn’t gather that Atwater didn’t also die before or after 1991, and didn’t die of causes other than brain cancer.

We read sentences like it all the time, but the sad fact is that, regardless of how you punctuate it, “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret” is a foolish thing to write, and not noticing the foolishness causes problems that run deeper than incorrectness in grammar and usage.

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In “McCutcheon,” Justice Roberts Rules on What Democracy Is

In a piece for Boston Review, I say something like this:

The modern Constitution, the one we think of as democratic, did not flower naturally and gloriously from a founding seedling. Its emergence instead looks spasmodic, prejudiced, opportunistic, unpredictable, at times violent, always strange. But because Justice Roberts assesses the Constitution not narratively and historically but structurally and taxonomically, the opinion in McCutcheon is bulletproof. Thanks to the underlying equal right of participation, the Roberts Constitution—neither strictly “originalist” nor liberally “living”—resolves and pacifies all the wild action around voting and equality that has marked the document’s veering career. The Roberts Constitution may serenely apply itself, without tension, to all relevant issues.

And this:

What money corrupts is the whole activity of governing. The legislative docket is the game board. The electorate and the elected alike are the pieces. Most of us don’t have the money to play in that game, and because we don’t have the money—and because we do, thanks to our constitutional history, have the vote—we are the pawns. [. . .] None of that matters to the McCutcheon opinion. There, a large talent for exegesis is expended in proving there is nothing Congress can do to ameliorate its own incapacity as a broadly representative body.

Read the whole essay.

The Chilling Sexism of Adlai Stevenson, Liberal Hero of the 1950’s

While we may think we already know how bad things were, we actually don’t — and a piece like this forces us to remember. The author, Clarissa Atkinson, is a historian with a string of books and articles to her credit (she’s also my aunt); this first-person approach is a new direction for her, and it really pays off here:

No matter how frustrated they might be [Stevenson told the 1955 Smith graduating class] by a “sense of contraction, of closing horizons and lost opportunities . . . women ‘never had it so good’ as you . . . This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, you can do in the living room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand . . . there is much you can do . . . in the humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation.”

It gets worse.