Stories and explanations; or what vs why
The wonderfullest things are ever unmentionable.
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
A long way into Ulysses S Grant’s Memoirs, somewhere close to Appomattox, there is a little story about a migraine. The Army of the Potomac has closed in on General Lee’s Confederate Army. Grant is ‘suffering very severely with a sick headache, and stopped at a farmhouse on the road some distance in the rear of the main body of the army’. He has ‘spent the night in bathing his feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on his wrists and the back part of his neck, hoping to be cured by morning’. It is April 9, 1865. Abraham Lincoln would be dead within a week.
In an exchange of letters between the generals, Lee, having ‘set up a white flag’, is talking peace but not surrender, and he has invited ‘an interview between the lines’. Grant has ‘no authority to treat on the subject of peace’ but says ‘the South laying down their arms’ will ‘save thousands of human lives’. Making the rendezvous is complicated by geography, the placement and hostility of armies, and poor communication — with your own side as well as the other. And there’s still that sick headache. Grant’s memoirs make waging war sound like very serious event management. And he seems to be able to deal with contingency after contingency. Methodically. Geography and clear communication are among his strengths. Still suffering from the migraine, and with time running out, Grant gets another letter from Lee, this one by the only route fast enough: ‘through the rebel lines’. Lee now wants to talk about surrender. ‘The instant I saw the contents of the note’ writes Grant ‘I was cured.’
This is one of a handful of little stories I remember from Grant’s memoirs. In another, at the fall of Petersburg, Grant ‘had not the heart to turn the artillery upon … a mass of defeated and fleeing men’. That’s how he puts it years later when he wrote the memoirs. A third takes place shortly before Sherman’s march to the sea and during the 1864 Presidential election. Grant diagnosed the situation: the North was weary, but the South was ‘a military camp’. It’s a story about thinking something. The fourth was a famous scene of the war: the eventual meeting between the generals took place, not as planned in the Appomattox Court House, but in an orchard nearby, where Lee was waiting, leaning against an apple tree. ‘Like many other stories,’ wrote Grant ‘it would be very good if it was only true.’ The fifth is better. Grant, his headache cured, ignored his troops’ suspicions that Lee was foxing, and made for the Appomattox Court House where he finally met the beaten Confederate talent. Lee was wearing a full, new uniform and a sword. Grant was in ‘rough garb’ and ‘without a sword’. There you have it: my take
on a civil war, far away and in another century.
Years later ex-President Grant lost his fortune in a dodgy financial partnership, was diagnosed with throat cancer, wrote the memoirs he had never wanted to write, published them and died — all between the summer of 1884 and the summer of 1885. Mark Twain, who’d not long started the company that would publish Huckleberry Finn, wrote a contract that would pay Grant 70% of the net proceeds, a lot more generous than Grant’s first publisher had offered. Grant managed posthumously to deliver his family from debt. Of course none of this is in the Memoirs.
Other stories not in the Memoirs are one about Grant having once been a slave owner, a similar one about Sherman, and another about Mark Twain doing a stint as a Confederate militiaman.
An essay by Les Murray appeared in the August 2010 Monthly. ‘Infinite Anthology’ it was called: ‘Adventures in Lexiconia.’ The essay began by listing some of the words the poet had submitted to the Macquarie Dictionary. The first was pobbledonk: ‘Scarlet sided banjo frog. Large robust frog common in swamps in coastal Queensland and New South Wales.’
I thought the essay got a few things a bit wrong — including pobbledonk — the sort of things someone might write sic after. I often notice people — especially lexicographers —describe the language I speak and hear every day in ways that differ from my own experience. I guess we can expect this at the close, familiar range of current coinage and usage, where we can all be Humpty Dumpties about what we say and think things mean. It’s why lexicographers get coy about urging their descriptions as prescriptions: they know they can’t get them quite right because there is no just right. Les’s pobbledonk differed from my experience, and from others’ too. It’s often the way with common names of plants and animals. I thought pobbledonk might have been what they called it over in his valley. In a letter to the October Monthly Angus Martin corrected it to pobblebonk, and said the name applied to several related species, not all of them scarlet-sided. He avoided technical clarification by not citing the genus Limnodynastes — specifically Limnodynastes dumerili — maybe thinking that was the sort of thing a snoot would do, like writing sic. Taxonomy is one of the places where lexicography still ventures to the high ground of prescription; it gets the point of making clear lexical arrangements. Still, that’s no reason why you shouldn’t call your frog a pobbledonk. If it’s a mistake, it’s like a child’s mistake, or a poet’s, or someone who collects words like shells on a beach. Between nickname and common name, where idiolect takes on the world, mistakes can have as much right as authorities. Les Murray is the sort of poet who gives the world back its language enriched by his idiolect.
In another essay — it’s ages since I read it, I don’t remember its title — Les Murray made a comment about writing and explanation. It was something like: explanation spoils writing and good writing avoids it. I can’t remember if he was specific about just what explanation was or why it was a problem. Nor can I claim I’m getting him right here in word or spirit. I am really only saying what I remember, not what he said. It’s just a story, my story. And I would add that somewhere — I don’t remember where — Virginia Woolf said ‘explanations are so much water poured into wine’. I guess the point is that explanation is garrulous, strays from the particular into the general, from the concrete into the abstract, and it’s used to make excuses. So leave explanation to philosophers, academics and other cavillers. Let it mess up or water down their prose.
Whatever Les Murray said though, or Virginia Woolf meant, it niggled me enough to make me think about the aesthetics of prose. Or maybe it’s the ethics. Iris Murdoch suspected we think of certain people as good, e.g. Socrates, for no better reason than ‘the simplicity and directness of their diction’. Montaigne was cunning about this and figured that apologising for the rough edges of his prose could win him moral favour. Apologies like this sound patronising — that old mix of humility, and hypocrisy, salted with avuncular irony. Socrates used to try this sort of thing too. So the question really is, when it comes to prose, what are the virtues? And after chewing this over for a long time, I’ve decided at least one thing: whatever its dangers good prose can just shirk explanation.
In the November Monthly Les sort of explained his spelling of pobblebonk. He ‘got the d back to front’. That’s sending acknowledgement on explanation’s errand. It avoids saying why with the barest of hows. As for his authority on frog naming and scarlet sidedness, he cited not his valley but his frog book (not mine, nor I guess Angus’s): Lynne Adcock’s and Ian Morris’s Frogs. Fair enough. But as explanations go, it was maybe not as clear as one of Samuel Johnson’s. Boswell’s ‘Doctor’ was ‘asked by a lady how he came to define’ the word pastern as ‘the knee of a horse’. ‘Instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once responded “Ignorance Madam, pure ignorance”.’
Johnson was not always so direct in his writing as in his speech. William Hazlitt thought he was ‘a lazy learned man, who liked to think and talk, better than to read or write’. ‘Others wrote English’; Johnson’s wrote ‘long compound Latin phrases [that] required less thought’. His ‘style of imposing generalization’, long inverted periods, and ‘words with the greatest number of syllables’, all ‘depended on [a] sort of arbitrary pretension’. Johnson used the formalities of style and rhythm to conjure up his words and thoughts — a far cry from Grant’s way of writing: ‘I only knew what was on my mind and I wished to express it clearly.’ When Hazlitt wrote, according to Virginia Woolf, he used ‘strong tea and sheer force of will’. But give him a great day’s experience and he would write it up in an essay like The Fight, a narrative so spot-on you get the impression that, even in raw experience, ‘the fight was a complete thing’. Hazlitt wrote the story so that the friend he went to the fight with might ‘relish it’, and ‘on purpose that such a bit of human nature might not be lost to the world’.
Grant long resisted writing memoirs, and he ended up writing them by ‘sheer force of will’, dying from throat cancer. As a result quite a bit of human nature was not lost to the world. That’s one thing narrative is good for. In a literary war over content, if explanation is barely defensible, narrative needs no defence. It’s hard for an explanation not to tell you what to think. It argues. A story can dish up human nature and let you decide: make your own judgments, read from it whatever plot or argument strikes you. I suppose the plot that most people expect and get from Grant’s memoirs is something that starts with recruiting volunteers in Illinois, and then goes down the Mississippi and through Tennessee to Virginia, Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. There is a lot of grinding military detail and names of battles. All those events on which so much depended. But the Memoirs plot for me is about a man who was probably drawn to live a free, easy, mediocre life. A man who liked a drink. Grant does not, for instance, seem as tough as William Tecumseh Sherman. One of Mathew Brady’s photos shows Sherman straight out of the swamps of Georgia, hungry face, chewed hair, all gristle, hardly yet civilised by the new peace, the fresh uniform that’s hanging off him, and the black ribbon tied to his arm in memory of Lincoln. At the start of the war Grant came out of ten years of retirement from the military, ten years of second-rate business dealing. He was almost forty and about ready to go to fat, but he found himself obliged to deal with the events history stuck in his way, to rise to the hard occasion, painstakingly to respect the circumstances he faced. And it is something in itself that he was able eventually to rise to the demand of being the reliable colleague and commander of one tough prick like Sherman, to respect that circumstance.
The memoirs are a story of painstaking respect, an elliptical mention that takes six hundred plainspoken pages. It’s funny that it took Grant all those words to be laconic, and to win praise for writing terse prose. It takes so many words to not say certain things. It’s in this wordiness that terse prose like Grant’s contains the seed of a style of high evasion that instructs us in the eloquence of omissions. It’s a style that contains the germ of its own baroque. Read Hemingway with his repeated phrases and ‘and’ after ‘and’. Like Grant it’s wordy, and plain, but it’s ornamented with plainness. From about Gertrude Stein on the laconic entered a baroque phase. For example, read Cormac McCarthy.
When it comes to writing about war, Socrates argued that a general would be better than Homer. Mark Twain said Grant’s memoirs were ‘the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.’ They made Gertrude Stein weep. History plants the content of certain works — things on which so much depended — deep into the psyche of a nation or culture. I don’t think that Grant’s prose would be so highly regarded, if it had lacked the content he wrote about. I’d say much the same about the prose of the King James Bible. In prose, content is style is content. Grant’s content was all experience and narrative.
Some explanation. Experience is what defies plans and pre-formed explanation, and there’s no story that accounts for it before it happens. That’s why we say it’s the best teacher. It’s not only because it’s hard to ignore what happens to you, and easy to ignore what happens to someone else. No teacher can anticipate it. Generalisations miss the point. Experience demands a story, the special type of argument we use for exposition of the mere, salient detail.
But there is supposed to be something easy, almost pre-digested about narrative: compared to theories and explanations, stories are easy to read and, especially if they are about actual events, easy to write. Though we are ready to blame someone for making up a false story, or praise someone else for a work of fiction, if a writer just tells us what happened we can fail to give due credit because we treat the story not as the writer’s work but as common property given to everyone by the events themselves. Where is the thought in telling it? Or the imagination? As far as facts are concerned, Johnson took it for granted that writing history was easier than fiction because history gives you its stories ready made. And since experience is just history from really close up, it must be easier to write than anything. But it’s not really like that.
While events don’t happen to us as stories, what happens to us is not grasped as experience without narrative somehow getting into the process. We grasp it, sort it and archive it, all by narrative, and when we retrieve it, we retrieve it using narrative again. Memory is a kind of narrative re-elaboration. And any notion we have of the events in themselves, or of the raw experience, can only be given back to us courtesy of the narrative that we conceive or remember them with. Raw experience and events in themselves are abstractions. Narrative is experience thought, perhaps understood. It’s explanation in its minimal form.
Stories are made after the fact but the quality of experience is the quality of its narration — how well thought it is. We have the opportunity to retell our experience, to understand it differently, maybe to get it right. But sometimes when we try to do this — as we well know in the case of the most troubling experience — we can be cursed to relive it. We retell it but only by worrying over it again and again, keeping the wound open. Especially after a war there are a lot of things people just want to forget, leave unsaid. It’s a time to be laconic.
Sick headache is a good old term for migraine, a bad headache that made you bilious. Migraine used to be called psychosomatic when ‘psychosomatic’ meant that getting over your headache was about mind over matter. There is something to be said for Stoicism, but not when it’s just the moral high ground. A small-time migraine sufferer, I can only remember getting over two without taking analgesics, applying a hot water bottle to my forehead, lying down in the dark or all of the above. Both times I was working, and others were relying on me — the same circumstances that can turn a twinge into a killer. Mind and matter are so mixed up in the organ we call the brain (there’s a lot of explaining to do there) we’re inclined to grant the mind a power we might not if we were suffering from arthritis or a kick in the balls. I don’t really think Grant’s story is about mind over matter though, at least not in the Stoic sense of moral will. And it’s not even so much about the big moment obliterating and curing the minor ill. Those are the sort of prefabricated explanations that experience defies. You might want to think Grant tells the migraine story to make one of those points, but he doesn’t spell it out. More than anything, the sick headache story just says ‘I was there, this is what was happening’. Grant was a player but he writes as a witness. Why water it down with an explanation.
A narrative can contain anything. It strings events into a process, tells who, what, where, when and how and, as a rule, draws the line at why. When the woman asked Johnson how he came to define pastern as knee, he was nudged to the end of his tether of English wh-words. Why abandons us beyond the tact of narrative to the hazards of explanation. The rest is science, theory, philosophy or excuses.
Montaigne said we were all historians but we avoid the question of what actually happened by turning our attention to the causes and explanations. We conceal our inexperience, ignorance, or laziness in a blur of generalisation. Whether used or abused, explanation goes beyond what it’s explaining towards other things: towards anything and everything else, to check that what is being explained is consistent with everything else we believe; and towards some general principles, so that the clutter of information in our web of beliefs can be reduced to a neater order. That’s its brief. But there’s more to it than the formalities of consistency and neatness: we check on consistency only to check on truth, and, as a rule, we expect understanding to tidy things up. So there’s the passion of why, the passion for truth and understanding. And that’s the point. Thinking is a passion, the life experience of the mind. Explanatory prose that neglects to be true to that experience degenerates into tedium or, like an excuse, avoids the issue. It just tidies up. It doesn’t do the thinking. By making up some phoney story to say that it has, it explains the last trace of experience away.
I retell stories about minor incidents in a distant war? I quote someone’s ‘pobbledonk’ or ‘pastern’? In general, before being used for proof or authority or due acknowledgement, or for display of erudition, all citations are properly anecdotes brought back from intellectual experience. In my experience am not sure which came first, the stories or the theory and explanation, but they are all part of the story, not an abstract string of events but once off fabric.
One morning in May 1931 Walter Benjamin was in the south of France thinking about Ernest Hemingway — comparing him to a bad writer. An idea came to Benjamin, he expressed it, and he explained it by describing, in general terms, the way he’d thought of it: ‘speech is not so much the expression as the making real of thought’. Benjamin was at great pains to distinguish what he was thinking from the platitude that ‘a good writer is one who says exactly what he thinks’ — the same notion that is behind Grant’s ‘I only knew what was on my mind and I wished to express it clearly’ or Pope’s ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’. Still on the same line of thought a couple of years later Benjamin wrote a bunch of little essays he called Thought Figures. He freed his thought from its original context, shed Hemingway and shed the solemn invocation — ‘we must be careful if we are to arrive at any real insight’ — by which he’d had to summon the proper effort of thought the first time round. These were narrative details, the indices of that experience of thinking and writing two years earlier. They left their traces now in the truth of the idea which he retained only in its sharpest formulation. He had lived his experience down to this, a great explanation of a good writer’s talent: ‘He never says more than he has thought.’ She never says more than she has thought.
Gertrude Stein may have wept, but she wouldn’t have been troubled; only a desperate blurb would ever praise Grant’s prose for being ‘disturbing’. There is none of that kind of torment. There are no demons, just event after grinding event. Like reading Caesar it’s distant and reassuring. The headache disappears. Grant has a lot of words but doesn’t say more than he has thought, he says less. It’s a negative talent. There are lots of things that won’t be explained, or that he won’t explain, things left unsaid, for better and worse: mistakes perhaps, and misdeeds; maybe excuses. That’s what laconic has come to: not just words and plain stories, but hidden stories and unspoken thoughts. It longs to unthink thoughts. For better and worse. I wouldn’t say narrative is easy and explanation isn’t, like I wouldn’t say avoid explanations. Someone lives through a war or whatever, and bears witness. Whoever writes an explanation has to live through thinking and writing and the hard part of getting it right: the careful witness of thought.