Monday, 5 September 2016

Leslie Stephen and the 'Topic Sentence'.

Skholiast comments:
I have forgotten now which collection of L.S. (Leslie Stephen) it was that I was reading, but I realized I was completely charmed by the style and had not absorbed so much as a sentence of the content, and had to start over. Not that he is the greatest of writers. But I had been reading a steady diet of 20th c exposition, and in contrast, Lo, here was a paragraph which wended this way and that for line upon line until somewhere towards the end the language finally got to where the thought might be beginning. Not a "topic sentence" in sight. In short, ladies and gentlemen -- the Victorians.

Confession: I had to look up wikipedia to find out what a ‘topic sentence’ was. Doesn’t the firmness, definiteness, the nailing down of that concept work against the true nature of the essay. In that form ‘doing is the mother of doing’ (Samuel Johnson); each thought leads to another in an associative way. What is opened up is not a position but the many mansions of the writer’s mind. Now that I’ve found a readable translation by Screech of Montaigne’s Essays I realise that Michel rambles. He uses his Latin topoi to collect himself and ask 'where am I now, let me consult my map’. Johnson was the proto-Rambler and set down his grandiloquent projection with cherubs blowing and dragons breathing fire. The point is not to get anywhere but to know better where we are.

The task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them; either to let new light in upon the mind, and open new scenes to the prospect, or to vary the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace and more powerful attractions, to spread such flowers over the regions through which the intellect has already made its progress, as may tempt it to return, and take a second view of things hastily passed over, or negligently regarded.
(from The Rambler No.3, Tuesday, March 27, 1750)

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