Sunday, June 6, 2010

Finding Language

I am reading a new book by Robert Richardson called First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Richardson culled Emerson's lectures and journals to glean his thoughts on the writing life. Emerson never wrote a specific piece about writing, but his private journals offer a thoughtful commentary.

Emerson felt strongly about word choice, believing it to be the writer's job to tether new words together in order to explain life. He bemoaned lazy language and the mindless repetition of fashionable phrases (think today of overused words like "green" "eco" "innovative"). True writers, he said, "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things."

It was this passionate search for the right language that helped Emerson coin so many popular phrases. "Hitch your wagon to a star," for example. The origin was architectural, used to describe the moon-powered tide mills that were grinding meal near his home. The phrase is abstract, but accurate, and it requires the reader to draw his own conclusions.

"In good writing every word means something. In good writing words become one with things."

Emerson's home near Concord, Mass.

The same can be said for architectural language, which is expressed in form rather than words. The vocabulary of a building is constructed, decision by decision, much the way an essay grows, first in words, then in sentences, then in paragraphs. Each builds off the other to generate the whole. If one word is out of place, if the author takes liberties and wishes to hear himself expound rather than write to the truth, the work fails. How many times has a building read as "wrong?" Something about its composition just isn't legible. And then you see the fissures. The authorial hubris that demanded that fenestration; the meek mirroring of another great work; the appropriation of tradition now out of context.

It is this last item that particularly vexed Emerson. He points to religion as an example of lazy language that leans too much on the past.

"If I were called upon to charge a minister, I would say beware of Tradition: Tradition which embarrasses life and falsifies teaching. The sermons that I hear are all dead of that ail. The preacher is betrayed by his ear. He begins to inveigh against some real evils and falls unconsciously into formulas of speech which have been said and sung in the church some ages and have lost all life. They never had any but when freshly and with special conviction applied. But you must never lose sight of the purpose of helping a particular person in every word you say."

Emerson is also very generous. He believed in the contemporary writer's capacity to create prose "freshly and with special conviction" and reminded young writers that the masters they so admire were once like them:
"Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books."
Believe in your ideas, he tells us. Give them grounding and wed them to the appropriate language. Young architects today could learn a lot from Emerson.