Friday, April 11, 2014

Functions of style iv: a device of discernment

For all its hectic character, 1956
was not a merry year, on balance;
but given that there will not be a
Friday quiz, it's harmless to recall
the trials of Suez, to say nothing
of Budapest. One cultivates a style
not to marshall recitals of data,
but to call forth the components of
the style to assay an imbalance in
them in the external world; we were
given to observe for purposes other,
if not higher, than gossip. At the
very least, we'd expect a Conserva-
tive to figure out what causes are
behind his discontents. Maybe not.

These days, the fashion is to wave a
voodoo doll of ad hominem, and pack
it in at the nearest slaughterhouse;
while you and I look closer, not to
deny or flee the imbalance, but to
salvage what is screaming gorgeous.

Toward the end of 1956, a junior
but by no means unknown English ac-
ademic wrote to an American expatri-
ate friend living outside Florence,
on his government's starkly unam-
biguous débâcle in the invasion of
Egypt, along with the French and
the Israelis, a nation older than
its years.

This is a lengthy and well-etched
letter, in a compilation of cor-
respondence between Christ Church
and I Tatti, welcome anywhere. 

How could he have supposed, that
you and I, two generations later,
would sit before our seething lit-
tle monitors and discover friend-
ship of unanswerable prescience?
What is obvious, is that his was
an exercise of style, so ascer-
tained in experience as to cast
it as a device of discernment,
possibly the simplest and most
fallible of analytical tools,
but the one humanity adopts.
What fails the style, fails the
balance; there, not the reverse,
is the wedge of our discontent.

Often, in the past fortnight, I 
have reflected on the social ba-
sis of this irrational support
for a policy which seems to me
rationally indefensible; and I
conclude that there is in Eng-
land, as in other countries a
fascist world: the world of low-
er middle class conservatives
who have no intelligence but a
deep belief in violence as a 
sign of self-importance; who 
hate foreigners, expecially if
they come from 'inferior' races;
and who, gratified with the spec-
tacle of such violence against
such people, even if it fails in
its object, are prepared to shout,
in unison, il Duce ha sempre ra-
gione. In ordinary times, and
given good politics by their
leaders, these people remain be-
low the level of public notice ..
out of frustration this extra-
ordinary and disquieting spirit
breaks forth.

Criticism is an act of authen-
tication which is not aridly
taxonomic. Its impulse is to
identify, but also to retrieve.
Such is the function of style,
as we are often heard to ask,
in the conduct of discernment.
Its most frequent claimant is
ostentation (a posture premed-
itating exploitation), and no-
thing could be more ironic. A
gentleman doesn't dine in res-

Hugh Trevor-Roper
  to Bernard Berenson
25 November 1956
Letters from Oxford
Richard Davenport-Hines,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006©

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