I always like Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces. Reading his recent ruminations on Max Beerbohm is no exception. Gopnik touches on the fragility of Jewish and gay identities as they were negotiated in the ‘30s in America and in Britain, on the importance of voice in writing, and on Beerbohm’s great popularity between the wars.
And something else jumped from the page. Gopnik makes an extraordinary generalization, marked by pithiness and grip. There are two kinds of extended sentences:
“The first [kind of sentence] is argumentative, the second is exquisite.”
But then, I decided, birds at my feeder are either rasping or silent. Cardinals speak between their pecks; assorted others don’t. So maybe the world sometimes divides neatly in two.
But still, what is it about an exquisite sentence that rules out its being argumentative? Gopnik doesn’t help, he moves on.
Maybe the incompatibility rests on this: if I hear an argument I will assert my agreement, disagreement, or puzzlement. I’ll get into the mode of mastery, of critical assessment. I become notably active. This evaporates if I let myself encounter the exquisite. Then I succumb to another part of my sensibility.
Unpresuming, retiring, I become infinitely available — as you might, scanning the images to your right. They don’t argue for anything, and don’t demand an assertive response. You can idle with them.
On hearing or reading something exquisite I bath in its beauty, loveliness, elegance, or ornamentation; in its perfection, delicacy, fragility, or subtlety. I’m struck by its discernment, sensitivity, fastidiousness, or refinement. And the exquisite can be tonally piercing, agonizing, harrowing, unbearable, unendurable. (Thank my thesaurus for this packing list.)
So the upshot is that there are two ways to receive sentences (or the world): first, as something to assertively tackle, decipher, evaluate, or critique; second, as something to yieldingly absorb, something to unassertively relish, savor, or celebrate (or sometimes to flee from in terror or revulsion).
There’s a difference between making a case for a person or a position, and yielding to beauty, the sublime, or the exquisite. Perhaps our sentences and lives oscillate between these two ways of being in the world, and accessing it.
(To be continued . . .)
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Credits: Adam Gopnik, “The Comparable Max,” The New Yorker, August 3, 2015; images displaying modes of subjectivity from Google Images, under “exquisite.”