In my previous post (“Exquisite and Expansive: I”) I tarried with a striking sentence picked up from the pages of The New Yorker. In his piece on Max Beerbohm, Adam Gopnik, a favorite writer of mine, had written, “There are two kinds of extended sentences: The first is argumentative, the second exquisite.”
The idea of an argumentative sentence should be clear enough. But I had to pause on what makes something an exquisite sentence, and why we couldn’t be exquisitely argumentative, or argumentatively exquisite. That was last week.
Today, it strikes me that this contrast between the exquisite and the argumentative parallels Kierkegaard’s contrast between the “how” of a thought, sentence, paragraph, or life, and its “what.”
The “what” of a life might be “father” or “musician”—I expand into those objective roles. I fill out something socially given. The “how” is rather different and more personal. It would be the quality of my unfolding, my idiosyncratic or singular style—for example, my being exquisite (or not). My role can be subjectively modulated, this way or that.
Gopnik’s two sentences are pithy and packed. If we quote him in full, we have have yet more to decipher:
There are two kinds of extended sentences: one depends on expanding an idea, the other tries to detail a consciousness. The first is argumentative, the second exquisite.
This leaves us having to figure out what he means by trying to “detail a consciousness”—rather than “expand an idea.” Consciousness, or what I’d call the process of detailing a consciousness of presence, is something slippery that can’t be straightforwardly, “objectively,” teased into public space.
To get a sense of an exquisitely detailed consciousness or sentence, I’ll tell you a story, trying to convey something other than a plot outline or static diagram of its structure. I’d try to give the aesthetic feel or shimmer of its unfolding. To get a sense of an exquisite consciousness I’d read a sentence from Henry James, or read something poetic, with full attention to any subtleties—of intonation and passion, or their absence—that underlie the words.
Or I might give you an elusive, enigmatic, drawing or picture to dwell on, like the ones to your right, to savor or retreat from, in wonder, affirmation, or distaste. In a positive vein, I’d attend to the music of unfolding words or consciousness, of colors or lines. Rather than categorizing or definitively evaluating an elusive something for the public record, I’d be tentative, unfinished, tentative, in a mood of availability.
Seeing an idea expanded is straightforward: I can diagram it on the chalk board in a scribble with no art at all. Giving the feel of poetry or the exquisite I must become poetic or exquisite; I, must resonate in sympathy with the words or images to be shared.
Some sentences and people and pictures draw us into subjectivity, a subjectivity simultaneously belonging to me and to others. Some sentences and people and pictures try to stay clear of all that.
—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.”