Exquisite and Expansive: II

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.”

exquisite-3d-butterfly-tattooThe 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.

images-1To 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.”


  1. Steve Webb

    I finally got around to reading the Gopnik piece, Ed, and thought I might risk an opinion or two. It seems to me that Gopnik’s distinction between two types of extended sentence, “argumentative and exquisite,” might have been more clearly drawn with different diction. I have in mind something like “expository and evocative” or “discursive and lyrical”—very close to the distinction you’re making, in fact. A couple of extended examples might also have been helpful. Gopnik flatters his readers by assuming a literacy comparable to his own. In the case of this reader, at least, that’s his first mistake. He does, of course, name the authors he has in mind, but illustrations of their writing would have made his distinction much clearer.

    Just after positing the distinction, Gopnik writes: “The old-fashioned, Johnsonian kind that packed a book into a sentence was going away, Max knew, but the kind that vibrated a small sensation out to its full potential resonance was still alive….” The latter kind of sentence is unmistakably Proust’s: a madeleine, a musical phrase, an uneven paving stone—small sensations resonating not only through a sentence but also through an entire lifetime. Johnson’s long sentences, judging by the example I’m about to give, seem more bluntly opinionated than argumentative in the philosophical sense; and that’s why I find ‘argumentative’ too narrow a word for Gopnik’s purposes. Here’s the example, which I found on the internet:

    “That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.” (Preface to Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare)

    From Gopnik’s discussion of Beerbohm’s style, I find it hard to believe that Beerbohm was ever tempted to write a sentence remotely as thick as that one; and Gopnik’s word, after all, was ‘Johnsonian,’ not ‘Johnson.’ Still, as an illustration of a long sentence elaborating an idea, it will serve.

    Now an example from Proust (preceded, for its buzzword effect, by a phrase):

    “An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”

    That would be the madeleine dipped in tea. This sentence by no means “extends” as far as Proust is able to take it, nor does it quite resonate with the full-force amplitude that Proust was capable of, but it’s on the way to that. Put side-by-side with Johnson’s expatiation, it gives me the kind of sharp contrast I need to make Gopnik’s distinction lucid. I will not vouch for it’s accuracy, however.

    I hope this comment is more relevant than those I posted under your Part I. Thank you for your very interesting remarks!


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