“Reading and Discrimination,” by Denys Thompson
“What is the use of a wounded German, anyway? He goes into hospital and the next thing that happens is that you meet him again in some other part of the line. That’s no good to us, is it? So when you see a German laid out, just finish him off. Don’t trust him any further than you can see him. Remember that the next thing that will happen if you don’t is that he will put a bullet into you or one of your chums while he has the strength to do it. The only time that a German can find pluck to kill with the bayonet is when he come across one of our own wounded; he will plunge the steel into their hearts as they lie unable to defend themselves. When you see this done, can you have any sympathy for them? No! Ten thousand times no! Kill them, every mother’s son of them. Remember that your job is to kill them—that is the only way—exterminate the vile creatures!”
Now, when you find that the first passage of the first chapter “Emotive Use Of Words” quoted in this book is this abstract from the Infantry Training manual; that it is judged “not exceptionally vicious” by the author; and classified as “an emotional appeal”; ok, you understand that this book is worth a deep scrutiny.
No, please, don’t think that is my love for Angela Markel that suggested me a second and then a third reading of that piece, loudly and clearly; and that there is a metaphor in it, maybe linked with the present situation of the Euro zone; you are wrong and malicious indeed.
My only goal was to understand how in 1948 (yes, this book was printed by Chatto & Windus, London, and by Oxford University Press, Toronto, the first time in 1934 and the fifth and last time in 1948: so a successful book, you can understand), I was saying that my curiosity was to capture a bygone culture and tactics about the training of discrimination in reading. That was all.
And I wasn’t disappointed. “The quality of a man’s life nowadays depends largely on the quality of what he reads” is the initial statement by Denys Thompson, about which we can open an endless discussion. The concept “Quality of life” and the two adverbs “nowadays” and “largely” are really pregnant pillars in this phrase. Think of today, of a man only used to read twitters, for example. I know some of them, Twitter-addicted-persons, and they are strongly convinced they improved in cultural terms since they didn’t read anything else before, either a book or a magazine. A social network is a terrific commitment for them, a high mental activity, and a delicate work. Which kind of impact has Twitter on their lives – wives’ and children’s too? What about their quality of life?
But there are other pearls in the book, like this one: “…eighteenth century, when even the illiterate, but essentially better-educated, peasant acquired naturally a training for a satisfying life from the traditional rural order he was born into.” Oh, what an idyllic (read: classist) view of things. Reading is important, yes, but in the end not so necessary for a peasant who can be completely satisfied by the “traditional rural order”. You can appreciate the deep meaning of the title, Reading and Discrimination.
Or again “people are duped and degraded by the advertiser… ‘Away across the western ocean where Drake and Devon sailed, the ‘Italic’ will carry you. You too will go adventuring after the treasures of the Indies. In golden hours, in glowing colours, in new fitness of body, and new delight of mind your treasure will be counted to you. No Galleon of Spain ever brought home such great store of good things as you will bring back from your six weeks’ luxurious cruise in this modern motor vessel’. I totally agree, an advertisement able to degrade you as if it were a contagious disease.
Again, it’s a cut-off of a different life and culture, extremely fascinating.
Seriously, in the chapter “The Tools of Analysis” there are good suggestions. To discriminate a particular piece, you have to focus four tools: “I, Sense: writer presents items for consideration; II, Feeling expressed by the writer about these items; III, Tone: writer’s attitude to readers; IV, Intention: the aims the speaker tries to promote.” And Denys Thompson adds: “Even animals are capable of a least three kind of meaning; a dog on the inside of a gate may yap at a passer-by, and express Feeling, i.e. anger that you persist at looking at it; Tone, contemptuous of you; Intention, to produce fear. As an example of the simplest human utterance, expletives usually have no sense, they express Feeling of annoyance, etc., the Tone varies with the audience if any, and the Intention is to relieve feeling, arouse sympathy in the listener, and so on…”
Don’t you feel the taste of a simpler world? A painful nostalgia for something irremediably lost, simplicity? You can read and judge Shakespeare and Milton, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, and Dos Passos too using those simple tools, in order to understand whether theirs is greatness or not. So, it is possible to face a review of a piece like this one: “There is no Sense in ‘Italic’. The Intention is to fob off alarmed inquires with a blanket speech to keep them quiet, to make them think they have heard something important and satisfactory. Feeling: of uneasiness, perhaps. Tone: he must have a poor opinion of his audience if he thinks they will accept this stuffing with complacency. It must be enforced that to say a thing at unnecessary length, to compromise or modify the sharpness of a statement, is equivalent to saying nothing at all.”
An entire world emerges, believe me, by reading the next chapters: “The ‘Poetic’ not Poetry,” “Sentimentality,” “The Resources of English,” “Two kinds of Poetry,” and finally “Fiction” (“Novel-reading is as universal as eating, and more dangerous and insidious in effect if indulged in uncritically”: fantastic). And eventually I remembered Robin Williams and his educative movie “Dead Poets Society” (the lessons of the Walton Academy’s headmaster, Gale Nolan, were totally “Reading and Discrimination”-like) and then, clearly, oh Jesus, I visualized a public presentation about an American writer and naturalist of the nineteenth century, to which I attended one year ago. The speaker asserted that the author was a great artist, full of sensibility, because he had used 28 colours in his description of an autumnal wood. Can you imagine? 28 colours: that’s greatness! And the speaker, proudly, enumerated all of those colours, in a Cartesian-like way, giving the audience proof of his thesis.
Only now I understand the power of “Reading and Discrimination”: the speaker too was an addicted person, after so many years, a member of that sect!
I’d prefer the strict banality of Twitter, sometimes.