After finishing How To Write a Sentence, I had the pleasure of rereading several essays from his earlier collections. I started excerpting anything that had occasioned marginalia and soon found myself with several pages of notes. So I’ll economize:
From “Milton, Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour,” There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, pp. 271-272:
“In my early years of teaching, I gave the same exam no matter what the course or its subject matter. I asked my students to relate two quotations. The first was by J. Robert Oppenheimer: ‘Style … is the deference that action pays to uncertainty.’ What that means, I take it, is that in a world where certain grounds for action are unavailable, one avoids the Scylla of prideful self-assertion and the Charybdis of paralysis by stepping out provisionally, with a sense of limitation, with a sense of style. That much said, the other quotation needs no gloss, and neither does it need, at least for this audience, an introduction: ‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ I wanted my students to see that while the moral life cannot be anchored in a perspicuous and uncontroversial rule, golden or otherwise, we must nevertheless respond to its pressures; and indeed it is only because the moral life rests on a base of nothing more than its own interpretations that it can have a content; for were there clearly marked path that assured the safety of pilgrims and wanderers, we would have no decisions to make, nothing to hazard, nothing to wager. The uncertainty of which Oppenheimer and Saint Paul speak is not a defect of our situation but the very ground and possibility of meaningful action.”
Fish is capable of a lot of different notes–masterful thinker about what it means to read (“In short, the notion of illocutionary style makes no sense except as the result of mistaking an analytic account of the speech act for a genetic one. Whatever style is (an issue I will not engage), it varies independently of illocutionary force,” from “How to Do Things with Austin and Searle,” Is There A Text in this Class?) and provocateur (“Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch they don’t care whose,” from “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos,” Doing What Comes Naturally). But this pose–and that’s no insult because there are no alternatives to posing–is especially attractive to the reader of Fish, who is in all probability an academic himself or herself, because Fish spends no small amount of time knocking down walls erected to support, and exclude, visitors to the ivory tower. His deconstructive turn became infamous, and those within the academy vilified while not being able to quite dismiss him.
So an excerpt like the paragraph above was a salutary reminder to his audience that Fish is a humanist, and I think I mean that exactly as he taught us the concept in his seminar now twenty years ago. I am paraphrasing, but Fish observed that humanism is the very attractive idea that a set of texts (could be essays, poems, art–anything really) can deliver you to salvation, or something very like it. (Sometimes that transformation will involve the loss of everything you know: see Self-consuming Artifacts.) How does this paragraph work? To isolate but a few elements:
- an appeal to authorities from very different ends of the spectrum, the leader of the group of architects who engineered the atomic bomb and the advocate for a faith struggling to assert and separate itself from the religious sensibilities of his time
- which authorities seem to converge at a certain point, a point where the true ground for human action begins and ends. Surprisingly, to some, that ground is not power or greed, which in other places Fish stands accused of supporting. The English critic, Terry Eagleton, for example, was rumored to have refused to walk through the carpeted offices of Duke’s Department of English of which Fish was at the time chair because of Fish’s louche and exorbitant taste, and leadership.
- it shows Fish as an academic leader, not a controversial theoretician so much as a familiar, and brilliant, version of a type we know so well: the professor of literature. And I have known and studied with some greats, but certainly none better than him. And here we get to take his final exam, and he even gives us the answers …
- And amidst the ancient and the modern, science and religion, the alpha and omega, Fish quietly replaces “the ground” for “the moral life” with “uncertainty.” The ground beneath is air. And it’s wonderful. Or it calls for wonder, at any rate. That ground could be blown out from under us by an atom bomb or we might willingly abandon it for a place in heaven.
I could go on. But I am grateful that I made an opportunity to read and reread Stanley Fish, a careful and deliberate master of the art of the sentence.