Wednesday 9 July 2014

Not even wrong

I've been brooding on the world's most popular periodical, the Watchtower (see yesterday's blog.).

It seems that articles are for the most part submitted to the headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, by writing committees in branch offices around the world, which are then checked by editors and translated into the languages of publication - this may in part explain the mind-numbing lack of any real content; there are no particular cultural references to engage the reader's interest, nothing specific to any one country or culture or language, nothing to link the article with anything concrete.

Only somebody who doesn't believe that what they're saying has any real value or meaning could write like this, and I want to give you an idea of what this kind of boneless prose is like. Here's a very short extract from an article on - of all things - poetry:

From nursery rhymes to advertising jingles, poetry is a part of our lives. Hence, most people are familiar with at least the basic concepts of verse. But if you want to write poetry yourself, you may first want to read a broad selection of verse. This will help you to grasp the various principles of composition, besides expanding your vocabulary. Of course, you need to be selective so as not to expose yourself to anything that is unwholesome or degrading. (Philippians 4:8, 9) Naturally, the best way to learn to write verse is to sit down with pencil and paper and write.

Those involved in writing this sort of thing are described by the publishers as volunteers (and are presumably unpaid). The names of the authors (except in certain first-person life stories) and of the other publishing staff are never included in the magazine or available elsewhere. All articles are produced under the authority and supervision of the cult's unelected and unaccountable Governing Body; and the content therefore represents the official position of the organization.

In the extract above many words simulate reason - 'hence', 'thus', 'therefore' - but don't contain reason, don't express reason, don't convey reason. They are rhetorical figures which suggest the shape of thought, of discourse, but which close down rather than open up any line of exchange or speculation. There is an occasional chilly jocularity coupled with outbursts of zealotry, a shuddering washed-in-the-blood-of-Christ fervour that soon fades into the affectless mandarin that is the standard register for this kind of writing. It's equivalent to the table-talk of the world's worst tyrants - crass, uninformed, shallow and dogmatic.

There's a tendency to pad out the lack of content with drab quotations (usually dictionary definitions or scraps of unexceptionable pop medical research); there is an endless stream of 'academic' sources but you won't have heard of the low-voltage authorities or their backwater colleges. There is a concerted evasion of almost any concrete detail that might support the material being offered for our understanding - apart from hundreds of parenthetical Bible sources which pepper every text as if to say 'don't just take our word for it - here's the proof!'

Most alarmingly the entire article about poetry cited above contains no example of poetry (apart from the Iliad and Odyssey), and I suppose this is partly a matter of copyright and partly the publishers' inability and/or unwillingness to operate within wordily publishing constraints. They wouldn't know how to acquire rights to a few lines of (say) Hart Crane, and if they did know how they wouldn't do it.

Tellingly, the piece on poetry names no poets apart from Homer, offers no technical or practical advice, no spur to action. One is reminded of a Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese as Anne Elk (in drag, lavishly bewigged) is being interviewed about his/her new theory about dinosaurs. It soon becomes clear that he/she hasn't a single idea about the subject, and is in fact so wholly ignorant not only of the subject but the protocols of discussion that the whole thing becomes a series of shrieks and coughs and postponements. Watch it here.

Some more of the Watchtower's thoughts on poetry:

POETS are a mixture of artist and songwriter. Their pens are impelled as much by their hearts as by their heads. Hence, well-written poems can inspire you. They can also make you think, laugh, or cry. The book The Need for Words says: “Poetry is often nothing more than words organised to have a high, sudden impact. That’s partly the reason why great poems . . . are unforgettable in every way.”

That recurring 'hence' is characteristic.

'Well-written poems' inspire us because the poets are ' a mixture of artist and songwriter'. That any poet I can think of, with the exception of George Herbert, would represent to the zealots of Brooklyn the very incarnation on the anti-Christ need not concern us; nor that the nearest the hacks who perpetrated this paragraph are ever likely to have gotten to a poet is Leonard Cohen (Jewish though, and therefore problematical); nor need we wonder what the difference is between 'unforgettable' and 'unforgettable in every way'. This is how language sounds when it's drained of meaning, of value, of life. This is language detached from its referends, free-floating in a dense fog of nervous conviction.

Conviction is not the same thing as belief. Belief, if it is to have any value, must always be hard-won. Conviction is the form that belief takes in dependent minds, in minds surrendered to dogma. Which brings us back to George Eliot.


  1. My own contribution to the lists of Elkiana, in The New York Times Book Review in 2011.

    Another John Cleese character from Monty Python's Flying Circus, the inarticulate footballer Jimmy Buzzard, figured in my letter to the TLS for July 4, 2014.

    And speaking of Watchtower-like outreach from sepulchral hands, it looks like I am not the only one among regular writers of letters to the TLS these last several years to have received in the mail, on each occasion, an envelope or two stuffed with tiny Evangelical pamphlets by unseen hands whose correspondin, as it were, eyes were alert to the TLS policy, virtually unknown here Stateside, of printing the writer's address in full.

  2. Thanks very much for 'Elkiana' - the life and work of Anne Elk (Mrs) should be better known. I enjoyed your NYT contribution.

    Haven't (yet) noted any connection between appearances on the TLS letters page and the arrival of evangelical junk mail, but perhaps things are organised differently in the States. Adapting Chesterton's view that the wind is caused by the movement of trees, is it not possible that it's the the evangelical junk mail that prompts, many months later, a desire to write to the TLS? That is my theory, which is mine.