Monday, July 20, 2015

Verbal Impressionism

Finding a Form : essays by William H. Gass
New York : Knopf, 1997

The essay on Ford Madox Ford in this book becomes an essay on the shifting meaning of the term Impressionism (or Impression) in literature and art at the turn of the 20th century. Gass identifies ten numbered varieties of Impressionism. The extract below begins with variety number nine 

"(9) It is something the well-bred say in order not to appear too opinionated, pushy, or argumentative, and which allows others an equal, if even opposite, point of view. "My general impression was of a man immodestly in love with himself.  What was your impression?"

(10) The tenth sense is like the ninth, but it functions to produce an exactly opposite effect. The word becomes part of the vocabulary  of a vague, roundabout manner of speaking that genially assumes the willing complicity of the listener. In this completely social mode of speech, negatives or double negatives are frequent ("I shouldn't care to be among the uninvited"); assertions are posed as questions ("Don't you find it a bit chilly in here?"); and code words abound, usually among adverbs, such as "wonderfully," dreadfully," "frightfully," "oddly," "awfully," and so on. If you have a cold, you say you are dreadfully indisposed; but if you are dying, you claim to be only a little under the weather or a mite short of top-notch. So if you have lived in Paris for five years, you say you have rather an impression of it; whereas, if you have been visiting Provence for a fortnight, you say you've fairly covered the country (you mean you've been frightfully busy gadding about). Here, certainty, arrogance, and prejudice disguise themselves as fallibility, modesty, and liberality. When Henry James (whose language this is) says that the novel is "a personal, a direct impression of life," he may mean it is like a blow between the eyes. He certainly means it to be a most carefully considered judgment by someone who knows what he is talking about."