Fish_How to Write.pdf

The answer is to refuse the confines of the medium

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The answer is to refuse the confines of the medium and deploy it as a springboard to truths it cannot express; use mortal language while bending, stretching, and even breaking it at the same time. That is what Donne does after the turn in his sentence “but thou art also . . .” But before he continues, he parenthetically warns away the “profane misinterpreter,” who might mistake his intention (a danger that increases as earthly literalism is left behind). A profane misinterpreter is a secular interpreter, an interpreter who because he is not spiritual is literal in the wrong way. Donne knows that no mere imprecation can protect him from those who do not have within them that which moves him to write. He just has to clear the decks before he flies. And fly he does as he at once characterizes and performs the language in which God speaks. It is a language that is always pointing away from itself to something that transcends it, something that is, literally, out of this world. It is figurative, that is, always departing from ordinary meaning. It is metaphorical, that is, rubbing two literalisms together so as to produce something never imagined before. And once its flight pattern is established, the language soars higher, moving not only into allegories (double-sided discourse) but “curtained,” obscured allegories; not
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only into figures, but heights of figures, figures of figures; not only into hyperboles, but third-heaven hyperboles, hyperboles that reside where God lives, where what is said is “unspeakable” (2 Corinthians 12:4) because it does not have to be spoken. Just before its end, the sentence descends to earth and to the literalism it strives to leave behind—“the seed of the serpent that creeps”—before it rises again with the final completion of the “Thou art” pattern: “thou art the Dove that flies,” which means, impossibly, that Jesus is simultaneously the one baptized by John in the river Jordan and the Dove that descends from above (that is, from himself ) to confirm the baptism and his identity as God. Quite a trick, and while Donne’s sentence does not, could not, match it, it gets as close as we are likely ever to get in merely mortal prose. The extraordinary power of language to communicate a reality its forms cannot present is not limited to instances of religious yearning. It is both the accomplishment and often the explicit subject of those who profess the religion of Art. Here are two sentences by worshipper Joseph Conrad. The first is from the preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), which begins by declaring, “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.” A few sentences later, Conrad elaborates: And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an
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unremitting, never discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for
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