On Great Writing

Posted: February 6, 2009 in Pedagogy, Readings, Review, School, writing

I have more to say about my own stuff, but first I wanted to talk about a nice little book that I just read. It’s called On Great Writing (On the Sublime) and is by this guy named Longinus. No, not the Roman soldier who supposedly stabbed Jesus on the cross. I mean Longinus, the writing teacher. I’m pretty sure they’re different people.

I’m being a bit flippant here. On Great Writing is an incredible book, and fantastically important. So much so that I’m amazed it has taken me this long to be exposed to it.  (Though I suppose if I’d ever had a copy of Rhetorical Tradition I would’ve seen it). This book, short as it is (58 pages of text, the Grube translation) very quickly establishes itself and shows why it has been so influential for so many thinkers.There are some fantastic points made, many of them in an offhanded manner, as if Longinus thought these incredibly profound things were common knowledge. For example, he writes “Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself” (4). That’s a very eloquent and elegant statement about writing, and it appears in the middle of a paragraph, as if it were an aside.

This happens several other times as well. “…great writing is the echo of a noble mind” (12), “art at its best is mistaken for nature, and nature is successful when it contains hidden art” (33), “thought and language usually unfold together” (41), and so on appear without discussion, often as part of the discussion about something larger.

There are some fantastic points made, things that seem so obvious to me (to us) with the benefit of history, but that Longinus articulates very well. He says that “A vulgarism is sometimes far more expressive than ornamented language” (41), which reminds me of every time a teacher ever said a vulgar word for emphasis. It even reminds me of George Carlin and his love of ‘bad’ words.

Longinus also says that “…in all human endeavors it is natural for weakness to be more easily recognized” (45). It really is easier to point out faults than it is to appreciate something. This reminds me of everyone from Raymond Chandler to Alec Marsh (who taught a creative writing class I took in college, and is also a good poet).

The last thing I’ll say about Longinus is that he’s very funny. When discussing metaphors, he writes “The right time for metaphors is where passion sweeps on like a torrent, carries a large number of them along, and makes them appear necessary” (42), using a metaphor to describe when they can be used. Very clever.

All in all, it’s something everyone should read. I wish I’d read it sooner. But I started it last week, and I’ve been through it three times so far, so I guess I’m making up for lost time.

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