deconstruction of a stradivarius

i already devoted a whole post to this article by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in Harper's. as satisfying as writing that was, there is one point, one essential metaphor of Wallace's text, that deserves even more attention.

writes wallace: "A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that
listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails."

a wildly descriptive analogy (isn't it?) that serves to illustrate wallace's SNOOTy outlook for the rest of the article. the analogy doesn't just characterize a snoot's logical position, but also the rhetorical and emotional impact of the 'mis'use of language. to introduce such a charged metaphor into what wallace considers a 'logical' argument is to already break down those distinctions (logical vs. rhetorical vs. emotional appeals) to which wallace clings so strongly.

consider the emotional impact of watching someone literally use a stradivarius to pound nails. one would be not only appalled but almost sickened, and certainly justified in trying to stop that clearly destructive action. that is, this use is not just misapplication of an instrument and an unsuccessful endeavor. it also causes the destruction of something finely-wrought by a long-dead master, which, had it been preserved, could have been used by someone else to produce something profoundly beautiful.

it takes a lot of training to properly use a violin, and even more to derive the full benefit of playing an instrument like a strad. there are those, one supposes, who appreciate the music but do not have the education necessary to produce it, but there are apparently others whose ignorance regarding the instrument reveals a ignorance to even the beauty of music.

a stradivarius is a fragile physical object with huge historical significance. to even have access to a strad means having extreme privilege and expertise. the number of such old violins is so limited that even professional recording artists must take excessive precautions when playing them. the VERY wealthy own strads. the poor pound nails.

a SNOOT is one who believes that the voice of an uneducated person is a detriment to language.
they believe that your 'mis'use of language is an infringement upon their ability to use language correctly--not just correctly, but sublimely.
they believe that language is an object that a community shares and should view as a valuable link to the past. if you 'mis'use it, it is significantly, violently and irreparably damaged.
they cannot write the poetry of Keats because you say 'ain't.'

i'm not sure how the idea that language can be damaged got started, but it's very old and often taken for granted. perhaps the snoots feel that the nail pounders should be given an instrument other than language--at least it would be well-applied to the kind of communication 'most people' engage in.

the metaphor, of course, carries intense classist and even racist undertones. the violin and the hammer might as well be symbols of stereotypical leisure and working class activities. the violin is the height of a certain kind of refinement--but only classical european refinement--the only kind that counts. the metaphor calls to mind a savage native trying to bootstrap up to his first use of tools while the european craftsman looks on, disgusted.

doubtless, the snoot utterer, being perfectly in control of language and very well-educated about the consequences of its 'mis'use, knew all this in advance and packed it into the metaphor in question to precisely reveal her own superiority. doubtless wallace quoted it for its concision at debasing those who don't use language as prescribed. kudos to them both. now that's an artful use of language.


uncle jazzbeau said...

Another problem with Wallace's argument is that a Strad is more like parole than langue. A Shakespearean sonnet is more like a strad than English ever could be. Wallace also shows a tendency towards violent hyperbole like most snoots. Some greengrocer sticks an apostrophe between a noun and its pluralizing desinence, a grammar nazis want to pluck out their eyes or and shove that 'strophe where the sun don't shine. Languagehat had a nice post a while back on Wallace, too.

Cristi said...

thanks for the comment, jazz!

there are MANY things wrong with his argument--language hat points out some interesting ones (and the comments provide some good banter on the matter), and you hit the nail on the head (so to speak) with another.

while i'm not one hundred percent comfortable with saussure's terms, your point is well taken. langue is forever in flux, impossible to 'use' as an instrument or pin down to a certain function. a particular instance of language, on the other hand, CAN be finely crafted and treated as a single object and so on. but of course once we acknowledge that fact, the analogy evaporates...

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