Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prose: description vs. profound thought

Consider these two samples of prose, each related to this year’s World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.

1. “For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station – where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: ‘It was built in nine months.’”

2. “ . . . that ‘can-do,’ ‘get-it-done,’ ‘everyone-pull-together,’ ‘whatever-it-takes’ attitude that built our highways, dams, and put a man on the moon.”

The first verb in the sequence “departs Beijing’s South Station . . . and boards the bullet train” seems wrong. (Shouldn’t it be “enters,” not “departs”?) Otherwise, though, our first sample of Tianjin prose is as well laid out and enjoyably speedy as the bullet train itself.

But oh boy, that second sample . . .

In 2½ lines, four clichés set off by shamefaced quotation marks, followed by a shameless fifth (“put a man on the moon”). The author also thinks a verb, “put,” can be the next item in the noun series “highways, dams, and. . . .”

Well, the author is Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman’s prose has been notorious enough down the years to acquire Wikipedia citations, including a link to an article called “Someone Take Away Thomas Friedman’s Computer Before He Types Another Sentence.”

But here’s something funny: the author of the nice, efficient first sample is also Thomas L. Friedman. The difference between that prose and the prose of sample 2 seems to be only a difference in the quality and degree of their truthfulness. William Blake, poet and artist, understood that telling the truth can only follow from first seeing the truth in detail, the finer the better – as in “75 miles in 25 minutes.” In plate 55 of his Jerusalem, he summarized his findings this way.

He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer:
For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power,
The Infinite alone resides in Definite & Determinate Identity
Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falshood continually
On Circumcision: not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion

Are you listening, virgins of the New York Times editorial page?

Source: Thomas L. Friedman, “Too Many Hamburgers?” New York Times national edition 22 September 2010: A23. Print.