In high school, I learned that writing offered an opportunity to display one’s vocabulary, and thus, presumably, one’s erudition. Complex sentence construction was laudable, save for the dreaded “comma splice.”
Then I arrived at Amherst, where Theodore Baird dominated my freshman year. Baird lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright “Usonian” house, and was a friend of Robert Frost. In his course for freshmen, English 1-2, Baird taught writing. He rewarded simple straightforward sentences. He derided complex constructions.
A few years ago, Dan Chiasson reviewed Baird’s book, English at Amherst, and said, “It would be an exaggeration to say that getting Frost right was the great mission of English 1-2. For one thing, the course read no Frost. In fact, after its early, provisional years, it read nothing: no literature, no text of any kind. But I think it is true to say that the air of Robert Frost pervaded English 1-2.”
With this background, I was drawn into a recent New Yorker book review titled “The Illiberal Imagination” by Adam Gopnik, a long-time staff writer for the magazine. He pulled me in with two sentences. “Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it.”
The review covered three books: Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus. I understood very little of Gopnick’s commentary, which was obviously erudite and involved quite a lot of Rousseau and Voltaire. On the other hand, I really liked the concept of “presentism.” More accurately, I liked Gopnick’s identification of the concept as faulty.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to say!” I thought. That’s what I had in mind when I wrote that I wanted to capture the perspective of the reader who is delighted to have a month-old newspaper arrive on the mail packet.
Thinking about presentism seems important to me. The past is debatable. For instance, the slogan “make America great again” seems patently false. What was great about the Depression, polio, segregation, the Cuban missile crisis, or the Viet Nam war?
The future is, by definition, unknowable. This leaves us with the present. Here and now is what we have to work with, and where we have to become engaged. We must not fall into “the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening.” Presentism is disheartening, paralyzing.
But this is when the month-old newspaper arrives, like the cavalry coming over the hill. We read it. My goodness, that was terrible! But whatever it was, it ended. By now, something else has happened. The present, whatever it is, will change. How invigorating!
Shaping the outcome of today, shifting a bit toward something better, becomes the relevant question for us. This is the antithesis of presentism. How do we bend toward better without breaking something? Ah ha! Read the month-old paper, carefully. Did yesterday’s crisis require solution, or did it self-resolve? How did the leadership muddle through? Just as important, what were the unintended consequences of what they implemented?
Chiasson had another thought about Theodore Baird. He wrote, “If you can convince a large number of 18-year-olds that making up sentences is an act of deep moral imagination, you do it, no matter how much work that entails.” By extension, recognizing good sentences when reading can also be important. So thank you, Mr. Gopnick, for those good sentences.