Towards the end of Albert Mohler’s “Thinking in Public” podcast, “Why we can’t all just get along: A conversation with Stanley Fish” (Jan 11 2011), Fish, a legal scholar and literary critic, and Mohler are discussing Fish’s latest book “How to read a sentence and write one,” in which Fish describes the marks of a good sentence. He ends his book with some of his favourite sentences. Fish tells Mohler that his favourite sentence is from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here is his description:
“I end the main body of the book with my favorite sentences from the book which is a sentence from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that sentence describes the moment when Bunyan’s hero Christian having discovered that he is burdened with original sin and mourning to rid himself of it starts to run from his village toward a light that he barely sees and now here is the sentence, “now he had not run far away from his own door. But his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return. But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying ‘life, life, eternal life.’” That is both a great sentence absolutely amazing sentence, the way in which it is structured and a lesson in what it is that sentences can and cannot do. Sentences can send us in the direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.
[Fish calls Bunyan’s delectable chunk of discourse, a “sentence.” As we all know, a sentence ends with a full stop (period)].
Mohler: I have to end by asking you the question that came to my mind at the end of your latest book. In a secular age is it perhaps true that for most sentences are all that remain?
Fish: Yes. And that is what I call in the book at a certain point the religion of art. And when the liberal ethos doesn’t so much as give up religion but puts it in a corner it has to worship something. And what it usually worships is art, and one form of that art are sentences. But I believe that the sentences that really matter don’t, neither invite nor allow that worship but in fact encourage you and invite you to search for something greater. (Podcast transcript can be found here).
Fish reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which studied in my French course at university. Brian Simpson writes on Flaubert’s novels in the John Hopkins magazine:
“The novel on your bedside table did not spring fully formed from the head of its maker. It was mulled over, massaged, fleshed out, scratched through, revised, set aside, and revised some more.”
Simpson quotes Flaubert: “When I’m finished with my novel . . . I’ll bring you my complete manuscript. . . . You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence.”
(Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet).
As in Flaubert, so in Fish; language, not the plot, counts; because all that matters is what natters.
“Flaubert, Simpson continues, rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, and many a dozen times. In an 1855 letter to Louise Colet, he confided, “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” At the end of such weeks, he had finished only 500 words. But they were 500 perfect words.”
And for Jacques Neefs, an authority on Flaubert, “the vision is in the revisions.”
That’s Fish all over: vision is revision. Never standing still, always moving; never arriving always departing. Art for art sake, L’art pour l’art, in it’s many forms: language for language sake, painting for painting sake, sculpture for sculpture sake, where language, the supreme art form, cuts, not through, but into the Word – made, not flesh, but Art. The reason why there is no attempt to cut through language is because for Flaubert and Fish, there is nothing outside Art, outside the Art of language. Only sentences remain (Fish above), only sentences live, only sentences are eternal, only sentences live eternally. Sentences, says Fish, must be religiously nurtured (“the religion of art”- Fish), for they are the springboard to newness of life, to a newness of more sentences. There’s no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God; always departing never arriving. All these men remind me of Jacques Derrida and my friend, Bill, who asks: “So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”
The Word was made flesh (the Messiah), and the flesh was made fish (the word). There’s the Fisher of men and the fisher of words. For the fisher of words, there will be – unless something changes – no resurrection from the boggy sediments of language, but only a sentencing to an eternity of sentences – “one has to worship something” (Fish above). Or perhaps there will only be a sentencing to a single phrase, drumming over and over and over in those finely tuned literary ears: Bunyan’s “life, life, eternal life.”