Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
Priority and Perspective in “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s”
“The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” is an account of the author’s experiences in Bloomington, Illinois directly following the 9/11 attacks. Largely based around his thoughts while watching events unfold on TV at a neighbour’s house, the essay contains descriptions of the clips shown and insight into the reactions of the people surrounding the author. The word “view” can mean either a sight or a mindset, and it is clear that both meanings resonate in Wallace’s essay.
At first, Wallace concentrates not on the tragedy itself, but on his efforts to purchase a flag to display in the event’s wake. Although they’re everywhere in his hometown, uniting citizens across lines of class and geography, he’s unable to find one, and fears that the sight of his home without a flag will appear to be a negative statement on his part. Questioning his neighbours as to their reasons for hanging up flags, he notes that their statements are fairly identical: it’s about unity, support, and pride. Although he eventually creates a makeshift flag from paper and Magic Markers, the power of appearances and images to variably unite and isolate is an important theme in the essay, and one that seems especially relevant considering the racial profiling that occurred in the name of national security following 9/11. At the moment, however, this is not yet a concern. Wallace is watching the news in Mrs. Thompson’s living room, surrounded by other neighbours and fellow church members, and his description of the scene calls to mind an observation from the opening paragraph: it’s as if everyone’s standing there watching the same traffic accident. Despite their different opinions and mindsets, this tragedy is a shared horror.
Furthermore, the essay indicates that what people see and how they react to it can effectively reveal their priorities. For instance, although footage of skyscrapers crumbling were upsetting, they were still viewable, whereas the clip of people falling from the North Tower was shown once, and never rerun. As it plays, Wallace tells us that the people in the room with him looks traumatised, simultaneously terrified and jaded, and finally moves on, unsure what to say. Although he and his neighbours could handle the large-scale destruction of buildings, the sight of people jumping from them–almost but not yet lost–is too much to bear. Perhaps this is because people are naturally predisposed to sympathise with those in peril, or perhaps it’s because it could just as easily have happened anywhere, but these reactions to the images of tragedy on Mrs. Thompson’s television show that despite the increased consumerism and greed in American culture, when it comes down to it, humanity still matters to us infinitely more than property.
View could also refer to the differing opinions and perspectives which informed the American public’s responses to 9/11. In many cases, these differences are based on age, as that greatly affected the ability of people to comprehend the situation. For instance, Wallace mentions a woman who said at first her sons thought the tragedy was just a movie, until they noticed it was playing on every channel. This innocence caused them to react with less anger and grief than many adults, even after learning the truth of the matter.
Wallace also discusses how differences in geographical location affected people’s mindset with regards to the tragedy. He says that people in the Midwest tend to spend less time together, choosing to watch television at someone’s house instead of going out to a party, whereas the East Coast is much more focused on meeting people face-to-face. This likely creates a sense of distance and detachment in places like Bloomington, and increases the contrast between everyday life and the sense of unity that followed the tragedy. This isolated viewpoint also causes the tragedy in New York to seem more distant–if they choose to turn off the TV, the events are still happening, but they are less immediate and therefore less terrifying. New Yorkers, however, would not have had the luxury of that remote viewpoint. Their altered skyline is evident and viscerally felt, not merely an image on a screen.
The last difference in viewpoint that Wallace explores is the contrast between his cynicism and the prayer of the women in the room with him. Silently, he critiques Bush’s lacking speech and notes how as time wears on the networks seem to be presenting a manufactured reaction. However, he ultimately notes that it may be preferable to believe in Mrs. Thompson’s view of the president, the images on TV, the power of prayer, because that means America as a nation would be better than he believes.
Critiquing English Literature
There are a countless number of authors that critique contemporary English usage to the highest extent they possibly can in order to ensure one’s writing is flawless. David Foster Wallace and George Orwell are two of the many authors that criticize modern English literature and offer solutions for what they believe to be common literary mistakes. Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” focuses on writing clearly, in a simple fashion and the mistakes one is prone to make if they do not write in this style. On the other hand, “Authority and American Usage” by Wallace discusses the ongoing Usage Wars of modern English writing and the importance of authority and credibility in writing, while drawing a clear line between usage and ethics. Although both authors believe there are many flaws in English literature, their literary styles both differ from one another and they do not offer the same solutions to their much different critiques. As a result of this, neither Orwell nor Wallace would agree with each other regarding the issue of common literary mistakes and the techniques necessary to solve these problems.
Orwell starts off “Politics and the English Language” by claiming that the English language is going towards the wrong path by stating, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” Orwell blames this decline on bad habits that are “spread by imitation.”The bad habits that Orwell mentions throughout his essay are the use of dying metaphors, operators/verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The reason he claims these habits are the cause of the decline is because they complicate something that can be written more simply. “As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is even easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.”Orwell believes, and tries to persuade the reader, that these habits will cause the writer to lose meaning of what is being written. He criticizes modern English by saying that writers use words and phrases that are commonly used, or have been used before by someone else, not because they relate to what they are writing but because it is much easier to do as opposed to sit down and actually think for yourself. This ends up causing the written work to end up scattered and not clear, which is the opposite of what Orwell preaches about–clear writing. Orwell also mentions that insincerity in writing is a cause of clear writing. He says, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” When a writer is not sincere in their work, it creates a barrier between the writer’s real message and the message that they actually get across to their audience because they start spewing out random, meaningless words and phrases which then results in writing that is anything but clear.
Although Orwell feels that the English language is going down a bad path, he believes that it can be saved. “I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable.”He lists six specific things that will improve contemporary English for most situations. The list says: i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.iii. If it is possible to a cut a word out, always cut it out. iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active. v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. vi. Break any of these rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous.”
This set of rules, in Orwell’s opinion, will better one’s writing and will also help save modern English usage but it may take a while to do so. Orwell does not think one’s writing will change immediately because people have “grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.”With these changes Orwell believes writing will become more unique. “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase–some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs.”Instead of copying phrases and words that are commonly passed around, writers will begin to think for themselves and write more creatively and clearly.
Unlike Orwell, Wallace does not care much about clear writing as much as he does drawing a clear line between usage versus ethics, which are the causes of the “Usage War” that he mentions throughout his essay. The Usage War is a fight between Prescriptivism (usage), or SNOOTs, and Descriptivism (ethics), two styles of writing that are the total opposites of one another. In his essay, Wallace refers to Prescriptives as “linguistic conservatives,” Wallace who believe that there should be a set of rules to determine what is correct or incorrect in English usage, wheres Descriptivists are labeled as “linguistic liberals” that do not believe in set guidelines regarding what should be considered right or wrong and favor ethics over logic. Wallace believes in order to solve the problem between usage and ethics, one must build credibility in order to have authority over the reader, which is why he is such a huge fan of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. He describes Garner as “a genius because the Dictionary of Modern American Usage pretty much resolves the Usage Wars’ Crisis of Authority. Garner manages to control the compresence of rhetorical Appeals so cleverly that he appears able to transcend both Usage Wars camps and simply tell the truth, and in a way that does not torpedo his own credibility but actually enhances it.”Garner is able to solve the Usage War by creating credibility in his writing which thus creates authority. “In fact, a large part of the project of any contemporary usage dictionary will consist in establishing this authority. If that seems rather obvious, be apprised that nobody before Garner seems to have figured it out — that the lexicographer’s challenge now is to be not just accurate and comprehensive but credible. That in the absence of unquestioned Authority in language, the reader must now be moved or persuaded to grant a dictionary its authority, freely and for what appear to be good reasons.” What Wallace is trying to say here is that a writer must be able to build credibility in order for the reader to be able to hand over his trust to gain authority. Garner has completed that by creating enough credibility in his dictionary which causes the reader to believe his work.
Reviewing both Orwell’s and Wallace’s critiques of contemporary English usage and their solutions, one can clearly see that they do not agree on what is wrong with English nor how to fix these problems. Orwell’s problem with modern writing is described in this passage: “the writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”Orwell is claiming that the main problem is caused by the writer not being able to get his point across clearly enough. On the other hand, Wallace claims that the biggest problem is the “Usage War,” which is a fight about gaining authority in writing. “These Wars are both the context and the target of a very subtle rhetorical strategy in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, and without talking about them it’s impossible to explain why Garner’s book is both so good and so sneaky.”Orwell states that contemporary English usage will be saved only if we write clearly and stop being lazy, whereas Wallace believes that the problem is not about the way you write but about how you can gain authority over what you write about.
Although Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Wallace’s “Authority and American Language Usage” both critique contemporary English usage, they are both very different from one another and they would not agree with each other regarding what is wrong and how to solve these problems. While Orwell focused more on writing clearly, Wallace devoted most of his paper to the Usage Wars; however, both authors critiqued and solved many problems that are present in contemporary English usage.