The history of writing

Among other things, on the unfounded Pound, Levi’s judgment matches that of Nabokov (as well, if anyone is interested, with mine): “In the Twenties and Thirties I never suffered, as instead happened to so many of my peers, the radiations of the poetry of Eliot, certainly not of the first order, or of that of Pound, certainly second-rate. I read them late in the season, around 1945, in the guest room of an American friend, and not only did they leave me completely indifferent, but I didn’t understand why we had to waste time with them ». Of course to be so sincere one must be very sure of oneself, qualities which Nabokov possessed to the highest degree.

But going back to the strange contradiction I mentioned above: two of the best known and most loved writers, those who have been reading since middle school, those who ‘close programs’ in high school, always use a transparent language, and – as we have seen – recommend others to use it; but then many people, when they write, do everything the opposite: they unnecessarily complicate the discussion, they create unnecessarily difficulties, they go in search of the elegant form and end up being incomprehensible or ridiculous. We will see examples of this.

The theory of elegance by Lina Presotto

Part of the responsibility of this foolish, unjustified obscure writing is unfortunately the school. The school reacts rightly to sloppiness, to the projection without filters of the spoken language (or chat language) on the written language, but it does so often in a wrong way, conveying the idea that the beautiful style is a bit like the dress of the party, something that makes the appearance more pleasant without changing the substance underneath: the style that makes us say there are but write there are, that makes us say example but does write exemplification, which makes us say let’s go to the fair but write we will go to the fair event.

Some time ago I was invited to a kind of year-end essay by high school students, and on the invitation there was written among other things that “photographic images” would be projected. I asked the organizer if you could not write “photographs”, and he replied that yes, you could, “but my ten-year-old nephew says pictures …”. How can you blame him? We just hope the kid grows fast, and learn.

Is it a new problem? Did you write better once? No, it’s not a new problem. But certainly yes: one wrote better once, when one wrote less, and above all when the writers were less. But reading the reflections on the language of the writers of the past one realizes that the problem of the “flowery style”, of the useless complication mistaken for depth, is a very old problem. The antilingua was already before Calvin discovered it. He had already identified it well and described, for example, that supreme writer who was Alberto Savinio.

Why ‘wait’ instead of ‘wait’? Why ‘come’ instead of ‘arriving’? Why – could we continue the list indefinitely – “do a search” instead of “search”? Why “various types of bodywork” instead of “various types of bodywork”? To write elegant. Savinio does not mind as much with those who speak or write badly as with those who, in speaking and writing, disguise themselves, wear a dress that is not his, the dress of the party, use an artificial language, and apply the language a “strange theory of elegance”, a theory according to which in certain contexts (for example, talking to the “people of greatest importance”) one must tone oneself and use words and phrases that would never be used in conversation with less important people.

At the beginning, Savinio takes off with his “buxom and alacre maid” Lina Presotto, and the tone is clearly playful. But then the discourse becomes more serious, and, on a later page, Savinio observes that this «sumptuous» and «courtly» use of language, which makes many contemporary films ridiculous (Savinio wrote in the 1940s), has roots in the language literary: in addition to D’Annunzio, whom Savinio loathed, some great authors such as Manzoni and Leopardi have some blame. “The beauty of Ginestra – he writes – to me it spoils that verse in which Vesuvius is called sterminator Vesevo”. One can disagree about the judgment on Leopardi, because Savinio confuses the everyday language and the poetic language of the early nineteenth century with a bit of arbitrariness (which by tradition, a tradition from which Leopardi himself begins to distance himself, had to stand out from the everyday language); but we cannot disagree on the fact that all attempts to give oneself a tone of elegance, writing or speaking in official contexts, have the only consequence of making us look ridiculous. If in everyday language we say ‘wait’, or ‘problem’, or ‘theme’, or ‘type’, there is no reason, turning to “people of interest”, to say or write ‘wait’ or ‘problematic’ ‘or’ theme ‘or’ typology ‘. «Because – Savinio writes – the end of the language is not to express in a courtly or aesthetic way a few ideas, limited, obligatory, and ambiguous when not even false, but to become a precise, flexible instrument,” inconspicuous “above all of a profound mind. , subtle and observant can think “.

The theory of elegance at school

In the same years in which Savinio wrote the articles of the New Encyclopedia, the philologist Enrico Bianchi observed that this reluctance to write in a normal manner and this desire to write ‘chosen’ are inculcated in children already in elementary school. With that we go back to the school problem. The child – Bianchi observes – writes in her diary “the face of the Madonna”, and the master corrects: “In dealing with the Madonna, better face”.

Therefore, even at the time of Savinio and Bianchi, a chastened anodyne was taught at school who was not at all more correct than the one used spontaneously by the students – ‘my father led me to the cinema’ is no longer just ‘father brought to the cinema ‘- but on the other hand put in their minds the negative idea that writing was necessary to use words as it should in place of those “alive and lively” that they would spontaneously use. Personal memory: something like that happened to me when I was a high school student, and in my subject on Vita Nova I wrote that in that book they confused “love for God and love for a girl”. Not a “girl”, the teacher corrected me: “girl”. But the truth is that ‘girl’ was fine, because Beatrice was – that then in certain contexts certain courtly words now become one with the thing they express is true (Beatrice and Laura are ‘maidens’, the porter has made one ‘feat’, the game will be ‘played’ behind closed doors: who ever uses these words outside of these contexts?), but this does not mean that those courtly words cannot be replaced by simpler ones.

Why? Where does this attitude to good writing come from (which is not nice at all)? Why does the English spoken language have to wear this mask in order to become a written language? To understand this we need to reflect on the linguistic history of Italy. Standard Italian, the English of use, is a language that, before Unity, practically did not exist. There was a written literary language based on a very selected canon of especially Tuscan authors of the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, a language that few intellectuals mastered. And there were dialects, which were used for normal oral communication not only by the people of the people but also by intellectuals born outside Tuscany. Alessandro Manzoni spoke with his friends in Milan. At the Savoy court they spoke Piedmontese (or French). Therefore, after the unification of Europe, as explained by Tullio De Mauro, “winning the battle against the exclusive use of the dialect seemed possible only at a price: that of requiring students to systematically flee from any lexical element and from each module syntactic used in spoken language, both in the dialect-oriented language and, from the moment when regional varieties began to be formed, in the one oriented towards these ». Consequence: “the antiparallel, or rather the word” like a printed book “was the most widespread linguistic ideal in middle school”.

“Descend from the opposite side” and other false elegance

Order, perspicuity, clarity. These were not the virtues that the nineteenth century school aimed to inculcate in boys. But if you read certain school books that circulate today in classrooms, you can see for yourself that things have not changed so much. Here, for example, is how one of these books speaks of Parini:

Parini offers his contribution through satire, a genre that makes use of specific expository and enunciative elements, as of allusive rhetorical artifices that involve the user in a process of decoding also emotional.

The student has not yet read a line by Parini, but he must already make his way through the smoke of the «specific expository and enunciative elements», he must already put himself in the shoes of the «user» (‘reader’ was not right? does he enjoy literature, rather than read it?), he must already equip himself for a “process of decoding, even emotional”, whatever that means.

As you can see, before fleas to the students’ bad writing, there would be a whole “English of professors” to lighten their trappings, its useless complications. The Italian of the professors, or aspiring professors. Personal memory (and shame). My grandmother, born in 1909, spoke fluently the Turin dialect, while with Italian she arranged, that is, she spoke it translating from the dialect, and then filling it with dialectal forms and words (she called for example ‘trigger’, from the Piedmontese grilèt, the bowl where the salad is stirred, and I thought that the ‘trigger’ for ‘bowl’ was standard at the university, one day in Florence, at friends’ house, while setting the table, I realized with some embarrassment that it was like this). Arriving in middle school, I was already an insuperable professorino, and once, hearing them say that “those in the shop brought the apples”, I corrected her, stating that we must say “they delivered the apples”. Correction, of course, demented, because “they brought the apples” is fine. But at that age (and for a while later) I too was convinced that to speak well it was necessary to speak chosen, and to ban all the most common words of use, such as the verb “to bring”.