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Know ye not poetry?

 Paul Monk on Don Watson’s death sentence

(Australian Financial Review, 23 Dec 2003)

“…it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”

-         Aristotle Rhetoric[i]

 “The interaction between the orality that all human beings are born into and the technology of writing, which no one is born into, touches the depths of the psyche…Writing is consciousness raising.”

-         Walter J. Ong[ii]

“Writing is regarded as the threshold of history, because it ended the reliance upon oral tradition, with all the inaccuracies this entailed…[A]mong the innumerable benefits created by a script, writing allows us to capture our ideas when they arise and, in time, to sort and scrutinize, revise, add, subtract and rectify them to arrive at a rigor of logic and a depth of thought that would otherwise be impossible…”

-         Denise Schmandt-Besserat[iii]

Don Watson’s Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language has been getting a lot of air play since it’s release a few weeks ago.[iv] It is a cry from the heart - a bleeding heart, perhaps? - for a richer and also more disciplined use of the English language in public life.  There are some witty lines in it and lots of quotes from interesting European and American writers. There is, also, a basic attitude toward the value of the Western canon from which it is hard to dissent.

What seems to me to be lacking, however, is anything resembling a systematic argument. For this reason, I fear that the book fails by its own implicit standards. It is a mildly cantankerous ramble, punctuated by outbursts of political and social spleen. It lacks any but the most rudimentary structure, seems to be based on no particular theory or hypothesis, slides from topic to topic and allusion to allusion barking at all manner of bogies; and, while deploring a general state of affairs, is exceedingly vague and even inconsistent as to its causes.

The general theme of the book is anything but new. It is that the gracious and eloquent ways in which language used be spoken and written, in the glory days of civilization, are giving way to a vulgarized, demotic inarticulateness that is unpleasant, depressing and even dangerous. Such complaints can be found already in Plato and Confucius and at many points in between. The contemporary complainant needs to be a little cautious, therefore, in assessing just what the problem is before getting too splenetic or, to use Watson’s preferred term ‘indignant’.

Much more recently than Plato or Confucius, the likes of Jacques Barzun and Allan Bloom have deplored the decline of education and the vulgarising of Western (especially American) language and culture.[v] In 1994, the great literary critic Harold Bloom began one of his magna opera, The Western Canon, with a prelude titled ‘An Elegy for the Canon’.[vi] His unapologetic complaint was, “We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice…What has been devaluated is learning as such, as though erudition were irrelevant in the realms of judgment and misjudgment.”[vii]

Watson clearly seeks to place himself in this company. What, then, does he add to what we already have from the great masters? At best, I think, a specifically Australian variation within the genre. Clearly, Watson is more concerned with Australian public life than with that of the Western world at large. He remarks that the British and Americans are better off linguistically than we are, because more self-confident, more naturally given to elevated self-expression and loquacity, respectively. Alas, he sighs, Australians suffer from “a stubborn refusal to be articulate.”[viii]

Yet if this was his principal contention, it would surely have made sense to begin by pointing to the larger arguments of the Barzuns and Blooms and then to have indicated an intention to reflect on the specifically Australian case of cultural decline and linguistic barbarization. He might, from such a starting point, have offered us a survey of nineteenth century Australian speech and writing, educational standards and public rhetoric, before proceeding to examine how we have arrived at what he regards as a sorry state of affairs, more than two centuries after British settlement.

He does nothing of the kind. He opens with an Introduction that consists not of an outline of the coming argument, but of a rap on managerial jargon, during which he invokes George Orwell, Primo Levi, Norman Mailer and Simone Weil, but not a single Australian writer. He then unrolls four pieces of writing, which one presumes are chapters, but which have neither number nor title, nor sub-titles nor symmetry. What is more fundamental is that they lack any evident rationale for their separateness. In this respect they remind one of the stanzas of much contemporary poetry, which seem separated more or less at random.

The first ‘chapter’ runs for 54 pages. It is followed by what looks like a sort of intermezzo, of just thirteen pages, in which Australia is dwelt on more specifically than elsewhere. Then the ramble recommences, with a ‘chapter’ sixty pages long, followed not by a Conclusion but by a final ‘chapter’, 38 pages in length, which does not round out any argument - for, indeed, there has been none - but merely continues the ramble until, it would appear, the author had run out of breath.

It is plain that Watson is irritated and upset by various ways in which, as he expresses it, “every day we vandalise the language”. He states, equally plainly, that “We can only be indignant and we should resist.” [ix] Yet he does not make it at all plain why this vandalism is occurring, how ‘we’ should express our indignation or what he would propose by way of resistance. I found myself picturing Henry Higgins, played by the inimitable Rex Harrison, of course, singing indignantly ‘Why can’t the English [Australians] teach their children how to speak?’

Does Watson suggest a sort of Academie Anglaise to defend the language against its vandalisers? Anglaise? Perhaps he’d prefer to leave that to David Malouf and call, instead, for the creation of an Academie de Strine? Or is he even more democratic than that? Would he see a unionization of writers as the way to go? Public demonstrations orchestrated by the linguistic equivalent of Trotskyite activists, earnest and outraged at the inroads of managerialism and globalization on the language of ordinary people?

Doubtless, these whimsical rhetorical questions sound unfair to Watson. He is surely not calling for any of these things. The problem is, he doesn’t make it at all clear what he is calling for. He fails even to make clear to whom he is referring when he asserts that ‘we’ vandalise the language every day and ‘we’ should be indignant and resist. If he believes, as well he might, that resistance begins at home, he might reasonably have started with himself and have resisted the temptation to see into print so undisciplined a piece of writing as he has given us.

 I stated that Death Sentence seems to be based on no particular theory or hypothesis, slides from topic to topic and allusion to allusion barking at all manner of bogies; and, while deploring a general state of affairs, is exceedingly vague and even inconsistent as to its causes. Let me illustrate what I mean by these remarks. Since he nowhere sets it out in high relief, one is left to puzzle out from Watson’s prose what he sees as having brought us to the condition of unsanctioned vandalism of the language. His allusions to issues and assertions about causes provide clues. As for any clearly articulated theory or hypothesis, I can find neither.

It is possible to pick out from the persiflage an astonishing variety of putative causes for the condition Watson deplores. The first and most evident is the advance of business jargon into politics and academia - which it entered, he trumpets, as the German army entered Poland (in 1939). He comes back to this idea again and again. It’s just that he never develops it into the form of a rational inquiry. Indeed, quite early in his book, he confesses that he lacks sufficient interest in the subject to attempt such an inquiry[x]. This is a little odd, considering that he feels so indignant, but let that pass. It is after all, by his own account, only an ‘essay’ he is writing here.

Lacking sufficient interest in chasing down his principal quarry does not discourage Watson from darting off in at least a dozen different directions in pursuit of other possible causes for the linguistic malaise of our time. These pop up more or less at random. The rise of Communications Theory (along with Media, Cultural and Women’s Studies) is one. Grubby practicality seems to be a second. “Modern language”, Watson remarks airily at one point, “handcuffs words to action, ideas to matter, the pure thought to the dirty deed.”[xi]

A third is a certain ‘pomposity’ which, he informs us, “afflicts most people when they write formally or write formal speeches.” A fourth is consumerism. “It seems”, Watson expatiates, “that consumer choice expands in inverse proportion to our vocabulary. We use fewer words and words of less variety. We arrange them with less imagination and dexterity. We tangle and abuse them. We take the richest soil the culture has and turn it into a few clods.”[xii]

His ‘we’ again seems more than a little problematic here. All the more so because he had earlier in the book declared cheerfully that English has survived “everything that’s been thrown at it: political and social revolutions, industrial and technological revolutions, colonialism and post-colonialism, mass education, mass media, mass society. More than just surviving these upheavals, it adapts and grows, is strengthened and enriched by them. And never has it grown more than now: by one estimate at the rate of more than 20,000 words a year, and for every new word several old ones change their meanings or sprout additional ones. It is wondrous on this level. (emphases added)”.[xiii]

The contradiction here is twofold. On the one hand, Watson celebrates the capacity of the language to survive several centuries of enormous social change and upheaval, yet fears that it is succumbing in the face of that dread social phenomenon ‘consumerism’. On the other hand, he specifically states that the language is growing wondrously, by tens of thousands of new words per annum, only to then lament that ‘we’ “use fewer words and words of less variety”. At the very least, he needs to disaggregate his ‘we’ here in order to clarify whatever point he is trying to make.

A fifth cause of linguistic decay that pops out of Watson’s prose is the “din, chaos and method acting” of popular culture, or “the language of twitching narcissism”[xiv]. A sixth, “the diabolical environment of politics” in which “unreasoning forces throw up unreasoning things like red herrings and dead cats and fling them in the path of journalists…Reason goes up in smoke. The truth is less significant than the political contest.”[xv] Pardon me? This is new? This is peculiar to the contemporary West, or the globalised world?

A seventh cause is the recent ascendancy of film and pictorial images. Here Watson gets himself into another unnecessary tangle. “Pictures rule: but words define, explain, express, direct, hold together our thoughts and what we know. They lead us to new ideas and back to older ones. In the beginning was the Word. (emphasis added)”[xvi] He seems to have been unable to resist here the allusion to the opening verse of the Gospel of St John. But what is his precise intention in using it?

This is no more quibble. For, as it happens, the word was not in the beginning, before pictures, at all. Biologically and cognitively, the eye and the picture forming brain are incomparably older than the word.[xvii] The word was not even in the beginning of the life history of hominids. It was something that emerged as an added capacity within a brain primarily configured for visuo-spatial orientation and standard animal responses.

Pictures, in other words, have ruled for about half a billion years. Words have only existed for, at the very most, half a million and possibly for as little as 100,000 - and they have never altogether ruled. Even when used, words build on the visual underpinnings of cognition, in so far as they spin meaning out of metaphors - repicturings of reality.[xviii] Their use in systematic reasoning has always been partial and problematic.

If Watson understood this, he might be less distressed by some of what he sees and also more interested in inquiring into it, rather than merely sounding off. He might have also have been more discriminating in his praise of words, since by his own account they do not always define, explain, express, direct or hold together our thoughts. To the contrary, they all too readily become jumbled and confused - even in the hands, as it were, of a tolerably well educated person such as himself.

An eighth cause for our linguistic problems, according to Watson, is that Australia is a colonial backwater that, alas, never had a violent revolution or a civil war to put some definition or fire into our public language. “Self-government came without the necessity to fight for it,” he complains.[xix] Why precisely this should be a cause of linguistic impoverishment he fails to explain. In any case, he implies that the problem goes back to the very beginnings of settlement, in that “When the British reached Australia’s shores they seemed to lose their inspiration.”[xx]

This last point, apart from its apparent inconsistency with his lament about the lack of a violent revolution, is itself rather incoherently advanced. He quotes a speech against slavery by William Pitt before the House of Commons, commending his “words of distinction; words marrying intellect with moral passion”, immediately before observing that the British lost their inspiration on arriving at Botany Bay. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that it was not, after all, William Pitt who arrived at Botany Bay. Nor does he adduce any evidence that those who did so arrive were any more inspired before they departed Britannia’s shores than after they settled at the arse end of the Earth.

Other causes, nine through twelve, are science, because it has radically reduced “the element of chance in life”[xxi], the “fading of the King James Bible”[xxii] (funny, but my copy has not faded at all), the fact that the baby boomers “lost God and took to sociology and marijuana”[xxiii], and the rise of sport, than which nothing breeds clich more than do “film and television and celebrity and news and business.”[xxiv] Quite a list! Yet none is followed through, none is shown to have had any specific effect and none even of the presumed effects is weighed against the proliferation of new words - non-cliches - to which Watson has himself testified.

The piece de resistance (so to speak) is surely Watson’s resigned and plaintive remark “I have written this essay in the hope that awareness might increase in some small degree and with it, indignation: a small degree and a not very sanguine hope because I know that powerful forces, including possibly the whole tide of history, are against us.”[xxv] The whole tide of history? What, Hegel in reverse? Spirit turning into a linguistic black hole? What a grimly fascinating notion. But of course he neither sets out a case for this being so, nor defines his terms, nor tells us who ‘us’ is. And to paraphrase Bill Clinton, much would seem to depend on what the meaning of ‘us’ is.

As a piece of argument, Death Sentence is a dismal showing. Nor is it improved by Watson’s tendency to lash out at the usual suspects. Usual, that is, if you are a paid up member of what exasperated conservatives have long since dubbed ‘the chattering classes’. John Howard, in particular, is pilloried again and again for using plain language, rather than something that would stir Watson’s heart. The Americans generically are, in passing, casually accused of “lynching people” in the late nineteenth century. The claim is entirely unsupported and is offered as if that practice had been as endemic in the United States of the Gilded Age as headhunting in Borneo, before colonial interference.[xxvi]

One might go on to catalogue quite a long list of other solecisms and minor irritants in Death Sentence, but I don’t wish to flog a dead horse, or sentence. Indeed, I’d prefer to end more cheerily, by insisting that, all of the above remarks notwithstanding, I feel a certain kinship with Watson at times. This was most palpable towards the end, where he waxed lyrical about the beauties of Shakespeare and the vital role of language in elementary and secondary education.

Looking back to his own schooling, in rural Australia, he reflects “If we picked up a feeling for the language, it was in English literature…but especially Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the best thing they gave us. Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear and a couple of the sonnets burrowed their way in and took up residence in our inhospitable souls…It was the one hint we had that there were mysterious powers in language: that beautifully arranged words could liberate, posses, bewilder and intoxicate. They contained revelations. They could extend a person. There was pleasure in just reciting them.”[xxvii]

Amen to that. Although I have to say that my own pleasure in Shakespeare was not stirred by either school or university. It was discovered on my own time. Few of my contemporaries, so far as I could or can judge, experienced the intoxication to which Watson refers. The only time I can recall such a mood capturing a whole class, or most of it, was in 1967, when a young school teacher read to my fifth grade class J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Yet for the most part, in this little book, what Watson communicates is not the pleasure of literature or the possibilities of language; only a cocktail of cultural deracination, personal frustration and vaguely populist politics mixed with confused snobbery. One imagines him at the city gates, so to speak, in the character of Marullus, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, berating bureaucrats, academic jobbers and working folk with the outraged cry, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts, cruel, mean and low. Know you not Poetry?”[xxviii]

At a time when the language has become the world’s dominant tongue and when an extraordinary range of scholarship is being produced in it, while subcultural and scientific neologisms proliferate, Watson’s gloom seems to me misplaced. Certainly, there is a dearth of inspired speech in our parliaments; certainly there are, as there have always been, a multitude of citizens who are less than eloquent; certainly our schools and universities could do with revitalization.

I do not believe, however, that Death Sentence is likely to contribute much to ameliorating these states of affairs. And even were things far grimmer, I suggest, the best response would be that of Edgar to Gloucester, “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all. Come on!”[xxix] There is no way things ought to be and there is no prize for mere indignation. The language is as open to creative and rigorous use as it ever was. What’s required is leadership from creators, rather than sullen ‘resistance’ by those who believe they’ve been subjected to a death sentence.


[i] Richard McKeon (ed) The Basic Works of Aristotle, Random House, New York, 1941, p. 1328.

[ii] Walter J. Ong Orality and Literacy, Routledge, 1988, p. 175.

[iii] Denise Schmandt-Besserat How Writing Came About, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996, p. 1.

[iv] Don Watson Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Random House, Australia, 2003, 198 pp.

[v] Jacques Barzun’s numerous works have this as a consistent theme. See in particular The House of Intellect (1959), The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going (1970), Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric For Writers (1975, 1985, 2001), The Culture We Deserve (1989), Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991) and From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000). The last of these is a massive tome of 877 pages, written when Barzun was 93 years old and, for that reason alone a monumental achievement. Its final chapter is headed ‘Demotic Life and Times’. For an anthology of his writings over many decades, see Michael Murray (ed) The Jacques Barzun Reader, Harper Collins, New York, 2002, 615 pp. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) is a classic of the genre.

[vi] Harold Bloom The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1994, 578 pp. 

[vii] ibid. p. 35.

[viii] Watson op. cit. p. 70.

[ix] Ibid. p.8.

[x] “One day, perhaps, someone will be interested enough to trace the point at which this journey into fog began. Was it the Chicago school of economics?” p. 24.

[xi] Ibid. p. 27.

[xii] Ibid. pp. 42-3.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 12.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 46.

[xv] Ibid. p. 60.

[xvi] Ibid. p. 65.

[xvii] For an illuminating history of the evolution of the eye, see Andrew Parker In The Blink of an Eye: The Cause of the Most Dramatic Event in the History of Life, Free Press, London, 2003, 316 pp. Parker is an Australian, who received his PhD from Macquarie University, Sydney, while working in marine biology for the Australian Museum. He became a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology in 1999. His book is a model of everything Watson calls for but does not himself provide. His Preface, in particular, is a translucent example of what prefatory statements are supposed to do. So much so, that I venture to reproduce the first two paragraphs here:


“The Big Bang in animal evolution was perhaps the most dramatic event in the history of life on Earth. During this blink of an eye in such history, all the major animal groups found today evolved hard parts and became distinct shapes, simultaneously and for the first time. This happened precisely 543 million years ago, at the beginning of a period known in geological history as the Cambrian, and so has become known as the ‘Cambrian explosion’. But what lit the Cambrian fuse?

Until now, we have been without an acceptable explanation for this extraordinary burst in evolution - there is strong evidence against all the contending theories put forward. If time is given to consider most previous explanations, it becomes clear that in fact they explain a different evolutionary event and not the Cambrian explosion, as will be introduced early on in this book. That these two events were once amalgamated had been extremely misleading. In short, we know very well what happened during evolution’s Big Bang, indeed numerous books have already been written on this question, but we don’t know why it happened. Why it happened is the puzzle this book sets out to solve.”


Want the solution to the puzzle? Go and read Parker’s beautiful book!

[xviii] For a systematic development of this idea, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York, 1999, 624 pp.

[xix] Watson op. cit. p. 67.

[xx] Ibid. p. 68.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 98.

[xxii] Ibid. p. 150.

[xxiii] Ibid. p. 158.

[xxiv] Ibid. p. 158.

[xxv] Ibid. p. 181.

[xxvi] Ibid. p. 74.

[xxvii] Ibid. pp. 164-5.

[xxviii] William Shakespeare Julius Caesar, Act I, Sc. i., ll. 40-42, where, of course, the last part reads “cruel men of Rome. Knew you not Pompey?”

[xxix] William Shakespeare King Lear Act V, Sc. II, ll. 9-11.