The Paragraph Project (3)

There’s a set of paragraphs that I found quite elegant in the prologue to Dan Rodgers’s new book Age of Fracture. But first, some context. (This post will be a long one: I have a hard time writing as concisely as I think everyone else should.) 

The prologue to Age of Fracture works like this: After introducing the idea that something changed in the last 30 years of the 20th century — namely, that “the terms that had dominated post-World War II intellectual life began to fracture” (5) — Rodgers presents three possible explanations for that change. He lays them out one by one and mostly dismantles them one by one. Hence (the implication goes), it’s more complicated than any of these explanations can fully account for; hence (the implication goes), it’ll take a book, this book, to explain. His readers primed for why we need this book, clear on what it will help us to better understand, he can then quickly dispense with the logistics of outlining its scope, structure, and major themes. (Those few pages in a scholarly book are the equivalent of the five minutes at the start of class when the teacher distributes the lecture handout and asks for questions about next week’s quiz: they’re not quotable, they’re not the learning experience, but they’re essential to facilitating it.)

This, of course, is also more or less how the beginning of every book written by an academically trained historian works. But that’s just to say that the scholarly introduction is a form, like the sonnet or sonata: it can be infused with flair or cobbled together with clunk. Rodgers infuses. The paragraphs I have in mind for this post, in which he lays out his three hypotheses, work so well because of a single decision: he orders the hypotheses in reverse, building up to the one that he thinks hits closest to the mark.

Writers always have to decide how to order their arguments: weakest to strongest, or vice versa. (Well, except writers who order their arguments in the order they thought of them: which btw: not recommended!) Genre conventions, of course, guide these decisions and in some cases, dictate them. In legal writing, the practice is to lead with the strongest arguments. (I could write a whole separate post about why that is.) Historians have a wider range of writerly latitude. It seems to work well, though, when historians take the opposite tack from lawyers, and dispatch with their weaker arguments first. (See, e.g., the chapter in Bailyn’s Ideological Origins in which he lays out the influences on American revolutionary thought in order from the most superficial to the most genuinely formative.)

And it works well here, for a few reasons. By taking up the weakest causal explanations first, Rodgers effectively invites the reader to ride shotgun on his intellectual trip, in contrast to historians who just say to the reader, “Meet me at the destination.” This models humility — that Rodgers doesn’t think he has all the answers, but is genuinely engaging in a process of intellectual investigation. Now of course, by the time he wrote the prologue, Rodgers certainly must have known which of his hypotheses was, in his judgment, the most correct explanation. But by arraying them in this way, he gives himself some space to recreate for the reader his thought process. This invites trust — the reader sees that Rodgers went through steps to get to the answers he proposes, that he didn’t start out with a conclusion and then look into the possible alternatives as an afterthought. Of course, this intellectual journey is wholly contrived; presumably it’s not a faithful reproduction of the actual steps that Rodgers took, in the order that they happened. (Indeed, such a reproduction would likely be impossible to make sense of.) But it’s a reproduction insofar as we adopt the fiction that a historian’s prose offers a sort of mimesis of his research process, like all mimetic art simplified and prettified in the service of clarity and elegance.

There’s also a sense of satisfaction, reading an argument that’s structured this way. The argument builds, progressively, from the simplest and easiest-to-dismiss hypothesis through the hypothesis that’s most robust, though still incomplete. There’s a sense that you’re making progress as you go through these pages — getting a bit closer to the answer — but that even by the prologue’s end, you’re not quite there. That is, you’ll need to read the rest of the book to get a thicker sense of what exactly was going on in American intellectual life at the close of the 20th century.

This all takes a few pages to do, so I won’t quote the entire section, but here are the first two paragraphs from the section I’m referring to, in which Rodgers lays out and dismisses the first hypothesis:

In accounting for the transformations in ideas and culture that reshaped the last quarter of the twentieth century, three sharply different explanations have been offered. The first posits a shift in the nation’s core psyche and character. It was the “me decade,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote famously in 1976: an age obsessed with self-referentiality. The nation, this line of reasoning argues, was caught up in an “age of greed,” a new “culture of narcissism,” a collapse of faith in public institutions, a pell-mell, selfish rush into a myriad of private lifestyle communities. The advice of the soon-to-be-imprisoned investor Ivan Boesky becomes, in this reading, the motto of the age: “Greed is all right, by the way,” Boesky told the University of California business school’s graduating class in 1986 in one of the most quoted snippets of the decade. “I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy.”

Selfishness there was aplenty in the age of fracture and new institutional ways in which the powers of money could be exercised and magnified. But the notion of a national mood or psyche is the illusion of writers and journalists hard-pressed by a deadline. Wolfe was struck by the ways in which the people he met talked not about wealth but obsessively about themselves, as if they had taken their psychoanalytic obsessions public. Christopher Lasch, who made the “culture of narcissism” phrase famous, insisted that he had been misread to suggest that the nation had turned in on the self; what worried him, to the contrary, was that the intrusive therapeutic operations of late-capitalist society had made selves all but empty. Only a tiny sliver of the population actually lived in gated communities. To imagine a national mood across a society as diverse as the United States is to fall into the language of partisans of the time rather than to explain it.

These paragraphs, I think, have much to recommend them. First, there’s the use of quotes. I especially like how Rodgers uses the Ivan Boesky “Greed is healthy” quote (and the quote is well-edited — “I want you to know that” — from the point of view of content, there’s no need to leave in those six words, but they’re key to giving us a sense of the texture of the full speech), instead of the more obvious Gordon Gekko “Greed is good” — inviting the reader to supply that resonance on her own.

Second, there’s the way Rodgers chooses his words so as to let his argument make itself: something I always admire in the best historical writing. The notion of a nation getting “caught up” or “rush[ing]” into anything doesn’t make much sense when you think about it: how can millions of people do one thing all at once? In the next paragraph Rodgers confirms in words the doubts first introduced by syntax: “the notion of a national mood or psyche is the illusion of writers and journalists hard-pressed by a deadline.” “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet….”

Finally, there’s the space these paragraphs give their subject to breathe. Rodgers clarifies Wolfe, but not right away — he gives us some sentences in between. It’s clear from these paragraphs that Rodgers doesn’t put much stock in broad-strokes “national psyche” type writing, but another writer of that persuasion might well have relegated the entire line of thought in these paragraphs to a single sentence or even just a passing aside: something like, “Rather than indulge in journalists’ fantasies of a national mood or psyche, this book…” But here we have two paragraphs, a sort of olive branch to any readers out there more sympathetic to the idea of a national psyche. Granted it’s just two paragraphs — indicating that the “me decade” hypothesis is not to be taken terribly seriously — but it’s also not nothing — indicating that it’s owed at least the respect of an explanation as to why it’s being discarded.

BTW, another thing I really like about Age of Fracture is that there’s a nifty thread between the prologue and the first chapter. The prologue opens with a quote from Peggy Noonan*: “There were words.” Then, chapter 1 opens with a Rodgers riff on the quote: “There had not always been so many words.” The riff would have seemed too neat, too obvious, if it had closely followed the Noonan original in the same paragraph or on the same page. And it would have been too much if it’d been repeated at the start of every chapter. Coming just once but fourteen pages later, it really clicks the prologue and the first chapter together, like when you hear in a movement of a symphony a fleeting trill brought back from the first.

* Incidentally you really can’t go wrong if you’re quoting Peggy Noonan. I probably agree with 1% of her views, but I find her opinion writing seductive in a way that I can’t quite articulate. She writes with a sort of flowing colloquial erudition of content, styled for contrast in a simple repetitious staccato, which combination somehow makes everything she says sound self-evident and indisputable. Maybe next I’ll do a Paragraph Project entry on her.

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