Well, maybe not exactly. It seems to me that the point I want to make about the situatedness of literary response is well illustrated by the concept of decorum: the point at which stylistic considerations take on moral significance and moral considerations take on stylistic significance.
Decorum designates the fitness of language to matter. It will be necessary to disentangle it at least partially from the more recent notion of decorum as it applies to social and personal morality. Classical decorum does not necessarily speak of moderation and politesse: if you are writing invective, it may be entirely decorous to use obscene language. If you write comedy, coarse language put in the mouth of a soldier or a slave will conform to the rule of decorum. If writing satire, it may be seemly to write in a chatty or ungrammatical register (Persius’s ‘language of the toga’).
Richard A. Lanham writes that ‘decorum as a stylistic criterion finally locates itself entirely in the beholder and not the speech or text’. Not a postmodern notion this, but one acknowledged by, for example, George Puttenham, who wrote in his Arte of English Poesie (1589):
[S]ince the actions of man with their circumstances be infinite, and the world likewise replenished with many iudgements, it may be a question who shal haue the determination of such controuersie as may arise whether this or that action or speach be decent or indecent: and verely it seemes to go all by discretion, not perchaunce of euery one, but by a learned and experienced discretion.Puttenham further points out that some grammarians would consider figures such as metaphor, allegory, irony and so on, to be abusive since they are deceptive and duplicitous. But, he continues:
the matter resteth much in the definition and acceptance of this word decorum, for whatsoeuer is so, cannot iustly be misliked. In which respect it may come to passe that what the Grammarian setteth downe for a viciositee in speach may become a vertue and no vice, contrariwise his commended figure may fall into a reprochfull fault.Stylistic vices may become virtues, as long as moderation is observed, and ‘a speciall regard to all circumstances of the person, place, time, cause and purpose’.
It is in this ‘speciall regard’ that decorum differs from linguistic prescriptivism – arguments about which are constantly being rehearsed in the part of the blogosphere that revolves around Language Log. (I think it’s worth linking here to Conrad’s post on prescriptivism as a kind of etiquette.) The mistake the prescriptivists make is to disregard the decorum of an utterance: they frequently make what translators would call errors of register. Decorum is a sensitivity to context, the fitness of language to time, place and person.
Now I can see that I’m about to run up against a problem here. The examples I gave above clearly reveal how closely related linguistic decorum has always been to class distinctions. Classical notions of artistic beauty are hopelessly bound up with moral judgements. In Latin ‘decorum’ may designate a rhetorical or ethical principle, but its adjectival form can also mean more straightforwardly ‘beautiful, elegant’. And of course, the sense in which decorum prohibits not just inappropriateness of language but also the depiction of shocking or ugly behaviour was there in its first theorists – and it became much more dominant in post-Renaissance classicism. The noun ‘decor’ means ‘charm’ or ‘taste’ – and as we know, judgements of what is charming or tasteful are never far removed from moral or class distinctions. Decorum is a matter of taste, and so it can hardly be said to represent freedom from prescriptive judgements. Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics writes of the decorum (or the ‘prepon’) of humour: ‘there are some things that it befits [a good and well-bred] man to say and to hear by way of jest, and the well-bred man's jesting differs from that of a vulgar man, and the joking of an educated man from that of an uneducated.’
I might add that although humour very often operates by breaking of the rule of decorum, there is also a sense in which it affirms the rules it ostensibly violates, since to laugh at an incongruity is to recognize the rule which makes it laughable: it is to be complicit with the joker in mastery of the rules that are being violated. And once the laughter stops, the rule persists.
(Puttenham gives examples of obscene jests uttered in the presence of Kings and Princes, which were in principle violations of decorum but are presented as acceptable purely because they were taken in good part by the man in power. Where the obscenities did cause offence to the King, they were considered for that reason indecorous. Humour is used in these cases as a means to test and delimit the boundaries of acceptable conduct – which all goes to prove that humour often affirms rather than subverts the workings of power. Decorum, like ideology, is good at recuperating utterances and gestures that threaten to break free of its dominion.)
Like all appropriative concepts, decorum is cunning: it does not only reflect a given reality, but is constitutive of it. Lanham calls it ‘a pious fraud, the “social trick” par excellence’. ‘Rhetorical theory has spent endless time discussing how to adjust utterance to [a] preexistent social reality without reflecting on how that reality has been constituted by the idea of decorum.’
But since I’m trying to make a case for decorum, let me say a few word in its defence. Decorum stands for the virtues of adaptability, flexibility, a willingness to judge things according to circumstance and context rather than accept or reject them on the basis of their conformity to preordained categories. It perhaps became so important to neoclassical theory because of the need to accommodate the values and practices of an alien culture to a very different culture in the another time and place. On this reading, decorum is not a set of rigid rules promoting stylistic and social conservatism, but a necessary term in transactions between times, places, people. Decorum accommodates through the exercise of reason and judgement.
Puttenham recognized that decorum (which he translates variously as ‘decencie’, ‘seemelynesse’, ‘comelynesse’, or else his own favoured term ‘pleasant approch’) has no fixed rules, but is a matter of flexibility of judgement and discretion:
The case then standing that discretion must chiefly guide all those business, since there be sundry sortes of discretion all unlike, euen as there be men of action or art, I see no way so fit to enable a man truly to estimate of decencie as example, by whose veritie we may deeme the differences of things and their proportions, and by particular discussions come at length to sentence of it generally, and also in our behauiours the more easily to put it in execution. But by reason of the sundry circumstances, that mans affaires are as it were wrapt in, this decencie comes to be very much alterable and subiect to varietie.Decorum is itself an infinitely extensible and adaptable concept: as it was seen with the classical genres, breaking the rule of decorum may result in new possibilities of genre formation. A violation of decorum may be the gesture that founds a new rule of decorum. The transgressive text of one age has become normalized for the next: it is a standard against which to measure the fitness of new texts. Ovid broke the rule of decorum by applying the low or middle style to the matter and persons of epic and tragedy. What resulted, the heroical epistle, ended up becoming a form with certain standards of decorum of its own. Classical satire was a violation of certain literary standards – to the extent that classicizing theorists doubted whether it could be called poetry at all: it was not inspired, it did not invoke the Muses, it did not enhance the dignity of the poet. But it emerged as a form with a language of its own.
The case of classical satire may be instructive here, because it is one of the most obviously ‘moral’ forms of writing. At its worst it is conservative, petty, snobbish. At its best it challenges conventional morality with a coherent moral vision of its own. Roman satire derived its coherence from the observing persona, a single position from which to judge the follies of the world. It was, however, not singular in method: in Scaliger’s formulation, ‘Juvenalis ardet, instat, jugulat; Persius insultat; Horatius irridet’ (Juvenal fulminates, pesters, goes for the jugular; Persius taunts; Horace laughs).
Where satire offers a revitalizing critique the outworn conventions of moral life, it brings also often a challenge to decorum of language. The best satire is involved as much a war against cliché as in the war against moral complacency.
Irony is an important tool for any writer, since it opens up a space for the reader to exercise his own moral judgement. The Horatian mode of satire was the most ironic of the Roman types, and that is why the best moral writers of the modern era were more likely to take Horace as a model than Juvenal.
I have not spoken of Menippean satire, which really does breaks the rule of decorum, joining a man’s head to a horse’s neck. The influence of Roman satire on the modern novel is dwarfed in comparison with the influence of Menippean satire, the heteroglossic, ironic mode par excellence. But it too can be brought back into line – and if Rabelais and Sterne and Swift couldn’t quite stand to be decorous – nevertheless a subsequent tradition built on the values and conventions set forth in their work may well be said to obey a new rule of decorum.
We can speak about these works in terms of decorum: they had something to work against. In the twentieth century, with the erosion of generic and stylistic boundaries in literature, the concept ceases to be as powerfully recuperative. Is it even possible to speak about literature after Joyce in terms of decorum? Probably yes, but only with a very weak version of the concept. As Lanham says, conspicuous stylistic self-consciousness is not compatible with decorum, since one of the conditions of decorum is that we don’t notice it (another, I would add, is that we do notice it).
But the concept has remained influential, just beneath the surface. Perhaps Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language – even though it is closely bound up with a rejection of rhetoric and its unscientific basis – could be said to be in part a philosophy of decorum: to attempt to apply an inappropriate language to a realm to which it is not suited – to violate decorum – is to become bogged in the mire of meaninglessness.
So decorum still has its place, I think: finding a way to speak meaningfully and truthfully about art and about life is largely a matter of finding the right critical vocabulary, the right style; of fitting words to matter; of finding ways of joining ideas together so that they have the appearance of truth, are seemly. As Quintilian emphasizes, the aim of rhetoric is not to get at truth, but to express things that are true-seeming.