John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You too can be Montesquieu

Waiting at the Evergreen coffee house on Cold Spring Lane for a friend to arrive, I picked up from the discarded books available on the shelves a copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. Leafing through it, I came across a passage describing the behavior of the French that I thought well summed up today’s traffic on Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones:

They are always in a hurry, because theirs is the important business of asking everyone they meet where they are going and from where they have come.

This literary device putting a foreign observer in one’s own culture and recording his naive perspective is a well-used device in satire. In another 18th-century instance, Voltaire’s “The Huron,” a Native American is brought to France, converts to Christianity, and proceeds to take the New Testament seriously. Hilarity ensues.

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop takes a humble nature writer from the country an turns him into a foreign correspondent for The Daily Beast, opening up the lunacies of Fleet Street in what is still the funniest newspaper novel.

Now I am about to go off for two days to visit a retired colleague and his wife in the country. (Just in time, too, because if I have to read any more crack-brained theories or outright lies about health care legislation, I might apply to be euthanized myself.) During this interval, why don’t you put fingers to keyboard and bring an innocent outsider onto the domestic scene and record what he or she discovers? Particularly about journalism. On my return, I’ll publish here anything that’s not libelous or obscene. Write a paragraph; write a page. Don’t worry that you can’t outdo Waugh; only reality can accomplish that.

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