Style is Substance
In the first part of Leech and Short’s Style in Fiction, the authors outline three approaches to style (which are, of course, also addressed by others): monism, dualism, and pluralism. Stylistic monism fits the mold of the old saying “style is the man.” A monist sees style as inseparable from meaning—form and content are one and the same. A dualist sees style and meaning as separable, seeing style as the dress of speech, clothing that can be added, removed, or changed without altering the underlying meaning. Leech and Short’s version of pluralism is interested in “distinguish[ing] various strands of meaning according to the various functions [of language]” (30).
Now, I may be the victim of the hasty reading that graduate school sets one up for, but none of the three approaches are particularly satisfying to me. It is impossible to talk about style if you are monist. It is impossible to take style very seriously if you are a dualist. And, while examining the function of language makes more sense than either of those, a pluralist seems to have fallen into an instrumental view of language—a view, Leech and Short challenge: “To call language an ‘instrument’ in fact devalues it: it is virtually the medium in which man, the ‘speaking animal’, exists, defining for him his relation to his fellow human beings, his culture, even his own identity” (6). Looking at what style does makes a lot of sense—but it doesn’t seem to get us substantively closer to understanding what style is. Yes, style can do various things—but is it the unalterable expression of the author’s or is it just the “prettying up” of discourse?
Bary Brummet takes a hard turn into vertigo-inducing postmodernism (which I may as well say I don’t find particularly compelling), but he does make an interesting point:
In sum, a number of scholars have observed that style is made of surface, skin, or screen, and the observation is often a complaint. If style is “mere” surface, it would seem that it ought not be taken seriously. But consider a complementary claim, which is that style is substance. If we live in a culture that is increasingly one of sign and image, then a style made of sign and image may be as 'real' as it gets, as real as anybody wants or needs for it to be. (11)
In this view, style may be neither the body nor the clothing—perhaps style is the skin. In other words, I might argue, style isn’t mere decoration nor is it indistinguishable from the totality of a text. But it is the sum total of what we interact with. That is, we don’t interact with people’s brains and livers, but with their facial expressions and gestures. Clothing is too easily changed to be an integral part of the person: even someone with a particular sartorial style may dress differently at the end of the day or on a vacation—but there are unmistakable signs on the person’s surface that tell us about that person’s style of being in the world.
Style as clothing is too easily dismissed. Style as underlying psyche is inaccessible. Style as skin, as visible, tangible manifestation of the other being, may just get us somewhere. Style is the observable manifestation of the unobservable other. We can’t see underlying anxiety, but we can see someone double-checking the locked door. We can’t see exhaustion, but we can see the slack posture and the sweat on the brow. We can’t see the author, but we can see the text—and it is something more substantive than clothing but not as primal as the internal, inaccessible being. We may say that the true essence of the person is somewhere deep inside, but we don’t interact with a person except in terms of the body. Nor do we interact with the author except in terms of the text.
Explaining the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Philip Lewis states, “Mot and parole are neither signs of an object or thought nor are they garments, they are the presence of this thought in the world, its emblem or body” (26). Merleau-Ponty references Proust’s insight that “musical sounds are not the signs of musical meaning but the very substance of the sonata descending within us” and then, as Lewis writes, argues, “In quite the same way, verbal expression confers this en-soi existence upon thought, which does not exist outside of the existential world or outside of words. We tend to think of a thought for itself…preceding the expression…. But in fact, this inner silence is bubbling with words, our internal reflective existence is actually an inner language” (27).
Thus, we might argue, there is no thought but through language—just as there is no person but with a body. There may be a difference between thought and thought articulated, but we can only know the articulated thought. Perhaps there is some musical Truth underlying the sonata—but we can only experience the sonata-as-
performed, inflected by the style of the performer.
Why is this not monism? Mostly, perhaps, because I don’t want it to be. But also because I am not, leaning on Merleau-Ponty, claiming an inherent, fundamental link between form and meaning—form is not inseparable from meaning. However, there can be no meaning without form. We just can’t touch it otherwise. Thus, style is substance because content simply isn’t. “Pure meaning,” if such a thing even exists, cannot be transmitted, shared, or used except it finds its articulation in language. Style is the substance of meaning, the tangible, usable manifestation of anything we might mean to say.
Of course there is more to work through, but, even as we might say “style is the man,” we wouldn’t say the body is the man. Nor would we say that the body is merely window dressing for the substance of the human being. The body is the substance of the being—all those other deeper more “substantial” qualities are only expressible through the substance of the body. In a similar way, all those other “higher order” things we value in writing only become substantive when written.
Brummet, Barry. A Rhetoric of Style. Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.
Leech, Geoffrey N., and Michael H. Short. Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. Longman, 1981.
Lewis, Philip E. “Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Language.” Yale French Studies, no. 36/37, 1966, p. 19. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2307/2930398.