The Ironies of Style

Freedom might seem to represent merely one of these extremes, but in practice, it emerges within the same poles. As the book unfolds, Wyatt and O’Hara themselves emerge as two “limits” of style. First, O’Hara’s leaps and bounds expose — even parody — the continuity that style establishes. Disjunction, and, by extension, style, is ever against interpretation, or in Dolven’s words, “before” it. That others can be generated is a sign of the strength and not the weakness of Dolven’s analysis, which deserves to be treated on its own terms. If style is freedom to imitate as we choose, what happens after the choice has been made? “Before Interpretation” is another way of getting after imitation. It is a question that Dolven himself raises — “the question becomes what kind of literary knowledge can be had only by entering the room and joining the party; by letting the distance go, the critical distance, if only for a time” — but an unwelcome habit of his prose is to gesture at one thought, intricately yet cryptically, then move on to the next. Interpretation pushes this primal experience of style to the margins, since interpretation is a form of judgment that steps back from the object in order to understand it. It makes a certain sense that a poet and a scholar of the Renaissance — a period when learning style meant imitating style — should gravitate toward imitation so ardently. It means that the story of any style is the story of how, but more than that, of how I relate to you. Sustaining that primal moment of recognition, attending to how rather than what, the judgment of style produces knowledge of a very particular kind: “[t]he only way to know a style,” we learn, “is by making it.” Reading for style means imagining how we might practice that style for ourselves. It is this critical, meaning-making distance that Senses of Style resists. How do we bring together reading for style and reading for interpretation? ¤
Matthew Hunter is an assistant professor of English at Texas Tech. Dolven is on firmer ground when it comes to the ethical implication of style, and once again, imitation is key. We might read this desire for distinction as an imposition of social life rather than a definitive feature of style itself. “I must take pains not to intend anything,” we read a young O’Hara writing, “The other enemy: style.” It is a note that Dolven finds Wyatt sounding, too, when he says he prefers “[r]ather the profit of the sentence than the nature of the words.” The attitude gives new and special weight to the end of “They Flee from Me,” Wyatt’s celebrated poem of bitter love:
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness. Set against these conflicting definitions, Alison’s confusion starts to look less like naïveté and more like the breakdown of a concept that has meant too much for too long. Consider, for instance, the following lines, excerpted from “Biotherm,” O’Hara’s last, long lyric:
a long history of populations, though
the phrase beginning with “Palms!” and quickly forgotten
in the pit under the dark there were books
Submitting to such language is not unlike viewing a painting by O’Hara’s contemporary Jackson Pollock. Still, distinction is important to this study as the equal and opposite of its most central concept. They refuse the easily commodified sense of style as continuity, but their cheer comes from making a style out of such resistance. Such signaling drives home what is only implied by Dolven’s inspired meditations: that style is social to the core. So much more with the ironies of style. On the other hand, the repetition of those infelicities turns them into something more. But if there is something grand, even noble, in equating style with imitation and freedom, the example of Gaitskill’s Alison suggests there is more still to say. The reason for this, we are told, is that “though we may imitate nature, and each other, nature does not imitate itself — not the way we do — nor does it imitate us.”
I want to follow Dolven here just as he follows O’Hara and Wyatt. As each line of syntax gives out to the next, “Biotherm” becomes a poem that is less about and more how — a poem in which the action of leaping over boundaries, of disrupting unity and disorienting sense, takes precedence over anything we might call “content.” It is what makes that proudly misplaced “though” so exemplary of O’Hara’s work, even of the entire New York School; the word, a conjunction turned on its head, promises logical relation while producing the opposite. Presumably, this is because in that primal scene of reading for the style, in that moment before we interpret, imitation is at the fore. This last example points to the ease with which style aids our cheapest fantasies, or at least gets absorbed by them. That interchange is style’s freedom, freedom as an irony, and nothing else, and nothing less—the irony that has sustained the word style in its contradictions since it entered the language. The other, meanwhile, is a figure of constant disjunction, delighting in breaking the rules of poetry and personal relations. “I thought the new style suit was who I really was,” she remembers with a cringe. Breaking the rules becomes O’Hara’s way of playing the game. ¤
A hallmark of Dolven’s method — inventive if at times ungainly — is to pit the concept of style against one of its unlikely opposites, or “antitheses,” to uncover its essence. In this drive to disjunction, Dolven reads a double lesson about style. To speak of style is to speak of the potential for something — a gesture, a line, a turn of phrase — to happen again in another shape. And so the question remains unanswered. Throughout his reflections, Dolven will hail imitation as the secret essence of style and with it, of human nature. If imitation is one way of thinking about style, it seems just as right to say that distinction is another. Streams do not distinguish themselves from streams. And indeed, we freely interchange the idioms of will and determinism from moment to moment of an ordinary day. At times, this formulation leads to rather cryptic pronouncements, but its central intuition feels right: the style of an object hits us first — first and fast — while its meaning is slower to come into focus. This social bearing has consequences for the judgment of style. Comprising their own “antitheses” of style, distinction and imitation help us to think about what happens after we have chosen a style for ourselves. With its sandals and its cutoff jeans, Allison’s style-suit turns “freedom” into an aesthetic and a social effect: an invitation or an affront signaled through clothing to all those around her. By the conclusion to Senses of Style, they remain no less true, and the book is richer for it. We get style when Shakespeare repeats the compound eloquence of “purple-colored face” in “rose-cheeked Adonis.” We get it in the porcelain outlines of an Ingres painting. If style is what we get before interpretation, how does the concept reshape the interpretation that comes in its wake? Think of the speed with which we recognize a Rodin sculpture versus the extra seconds it takes to determine what it depicts. Lyrical, sweet, intimate, brutal — adjectives like these do a double service. “Everything has a style, except nature,” he observes, and he is right: it feels off to speak of the style of a rose or the style of a stream. Senses of Style proposes a range of antitheses along which to consider style: the part and the whole, art and nature, description and judgment. We can signal our alignment with fashion, or we can signal our independence from it, but in either case we are signaling something to someone — a person we don’t know, or, more generally, the crowds of people we move around and among when we step out of our homes and onto the street. We get it when Kendall Jenner stares out from a looming billboard and invites us to imagine every item we own attaining her easy luster — so long as we buy the lipstick she is selling. Fashion is her word for the style — edgy, current — that those around her have chosen to imitate. They describe, in one and the same breath, a style and the relations a style establishes between the wearer and her world. Is know-how all that the judgment of style can grant us? Wyatt’s rough grammar and unsteady rhythms — perhaps intended, perhaps not — are occasion for thinking about the vexed relationship between style and failure. Senses of Style is the antidote to this question. His research focuses on the social life of early modern drama. Nature is exemplary in this regard, for it leads Dolven straight to imitation. But the virtues of imitation, of reading for the style, are at times uncertain. For both Wyatt and O’Hara, style is a matter of anxiety more than elegance. But it seems significant that our imitative desires are spurred most often by figures who seem hardly to be imitating anything at all. How can a concept so riven in its senses manage to mean anything? “For all our writing and thinking about style — or because of all that writing and thinking — the word has recourses to criticism, both as object and instrument of inquiry, that we are only beginning to explore.” These words come to us from Dolven’s magisterial essay, “Reading Wyatt for the Style,” which was published nearly 10 years ago. The ingenuity that would be required for an efficient, inclusive paraphrase, let alone explanation, would be extreme, and alien to the cheerful sprezzatura of the object. “All style requires, to absorb such attempts to break it, is that they happen more than once.” The power of style, for Dolven, is to convert failure into charisma. It is hardly the book’s only curiosity — instead of sustained argumentation, we get some 400 numbered sections, ranging from a sentence to a paragraph, in the manner of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — but it works, and not only because of the former’s remarkable influence on the latter. By differing poetic strategies, each poet works to resist style as much as to attain it. An ex-model now suffering from hepatitis, Gaitskill’s narrator, Alison, coins the term “style suit” to refer to the fashions of her moment. But it is Dolven’s second interest in O’Hara’s disjunctions that leads him to the polemic of his subtitle. Certainly this was the case for Pierre Bourdieu, whose magisterial sociology text Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste treated style as a weapon to be wielded in our bids for social dominance. Style is the product of art, but it is just as often treated as the mark of nature. The ironies latent within the concept “are aspects of a life-enabling double-consciousness, a way of living with contradiction, carrying on in the face of a problem that cannot, on its own terms, be solved.”
At first blush, pairing Wyatt and O’Hara may seem an unlikely means to this end. Like impish players who flout the rules of a game only to make us articulate them, O’Hara and Wyatt illuminate the secret logic of style in precisely the moments when they evade it. Too much, we might think, and also too little. NOVEMBER 9, 2017
JEFF DOLVEN treats no novels in Senses of Style: Poetry before Interpretation, but Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica stages a moment of just the sort that animates his study. Against interpretation, Dolven gamely holds up style as its own form of judgment — his word for it is “aspect,” another of his nods to Wittgenstein — and its power is to get close. Practically speaking, however, style, the word, helps make it possible to live in that middle ground without having to declare oneself once and for all, helps make a human space in between the stringency of our thinking categories.” With their constant disjunctions, O’Hara’s poems are an emblem of that human space. How, for that matter, do our exemplars of style — poems, paintings, novels, plays, people — invite us to interpret the styles they tempt us to make our own? “Style,” as Dolven proposes, “is a way of continuing,” by which he means that style gives a familiar order or shape to otherwise disparate things: our sentences, our poems, our clothes, our messy and too unpredictable traffic with others. Taking as his case studies the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, Dolven offers a critique of style in Kant’s robust sense of that word: “an account of the word’s proper limits,” as he puts it, “of when and where the word is useful, and for what purposes, and what is at stake when the limits are tested, breached, redrawn.” Rather than seeking to resolve the contradictions of style or to do away with them, Dolven embraces them. In which case freedom is just the start of the story. Perhaps it is sociability, rather than imitation, that makes it so hard to talk of style in nature. It seems undeniable, therefore, that imitation is essential to style; not only is imitation how we practice a style, but it is also how we recognize a style as a style, even how we turn something into a style. Across these poets, Dolven charts a common concern, a concern that his book may be thought to share. Dolven draws upon Bourdieu’s sociology occasionally, but he is silent on the subject of distinction, which looms over his study as the dark antithesis of imitation. On the one hand, the poet’s infelicities lay bare the way any style, deviating from some unspoken standard, courts the charge of failure. O’Hara’s incessant habits of disjunction lead to even sharper insights. Dolven is in good company here. Anyone who has been seduced by the charisma of a well-wrought sentence or an elegant ensemble can recognize the imitative impulse he diagnoses. Caught up with the “style suits” of her moment, getting close just as Dolven urges us to, Alison is interestingly preoccupied with both imitation and freedom. It is what distinguishes the individual from her surroundings, but it also indexes her membership in a group. For Dolven, as for Aristotle, the human subject is the imitating subject, and “style” is the word for the imitative way we all lead our lives. The moment is instructive, because it suggests that our desires to imitate a style are inextricable from the effects we read a style to have. Not a costume to be donned or discarded at will, style, for Alison, is the outward manifestation of an inner self, as solid and unchangeable as we might wish our selves to be: “I thought that everything had changed forever, that because people wore jeans and sandals everywhere and women went without bras, fashion didn’t matter anymore, that now people could just be who they really were inside.”
Looking back, Alison dismisses her thinking as naïve, but she can be forgiven for the confusion. On this point, Dolven is typically deft: “Sometimes a good synonym for style is ideology. We get it when the exquisite brutality of a Rei Kawakubo dress bares its teeth in an overlarge jacket. The ironies of style are also the ironies of freedom:
As with the ironies of style, freedom is functional because it gives recourse at need to both of its limits, to the freedom of the law and the freedom of anarchy, and to the space in-between. Newfangleness, fashion, style — these words seem to occupy a special place in Wyatt’s vocabulary, but only as points of opposition, or what O’Hara would call “enemies.”
That resistance to style is what makes Dolven’s protagonists such compelling objects of study. It means that style acquires its full force only after it has been attached to a body or a voice as something that comes between persons. If that uncertain “though” of “Biotherm” troubles the connection between style and continuity, it also chastens our instinct to interpret:
Disjunction takes aim at interpretation’s ambition to unify […] convincing the reader that interpretation is the wrong thing to do. But anyone who has been caught miming their models too closely has also been instructed in a contrary desire, the desire not to follow but to oppose — to distinguish ourselves from our models. But they are also imprecise, and their imprecision is where interpretation begins. The first is all stoical plainness and studied reserve, cultivated as a bulwark against the deceptions of Henry VIII’s court. Alison is free to follow this fashion as she pleases, as we all are, but that is not where things get interesting. No less a thinker than Hannah Arendt has similarly identified improvised aesthetic skill as the pinnacle of political freedom. If this claim seems like an affront to our most cherished dreams of autonomy and originality, Dolven is quick to urge the opposite: “[T]he problem of style is the problem of freedom.” By this, Dolven means that freedom and style are two concepts caught between the same axes: between the injunctions of the group and the desires of the individual, between necessity and choice, between the given and the made.