The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
It was impossible for him not to disturb words in the possession of their meanings.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799) stands at the beginning of German modernity, and right in the center of the country's post–World War II concern with the recovery of liberal thought from historical catastrophe. If it was felt necessary to pump the mystique out of the whole idealistic heritage of German philosophy, Lichtenberg was the prototype of a German thinker who could be seen as the level-headed smallholder waiting back at the beginning, looking once again like an attractive prospect, now that the smoke had cleared. Just as Pascal, in French, began a tradition of compact concrete statement even about the spiritual, so did Lichtenberg in German.
Lichtenberg was a professor of physics, astronomy, and mathematics at Göttingen. One of those valuable faculty members who never lose the trick of talking like a brilliantly amusing graduate student—we can imagine Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos or Richard Feynman at Caltech—Lichtenberg was critically minded about the language of others, unfailingly scrupulous about his own, and never content to settle into a formula. Barred by physical deformity (he was a hunchback) from any easy participation in the passionate emotional life he saw as central to existence, he was nevertheless wonderfully sympathetic to the realities of love and sex: With every excuse to turn away from the real world, he kept its every aspect always in plain sight. Finally, it is his detailed and unflinching awareness that astonishes the reader. Scattered through his scores of "Waste-Books" and manuscript notebooks, Lichtenberg's innumerable observations, nutshells each, add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as "the right distance," a sense of proportion. He is the thinker against hysteria, the mind whose good-humored determination to avoid throwing a tantrum provides us with a persuasive argument that the tantrum might be the motive power of political insanity. His clarity and concision set a standard for expository prose, at whatever length, in the whole of his language and, by extension, in all languages.
In the quote above, Lichtenberg is describing a bad writer. There are bad writers who are exact in grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, sinning only through their insensitivity to tone. Often they are among the worst writers of all. But on the whole it can be said that bad writing goes to the roots: It has already gone wrong beneath its own earth. Since much of the language is metaphorical in origin, a bad writer will scramble metaphors in a single phrase, often in a single word. From a made-for-television film called The Movie Murders, I noted down this perfectly bad line of dialogue: "A fire is a Frankenstein when it's let out of its cage."
Of course, Frankenstein was not the monster, he was the monster's creator: So, the use of his name is an inaccuracy. By now the inaccuracy has entered the language, like the juggernaut that serves us for Juggernaut's car: But one of the things good writing does is to fight a rear-guard action against this automatic absorption of error. For example, a competent writer would look twice at rear-guard action to make sure that he means to evoke a losing battle and check automatic absorption to make sure that it falls within the range of phenomena against which a battle might conceivably be fought. He had better also know that phenomena should not be used in the singular, although that knowledge, too, is becoming rare. Competent writers always examine what they have put down. Better-than-competent writers—good writers—examine their effects before they put them down: They think that way all the time. Bad writers never examine anything. Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world.