The first thing that I thought to be about, when I decided to begin this venture of sentence analysis, which is to be published twice a week, was looking into Dr. Johnson’s The Rambler, and quoting from the first issue of his twice-a-week publication, to claim a sort of pedigree; the second thing I thought was that that was presumptuous, so I eased off a little and start with a sentence from the second Rambler. (I only eased off a little; it’s the first sentence from Rambler No. 2).
“That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power, to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasures of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetoric.”
(One of the frequent citations of this weblog will be my student, Lauren, who, when I substitute taught her eighth grade class and informed them of my favorite sentence [on which much more to follow], told me that a sentence needs sayable in one breath. I showed her, by saying my very long favorite sentence in such a breath; I am not sure I could do so with this one here). Anyway, what is Johnson saying? And what do I want to say about it, and why does this blog exist?
I am a graduate student, at Brandeis University, in the English Department; between the fourth and fifth years of my program; about to spend two years writing down what I think about a number of American novels from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a very slow way; and so I have decided to write alongside that, in a way more connected to clock time, about some sentences I encounter. I plan to write about sentences from wherever: books, articles, interviews, songs, people sitting next to me at restaurants. I hope to avoid as much as possible using sentences that I made up, though who knows. I plan to take a tack almost totally antithetical to the stringent one suggested by my blog’s title, which I opted for mostly because of the sound it makes (those nice open o’s, that sprightly pace of one b per word), by picking probably few sentences that zip along in easy subject verb object order. I tend to like sentences that are long, and often ones that seem to have something wrong with them. This blog will be a different sort of thing from my twitter account and my facebook page and my instagram captions, all of which make up a sort of Matthew Schratz internet inscrutability archive. Here, I hope, will be scrutiny. Scrutinizing sentences is something that I do professionally as well as compulsively in my everyday life, and I hope that by getting through some manageable chunks of language I will be able here to do some good work in the constant and difficult process of sorting out what things mean and how they do it.
All of these hopes — and the bad ends to which the hopes of writers so often come — are what Johnson wants to talk about in Rambler No. 2. Imagine Johnson, the man who wrote the dictionary, following up the great self-disavowing introductory of Rambler No. 1. (He keeps saying in Rambler No. 1 the kinds of introductions he wishes he could make, and complains about how easy the epic poets have it). One of the things I find so striking about this sentence is what it doesn’t do — that it doesn’t unhinge, as so many of my sentences do, into a spiky mess of clauses that point different ways, only kind of shepherded by the capital letter at the beginning and period at the end of the sentence that they make up. Johnson’s sentence looks like it might do that — it’s long! — but Johnson does stay resolutely on the matter at hand, in a sentence of impressive balance, both into thirds (breaking up along the semicolons) and into two units of discussion (broken up into the first two thirds, which are on the infelicities of the mind, and the final third, which is on the commodious way in which these infelicities have been treated). It’s an impressive, ordered performance.
And yet, the mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it. The charm and challenge of Johnson’s sentence exists, I think, in the fact that its highly wrought and really lovely grammar is belied by the psychological fact on which that grammar aims to report. That baroque sentence can only barely keep on the rails the dissatisfaction that it announces off the top, and the desire of movement to a new topic — which is one version of hope — remains the sentence’s motor even with the notation of all the raillery and exaggeration. Johnson’s sentence makes sense — it’s really just precisely announcing what some other people have said about this subject — but its sense, the fact that it has such a curlicue of a plan behind it, teeters in the face of the need to go beyond the objects immediately before one. For such a precise introductory sentence, it’s one of great tension.
And that tension — between sense and energy, between plans and the need to be dissatisfied with what’s in front of you — is a hallmark I think not only of so many of the sentences I love, but of the project of bearing down on sentences in general. Many of the sentences that I will look at in the future will be less balanced, or shaggier, or weirder than Johnson’s introduction to Rambler No. 2. But they all operate on, or at least all interest me for appearing to operate on, this tension, between the need to express something (to be able to then break away from the present moment, whether to something greater or past something achieved) and the desire to express it well in the way that “we” know how to make sentences work well (to make use of grammar and balance). Few people knew better than Dr. Johnson how to make a sentence work well, because he was smart. But few people put so much of this tension around expression into their smartly working sentences as Dr. Johnson, because he knew a thing or two.