July 9: A Few Bullet Points About Francis Bacon

• There are times when Bacon (first six essays today) reminds me of an op-ed columnist. There's a kind of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand style to his argumentation that I find a little muddy. Like when he's talking about the hot-button religious unity issue:

But we may not take up the third sword, which is Mahomet’s sword, or like unto it; that is, to propagate religion by wars or by sanguinary persecutions to force consciences; except it be in cases of overt scandal, blasphemy, or intermixture of practice against the state...
Just wanting to keep all his bases covered.

• Where he is most interesting, though, is when he about lies. This first essay is "Of Truth," but it seems more about its opposite, which Bacon has anything but a recieved opinion on:
...this same truth is a naked and open day-light, that doth not show the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. ... A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?
Lying as flattering candlelight is a good image. And then there's this essay which draws a careful distinction between dis-simulation and simulation -- both are lies, but dissimulation, as far as I can tell, means denying you know something, and simulation means pretending you know it. If Bacon really were an op-ed columnist I would expect him to wring his hands and bemoan the fallen state of the world, steroids, etc., but instead he just weighs the options of when you should do it, given that truthfulness is a skill given only to the great ones.
But if a man cannot obtain to that judgment, then it is left to him generally to be close, and a dissembler. For where a man cannot choose or vary in particulars, there it is good to take the safest and wariest way in general; like the going softly by one that cannot well see.
"In seasonable use," though, warns Bacon.

• The final bullet point is that I wished I liked his style better. It feels like operating instructions, like something written from 30,000 feet (maybe that's what makes me think of op-ed columnists). Bacon's not in these essays, the way Montaigne is, and the novelty of the arguments is almost concealed by the plainness of the style. But maybe that's me -- maybe I'm too used to caffeinated internet writing. Via Slate, here's Caleb Crain on internet prose:
text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. At home my boyfriend and I use a certain physical gesture as shorthand to describe it. To make it, extend your index fingers and your thumbs so that your hands resemble toy pistols. Then waggle them before you, like a dude in a cheesy Western, while you wink, dip your knees, and lopsidedly drawl, "Heyyy." The internet is always saying, "Heyyy." It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, You know me, in a collusive tone of voice, and Wanna hear something funny? and Didja see who else is here? This tone is not absent from print; in fact, no page of New York magazine is without it. Certain decorative effects in language may be compatible with it, but it seems to be toxic to imagination.
I'm not sure it's "toxic" to imagination, but I do think it makes you impatient with prose that tries to sneak up on you, the way Bacon's, I think, tries to do.


Jerry Dunlap said...

Yeah, Bacon used a lot of fancy words in defense of The Truth. It's unfortunate that history doesn't record how he answered when Elizabeth I asked, "Tell me the truth, Francis -- does this dress make my butt look big?"