Helm was referring to “The Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition”:
“I read the foreword written by John Updike. He quotes White telling someone,
'I avoid writing letters -- it resembles too closely writing itself, and gives
me a headache.'”
This is an interesting utterance ripe for Griceian (if not Popperian) analysis.
White is, as Helm notes, a wit – and a manifestation of this is White’s
constant flouting of Grice’s desiderata for effective communication. By
i. Writing letters resembles too close writing itself.
is what Popper and Grice would call a tautology. By ‘itself,’ White means
“_simpliciter_.” And he knows it. It all depends on the addressee. Whom is he
writing (or uttering) that utterance too? It may be that White thinks his
addressee may not know “_simpliciter_”. My favourite quote by White involving
“writing” is along the lines – Wilbur of Charlotte: “It’s hard enough to find a
good friend – but much harder to find a good friend that is also a good writer.”
White is playing a bit with the topic of a proceeding of the Aristotelian
Society – on ‘good’. R. M. Hare and P. T. Geach were claiming that ‘good’ is an
empty adjective. Suppose I say:
ii. x is a good snarkometre.
Hare was claiming that one can understand (ii) even if we don’t know wat a
snarkometre is (something like a boojummetre, only different). By applying
‘good’ to “friend” and “writer” – of Charlotte – Wilbur is implicating that he
has read Hare (and vide Grice’s unpublication, “Aristotle and the implicatures
of the good”).
Helm goes on quoting Updike:
"In truth, [White – who gives McEvoy the E. B. jeebies”] shrewd head and
aspiring spirit were fragile [i.e. ‘brittle”!], prey to migraine and what he
describes, in a letter of October 28, 1943, as 'a nervous crack-up.'”
The date is important. It may all be because of the war. I think it’s Ferguson
who notes that in an essay written by White in 1939, White contrasts the
peacefulness he finds himself amidst in Maine, while a war is taking place (if
that’s the expression) in the Old World. It may be that White felt some sort of
guilt or discomfort about the whole situation by 1943, giving him “a nervous
Helm goes on to quote from Updike: “In 1945 White reassured Stanley, ‘Don't
worry about my health -- I am a lot better and plenty good enough for my
purposes. I had two things the matter with me -- mice in the subconscious and
spurs in the cervical spine. Of the two the spine trouble was less bothersome.
It took me eighteen months to get rid of mice. Anyway, here I am, in the clear
again and damned thankful to be there. I can work without falling all apart,
and can sleep -- which is quite refreshing after a year and a half.’”.
This utterance by White is complex enough and may require a
utterance-by-utterance analysis alla Grice (if not Popper). Some utterances for
iii. I am a lot better.
Charlotte, who is a good writer, would say that comparatives (like “better”)
require a ‘terminus comparationis,” that White leaves at the level of the
_implicatum_. So we must assume that the letter White is responding too
provides that ‘terminus.’
iv. I’m good enough.
is a Griceian pun by White. He knows that ‘better,’ while not a cognate of
‘good’ is the comparative for ‘good’ (as ‘best,’ which IS cognate with
‘better,’ is the superlative). So it may be assumed that the focus is on “for
my purposes” since he has already stated that he is ‘better’, which entails
that he is ‘good’. The two things that matter to him in the next utterance is a
good example of a Rylean category-mistake, and may do for a title for a “The
New Yorker” essay:
v. Mice in the subconciousness and spurs in the cervical
This is more ripe for Popperian than Griceian analysis (only Popper would call
it ‘dialysis’). And I say this because the first conjunct – the utterance is of
the “p & q” form – belongs in w2, while the second conjunct belongs in w1. How
would Grice deal with this inconsistency he would see in the Popperian trialism
that E. B. White seems to be endorsing? God knows. Note that both are things
that “matter” to White: which means that both conjuncts “p & q” are part of a
psychological attitude that belongs, like “q,” in w2.
The implicature that ‘mice in the subconsciousness’ *bothered* White seems
problematic, seeing that he famously told a tale about mice – but ‘bother’
triggers difficult disimplicatures. White may mean that he rather have mice in
his ‘consciousness’ rather than ‘subsconsciousness,’ and only when _writing_
(or better, thinking, or ‘uttering utterances’) about them.
Helm goes one: “White wrote his biographer, Scott Elledge, in May of 1982, "My
panic fear, as near as I can make out, is not of death. It is an amorphous
fear, lacking in form," This fear, objectified in such exhilarating yet
ominous essays as 'Death of a Pig' and 'Once More to the Lake,' was his deepest
It may be argued that ‘amorphous’ and ‘lacking in form’ are strict synonyms.
But I get White’s point: when you write to your biographer, you have, to use
White’s maxim, “be obscure clearly.” In this case, White is flouting his own
maxim and he is being “clear, obscurely,” because there must be an implicature
to the effect that an ‘amorphous’ fear is not a fear ‘lacking in form’. Since
we were referring to Rylean category-mistakes, White is playing with a
psychological state (an item in Popper’s world 2) bearing a property that
belongs in a different world, w1 – but then even the Greeks were confused about
this when they identified “panic” with a god!
Helm goes on:
“Further on, Updike writes: “White did not remain purely a humorist; he won for
himself the right to be taken seriously, as a major stylist and a celebrant of
life in its full range of moods and aspects. Beginning as (his term) "a 'short'
writer" of squibs and poems, he persisted in enlarging and purifying his
talent, while avoiding the larger forms. His Waste Land-like and fragmentary
'Zoo Revisited'; or, 'The Life and death of Olie Hackstaff' shows the intent to
write a major poem; he even took one of his extended holidays to write it, in
mid-1937, explaining to his possibly surprised wife, 'A person afflicted with
poetic longings of one sort or another searches for a kind of intellectual and
spiritual privacy and does have to forswear certain easy rituals such as
earning a living and running the world's errands." I didn't know that White
aspired to be a poet.”
Well, there is a lot of poetry in “Charlotte’s Web”! The NYT piece – about the
sale of his house, actually – starts and finish with the poem (as it were) the
crickets sing to mourn the end of summer! It’s a nice piece that comes always
set to music!
Helm goes on: “In thinking it over I may not have known anything about him not
contained in Strunk and White.”
This is interesting. There is a third editor in the newest editions, which
kills the euphony of the original thing. Althouh the original thing was just
“Strunk,” which isn’t particularly euphonic.
Helm: “As I entered the Master's program, I took the mandatory class on
research taught by Arnold Schwab who insisted that we memorise Strunk and White
inasmuch as all of our writings were grammatical disgraces.”
Didn’t he mean ‘disgrices’?
Helm: “I argued with Schwab about typographical errors insisting that they did
not mean that a person was grammatically inept.”
Good point. Sheridan makes a similar point that malapropos doesn’t mean that
Mrs. Malaprop is deranged. This is made fun of by philosopher Donald Davidson
in his tribute to Grice, “A nice derangement of epitaphs,” – in PGRICE,
Philosophical Grounds of Rationality: Intentions, Categories, Ends.”
Helm: “Schwab insisted that there was no excuse for typographical errors.”
Some of them are automatic. Grice hated word-processors, because they would
correct his ‘sticky wicket’ and ‘pirot’ (a nonsense term invented by Carnap)!
“So I bought Schwab's essay, “James Gibbons Huneker, Critic of the Seven Arts,”
read it, flagged all the typos, and waited until Schwab's next rant on the need
for perfection in writing, raised my hand and asked if he would like to know
where the typos were in his essay so that he might become more perfect.”
Helm’s choice of ‘rant’ reminds me of White’s choice of ‘runt’ to describe
Wilbur. “Runt” is the lexical item chosen by Grice in his elaboration of his
theory. He says that his prim and proper Aunt Matilda KNOWS that ‘runt’ means
(figuratively applied to a person, meaning ‘undersized’), “but she rather be
seen dead rather than uttering it.” Chomsky took this as evidence that Grice
was a behaviourist!
Helm goes on:
“Schwab blanched, but said that he would and wrote down the locations as I read
It was perfect of Helm to pun on Schwab’s essay being “more perfect” by the
clearing of the typos! (For Aquinas, somewhere in the Summa Theologica,
“perfectus” does not allow a comparative unless “you are being Griceian in
Helm goes on:
“Being inclined as much toward tangents as other Lit-Idears, I looked up Schwab
to see if he had ever finished his essay on Edward McDowell. That was the
essay he was working on when I took his class and we all had to go to various
libraries to obtain sources for it. I don't find that he ever finished it, but
I was surprised that he had written several other essays, only one of which was
still in print: “One Night Stand and Other Poems” published in 2014.”
I suppose the theme is theatrical: “one-night stand” is used in Scotland to
mean a one-time only theatrical representation which is not a matinée – since
matinées are not held at night, you know. I like the implicature of “and other
poems”. Poets sometime over use it – sometimes not. Cfr. Ashbery,
“Self-portrait in a convex mirror and other poems.” The syntactical complexity
of that title may be the reason why some poets prefer to use, as Ashbery
elsewhere does, the title of just ONE of his poems in his selection and add
“poems” as a subtitle – or chose a totally new expression and subtitle it,
Helm concludes his interesting post:
“There was no indication that it was published posthumously but he could not
still be alive, could he? He wasn't, but he did not die until 2014 at the age
of 92: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/latimes/obituary.aspx?pid=171590692.”
Well, Grice died in 1988 and his first book came out in 1989 – but there is not
indication in the essay that it was published posthumously. Indeed, the second
page reads: “© Herbert Paul Grice.” I still find I’m inviting the wrong
implicature when I quote that as “Grice 1989,” seeing that the man was gone by
August 1988. But I guess that wrong implicature won’t hurt!