Thursday, February 9, 2012

What It Means When a Benga Spits on Your Hand

We are discussing sentence construction and have been considering the additive style (see previous posts for background).  In the last post, I gave some examples of the additive style using fictional examples.  In the additive sentence, components are not arranged in relationship to each other (as in the subordinating style), but instead are provided in a seemingly haphazard manner, giving the appearance of spontaneity. Their purpose (often) is to infuse the sentence with a mood, emotion, or impression.

Can the additive style be used in science writing?  Yes, I would think for nature writing that it is likely quite useful, but probably not so much for purely technical writing, which depends on logic, clarity, and absence of emotions, moods, feelings, or impressions.

But perhaps there are sentences from earlier scientific works that come close. Here's Darwin again:

"In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species."

Darwin lists items that a naturalist might reflect upon in no particular order of precedence: mutual affinities, embryological relations, geographical distribution, geological succession. However, the sentence contains subordinating elements and a logical structure: the contemplation of the naturalist on various aspects of organic beings leads to a conclusion about how they had descended from other species. So, perhaps this sentence is does not quite fit the additive style.

How about nature or popular science writing?

When I say nature writers, I immediately think of Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond, and John McPhee, to name a few favorites.  Are there any sentences in their writing that fit the bill? (this is my excuse to reread some of their works)

...I'm back...I failed to find many really good examples of sentences in the additive style–as defined by Fish–in the works by these authors.  Perhaps the reason is that nature essayists mostly report on facts and relationships and, although they may wax poetic at times, typically do not string together sentence elements without articulating their relationship to each other.

Here are a few lines from John McPhee's essay, 'Atchafalaya', in his book, The Control of Nature (1989):

"This was a countryside of corn and soybeans, of grain-fed-catfish ponds, of feed stores and Kingdom Halls in crossroad towns."

"Among navigable rivers, the Atchafalaya is widely described as one of the most treacherous in the world, but it just lies there quiet and smooth. It lies there like a big alligator in a low slough, with time on its side, waiting–waiting to outwit the Corps of Engineers–and hunkering down ever lower in its bed and presenting a sort of maw to the Mississippi, into which the river could fall."

And from Jared Diamond's essay, 'The Maya Collapses' in the book, Collapse (2005):

Like Easter Island chiefs erecting ever larger statues, eventually crowned by pukao, and like Anasazi elite treating themselves to necklaces of 2,000 turquoise beads, Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster–reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs."

The foregoing sentences have subordinating elements, so are not totally in the additive style.  In Diamond's sentence, for example, the Maya kings are being compared to Easter Island chiefs, Anasazi elite, and American CEOs.

However, I knew Oliver Sacks would not disappoint. Here are a few sentences from his book, The Island of the Colorblind (1997):

"Knut enjoys the visual world quite as much as the rest of us; he was delighted by a picturesque market in a side street of Honolulu, by the palms and tropical vegetation all around us, by the shapes of clouds–he has a clear and prompt eye for the range of human beauty too (He has a beautiful wife in Norway, a fellow psychologist, he told us–but it was only after they married, when a friend said, "I guess you go for redheads," that he learned for the first time of her flamboyant red hair.)"

And another one: 

"I could not help thinking of the horror stories from the 1950s: the strange white ash that had rained down on a Japanese tuna fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, bringing acute radiation sickness to the entire crew; the "pink snow" that had fallen on Rongelap after one blast–the children had never sen anything like it, and they played with it delightedly."

One more: 

"The nurse, the Spam baron, the self-righteous missionary, had so occupied me that I had scarcely noticed the passage of time, the monotonous sweep of the ocean beneath us, until suddenly I felt the plane descending toward the huge, boomerang-shaped lagoon of Kwajalein."

These wonderful sentences all occur within the first 25 pages of the book.  The first sentence lists disparate visual elements (picturesque market, tropical vegetation, clouds, and beautiful wife with red hair) that Knut was delighted by....but they are listed in no particular order or described in relationship to each other.  The words seem to flow out in a spontaneous way, including a digression about the wife.  Yet the sentence makes sense; it gets across the point that Knut, although colorblind, is not blind to beauty.  Sacks had a specific point to make, and listed several elements that illustrate beauty, but he did not present them in relation (subordinate) to each other.

What about nature writing by a literary giant? The best one I know is The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) by John Steinbeck about a trip with the marine biologist, Edward Ricketts.  Here are a few lines from that book:

[observing boats] "If the stays were rusting and the deck unwashed, paint scraped off and the lines piled carelessly, there was no need to see the master; we knew him. And if the lines were coiled and the cables greased and the little luxury of deer horns nailed to the crow’s-nest, there was no need to see that owner either."

[talking about adventurers] "In reputedly rough water, he will go in a canoe; he will invade deserts without adequate food and he will expose his tolerant and uninoculated blood to strange viruses."

These seem to be clearer examples of additive sentences.  The first two sentences describe features of boats that reveal what type of skipper they belong to.  The third sentence is a description of an adventurer and lists three different examples of actions unrelated to each other.  The examples are listed in no particular order or precedence but together convey the message that the adventurer is someone with an underlying motivation to expose himself to danger.

You may be thinking at this point, "What about women nature or science writers?" I naturally think of Mary Kingsley (Travels in West Africa) and Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa, Blackberry Winter).

Here is an example from Coming of Age in Samoa (1928): 

"For it must be realised by any student of civilisation that we pay heavily for our heterogeneous, rapidly changing civilisation; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in the conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses, we pay in the lack of a coherent tradition without which the development of art is sadly handicapped."

Here, Mead is talking about the burden of choice that young members of a modern civilization face; that some civilizations have few or only one choice of life. She is arguing that with the greater choices come payments in the various forms of cultural ills she lists.

I searched all over for my copy of Travels in West Africa (1897), but finally had to locate a copy online.

....sorry.  I'm back.  I got distracted reading Kingsley's mesmerizing descriptions.  Here is a line extracted at random:

"The moonlit sea, shimmering and breaking on the darkened shore, the black forest and the hills silhouetted against the star-powdered purple sky, and, at my feet, the engine-room stoke-hole, lit with the rose-coloured glow from its furnace, showing by the great wood fire the two nearly naked Krumen stokers, shining like polished bronze in their perspiration, as they throw in on to the fire the billets of red wood that look like freshly-cut chunks of flesh."

Here's another sentence:

"On each side are deep forested dells and ravines, and rocks show up through the ground in every direction, and things in general are slippery, and I wonder now and again, as I assume with unnecessary violence a recumbent position, why I came to Africa; but patches of satin-leaved begonias and clumps of lovely tree-ferns reconcile me to my lot."

And a final one:

"When you have found the easy key that opens the reason underlying a series of facts, as for example, these: a Benga spits on your hand as a greeting; you see a man who has been marching regardless through the broiling sun all the forenoon, with a heavy load, on entering a village and having put down his load, elaborately steal round in the shelter of the houses, instead of crossing the street; you come across a tribe that cuts its dead up into small pieces and scatters them broadcast, and another tribe that thinks a white man’s eye-ball is a most desirable thing to be possessed of - do not, when you have found this key, drop your collecting work, and go home with a shriek of “I know all about Fetish,” because you don’t, for the key to the above facts will not open the reason why it is regarded advisable to kill a person who is making Ikung; or why you should avoid at night a cotton tree that has red earth at its roots; or why combings of hair and paring of nails should be taken care of; or why a speck of blood that may fall from your flesh should be cut out of wood - if it has fallen on that - and destroyed, and if it has fallen on the ground stamped and rubbed into the soil with great care."

Kingsley clearly had a talent for writing wonderfully detailed descriptions of nature and people's behavior.  She also employed the additive style of sentence construction.  This last sentence illustrates how the nature writer can use the additive style to convey different examples of or variations on a theme. Kingsley explains in this long sentence why finding the key to identifying a fetish (fetishes are ideas governing or underlying people's actions) does not give you a guide for how to respond to that behavior.  She lists a series of behaviors illustrating fetishes without explicitly describing their relationships to each other, then lists another series of actions one might do in response. The latter set, Kingsley advises, requires "another key entirely." The examples convey a sense of mystery or intrigue with definite hints of danger (steal round, cuts its dead up, white man's eye-ball) but at the same time seem to be offered with an air of irony. 

There may be some other examples of sentences from science or nature writing that are in the additive style, but these few serve to illustrate the idea.  I found such sentences to occur infrequently, however, which is not surprising considering that such writers are trying to explain things in a logical, coherent fashion most of the time.  But there seems to be a use for this style in nature writing and may be partly why these particular works are so enjoyable to read.

In the next post, I'll wrap up this series on sentences and attempt to summarize and provide a few concluding thoughts.

No comments: