Sauce…

At base there are two things you have to understand about making sauce – good sauce – if you want to create something worthwhile. These being aiming for the right ratio of ingredients in the end product, and combining them in the right way (at the right speed, the right time, and the right heat) so the mix doesn’t split.

But it’s not enough to simply know this; you must have, and must cultivate an instinct for it. Some people just can’t make good sauce.

People who’ve been reading my material for some time, may have expected to read a headlong charge at religion the first moment this website was launched. Aside from a single piece of satire, and mentioning my intended attendance at the Global Atheist Convention next year, I really haven’t addressed the topic.

This has been intentional, and will continue for some time.

At least until I’m a little more grounded in this process, I’ll be focusing on the other ‘ingredients’ I intend to add to the roux at this early stage.

The elements of prose will be bubbling away for a while yet, forming a base for everything that follows. This being the first time I’m experimenting with the recipe, I’ll be checking and double checking, stopping to reflect on the taste and take notes. Feel free to grab a spoon and have a sample yourself.

Foremost amongst my initial anxieties in this venture, is the prospect of the sauce splitting. In Hitch-22, Hitchens noted of Martin Amis, that he…

‘…remains almost unique in the way that he can blend pub-talk and mid-Atlantic idiom into paragraphs and pages that are also fully aware of Milton and Shakespeare.’

(Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22, 2010)

I think this seamlessness needs to be generalised. It’s not just that smut and rough talk should ideally be cleanly interwoven with purple prose, but also that other, seemingly discrete elements of style, when simultaneously expressive of the author, can be enhanced by bleeding into one another.

I’ve been complimented on being ‘mature’ in my writing before, long ago, but have never been for my filthy mouth. And in as far as my writing is ‘mature’, it’s an integral part of who I am. It’s not affected at all.

But the same is also true, of my wandering, less socially acceptable, double entendre prone mind. These aspects are both part of me.

My envy of Amis then, in respect of his synthesis, is not that he’s produced something rare, but that he’s either reconciled something internal, or never suffered as to need such reconciliation in the first place.

The disconnect in style that exists for most authors deploying both smut and Shakespearean, where both are authentic, is a rift that descends down from the page, right into the psyche. The disconnect tells us there’s something wrong with the attitude of the author in much the same way a sauce that’s split signals something about the attitude of the chef.

In principle this could apply to any two or more aspects of a writer’s character that can’t simultaneously find expression in the same text without conflict; suggesting there is some internal conflict holding the author back. I suspect that Amis, not being the type to inhibit his passions on any level, is by nature able to avoid this pitfall.

The same could be said of the best chefs (and artists in general), who cultivate their own instincts at the deepest levels.

I have to confess that I’m more than a little afraid of  what could be loosed if I let myself go. As yet, I don’t trust myself quite that much. And no, it’s not just the spectre of faux pas, there’s the risk of simply horrid prose, an idea that frightens me more than the prospect of offending anyone.

At base, I think it’s that absolute authenticity makes you vulnerable. I’d suspect for Amis, the mere idea of considering the value of this exchange (the risk of being open, to purchase a chance at one’s best writing) would be offensive. I’m not sure I’d disagree.

It’s more a question of having the guts, than crass (cynical?) risk assessment. Still, I’m easing myself into this.

***

It’s not just style this applies to, but subject matter as well. Treating some matter, in isolation from its consequences or its every-day permutations, can in some instances have utility. You can create a needed climate of dispassionate academic enquiry where hotter heads would invite intellectual failure.

But such utility can have limits in public discourse – if the laity can’t be shown the relevance of a given line of argument, why shouldn’t they spend their time on something else? (I think you’ll find that in attempting to answer this to the contrary, you’d wind up inadvertently ceding the point).

I have a lot of philosophical disagreements with Sam Harris, mostly meta-ethical, and up-front, I’m not entirely turned on by his prose. Perhaps you’d think this would be enough for me to write him off as an author and a public intellectual. Not so.

Harris has had his ideas roundly criticised by people far more qualified than myself* (Pigliucci et al.), in ways that I mostly agree with, and much of this discussion has motivated suggestions that people should be castigating Harris, while speaking to the virtues of published moral philosophers who get the technical details just right. While I don’t at all suggest that people avoid technically literate moral philosophy, I just can’t get on board with this anti-Harris grudge that does the rounds.

Whatever you think of Harris’ meta-ethics (or lack thereof), whatever you think of his prose or his demeanour (I rather like his public speaking, actually), the man has brought discussion of morality to a wider audience, in the process making meta-ethics a hot topic where it wasn’t much of an issue not so long ago. As for the idea that this discussion has to be opposed, rather than contributed to with counter argument – consider Harris’ exchange with Russell Blackford (here and here).

With the exception of the mendacious Chris Hedges, Harris doesn’t mind sharing the stage with his critics, and it’s a mode of engagement that permeates his work, even if at times he seems a tad techy. This then, coupled with the way Harris promotes the discussion of morality by keeping things grounded in terrestrial concerns, presents an opportunity for technical philosophers to advance their arguments with a broader audience (and Blackford certainly showed nous in taking advantage of the opportunity).

(I get the distinct impression some times, that many philosophers don’t particularly want to see meta-ethics combined with anything us proles might possibly get a taste for. I have to respect Russell Blackford for not entertaining this breed of elitism).

Of course, moral philosophers could attempt their own synthesis of down-to-earth and technically literate rebuttal, but the fact is that by and large amongst Harris’ critics, this has not happened. Perhaps this is because many of them don’t have an instinct for handling all of the ingredients in the one recipe.

The way in which Harris has repeatedly shown himself to be better at stimulating discussion, is I think, amenable to the ‘sauce’ analogy. By keeping his topic well-grounded in the near and relevant, while seamlessly being academically minded, his ‘sauce’ hasn’t split. I think he’s a better author for it, whatever the philosophical limitations of his arguments.

‘Harris! Anti-intellectual! Scientism! Blah! Blah! Blah! SPITE! BUY MY BOOK!’ – I paraphrase.

Instead of the obviously petty vendettas and book-sale envy, I think a number of his critics would be better off realising the respect in which Harris is the better author, and attempting to emulate his success in the promotion of their own ideas**. More public engagement, more seamless attachment to practical, applied ethics in terms people can relate to, and less aloof, abstruse, angry nerdery.

***

While I don’t hold plans to discuss meta-ethics at great length, and while I don’t desire an engagement with exactly the same audience as Harris (nor do I share all of his political concerns), the problem in essence remains; I want to go into a level of technical detail I find important, and I want to do this in a way explicitly consonant with the interests I share with my desired readers, all in the earthy tones of the proletariat I hail from.

This kind of thing should be an obvious practical concern for anyone aspiring to write in any capacity even remotely approaching that of a public intellectual (should, but often isn’t), but it’s more than that. There are also aesthetic reasons for an atheistic lumpenprole like me; when the transcendent doesn’t bother to intersect with the every day, it commits the sin of being boring.

Again, there’s the sauce to keep an eye on; you don’t want your transcendent and your mundane to split in the mixing.

And yet again, there’s the matter of authenticity, and just how far any split goes down into your psyche. If like me you hold working class concerns close to your heart, and you also find technical details to be important (i.e. to have consequences), then any rift between the two in your writing probably indicates some form of classist inhibition. Perhaps fear of the scorn of the middle class academic. Maybe the cause could be something else entirely. At this point, I’m only speculating.

That almost Faustian deal is ventured again – do you unshackle your passions with the aim of a seamless mix, but at the cost of making yourself vulnerable, or do you play it safe, contributing the literary equivalent of mass-produced, microwaved soup to your culture?

I’m easing my way into this. Tentatively at first, preferably with increasing confidence, I plan to take the route of maximum risk. I hope to make good sauce.

~ Bruce

* No, I don’t mean the all-to-common torture, ‘nuclear first strike’, or ‘kill people for believing in religion’ misrepresentations.

** Yes, I know it’s difficult to convey meta-ethics in line with the pressing concerns of the huddled, dirty masses, but if we’re assuming these things are important, since when was difficulty ever an excuse to give up and resort to thinly veiled tantrums?

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