A Murder of Darlings

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) is the film that inspired the Misfits song of the same title, some twenty years later.

Humorous or exotic collective nouns for animals—a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks and so on, known as terms of venery—apparently date back to a fad in 15th century memes. Venery comes from a PIE root which is probably a cousin of both வேட்டை and වැදි, all meaning to chase, to pursue: to hunt. So these various collectivities are terms of the hunt, but in their excess and general ridiculousness they are also, obviously, supposed to be funny. They are Bits, of long standing and continued memeability. From a perspective of naked utility, if you think in terms not of Bits but of Data concerned with the efficiency of the hunt, they are redundancies at best, errors at worst: a useless ornamentation of language.

Which, of course, is frequently repeated advice to the writer, usually parroted without attribution or explanation beyond the claim that it is self-evident: to kill your darlings, to murder your darlings, to avoid ornament. Specifically, the advice is to avoid superfluous ornament, but this has long since become streamlined through relentless citation into repudiating prettiness in general: down with the floral, the lyrical,the baroque. And obviously to some extent this is both perfectly reasonable—in that superfluous ornament is by definition superfluous, the extraneous has extra right there in the name, look—and useless by itself, because the trick is to be able to tell if it’s extra or not, isn’t it? If you could tell that it was unnecessary, you wouldn’t write it that way in the first place, thanks. But it’s not as simple as stripping out all the Bits and leaving only Data. For one thing, that would leave your language dead, which after all is what happens when you kill something. For another, and more complicated problem, there is the small problem that words mean things.

The meaning of a text isn’t only discrete units of data transmitting information in dots and dashes, but a vast and mutable weather system of connotation, subtext, and allusion that shifts and fluctuates as your mind moves along the sentence and reconstructs both it and the world around you. So killing darlings means changing what is being said: saying it a different way means saying something else. Another writers’ truism and a more useful one is that there are no true synonyms, if you account for the worlds they make.

But this is all besides the point, in a way: what made me want to add my own small note to this overcooked topic is that I have heard this advice cited a thousand times but rarely heard it correctly or fully attributed to its fascinating origin, which we begin by going back slightly over a hundred years to 1916:

Now you will find much pretty swordsmanship in its pages, but nothing more trenchant than the passage in which Newman assails and puts to rout the Persian host of infidels—I regret to say, for the most part Men of Science—who would persuade us that good writing, that style, is something extrinsic to the subject, a kind of ornamentation laid on to tickle the taste, a study for the dilettante, but beneath the notice of their stern and masculine minds.

Such a view, as he justly points out, belongs rather to the Oriental mind than to our civilisation: it reminds him of the way young gentlemen go to work in the East when they would engage in correspondence with the object of their affection. The enamoured one cannot write a sentence himself: he is the specialist in passion (for the moment); but thought and words are two things to him, and for words he must go to another specialist, the professional letter-writer. Thus there is a division of labour.

[…]

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914 (1916)

So Quiller-Couch is asking us to murder our darlings so as to avoid this trap of the Oriental mind, this “extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation” which is something other than Style. But who is this Newman that he himself is citing for support? For that we have to go back another half-century t0 1852.

Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one: style is a thinking out into language. This is what I have been laying down, and this is literature; not things, not the verbal symbols of things; not on the other hand mere words; but thoughts expressed in language. Call to mind, Gentlemen, the meaning of the Greek word which expresses this special prerogative of man over the feeble intelligence of the inferior animals. It is called Logos: what does Logos mean? it stands both for reason and for speech, and it is difficult to say which it means more properly. It means both at once: why? because really they cannot be divided,—because they are in a true sense one. When we can separate light and illumination, life and motion, the convex and the concave of a curve, then will it be possible for thought to tread speech under foot, and to hope to do without it—then will it be conceivable that the vigorous and fertile intellect should renounce its own double, its instrument of expression, and the channel of its speculations and emotions.

Critics should consider this view of the subject before they lay down such canons of taste as the writer whose pages I have quoted. Such men as he is consider fine writing to be an addition from without to the matter treated of,—a sort of ornament superinduced, or a luxury indulged in, by those who have time and inclination for such vanities. They speak as if one man could do the thought, and another the style. We read in Persian travels of the way in which young gentlemen go to work in the East, when they would engage in correspondence with those who inspire them with hope or fear. They cannot write one sentence themselves; so they betake themselves to the professional letter-writer. They confide to him the object they have in view. They have a point to gain from a superior, a favour to ask, an evil to deprecate; they have to approach a man in power, or to make court to some beautiful lady. The professional man manufactures words for them, as they are wanted, as a stationer sells them paper, or a schoolmaster might cut their pens. Thought and word are, in their conception, two things, and thus there is a division of labour. The man of thought comes to the man of words; and the man of words, duly instructed in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the page of desolation. Then the nightingale of affection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow of expectation. This is what the Easterns are said to consider fine writing; and it seems pretty much the idea of the school of critics to whom I have been referring.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852)

But who is Newman even arguing with, this “the writer whose pages I have quoted”? For that we go back almost another century, to 1766.

This is Laurence Sterne. While I delight in the long s and the little ligatures of the c and t (a useless ornament if there ever was one) let me reproduce the relevant part, as quoted by Newman, in a slightly more readable format:

There are two sorts of eloquence, the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, but convey little or no light to the understanding. This kind of writing is for the most part much affected and admired by the people of weak judgment and vicious taste; but it is a piece of affectation and formality the sacred writers are utter strangers to. It is a vain and boyish eloquence; and, as it has always been esteemed below the great geniuses of all ages, so much more so with respect to those writers who were actuated by the spirit of Infinite Wisdom, and therefore wrote with that force and majesty with which never man writ. The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the Holy Scriptures; where the excellence does not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty, which is a double character, so difficult to be united that it is seldom to be met with in compositions merely human. We see nothing in Holy Writ of affectation and superfluous ornament … Now, it is observable that the most excellent profane authors, whether Greek or Latin, lose most of their graces whenever we find them literally translated. Homer’s famed representation of Jupiter—his cried-up description of a tempest, his relation of Neptune’s shaking the earth and opening it to its centre, his description of Pallas’s horses, with numbers of other long-since admired passages, flag, and almost vanish away, in the vulgar Latin translation.

[…]

Let any one but take the pains to read the common Latin interpretations of Virgil, Theocritus, or even of Pindar, and one may venture to affirm he will be able to trace out but few remains of the graces which charmed him so much in the original. The natural conclusion from hence is, that in the classical authors, the expression, the sweetness of the numbers, occasioned by a musical placing of words, constitute a great part of their beauties; whereas, in the sacred writings, they consist more in the greatness of the things themselves than in the words and expressions. The ideas and conceptions are so great and lofty in their own nature that they necessarily appear magnificent in the most artless dress. Look but into the Bible, and we see them shine through the most simple and literal translations.

Laurence Sterne, Sermon XLII, The Sermons of Mr Yorick, Vol. III (1766)

It seems the original Orientals with their gaudy, artificial, affected prose—those dashed darlingmakers—were the writers of the Greek and Roman classics from Homer and Herodotus on down, being chastised by Sterne for not matching up to the unornamented ſublimity of the Bible. Newman then argues with Sterne, attempting to rescue the profane writers by shifting the source of iniquity to the East and its dastardly scribes and freelance copywriters, filthy practices not behooving the white writer; Quiller-Couch agrees, and suggests that Style is that which the East is not, and that the path to racial purity lies in the ruthless purging of all that is Oriental within (and without, of course, as was a habit of the culture.) And from there this advice becomes a miasma that infects and endlessly reproduces itself tommyknockeresque in the bloated carcass of literary advice culture, from Stephen King in 2000 (On Writing) to, as recently as a month ago, some scam called MasterClass dot com, where you can sign up to be told the same thing by Neil Gaiman for $180 a year.