A Not Uninteresting NovellaPosted: December 5, 2014
As I noted in last week’s post, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language had a very pronounced effect on my enjoyment of reading Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Benito Cereno. I was arrested surprisingly often by expressions that Orwell would have found objectionable. The not uncommonest objectionable language was Melville’s incessant use of “not un-” structures.
Orwell would that the “not un-” structure be laughed out of existence. “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” As his example shows, this formula is usually a pretentious and asinine way of saying something that could be said more simply and directly. Why say that Billy’s expression was “not unlike that of a dog” rather than “like that of a dog”? What value is there in throwing in a double negative?
I strained my mind for a defense of this questionable structure. The best I could do is quote the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Somehow, that line does not seem to mean the same thing as “it is usual to be loved by anyone.” For the not un- structure to work, there has to be some subtle difference between [adjective] and not un[adjective]. For some adjectives or adverbs, exist a sort of neutral middle ground in that space. But every example I try to put into words seems to fall apart. It seems like simple math; a = -(-a). There is no room for subtle distinctions.
And even if there is a significant meaning between [adjective] and not un[adjective], Melville’s use of the dubious formula never seems to convey such a subtle distinction. I was not unaffected by having to read so many not unwell written sentences from by a not unfamous author. Nevertheless, his stories are not unenjoyable.
Beer of the week: Krušovice Černé – This dark lager comes from one of the Czech Republic’s oldest breweries. In fact, the “1581” does not refer to the founding of the brewery, but to the year the brewery was offered for sale to Emperor Rudolf II. The beer itself is very dark, with a tan head that laces nicely on the glass. The dark roasted malts are evident in the aroma and in the flavor. However, the beer feels very thin and there simply is not a lot of flavor to it. It is not a bad beer, but I would hope for more from a 500-year-old operation.
Reading of the week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville – This week’s chapter does not include any not un- sentences. It also does not include any of the characters of the story. It is a tangent on the old glory of naval warfare before clunky ironclads replaced shapely men-of-war and before “martial utilitarians” replaced the likes of Horatio Nelson, “the greatest sailor since our world began.”
Question of the week: Can you think of a situation where a not un- structure adds some meaning to a sentence?