HOW I WRITE (1951)

Bertrand Russel

I cannot pretend to know how writing ought to be done, or what a wise critic would advise me to do with a view to improving my own writing. The most that I can do is to relate some things about my own attempts.

Until I was twenty-one, I wished to write more or less in the style of John Stuart Mill. I liked the structure of his sentences and his manner of developing a subject. I had, however, already a different ideal, derived, I suppose, from mathematics. I wished to say everything in the smallest number of words in which it could be said clearly. Perhaps, I thought, one should imitate Baedeker rather than any more literary model. I would spend hours trying to find the shortest way of saying something without ambiguity, and to this aim I was willing to sacrifice all attempts at aesthetic excellence.

At the age of twenty-one, however, I came under a new influence that of my future brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith. He was at that time exclusively interested in style as opposed to matter. His gods were Flaubert and Walter Pater, and I was quite ready to believe that the way to learn how to write was to copy their technique. He gave me various simple rules, of which 1 remember only two: “Put a comma every four words”, and “never use ’and’ except at the beginning of a sentence”. His most emphatic advice was that one must always re-write. I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time. I do not, of course, apply it to the substance, but only to the form. When I discover an error of an important kind I re-write the whole. What I do not find is that I can improve a sentence when I am satisfied with what it means.

Very gradually I have discovered ways of writing with a minimum of worry and anxiety. When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for a time-perhaps a long time-to be beyond my powers. I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear that it was never going to come right. I would make one unsatisfying attempt after another, and in the end have to discard them all. At last I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time. It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of sub-conscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking. Sometimes I would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake, and that I could not write. the book I had had in mind. But often I was more fortunate. Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my sub-consciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.

The most curious example of this process, and the one which led me subsequently to rely upon it, occurred at the beginning of 1914. I had undertaken to give the Lowell Lectures at Boston, and had chosen as my subject “Our Knowledge of the External World”. Throughout 1913 I thought about this topic. In term time in my rooms at Cambridge, in vacations in a quiet inn on the upper reaches of the Thames, I concentrated with such intensity that I sometimes forgot to breath and emerged panting as from a trance. But all to no avail. To every theory that I could think of I could perceive fatal objections. At last, in despair, I went off to Rome for Christmas, hoping that a holiday would revive my flagging energy. I got back to ’Cambridge on the last day of 1913, and although my difficulties were still completely unresolved I arranged, because the remaining time was short, to dictate as best as I could to a stenographer. Next morning, as she came in at the door, I suddenly saw exactly what I had to say, and proceeded to dictate the whole book without a moment’s hesitation.

I do not want to convey an exaggerated impression. The book was very imperfect, and I now think that it contains serious errors. But it was the best that I could have done at that time, and a more leisurely method (within the time at my disposal) would almost certainly have produced something worse. Whatever may be true of other people, this is the right method for me. Flaubert and Pater, I have found, are best forgotten so far as I am concerned.

Although what I now think about how to write is not so very different from what I thought at the age of eighteen, my development has not been by any means rectilinear. There was a time, in the first years of this century, when I had more florid and rhetorical ambitions. This was the time when I wrote The Free Man’s Worship, a work of which I do not now think well. At that time I was steeped in Milton’s prose, and his rolling periods reverberated through the caverns of my mind. I cannot say that I no longer admire them, but for me to imitate them involves a certain insincerity. In fact, all imitation is dangerous. Nothing could be better in style than the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible, but they express a way of thinking and feeling which is different from that of our time. A style is not good unless it is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing. But although direct imitation is always to be deprecated, there is much to be gained by familiarity with good prose, especially in cultivating a sense for prose rhythm.

There are some simple maxims-not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me-which I think might be commanded to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: “Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner”. Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: “All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.” This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.

This suggests a word of advice to such of my hearers as may happen to be professors. I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: “Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters”. I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language “understanded of the people”. In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.

Claude Lanzmann and the making of “Shoah.”



by MARCH 19, 2012

When “Shoah” was released, in 1985, it was instantly historic. The nine-and-a-half-hour film about the German death camps in Poland is composed mainly of interviews with Jews who survived them, Germans who helped run them, and Poles who lived alongside them. As most of its first critics noted with surprise, the film contains no archival footage. With its long takes of extraordinarily detailed yet emotionally shattering testimony, “Shoah” turns the bearing of witness into its subject. It was immediately received as a cinematic object as incommensurable as its director intended to show the Holocaust itself to be.

François Mitterrand, then the President of France, attended the première screening, after which the Polish government asked France to ban the film. Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a few public screenings in the Soviet Union, in 1989; Václav Havel saw “Shoah” in a Czechoslovak prison; the film’s ongoing travels around the world remain newsworthy, as when, in January, it was shown on state television for the first time in Turkey. For many, especially in Europe, its title (Hebrew for “catastrophe”) has superseded the term “Holocaust.”

Its maker, Claude Lanzmann, seemed to come from nowhere, even as he imposed his vision everywhere. At the première, the editor Jean Daniel told him, “That justifies a life.” “Shoah” was only Lanzmann’s second film. He was fifty-nine when it came out; nothing he did before it, and nothing he has done since, rivals it in significance. The amazing backstory finally emerges in his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which was published in France in 2009 and now appears in English, in a translation by Frank Wynne and the author. Here Lanzmann sets forth the peculiar yet exemplary fund of life experience that made the film possible. He tells vivid tales of his formative years, and of the wild dozen of them that went into the making of “Shoah.” The memoir reveals that Lanzmann’s masterpiece is both a reflection of the filmmaker’s distinctive character and a product of its place and time. A late flowering of his intellectual and cultural milieu—existentialism and the French New Wave—it is among the most distinguished works of art to come out of the late twentieth century. Continue reading ”Claude Lanzmann and the making of “Shoah.””

Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory

Adam Shatz

  •  by Patrick Wilcken
    Bloomsbury, 375 pp, £30.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 7475 8362 2

Austere, prickly, solitary, Claude Lévi-Strauss is the least fashionable, and most influential, of the postwar French theorists. Lévi-Straussians are a nearly extinct tribe in Anglo-American universities, far outnumbered by Foucauldians, Derrideans and Deleuzians. But, in a paradox he might have enjoyed, his imprint has been deeper. Like the Amerindian myths he anatomised in obsessive detail in the four-volumeMythologiques, his ideas have seeped into our thinking. From the significance of the incest taboo, to the reasons we roast or boil our food, to the distinctions we draw between nature and culture, the way we think about behaviour and the mind has been indelibly shaped by the writings that bear his signature.

I say ‘bear his signature’ because Lévi-Strauss saw himself as a spiritual medium more than an author. ‘I don’t have the feeling that I write my books,’ he said. ‘I have the feeling that my books get written through me … I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity.’ In Tristes Tropiques, his memoir of his fieldwork among the Indians of Brazil, he called the self ‘hateful’. Everything he wrote aimed to puncture the notions of will and agency that cluster around the human subject. The critique of the subject was central to structuralism, the school of thought he helped to found. He existed, he wrote in the memoir’s closing paragraphs, not as an individual, but as ‘the stake … in the struggle between another society, made up of several thousand nerve cells lodged in the anthill of my skull, and my body, which serves as its robot’. His work, he said, was just as mortal as he was: it would be ‘childish’ to think he could escape the ‘common fate’.

His style of structural anthropology long ago fell out of favour among ethnographers; its mathematical diagrams of cultural rules now look like relics of some mid-20th-century technocratic fantasy. Yet Lévi-Strauss, who died two years ago at the age of 100, is in no danger of being forgotten. He is as much an icon as the brand of jeans with which he was often confused when he was teaching in New York in the 1940s. (At the suggestion of his employers he eventually adopted the ‘mutilated’ name Claude L. Strauss.) But Patrick Wilcken has set himself an unenviable task, because Lévi-Strauss was the embodiment of pudeur, an exaggerated, almost prudish sense of discretion. He was good at keeping secrets, and at dodging interviewers’ questions. (The interview, he said, was a ‘detestable genre’.) Wilcken, who met him in 2005, found his glacial reserve impossible to crack and detected ‘a kind of emptiness, an isolation’: ‘In the end, the mask had barely moved.’ To his credit, he doesn’t try to remove the mask, or to compete with Tristes Tropiques. Instead, he has written an absorbing, scrupulous account of Lévi-Strauss’s career, recapturing both the grandeur and the idiosyncrasy of his intellectual project. Continue reading ”Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory”

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

Tariq Ramadan

”This introductory chapter argues that the awakening of Islamic thought requires reconciliation with its spiritual dimension on the one hand, and renewed commitment and rational and critical reading (ijtihâd) of the scriptural sources in the fields of law and jurisprudence (fiqh) and on the other. It discusses the primary purpose of this book, which is to revisit not only the tools and concrete, historical implementations of fiqh, but also their sources, their categorization, and at the same time their methods, the range of their authority and the nature of the approaches that have been put forward throughout the history of this science (usûl al-fiqh).

The book presents three fundamental propositions: the contemporary Muslim world (both East and West) must reconsider the terms and modalities of the reform process (islâh, tajdîd); the contents geography of the sources of usûl al-fiqh must be reconsidered; and the center of gravity of authority in the Islamic Universe of reference must be shifted by ranking more clearly the respective competences and roles of scholars in the different fields.”

Some observations by His Eminence Sheikh Ezzedin Husseini

Islamic Republic: the role of religion and democracy


“I absolutely do not believe in religious governments, not in Iran nor in any other parts of the world. If in the past religious regimes could play a positive role in society and were useful, in the present world they must not have any role in the government of any country. This is especially true about Velayate Faghih (the sovereignty of religious scholar) which is based on dictatorship. The concept of Velayate Faghih indicates that all the Imams [namely the 12 Imams in Shi’aism, tr.] were representatives of God, and people were obliged to obey their orders unconditionally. Some Shi’a scholars believe that during the time of the 12th Imam’s Absence the will of God guides people to choose a person as the Valieh Faghih who represents the power of the 12th Imam and has absolute authority. This means that Valieh Faghih represents the 12th Imam and must be obeyed unconditionally. In this way religion through Valieh Faghih interferes in all aspects of people’s lives. Of course there are different points of view among Shi’a scholars, some are very radical and some are moderate.

“From the start of the Islamic Republic, I personally was against the rule of Velayate Faghih and did not vote for the Islamic Republic and do not accept it now. For this reason I never endorsed the leaders of the Islamic Republic and never got close to it. I never believed that the Islamic Republic could provide the personal freedom of people or recognise the rights of nationalities. My problem is not only with the dictatorship of Velayate Faghih, but more than that, I believe in the separation of religion and the state.

“When the prophets emerged, people were at the beginning of their development and evolution. At that time only religion could manage society and keep order. Even then the religious scholars of the period tried to learn the sciences of their time and behaved accordingly. But at the present age, religion has given way to the role of contemporary sciences in managing society; people themselves must administer the affairs of society and pass laws. Power must be transferred to the people; they must be able to elect those who govern over them without the interference of religion in their election.

“Religion must perform its specific duty which is to establish a spiritual and ethical relation between humans and their God. This spirituality and this connection cannot be dealt with by science; it is the task of religion to provide the connection between the hearts and feelings of humans with each other, and with their God. Science has developed human beings’ ability to manage the affairs of society and to regulate relations within society; science has helped them to further their welfare and comfort, and provide them with a better life. That is why religion and government must be separate from each other, and each must have its own boundary and perform its own duties. Despite being taunted and pressurised by some because of my views on these matters, which is continuing, these have been my firm and long-held views and I think they have been proven to be true.

“I think religion, government and everything else must serve human beings, because mankind is the ultimate object. I also believe that when a phenomenon ceases serving human beings, it ceases to be useful and loses its values. If religion, given its huge sacredness and sensitivity, ceases to serve humanity and becomes a tool in the hands of the clergy to exploit people, it must be put aside. The concept of religious sovereignty does not leave any space for democracy. For example in Iran there are so-called elections, but actually the religion, the Valieh Faghih (leader) and the Council of Guardians who approve of the candidacy of people for the election determine the outcomes of the election. Even among Muslim candidates, only those who are supporting Valieh Faghih are approved. Hence religious sovereignty is in contradiction with freedom and democracy, because in democracy, there must not be any condition and limitation on human beings’ freedom, unless they are against the interests of society and individuals in the society and limit the freedom of other people. Human beings must be free to be able to realise and appreciate the secret of being and be able to develop and advance the life of humanity. That is why humans must not be fenced in and limited.

“An assessment of whether the freedom and behaviour of a person or a group of people is in contradiction with others’ freedom and interests is not arbitrary and in the hands of an individual or a group of people. It is done and voted by society as a whole which puts a limitation on the freedom of those who are damaging the freedom of others. With regard to religious freedom, people must be free to choose their own religion or make any other decision.

“Unfortunately in the present world we do not have democracy in its real meaning, i.e. that the nation is able to decide at all stages of its social life freely and without limitation, and benefits from all advantages of life. In most cases the elected people’s representatives transform themselves into permanent bosses of people and are not accountable to them. The present-day world, which is a unipolar world, is full of misery and misfortune for humanity. Continue reading ”Some observations by His Eminence Sheikh Ezzedin Husseini”

from Nietzsche and Philosophy ~ master and slave dialectics

Deleuze p. 10

This is why Nietzsche presents the dialectic as the speculation of the pleb, as the way of thinking of the slave: the abstract thought of contradiction then prevails over the concrete feeling of positive difference, reaction over action, revenge and ressentiment take the place of aggression. And, conversely, Nietzsche shows that what is negative in the master is always a secondary and derivative product of his existence.

Moreover the relation of master and slave is not, in itself, dialectical. Who is the dialectician, who dialectises the relationship? It is the slave, the slave’s perspective, the way of thinking belonging to the slave’s perspective. The famous dialectical aspect of the master-slave relationship depends on the fact that power is conceived not as will to power but as representation of power, representation of superiority, recognition by ”the one” of the superiority of ”the other”. What the wills in Hegel want is to have their power recognised, to represent their power. According to Nietzsche we have here a wholly erroneous conception of the will to power and its nature. This is the slave’s conception, it is the image that the man of ressentiment has of power. The slave only conceives of power as the object of a recognition, the content of a representation, the stake in a competition, and therefore makes it depend, at the end of a fight, on a simple attribution of established values’. If the master-slave relationship can easily take on the dialectical form, to the point where it has become an archetype or a school-exercise for every young Hegelian, it is because the portrait of the master that Hegel offers us is, from the start, a portrait which represents the slave, at least as he is in his dreams, as at best a successful slave. Underneath the Hegelian image of the master we always find the slave.