In my last post on style, I mentioned my erstwhile teacher and college lecturer, Rev. Bernard Kelly, D.D., D.Litt. I owe a lot of my precision in style and my awareness of the balance in a sentence to Barney’s tutoring. He was not a brilliant lecturer, but he could write like an angel in three languages: - English of course, Gaeilge under the Irish form of his name as Brian Ó Ceallaigh and in German. Barney had done his D.D. in Germany in the 1930s. He had been awarded the D. Litt. by a Catholic American University for the voluminous writings he had published in defence of the Catholic faith. I found his theology outdated – he had been ousted from the theology department when replaced with the newer theologians like Dermot Lane from Rome in the early 1970s. So the Director of the college decided to put Barney teaching us English students how to write. Whatever about the traditional nature of his theology, Barney could write well in the three languages mentioned. Many years later I learned that poor Barney had to carry the “cross” of alcoholism throughout the greater part of his life. He died in his early 1990s.
Barney taught me much about style. He always liked quoting Bouffon. So much so that I never forgot this same Bouffon and went on to quote him in the introduction to my master’s degree in theology. I had found that this same Bouffon had a lot in common with the subject of my thesis, John Henry Newman as regards what style was. So who was this Bouffon and why had Barney always quoted him?
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (September 7, 1707 – April 16, 1788) was a French naturalist, mathematician, biologist, cosmologist and author. Buffon's views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin. Like the other French Encyclopaedists, no area of human knowledge lay outside his remit. Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-1788: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that date. In it Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry. In perusing the portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, by François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775) I am struck that Georges-Louis was, indeed, a man of style – see the enclosed picture above – how élégant and distingué the Comte looks! Est très distingué et élégant, non? So this was the man Barney loved quoting. I’m very sure Barney disagreed with the Comte’s prescient understanding of evolution, being a traditional Catholic. However, I’m sure he would have been glad that Bouffon denied again and again that he was an atheist.
So what did this famous Comte de Bouffon say about style? He was very skilled with words, earning him the nickname from mathematician Jean le Rond d' Alembert of "the great phrasemonger." When delivering his Discours sur le style (“Discourse on Style”), he said, "Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste . . . The style is the man himself" ("Le style c'est l'homme même"). Since then, this definition of style has always been my favourite. I think it very profound and perspicacious. I have used for years during my teaching career. I will say a little more on style in my next post.
I have edited much of the information above on Bouffon from the on-line Wikipedia and the picture at the centre above is of a painting of the elegant count by Francois-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775)