Sentences — December 8, 2008, 4:18 pm

Effort Into Function

mrbiswas
A friend of mine is a bartender, and I hadn’t seen him for a while, until last week. It’s fun to watch him bring over two decades of experience to bear on the opening of a bottle of beer or the making of a margarita. Traffic wears a groove into things, and repeated motion turns effort into function. Function, when effortless, which is to say when, through repetition, it becomes a pure expression of effort, can be beautiful. If you’ve ever watched a field being mowed by hand, with a scythe, you know what I mean.

We don’t have, I don’t think, many opportunities these days simply to watch simple things done well. Virtuosity is left to the virtuosi: Favre connecting, Bill T. Jones a-leaping, Perlman Baching—all impressive, but an impressiveness that leaches the layman of any sense of approachable, and therefore agreeable, mastery on a mortal scale.

Odd, then, that in reading the introduction last night to the 1983 edition of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, I didn’t register a sense of the Olympian pressing down upon the quotidian. Odd, of course, given all we’ve lately (not to say long) heard about Naipaul’s self-regard. Naipaul discusses the writing of that novel in a very humble way, not falsely humble, but very much a matter of building a wall, finely and slowly. A process worth hearing about: a force becoming a form.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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