Friday, March 18, 2011

Yin and Yang for Style

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

A Chinese belief holds that two opposing, yet complementary forces exist. Yin is a negative and feminine force whereas Yang is positive, masculine. Both are essential to obtain balance, and neither is better than the other. Think of Yin as one end of a continuum with Yang at the other end. The middle point on the continuum is the ideal place to be.

Consider this additional example about the cognitive domain, comparable to the Yang, and affective domain, comparable to Yin. If we divorce ourselves completely from emotion and intuition, making decisions based solely upon facts and logic, the world could become a cold, stark place. It was for poor Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Valjean, in an effort to provide food for himself and his sister’s family, steals a single loaf of bread. In eighteenth century France, a thief is a thief, a crime is a crime, and crime is an evil requiring Draconian punishment to deter its spread. The boy Valjean must serve five years, performing hard labor. His sentence grows longer with each attempt at escape, and thus, he comes to maturity, a man without hope, with scars upon his back and bitterness in his heart.





Once Valjean succeeds, changing his state from leg irons to hunted prey, he steals once more, but the priest from whom he steals shows Valjean that mercy does exist in the world. The priest not only forgives Valjean but also inspires him to become a civic leader, humanitarian, foster parent, and benefactor.

Still, Valjean is a convict who did not serve his full term. If caught, reason and the law would demand that he return to prison. A man owes a debt to society if he transgresses. For every action, such as theft or attempts to flee, there is a reaction; each time we take, we also must give. Those are truths by which we live, but are logic and law the only determinants?

Hugo, of course, invokes the Yin of existence. He demonstrates Valjean’s transformation from basic being bent upon survival to evolved man capable of love and sacrifice for a greater good. In telling the story of his character’s evolution, Hugo stirs our emotions and balances the two forces, Yin and Yang, within one man.

Hugo also introduces Javert to judge the merits of Valjean’s transformation from a relentless vigilante, determined to uphold reason as represented by law, as he understands it, the law that prohibits mercy and discretion in sentencing. Yet when poised to return Valjean to prison, the hunter cannot do it. Valjean’s kindness and good intentions compete with Javert’s sense of duty, with his understanding of a man’s true purpose and nature. Unable to reconcile his life’s work with the changed Valjean, Javert commits suicide, perhaps suggesting that the law devoid of mercy is an impossible state. Humans simply cannot thrive unless both the masculine and feminine forces balance.

Hugo, of course, did not have Chinese philosophy in mind when he wrote Les Misérables, and, so far as I know, Chinese philosophy does not govern the art and craft of writing. Nevertheless, the lesson of Yin and Yang--of the importance of balancing negative and positive--applies to sentences as well as philosophies and novels. William Strunk and E. B. White, in The Elements of Style, 3rd edition, declare that “Placing negative and positive in opposition makes for a stronger structure” (20); i.e., the Yin and Yang of language juxtaposed create a more powerful, effective message.

Strunk and White offer the following excellent examples:

• Not charity, but simple justice.
• Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 3.2)
• Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country (John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Speech, 1960)

Here are two more examples, both about the concept of justice.

• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• This is not about charity, it's about justice... The war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty - I didn't say that, Colin Powell said that . . . In these disturbing and distressing times, surely it's cheaper, and smarter, to make friends out of potential enemies than it is to defend yourself against them. Justice is the surest way to get peace (Bono).

Reading Challenge:

If you do not own a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (any edition), buy one for your personal library and read it.





Writing Challenge:

Choose one or more of the following opposites such as selfishness and selflessness, honesty and dishonesty, fidelity and adultery, generosity and greed or select your own pair of words with opposite meanings. Then imitate the patterns shown above to create your own, unique messages.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)
:

Certain transitional words emphasize opposition, contrast, and juxtaposition. These include:

• whereas
• in contrast to
• dissimilarly
• not…but
• not only…but also
• on the other hand
• on the contrary
• conversely

The examples used in this post employ not…but as transitions to emphasize the difference or contrast. Other examples could have employed transitions, but the authors opted for semi-colons and parallel construction to reveal the juxtaposition of ideas. Consider adding a transition to Wendell Berry’s remark:

• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; [on the other hand,] it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand whereas it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; [on the contrary,] it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).
• Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; [conversely] it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy (Wendell Berry).

Note that inserting on the other hand, on the contrary, and conversely do not change the need for a semi-colon to punctuate two independent clauses correctly. Only whereas alters the construction, changing the second clause from independent to dependent; thus, a semi-colon is incorrect.