Friday, June 21, 2013

The Meaning of Style

I have to record this glorious passage from The Open Mind by J. Robert Oppenheimer, which I found quoted in American Prometheus, the biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that I have been reading:

The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style. It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find a harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that actions pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.

What is profound in the quote is that Oppenheimer appraises the ethical dimensions of what is too often treated as a merely aesthetic term. And sees its relevance across such diverse fields as politics, science, personal affairs and the arts.

This is a thoroughly researched, rigorously argued biography about this one-time controversial titan of American history. The biographers, a newspaper editor and a history professor, focused on the politics of the Life. I wish there were more about the science. The prose is actually serviceable, but surrounding as it does the eloquent words of Oppenheimer himself, the lover of Baudelaire and the Bhavagad Gita, it looks as wooden as the frame around an oil painting.

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