The Ironies of Style

Matthew Hunter reviews Jeff Dolven’s “Senses of Style: Poetry before Interpretation.”

The Ironies of Style

Senses of Style by Jeff Dolven. 240 pages.

JEFF DOLVEN treats no novels in Senses of Style: Poetry before Interpretation, but Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica stages a moment of just the sort that animates his study. An ex-model now suffering from hepatitis, Gaitskill’s narrator, Alison, coins the term “style suit” to refer to the fashions of her moment. “I thought the new style suit was who I really was,” she remembers with a cringe. Not a costume to be donned or discarded at will, style, for Alison, is the outward manifestation of an inner self, as solid and unchangeable as we might wish our selves to be: “I thought that everything had changed forever, that because people wore jeans and sandals everywhere and women went without bras, fashion didn’t matter anymore, that now people could just be who they really were inside.”

Looking back, Alison dismisses her thinking as naïve, but she can be forgiven for the confusion. Style is the product of art, but it is just as often treated as the mark of nature. It is what distinguishes the individual from her surroundings, but it also indexes her membership in a group. Set against these conflicting definitions, Alison’s confusion starts to look less like naïveté and more like the breakdown of a concept that has meant too much for too long. Too much, we might think, and also too little. How can a concept so riven in its senses manage to mean anything?

Senses of Style is the antidote to this question. Taking as his case studies the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, Dolven offers a critique of style in Kant’s robust sense of that word: “an account of the word’s proper limits,” as he puts it, “of when and where the word is useful, and for what purposes, and what is at stake when the limits are tested, breached, redrawn.” Rather than seeking to resolve the contradictions of style or to do away with them, Dolven embraces them. The ironies latent within the concept “are aspects of a life-enabling double-consciousness, a way of living with contradiction, carrying on in the face of a problem that cannot, on its own terms, be solved.”

At first blush, pairing Wyatt and O’Hara may seem an unlikely means to this end. It is hardly the book’s only curiosity — instead of sustained argumentation, we get some 400 numbered sections, ranging from a sentence to a paragraph, in the manner of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — but it works, and not only because of the former’s remarkable influence on the latter. As the book unfolds, Wyatt and O’Hara themselves emerge as two “limits” of style. The first is all stoical plainness and studied reserve, cultivated as a bulwark against the deceptions of Henry VIII’s court. The other, meanwhile, is a figure of constant disjunction, delighting in breaking the rules of poetry and personal relations.

Across these poets, Dolven charts a common concern, a concern that his book may be thought to share. For both Wyatt and O’Hara, style is a matter of anxiety more than elegance. By differing poetic strategies, each poet works to resist style as much as to attain it. “I must take pains not to intend anything,” we read a young O’Hara writing, “The other enemy: style.” It is a note that Dolven finds Wyatt sounding, too, when he says he prefers “[r]ather the profit of the sentence than the nature of the words.” The attitude gives new and special weight to the end of “They Flee from Me,” Wyatt’s celebrated poem of bitter love:

But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.

Newfangleness, fashion, style — these words seem to occupy a special place in Wyatt’s vocabulary, but only as points of opposition, or what O’Hara would call “enemies.”

That resistance to style is what makes Dolven’s protagonists such compelling objects of study. Like impish players who flout the rules of a game only to make us articulate them, O’Hara and Wyatt illuminate the secret logic of style in precisely the moments when they evade it. Wyatt’s rough grammar and unsteady rhythms — perhaps intended, perhaps not — are occasion for thinking about the vexed relationship between style and failure. On the one hand, the poet’s infelicities lay bare the way any style, deviating from some unspoken standard, courts the charge of failure. On the other hand, the repetition of those infelicities turns them into something more. “All style requires, to absorb such attempts to break it, is that they happen more than once.” The power of style, for Dolven, is to convert failure into charisma.

O’Hara’s incessant habits of disjunction lead to even sharper insights. Consider, for instance, the following lines, excerpted from “Biotherm,” O’Hara’s last, long lyric:

a long history of populations, though
the phrase beginning with “Palms!” and quickly forgotten
in the pit under the dark there were books

Submitting to such language is not unlike viewing a painting by O’Hara’s contemporary Jackson Pollock. As each line of syntax gives out to the next, “Biotherm” becomes a poem that is less about and more how — a poem in which the action of leaping over boundaries, of disrupting unity and disorienting sense, takes precedence over anything we might call “content.” It is what makes that proudly misplaced “though” so exemplary of O’Hara’s work, even of the entire New York School; the word, a conjunction turned on its head, promises logical relation while producing the opposite.

In this drive to disjunction, Dolven reads a double lesson about style. First, O’Hara’s leaps and bounds expose — even parody — the continuity that style establishes. “Style,” as Dolven proposes, “is a way of continuing,” by which he means that style gives a familiar order or shape to otherwise disparate things: our sentences, our poems, our clothes, our messy and too unpredictable traffic with others. To speak of style is to speak of the potential for something — a gesture, a line, a turn of phrase — to happen again in another shape. We get style when Shakespeare repeats the compound eloquence of “purple-colored face” in “rose-cheeked Adonis.” We get it in the porcelain outlines of an Ingres painting. We get it when the exquisite brutality of a Rei Kawakubo dress bares its teeth in an overlarge jacket. We get it when Kendall Jenner stares out from a looming billboard and invites us to imagine every item we own attaining her easy luster — so long as we buy the lipstick she is selling.

This last example points to the ease with which style aids our cheapest fantasies, or at least gets absorbed by them. On this point, Dolven is typically deft: “Sometimes a good synonym for style is ideology. Practically speaking, however, style, the word, helps make it possible to live in that middle ground without having to declare oneself once and for all, helps make a human space in between the stringency of our thinking categories.” With their constant disjunctions, O’Hara’s poems are an emblem of that human space. They refuse the easily commodified sense of style as continuity, but their cheer comes from making a style out of such resistance. Breaking the rules becomes O’Hara’s way of playing the game.

But it is Dolven’s second interest in O’Hara’s disjunctions that leads him to the polemic of his subtitle. If that uncertain “though” of “Biotherm” troubles the connection between style and continuity, it also chastens our instinct to interpret:

Disjunction takes aim at interpretation’s ambition to unify […] convincing the reader that interpretation is the wrong thing to do. The ingenuity that would be required for an efficient, inclusive paraphrase, let alone explanation, would be extreme, and alien to the cheerful sprezzatura of the object.

Disjunction, and, by extension, style, is ever against interpretation, or in Dolven’s words, “before” it. At times, this formulation leads to rather cryptic pronouncements, but its central intuition feels right: the style of an object hits us first — first and fast — while its meaning is slower to come into focus. Think of the speed with which we recognize a Rodin sculpture versus the extra seconds it takes to determine what it depicts. Interpretation pushes this primal experience of style to the margins, since interpretation is a form of judgment that steps back from the object in order to understand it.

It is this critical, meaning-making distance that Senses of Style resists. Against interpretation, Dolven gamely holds up style as its own form of judgment — his word for it is “aspect,” another of his nods to Wittgenstein — and its power is to get close. Sustaining that primal moment of recognition, attending to how rather than what, the judgment of style produces knowledge of a very particular kind: “[t]he only way to know a style,” we learn, “is by making it.” Reading for style means imagining how we might practice that style for ourselves. “Before Interpretation” is another way of getting after imitation.

Throughout his reflections, Dolven will hail imitation as the secret essence of style and with it, of human nature. It makes a certain sense that a poet and a scholar of the Renaissance — a period when learning style meant imitating style — should gravitate toward imitation so ardently. But the virtues of imitation, of reading for the style, are at times uncertain. Is know-how all that the judgment of style can grant us? It is a question that Dolven himself raises — “the question becomes what kind of literary knowledge can be had only by entering the room and joining the party; by letting the distance go, the critical distance, if only for a time” — but an unwelcome habit of his prose is to gesture at one thought, intricately yet cryptically, then move on to the next. And so the question remains unanswered.

Dolven is on firmer ground when it comes to the ethical implication of style, and once again, imitation is key. For Dolven, as for Aristotle, the human subject is the imitating subject, and “style” is the word for the imitative way we all lead our lives. If this claim seems like an affront to our most cherished dreams of autonomy and originality, Dolven is quick to urge the opposite: “[T]he problem of style is the problem of freedom.” By this, Dolven means that freedom and style are two concepts caught between the same axes: between the injunctions of the group and the desires of the individual, between necessity and choice, between the given and the made.

Freedom might seem to represent merely one of these extremes, but in practice, it emerges within the same poles. The ironies of style are also the ironies of freedom:

As with the ironies of style, freedom is functional because it gives recourse at need to both of its limits, to the freedom of the law and the freedom of anarchy, and to the space in-between. And indeed, we freely interchange the idioms of will and determinism from moment to moment of an ordinary day. So much more with the ironies of style. That interchange is style’s freedom, freedom as an irony, and nothing else, and nothing less—the irony that has sustained the word style in its contradictions since it entered the language.

Dolven is in good company here. No less a thinker than Hannah Arendt has similarly identified improvised aesthetic skill as the pinnacle of political freedom.

But if there is something grand, even noble, in equating style with imitation and freedom, the example of Gaitskill’s Alison suggests there is more still to say. Caught up with the “style suits” of her moment, getting close just as Dolven urges us to, Alison is interestingly preoccupied with both imitation and freedom. Fashion is her word for the style — edgy, current — that those around her have chosen to imitate. Alison is free to follow this fashion as she pleases, as we all are, but that is not where things get interesting. With its sandals and its cutoff jeans, Allison’s style-suit turns “freedom” into an aesthetic and a social effect: an invitation or an affront signaled through clothing to all those around her. The moment is instructive, because it suggests that our desires to imitate a style are inextricable from the effects we read a style to have. In which case freedom is just the start of the story. If style is freedom to imitate as we choose, what happens after the choice has been made?


A hallmark of Dolven’s method — inventive if at times ungainly — is to pit the concept of style against one of its unlikely opposites, or “antitheses,” to uncover its essence. Nature is exemplary in this regard, for it leads Dolven straight to imitation. “Everything has a style, except nature,” he observes, and he is right: it feels off to speak of the style of a rose or the style of a stream. The reason for this, we are told, is that “though we may imitate nature, and each other, nature does not imitate itself — not the way we do — nor does it imitate us.”

I want to follow Dolven here just as he follows O’Hara and Wyatt. Anyone who has been seduced by the charisma of a well-wrought sentence or an elegant ensemble can recognize the imitative impulse he diagnoses. It seems undeniable, therefore, that imitation is essential to style; not only is imitation how we practice a style, but it is also how we recognize a style as a style, even how we turn something into a style. But anyone who has been caught miming their models too closely has also been instructed in a contrary desire, the desire not to follow but to oppose — to distinguish ourselves from our models. We might read this desire for distinction as an imposition of social life rather than a definitive feature of style itself. Certainly this was the case for Pierre Bourdieu, whose magisterial sociology text Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste treated style as a weapon to be wielded in our bids for social dominance.

Dolven draws upon Bourdieu’s sociology occasionally, but he is silent on the subject of distinction, which looms over his study as the dark antithesis of imitation. Presumably, this is because in that primal scene of reading for the style, in that moment before we interpret, imitation is at the fore. But it seems significant that our imitative desires are spurred most often by figures who seem hardly to be imitating anything at all. If imitation is one way of thinking about style, it seems just as right to say that distinction is another.

Senses of Style proposes a range of antitheses along which to consider style: the part and the whole, art and nature, description and judgment. That others can be generated is a sign of the strength and not the weakness of Dolven’s analysis, which deserves to be treated on its own terms. Still, distinction is important to this study as the equal and opposite of its most central concept. Comprising their own “antitheses” of style, distinction and imitation help us to think about what happens after we have chosen a style for ourselves. We can signal our alignment with fashion, or we can signal our independence from it, but in either case we are signaling something to someone — a person we don’t know, or, more generally, the crowds of people we move around and among when we step out of our homes and onto the street.

Such signaling drives home what is only implied by Dolven’s inspired meditations: that style is social to the core. Perhaps it is sociability, rather than imitation, that makes it so hard to talk of style in nature. Streams do not distinguish themselves from streams. This social bearing has consequences for the judgment of style. It means that style acquires its full force only after it has been attached to a body or a voice as something that comes between persons. It means that the story of any style is the story of how, but more than that, of how I relate to you. Lyrical, sweet, intimate, brutal — adjectives like these do a double service. They describe, in one and the same breath, a style and the relations a style establishes between the wearer and her world. But they are also imprecise, and their imprecision is where interpretation begins. How do we bring together reading for style and reading for interpretation? If style is what we get before interpretation, how does the concept reshape the interpretation that comes in its wake? How, for that matter, do our exemplars of style — poems, paintings, novels, plays, people — invite us to interpret the styles they tempt us to make our own?

“For all our writing and thinking about style — or because of all that writing and thinking — the word has recourses to criticism, both as object and instrument of inquiry, that we are only beginning to explore.” These words come to us from Dolven’s magisterial essay, “Reading Wyatt for the Style,” which was published nearly 10 years ago. By the conclusion to Senses of Style, they remain no less true, and the book is richer for it.


Matthew Hunter is an assistant professor of English at Texas Tech. His research focuses on the social life of early modern drama.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Hunter is an assistant professor of English at Texas Tech. His research focuses on the social life of early modern drama. His current book project, Stranger Styles, explores the relationship between style and publicity in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Drawing upon rhetorical treatises, conversation manuals, commonplace books, and satires from the period, Stranger Styles shows how early modern plays present their varied styles of talk as scripts for interacting in the newly public word of early modern London.


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