Thursday, August 6, 2009

"You" for "I"

In the August 10 & 17 2009 New Yorker, Joan Acocella writes, "Cunningham's work, like no other, made your brain feel clean." No, it didn't, but it seems that it made Acocella's "feel" that way. Then why doesn't she say so? "Cunningham's work made my brain feel clean." Having typed it, I see why Acocella didn't write it. In shifting to the second person, she puts hair on her bald predicate. She tricks out the stark image of her brain as dirty or cluttered. She goes on, "You seemed to be seeing dance for the first time." Did you? Did I? Did anyone? I wouldn't know, but I draw back from being told that I would. If Acocella is embarrassed to say that she felt this way at a Cunningham dance, that is her business. But alienating herself into a second person that is neither second nor first nor third: there's something both craven and slovenly in it. And very old and common. Shakespeare has Hamlet drop into this casualty, when he talks to Horatio about "your philosophy"; that is, philosophy per se, anybody's philosophy.

Grammarians might call the second person (as Acocella and Shakespeare, and most every speaker of probably every language, use it) the "ethical dative." The New Yorker's "ethical dative," whose institution is sometimes credited to Pauline Kael, strikes me as unethical. "Made your brain feel clean": Acocella wants us all to feel what she felt, which is another way of saying that she wants to be right. She doesn't merely socialize her feeling, she universalizes it. Each "you" reading that sentence gets to feel himself or herself universalizing—or, avoiding emphasis—in his or her turn. "You feel so good. You just know you did your best and you got the result you wanted. You're just happy." Oh, yes: if I were you, I'd feel just as you do and talk as you are talking. Or, perversely, Acocella's "you" is herself, and we're overhearing a monologue. There isn't a single instance of the first-person pronoun in the column I've quoted two sentences from (Critic's Notebook "Object Lesson"). More perversely still, the reader who voices Acocella's tribute to Merce Cunningham also gets to avoid the "I," gets to tell the "you"—the whole readership of you's—how it is.

In the precincts of the New Yorker, the ethical dative's a highbrow gesture that's been modified to suit the age (informal) and the country (not that the English stick with "one" over "you"). In making it, Acocella is at once generous, popular, and unique. But in the mass, as Acocella knows, dancers, athletes, high school students, Steven Pinker, the Russian president, and your mother rely heavily on the ethical dative in their waking hours. I've caught myself using it.

Why do we do this? Why don't we "stay in first person," use our "inside voice"? So as not to call attention to ourselves. So as not to insist on ourselves. So that we'll sound neither quaint nor British nor particularly educated. Because we're all in this together, and we're alike, as even Noam Chomsky has said, in more ways than we're different. In this protean "you" resides all our common humanity, our fellow feeling. It won't do. I won't stand for it.