“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as…”

My student felt the need to assure us that Cotton Mather’s position on witchcraft, although not spelled out, is clear enough to those who take the time to think about it.

For some reason I am immediately reminded of the story of Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal,” asked by his wife what the minister’s sermon one particular Sunday had been about. “Sin,” replied Coolidge. “What did he have to say about sin?” pressed Mrs. C. “He was against it,” replied Coolidge. (Coolidge claimed this story wasn’t true, but it’s still wonderful.)

Some positions don’t really need to be specifically expressed, and Cotton Mather’s (nay, the whole Puritan society’s) position on witchcraft was one of them. In short, he was against it. Reading Mather’s copious accounts of witchly visitations, laden as they are with vivid and judgmental language, one cannot miss his condemnation of such activities.

My student presents this idea in a rather distracted way, though:

“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as though he is against witchcraft and is strongly against it.”

We can find many grounds for distress in this one little complex sentence, but they are not equally distressing. “States” is always an unfortunate choice anywhere but in an objective news story; we have so very very many good verbs that offer information, energy, conceptual relationship, and judgment, not just the fact of uttering. “Stance” is okay, but aurally odd after “states” (in fact, it sets me up to expect a third term: “he never states his stance on stunts,” for example). The passive voice of the main clause saps the energy further while exempting the writer from any complicity in the judgment that will follow. “As though” should be “as that”: otherwise, the student has destabilized the sentence’s syntax.

Any of these weaknesses could legitimately be pointed out to the writer, but I generally try to give priority to the lapses that actually undermine the meaning and overall effectiveness of the sentence.

And here the highlight is the interpreted stance itself, presented (by means of the “and”) as two positions but most likely only one: against it, and strongly against it.

Now, we might entertain the possibility that the writer is trying to create emphasis here: Mather is not merely “against” witchcraft; he is strongly against it. Perhaps the repugnance in the general population is a given, and Mather’s goes beyond it.

Well, perhaps. But I really think this is just one more sentence where the writer got lost…and to which he never returned with a proof-reading eye. Just as he typed “and,” did the phone ring, or a dinner date arrive, or a sudden brief coma descend? Then, on returning to task, to room, or to consciousness, did he simply pick up where he had left off, going forward from “and” without looking back to see what had already been said?

In any case, he offers this as an interpretation of Mather’s unstated stance. Here’s what I hear: “Mather never really tells us how he feels about witchcraft, but I can make a good guess: he was against it. And I interpret ‘against’ to mean ‘against’—in fact, ‘strongly against.'”

If I’m right about this student, then he wouldn’t be the first who, asked to “interpret” something, merely rephrased it. Or restated it.

Alas.

Himself, looking for witchcraft (which, by the way, he’s against). Image: widely available; here, Wikimedia Commons.

Advertisements

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as…”

Leave a Reply or Share a Horror.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s