Portrait of Samuel Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Samuel Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)

One soft London evening in the spring of 1744, the great bear-like Samuel Johnson, in a playful mood, leaned across the tavern table and wagged his finger with mock sternness at his old friend, the celebrated actor David Garrick.

They were talking about the art of acting, and Johnson was now criticizing, with his usual bluntness, not only Garrick’s most recent performance, but also the general failings of Garrick’s colleagues, one of whom was also at the table: “The players, Sir, have got a kind of rant, with which they run on, without any regard either to accent or emphasis.”

This was too much for Garrick, who sprang to his feet. But, smiling complacently, Johnson threw out a challenge. Recite with correct emphasis, he instructed the actors, “the ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’” (Dryly he added under his breath, “with which you are little acquainted.”) They recited, and they failed. Both actors emphasized “false witness.” But the right emphasis, Johnson said—correctly and triumphantly—was “Thou shalt NOT bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

I wish Johnson had enlarged somewhere on that word not. He himself was a master of the complex negative—speaking of Paradise Lost, for example: it “is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first.” But the Great Cham was hardly the only master of not. Every language has negatives, and every writer needs them. They need them for formal logic, for quantum leaps, for the existential gloom of Being and Nothingness. “Without Contraries,” writes the poet William Blake, “is no progression.” Yet the literary effects of these negatives are hard to pin down, even mysterious: What happens really when someone says not? The mystery may be because the very idea of negation is hard in itself, or perhaps because we have not yet got the right emphasis.


Not can be spoken in any number of voices. Johnson shows us the ultimate one. Garrick erred by forgetting that he was to speak in a voice of thunder—this is the voice of God, after all: “Thou shalt NOT!

But in the mouth of a less forceful person than the Almighty or Dr. Johnson, a stern command can weaken into a meek request, a plea. There is no health in us, the General Confession says. “Lead us not into temptation,” says the Lord’s Prayer. Or it can dissolve into a tortured question: “To be, or not to be?” A merely stubborn person, like Melville’s Bartleby, can polish a repeated negation into something like adamant silence: “I would prefer not to.” A royal person like Queen Victoria can, allegedly, simply turn it into ice: “We are not amused.”

Sometimes not is only a good-natured correction: “Look again,” the painter says, “This is not a pipe.” More seriously, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” But very often not starts a downward spiral in which correction becomes, in a larger sense, denial. Here Samuel Beckett corrects himself mournfully, unhelpfully, without actually clarifying anything. “Then I went back into the house and wrote,” says the narrator of Molloy. “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” Beckett’s “not” is in every sense negative. It creates an attitude, an atmosphere, a world of profound, passive negation in which Godot is not coming—he is never coming—a world where not is by far a stronger word than any conceivable affirmation. “Not guilty,” the jury grudgingly allows, the best that we can expect.

Not can also be livelier than this, so to speak, or at least more energetic. When Jonathan Edwards looks down at us miserable sinners, you can feel the air crackle with his anger, hear his fist slam the pulpit in unforgiving rhythm (italics mine): “Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment … the sun does not shine willingly upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals.”

Surprisingly, this drumbeat of nots can just as easily be positive, uplifting: “Love envieth not,” Tyndale translates 1 Corinthians 13:4, encouraging us in virtue. “Love doth not frowardly swelleth not dealeth not dishonestly seketh not her awne is not provoked to anger thynketh not evyll reioyseth not in iniquite.” Higher still: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom explains his rapturous dream to the other rustic mechanicals—“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.” Or sputteringly funny, as when Oliver Wendell Holmes tap dances across a minefield: “We had gone, not to scoff, but very probably to smile, and I will not say we did not.”

Repetition is only one of a number of patterns that not can create. Perhaps the best known is antithesis—not x, but y: “not with a bang but a whimper.” It is a pattern that begins with the expectation of an easy or obvious answer, then overturns it to surprise us or shock us or to reveal an unexpected truth. Johnson likes to surprise us—“The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.” The treacherous Brutus uses antithesis to reveal a self-serving truth: Why did he rise up against Caesar? “This is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” The semi-gallant Richard Lovelace deserts the fair Lucasta for the battlefield with a condescending wave of the hand: “I could not love thee (Dear) so much, / Lov’d I not Honour more.”

Another pattern is litotes: denial of the contrary; essentially that shibboleth of grammarians, a double negative. Consider a pattern quite often seen in writers trying to hedge their bets: “not-un.” “It’s not unusual,” warbles the Welsh crooner Tom Jones to a lover. Or a variation: “I wouldn’t say no to a pint.” Fowler’s Modern English Usage attributes this kind of thing, unconvincingly, to the modern British habit of modest understatement. But it is a favorite construction of John Milton (Eve was “not unamazed” to find that a serpent could talk). Henry Fielding uses it to administer faint praise: “He was not ungenteel, nor entirely devoid of Wit.” And Johnson himself rebukes some Boswellian fatuity: “Sir … it is not unreasonable.” But litotes is not without critics. It so exasperated George Orwell that he advised aspiring writers to memorize this sentence: “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”


We can wander a long time in such thickets. There is praeteritio, which is Latin for “I pass over.” Thus, Anthony Trollope in a letter to a publisher: “It is an original novel, but it is not for me to say so.” Or a kind of disjunctive polysyndeton, the addition of negative conjunctions, as in the U.S. Postal Service slogan: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  There is the splendid negative aposiopesis with which Joseph Conrad opens Victory: “Now if a coal-mine could be put into one’s waistcoat pocket—but it can’t!” And the Valley Girl’s cheerful Interjection: “Not!” And even simple paradox. Old Joke—Speaker’s sonorous voice: “A positive word can not be negative.” Rasping voice of Professor Sidney Morgenbesser: Yeah, yeah.”

Equally significant, as the last example shows—location, location, location. Place important words at the beginning or end, to paraphrase Strunk and White. English idiom confirms the wisdom of this. We like to begin negation at the beginning, to block suspicion or objection: “not at all”; “not in the least”; “not for nothing” (a nicely truncated litotes). Weaseling politicians know the rule instinctively: “Not that I recall. Not to my knowledge.” So does Shakespeare: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

Less well-known is the hammering thump achieved by placing “not” at the end of a statement. “Man delights not me,” Hamlet says. “No, nor woman neither.” In As You Like It, the mooncalf Orlando asks what are the signs of love? Pert Rosalind answers, “A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not.” English poet Henry Reed’s soldier studies the flowers and then his rifle and “the point of balance, / Which in our case we have not got.” And Tennyson’s soldier Ulysses sets out once more, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” “What General Lee’s feelings were,” Grant writes of Appomattox, “I do not know.” Jonathan Swift’s noble talking horses, the Houyhnhnms, have no word in their language for “lie.” Rather, they say, “The thing which was not.” And the Book of Job (7:8) carries us to the ultimate last place, extinction: “Thine eyes are upon me, and I am not.”

All such negative figures of speech are miniature dramas, the briefest possible creations of conflict, of push and pull, reversal and suspense. But they are short, only phrases. In the context of a scene or story, the word not can create a larger drama, or a character, or even a world. In Denmark Hamlet lives at its mercy: “If it be now, / ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be / now; if it be not now, yet it will come.” In Faulkner’s “The Bear,” “not” defines the protagonist and rushes him forward into the dangerous hunt for the bear, an experience “distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit.” And over on the mean streets of noir, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe knows all there is to know about not. The gangster’s moll wants him to leave her house:

“Out. I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you. And if I did, this wouldn’t be either the day or the hour.”

“Never the time and place and the loved one all together,” I said.

“What’s that?” She tried to throw me out with the point of her chin, but even she wasn’t that good.”

“Browning. The poet, not the automatic.”

Or finally, in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson confronts the South, his lost world, and his heart-rending cry carries not to its absolute limit: “I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” This is the limit of negation because it conceals—yet makes manifest—an affirmation; as it moves through the passage, negation changes its very nature and meaning, as a larva becomes a chrysalis.

But how could I leave it there? Another book lies open on my desk. And in it, in a world as far as possible from Faulkner’s negation, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom asks Molly to marry him. “I wouldnt answer first,” she tells us coyly. But then we wait. And slowly, before our eyes, the slow constellation of language wheels across the page, and Molly’s denial, her “wouldnt answer,” transforms itself into literature’s most wonderful affirmation:

and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and … I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

It is a matter of emphasis.

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