B-Spirit Cafe, Where the Elite Meet
Jim Bowman, Editor & Publisher
ANNALS OF LINGUISTICS: NERVOUS + NELLY
There's an article in the Journal of Philology for some enterprising scholar willing to chart the Language of Sneed as found in the Sun-Times item column by Michael Sneed. Today, for instance, she has the very good item about the new governor, Blago for short, reviewing spending projects approved by the outgone governor, Ryan for long and short.
Some contractors will lose out if the projects are squelched, of course, and Sneed duly reports that, calling them "nervous Nellies" for worrying about it. But Nellies of this sort worry needlessly. It's what LBJ called critics of the Viet Nam war, intending to denigrate them as foolish. Chalk up another miss by Sneed, whose items remain often quite good. (1/23/03)
BRILLIANT IDEA . . . A new writers' club, the Omit Needless Words Society, named after Strunk's rule. Meetings will be contentious, with ongoing dispute about what's needless. Engaging in such dispute will be very much worthwhile and can lead to all sorts of decisions about what sucks and what doesn't, not to mention sharpening of one's shit detector.
TRADE TALK . . . As a writer for hire, I meet all kinds. The man some years back who looked at my quick research notes and my finished copy and liked the notes better told me something about directness. He knew what he liked, and it wasn't what I delivered. I never could please him, but he paid me anyhow and we remain friends.
Another asked me how I liked her magazine, which took graphics to new heights of splendor and glare, and I lied. What I said -- "striking, memorable," something like that -- was true enough. But I didn't say it was garish and distracting. Couldn't please her either; I was distracted by the splendor and glare.
Writing for hire is a good way to meet the popular mind. The client editors are often not professional editors, though damn good CEOs, bankers, lawyers, what have you. At least they are good enough to think money will be well spent in telling their stories. Over 20-some years of writing for such people, I have learned a few things about the popular taste.
For instance, a recent client joined the several who have thought picture book from the start. Never mind my reader books, with a few pix, that assume readers who want consecutive text. She had one of them in hand, but wasn't interested.
The magazine with all the graphics is a sign of this predilection for the catchy and scannable. Hey, I'm for the catchy. Books and chapters and paragraphs and sentences and, yes, even words all should have a glue-like quality, or the reader leaves, which is a sad thing indeed.
ENGLISH BE A FUNNY LANGUAGE (12/12/02). . . Running into Nagy as a last name, writer remembers it's said "Nodg-uh" by Hungarians -- when it should be Nay-gee, with a hard "g," as any fourth-grader used to know before the Great Dumbing Down -- as in Imre Nagy, prime minister in 1956 during the abortive revolution, bumped off by Soviets in 1958.
Odd enough, but consider this, composed in haste for the occasion:
If you need bread, you knead dough or you pay someone else to knead it, in which case you need dough. If the kneader is doe-eyed, so much the better.
This out-and-out tour de force is followed by a series of bows and kisses thrown to audience with both hands thrown out together in embracing gesture.
ESSENTIAL BLISS . . . "No engaging tenderness, no aesthetic bliss" is found in the prose of Peter Bush's translation of Juan Goytisolo's new novel, A Cock-Eyed Comedy, by reviewer Martin Schifino, Times Lit Supplement 11/22/02. This is an apt criticism, if accurate. Be there no aesthetic bliss in a novel's prose, wherefore the novel? What's the point?
THOROUGHLY . . . "The modern spirit," says Matthew Arnold, in his essay "Heinrich Heine" (Critical Essays), consists in wondering about the reasonableness of what's been received. Catch that modern spirit, you're just not so sure any more.
THE PROSE GOT PURPLE . . . Matthew Arnold cites Edmund Burke's sometimes "extravagant prose," as in his account of Rousseau's abandoning his children "as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours." It's a sample of the "want of simplicity . . . of measure . . . of [what] makes prose classical, . . . of the center" that he calls "provinciality."
Some call such writing "rich and imaginative." Arnold calls it "somewhat barbarously rich and overloaded . . . Asiatic prose." (Overwritten, we might say, especially if we come from the newspaper trade.) In Arnold's view "the true prose is Attic [classical Greek] prose."
Arnold's provinciality is endemic to English writing, and so turns up even in Burke, whose work he admires greatly, he says in "The Literary Influence of Academies," from Essays Literary and Critical (Everyman's Library, with 1906 intro by G.K. Chesterton, who says we are obliged to Arnold to a degree "almost beyond expression.") It's a case of English "genius" (raw, untutored) vs. French and German "intelligence." Even when English prose is Attic, as Joseph Addison's, it contains "commonplace" notions, and is provincial for that reason.
Addison addresses the question of religious belief vs. wide reading, for instance, delivering a cliche: the more you read "books of controversy" and consider various arguments, the less you believe. Arnold quotes a French writer, Joseph Joubert, who concisely says the opposite: "L'experience de beaucoups d'opinions donne a l'esprit beaucoup de flexibilite et l'affermit dans celles qu'il croit les meilleures." Which may be roughly translated, "Exposure to many points of view lends flexibility to the spirit and confers benefits on believers."
Beaucoup de praise for that from Arnold: "With what a flash of light that touches the subject! how it sets us thinking! what a genuine contribution to moral science it is!"
But Joubert, an exemplary fellow, never published a word. Chateaubriand gathered his jottings after his death and published them, as the poet Graves published Gerard Manley Hopkins after his death. Addison, on the other hand, met deadlines and set the pace for editorialists and columnists for centuries. Doesn't mean he didn't wax pedestrian now and then. Newspaper writers do that.
Barzun I . . . The lack of overhead music the other day at Starbucks did not prevent Jacques Barzun from telling his student the reader (me) how the locals in the Wordsworth Lake-Poets neighborhood expected William's son to take over the family poetry business when William died. (House of Intellect)
Same day, same venue, Barzun noted "lavish" outlays for teachers in a time of "academic penury" -- the late 50s -- by universities in quest of "pure prestige." He called it "the star system with its usual evils," decades before an Illinois state legislator inveighed against "rock star" hires by the U. of Illinois at Chicago.
As even the little kids say in Paris, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Barzun II . . . You could call Barzun's work "In praise of the inexact." Not inexact language, on which he counts for our best knowledge of reality, but inexact knowledge as the best we can expect. He has doubts about scientific and mathematical accuracy, for instance. Formulaic as it is, it helps in doing things, provides a recipe, one might say. But it does not help us understand things.
Barzun's work is directed at understanding things. He promotes "intellect," a produced thing, vs. raw intelligence (what Arnold said the English have), which turns up willy-nilly. To understand is to be human, said Aristotle, and so does Barzun.
THUSLY GO THE WRITERS . . . Reviewing Robert Coover's novel, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Nov. 13 in NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/13/books/13BERN.html), Richard Bernstein writes that one of the characters at one point "lectures thusly" to Pierre. Thusly I moved quickly to another page, judging Bernstein to be in the middle of a very bad day or of a very bad writer's life. Does the man have no friends loyal enough to tell him?
LANGUAGE LESSON . . . A little catching up for you old-timers, thanks to my friend Jake (not his real name): Members of the younger generation are likely to say "What up?" when greeting each other. He speaks of Caucasians, having only sporadic and often indirect contact with his and our African American brothers and sisters.
But "What up," pronounced "Whad-up," Jake identifies as an African American contribution to our linguistic progress. So be it, he says, and urges us to be tolerant of our Caucasian young people in this. They are only being multicultural, as we have taught them to be.
I can take a hint. Let this column (whatever) not appear out of step: You will read in it now and then a phrase that smacks of the African American, such as the "This be" such and such. I can say I'm just being Elizabethan when I fail to conjugate in that fashion, but (actually) I am seeking to emulate young Caucasian people in their pursuit of multiculturalism, conscious or not. You have a problem with that?
PLEASE PASS THE MUSTER . . . We say someone is a "past master" at something, we mean he's very good at it. But it was not always "past" master. In fact, as recently as 1959, Jacques Barzun wrote "passed master," in The House of Intellect (Harper). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford, 1968) explains it, quoting The Oxford English Dictionary: The term is partly from the notion of having "passed through" an office such as that of master of a freemasons' lodge, partly from having "passed" examination for master's degree or status.
In either case you are a passed master, though as applied to the Masonic poobah that seems lame. Passing the exam and becoming a passed master, on the other hand, seems a propos. So what? "It is no longer (as it once was) written as passed master," says New Fowler's, though my (paperback) 2nd edition, dated 1965, just says "past master" and lets it go at that. You see why people like to hear there are no wrong answers?
LANGUAGE COME, LANGUAGE GO . . . Linguistics arrived, and out went "grammar and the dogma that anything said is to be treated with the respect due to life itself," says Jacques Barzun. Thus was encouraged "the natural carelessness of talk."
Shut up about it, you valuers of meanings and distinctions: Those are only words you are fussing about, say linguists. But they betray science when they talk that way, because as scientists they are supposed to be above the fray, watching and measuring.
But language works as a social institution only when meanings are clear, says Barzun. It has "aesthetic powers and uses that also depend on conservation" of meanings and distinctions.
But if there are no mistakes, just differences, we should never correct a child or other newcomer to the language. None of these "should ever be set straight," says Barzun.
What about the life of a language and a living language, favorite creatures of these linguistic thieves of meaning? Metaphor, says Barzun. "Language is not alive. Only those that use it have life, and when they stop speaking it, their language, if written, remains whole, readable, and usable like classical Latin and Greek." It's all in the writing of it.
"Verba volant, scripta manent," said the old Romans -- the spoken word flies off, the written word remains.
LANGUAGE GOES . . . . 500 years ago, spelling was codified, and the freedom to spell as one wished was effectively squelched. A good thing too. It means we can read what was written 500 years ago. Vocabulary took a lot of hits over the centuries, waxing and waning, but specialists took no pleasure in the losses.
It's different now. Language specialists talk like therapists determined to rid the patient of guilt: It's all right, it's all right. You're not wrong, just different. Barzun is taking no bets on our language being readable 500 years hence. Rather, he'd say it won't be.
EVEN NOW WORDS FAIL US . . . A land reform (squatters') group in Brazil has begun to "broach" a new set of problems, says Times Literary Supplement reviewer Patrick Wilcken, 9/6/02, reviewing Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil, when he means "approach." The group, MST, may also broach the problem -- mention or suggest it -- but not in the review's context: "beginning to broach . . . problems found in . . . cities."
Wilcken has confused words that sound alike and may be used in the context but with different meanings, of course. Similarly, people write "accost" (approach or address, sometimes boldly) when they mean "attack."
This happens a lot. In our TV age, attention is more aural (the receiving end of oral) and less visual, except with images. Less literate. In fact, literally less literate. I'm not kidding, I really mean it. Know what I mean?
Wilcken and others are less readers than their predecessor midlevel writers: Journalists, reviewers and the like. They watch more than they read. The experience, combined with a natural tendency to listen and look, undercuts the learned experience of reading.
Learned it is, to be sure. It's not natural (i.e., it's not easy) to read and explain without using your hands. We learn it. The process is what makes for civilization and its discontents -- not to say malcontents.
Final conundrum: Would you rather draw pictures on the cave wall between starting the home fire with flint and stone and settling in for your once-a-month meal of mammoth steak?
ROLLING STONE . . . "I tried to do a 360," Vikings footballer Randy Moss said, (S-T, 9/27, Telander column), meaning change his ways from uncooperative to cooperative with media, that ungrateful bunch. But Randy, you old glue-fingered pass-catcher, that's completing your viscous circle. Maybe you know that. Maybe you know your geometry and are saying the more things change, etc.
NAME GAME . . . Mass. GOP gubernatorial candidate Mitt, as in catcher's and oven, Romney, has a son Tagg, as in bumper, match, and vehicle. Is there a daughter named Dish? As in antenna, side, and deep?
LANGUAGE ARTS . . . Barzun taxes linguists with favoring spoken over written speech, giving it pride of place, indeed privileging it, if I may be au courant. If they read more good books, he says, they would know to what extent (a lot) the spoken depends on the written word -- as in "terse idioms, metaphors buried in words, short cuts in syntax . . . innumerable bright sayings, now cliches and platitudes." (This in his 1989 book, The Culture We Deserve) Ah yes, have you noticed all those good quotes in Shakespeare?
Language belongs to aesthetics as much as anything else, and so it's subject to criticism. It's more than phonemes. It's always proper to pass judgment on language, rather than, with linguists, say, Whatever is, is good. "Speakers and writers have a vested interest in the merits of the tongue they work with, exactly as other professionals guard their investments and privileges."
Language is to be treated as a work of art and treated as we treat efforts at painting and music composition. "It's a rich estate of which we are only stewards." We received it, we must pass it on in good condition. We need conservators of language, as of trees. Word-huggers, you might say.
Conversations . . . The joys of conversation require same-level give and take. If one is a grand or even not grand inquisitor, the fun goes out of it. "What do you write?" asks the just-met man at an authors' meeting. The one asked would rather ease into it with this fellow. Why rush things? he thinks.
He tries to put the inquisitor off with nonsense ("this and that"), then bare-bones stuff ("religion" or "history" or "sports"). But the man pursues it: "What kind of religion?" until the other man, seeking relaxed give and take and unwilling to be interrogated, says, "I'd rather not talk about it." A stern measure, to be sure, but such is called for sometimes.
DIGGING DEEP . . . One (at least one) is reminded of Jacques Barzun's saying in his 1959 House of Intellect that conversation has degenerated into being analyzed or psychologized by others, uninterested in what you have to say but intensely interested in what sort of man or woman you are.
Hmmm. This correspondent has heard a friend complain about another who, long out of touch, declined in conversation to "open up." Voluble and informed, by most standards friendly, he was not inclined to talk about himself. Didn't choose, we might say, to expose himself. No fair, said the other, who (unfairly) required something more personal and intimate.