Saturday, March 17, 2018

`Equally Inappropriate Words'

The list of words drained of meaning by overuse, laziness and intentional corruption has reached dictionary proportions. Awesome comes to mind first. Once reserved to describe the deity, it now signifies faux-enthusiastic agreement or endorsement: “I will pay the utility bill.” “Awesome!” The word is unusable and dead. More regrettably lost are community and conversation. Once humble and useful, such words now are verbal gestures without content. Users are interested not in communicating information but in signaling that they are the sort of people who care about what community and conversation used to mean. This phenomenon is not new, of course; merely accelerating. On this date, March 17, in 1944, Orwell not only diagnosed the ailment but proposed treatment:

“With no power to put my decrees into operation, but with as much authority as most of the exile ‘governments’ now sheltering in various parts of the world, I pronounce sentence of death on the following words and expressions: Achilles’ heel, jackboot, hydra-headed, ride roughshod over, stab in the back, petty-bourgeois, stinking corpse, liquidate, iron heel, blood-stained oppressor, cynical betrayal, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, jackal, hyena, blood-bath.”

For Orwell, the principal culprits are the Marxists and fellow travelers, whose descendants are still with us. Of the seventeen words, some have faded into yesterday’s clichés. Some have shifted meaning. Some have lost their Marxist context. One seldom hears “petty-bourgeois” anymore. “Mad dog” and “blood-bath” I might use ironically.       
Drained of their 1940s political sense are “lackey” and “flunkey,” about which Orwell writes:

“. . . they and other equally inappropriate words are dug up for pamphleteering purposes. The result is a style of writing that bears the same relation to writing real English as doing a jigsaw puzzle bears to painting a picture. It is just a question of fitting together a number of ready-made pieces. Just talk about hydra-headed jack-boots riding roughshod over blood-stained hyenas, and you are all right. For confirmation of which, see almost any pamphlet issued by the Communist Party—or by any other political party, for that matter.”

Friday, March 16, 2018

`Mathematical Formulae on the Wall'

Like me, one of my friends is a devoted reader of Laudator Temporis Acti, where on Thursday Mike Gilleland posted a passage from David Garnett’s introduction to Anna Wickham’s Selected Poems: “[S]he told me that she had taken Hall and Knight’s Algebra with her and had spent her time in the private asylum working out quadratic equations in order to keep her mind from dwelling on her situation and to overcome her rancour.” My friend is book-minded, and one allusion inevitably bleeds into the next. He writes:

“I remembered Johnson’s advice to the clerk who was stealing, of all things, packing thread, a mysterious habit he wanted to break. Johnson advised the poor man to take up algebra. It’s a humorous story, but it’s a valuable one. It’s quite true. Johnson, prone to morbid thoughts, prey to the depredations of depression and despair, had the great intelligence to know how to combat his propensities.”

In Boswell’s account, Johnson’s warehouse clerk seeks the great man’s assistance because he is “oppressed by scruples of conscience.” The man works in a warehouse and is “often tempted to take paper and packthread enough for his own use, and that he had indeed done so often, that he could recollect no time when ever had bought any for himself.” Johnson suggests that the clerk’s boss would probably be “wholly indifferent with regard to such trivial emoluments.” The clerk knows that to be true because he has already told his master about the petty thievery, and the master told him to take as much thread as he wanted. Johnson tells him to “tease me no more about such airy nothings,” then concludes that “the fellow might be mad.” That’s when Johnson gives him pragmatic advice for relieving a guilty conscience:

“I would advise you Sir, to study algebra, if you are not already an adept in it: your head would be less muddy, and you will leave off tormenting your neighbors about paper and packthread, while we all live together in a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow.”

Boswell concludes: “It is perhaps needless to add that this visitor came no more.” Our clerk suffered from over-scrupulosity. Depending on the severity of the case, Johnson’s prescription might have worked. I remembered stories of people in prison distracting themselves with mathematics. Odessa-born Jakow Trachtenberg, while held by the Nazis, devised a streamlined technique for making mental mathematical calculations. Simone Weil’s brother Andrew was the mathematician who, while held in a French prison shortly before the Nazi invasion, devised the Riemann hypothesis. And I remembered Arthur Koestler’s anecdote in Dialogue with Death (1942), his account of being held prisoner by the Spanish Fascists during the Civil War. On the first day, angry, frightened and bored, he turns to math:

“I took a piece of wire out of the bedstead and began to scrawl mathematical formulae on the wall. I worked out the equation of an ellipse; but I couldn’t manage the equation of a hyperbola. The formulae became so long that they reached from the W.C. to the wash-basin.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

`A Weak High-Ball at His Side'

When I was a boy the word that effortlessly evoked adult sophistication, and thus envy, was a simple, old-fashioned Americanism, highball. I knew it meant an alcoholic drink, served to grownups in bars and bowling alleys, though its precise ingredients were a mystery. The word was a coded membership card, and I fancied someday telling a bartender: “Gimme a highball.”

I found highball again while looking through Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words (Harper & Brothers, 1958), written by Charles Earle Funk of Funk and Wagnalls fame. Funk Sr. died while finishing the book and his son, Charles Earle Funk Jr., completed it. I enjoy lingering in such books, the eccentric offspring of proper dictionaries. Knowing nothing about the etymology of highball, I was surprised by the Funks’ folksy entry for the word:

“There’s no doubt that this term has long been used by American railwaymen as that of a signal to the locomotive engineer to proceed. The signal itself was a ball large enough to be plainly visible which, when hoisted to the top of a mast at the approach to a small station, indicated that a train could proceed without stopping, that neither passenger, freight, nor express was awaiting it.”

The OED substantiates this: “a signal to proceed given to a train driver, originally by raising a ball attached to a pole. Now chiefly hist.” A slightly earlier usage was applied to a card game, highball poker. I already knew the word’s secondary meaning as a verb: to speed, to hurry along without hesitation, perhaps with a hint of recklessness: “We better highball it if we want to beat the crowd.” So how did the railway term morph into the name of a cocktail? The Funk explanation is unsatisfactory:

“Presumably this sense was somehow transferred to an iced alcoholic beverage about sixty years ago, but if so, the connection has not yet been determined. Possibly some passenger who had over-indulged in the beverage vaguely saw a resemblance between the floating ice at the top of the glass to the ball of the signal, and the tall glass to the mast.”

The OED offers an inclusive definition – “a drink of whisky and soda (or in later use other mixer, esp. ginger ale), served with ice in a tall, straight-sided glass. Later also (frequently with modifying word): any long mixed drink” – but no etymological explanation. One of the OED citations is to an article, “`Highball’ for `Tall Glass,’” in the February 1965 issue of the journal American Speech. The author, Thomas Pyles, proposes an alternative theory, one I can substantiate with reference to my maternal step-grandfather, James Aloysius Kelly: The Irish and Irish-Americans call a whiskey glass a ball, as in a “ball of malt.” This theory makes intuitive sense. Pyles adds, rather pedantically:

“It is interesting to note that in sophisticated drinking circles the term highball has become practically archaic, or in any case almost as non-U [middle-class], alcoholically speaking, as asking the way to `the little boys’ (or girls’) room.’ `Social’ drinkers continue to cover the taste of whiskey with ginger ale, Seven Up, and the like in what they refer to as a highball, but the illuminati ask for `whiskey and water’ or `Scotch and soda’ and refer to ice cubes simply as `ice,’ not as `rocks’.”

The OED redeems its etymological failure however, by citing P. G. Wodehouse’s Something Fresh (1915): “Beyond Baxter, a cigar in his mouth and a weak high-ball at his side, the Earl of Emsworth took his ease.”

[Of related interest: “beer and a bump,” meaning a shot of whisky and a beer chaser, better known as a boilermaker.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

`He Was Dull in a New Way'

One might make a rubber stamp with these words on the business end: “He was dull in a new way.” Keep it handy, by the chair or bed where one customarily reads, and make sure the ink pad remains in working condition. You would be performing a public service. Imagine innocently stumbling upon a poem by, say, Philip Levine or Elizabeth Alexander. Please, think of the children. Should they be misled into believing prose is poetry and political blather is thought? Reach for the stamp, and don’t confuse it with censorship. One would never think of tearing the page from the binding, but a tactful touch of the stamp would give our most vulnerable readers fair warning. Consider it a variation on the surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.

The words, of course, are Dr. Johnson’s. The date is March 28, 1775. He and Boswell, as the latter recounts in the Life, are dining at Mr. Thrale’s. As usual, Boswell is baiting and Johnson is biting:

“He attacked [Thomas] Gray, calling him `a dull fellow.’ Boswell: `I understand he was reserved, and might appear dull in company; but surely he was not dull in poetry.’ Johnson: `Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.’”

If you need details, Johnson marshal’s plenty of evidence in his “Life of Gray.” I remain fond of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” though my fondness is sentimental. Even Johnson concedes the poem has its moments. In the final paragraph, Johnson explains why, and formulates one of his most memorable mots:

“In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning `Yet even these bones’ are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

`Without Contemporary Nonsense'

“Larkin seems to me to write with an amazing directness, which certainly conceals a great deal of art, but always appears just to flow out. He is a poet without contemporary nonsense, including the nonsense of having no nonsense about him.”

The word Anthony Powell brings to mind in his Larkin review is the elastic English monosyllable bluff. As an adjective, Johnson in his Dictionary gives “big, surly, blustering,” but that sense is too overheated for Larkin. The OED suggests a more measured meaning: “good-naturedly blunt, frank, or plain-spoken; rough and hearty.” It’s an old-fashioned English quality, perhaps near extinction, and could be applied to writers as various as Swift, Johnson, Cobbett, Macaulay and Orwell. “Rough and hearty” should not suggest crude or unsophisticated. Anti-Larkinites will mistake his anti-cant stance for "hate."  

More interesting is Powell’s praise for Larkin’s no-nonsense approach to poetry, prose and life. The literary world tends to be present-focused and fashion-minded, blind to tradition and fancying itself a sort of evolutionary culmination, much superior to the benighted past. In fact, it is a provincial village, a cultural backwater. You will note that Larkin’s severest critics are a humorless bunch, impressed with their au courant assumptions about everything, and cite “A Study of Reading Habits” as evidence of the poet-librarian’s philistinism.  

I’ve reread Powell’s Larkin reviews and others collected in Miscellaneous Verdicts (Heinemann, 1990) while reading Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). Larkin and Powell, while we were hardly looking, have become two of the most reliably pleasure-giving writers of the last century.

Monday, March 12, 2018

`Fulness of Joy at So Much Life'

Charles Lamb was a city man, a species new in his day, who favored crowds, noise and stench to the charms of country living. He was the dedicated urbanite among the English Romantics, the emotional and aesthetic opposite of John Clare. Lamb died in 1834, two years before Dickens, the first significant city novelist, published Pickwick Papers. Passages in this novel, in their exuberant absurdity, might have been written by Lamb. Here’s an exchange between Alfred Jingle and Mr. Pickwick from the second chapter:

“`Heads, heads--take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. `Terrible place-- dangerous work--other day--five children--mother--tall lady, eating sandwiches--forgot the arch--crash--knock--children look round—mother’s head off--sandwich in her hand--no mouth to put it in--head of a family off--shocking, shocking! Looking at Whitehall, sir?--fine place--little window--somebody else’s head off there, eh, sir?--he didn't keep a sharp look-out enough either--eh, Sir, eh?’”       

This could have been lifted from one of Lamb’s letters. Consider the one he wrote to Wordsworth on Jan. 30, 1801. Wordsworth, who was living with his sister Dorothy at Dove Cottage, Gramere, had sent Lamb the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Lamb offers a detailed reading, largely sympathetic, of several poems in the collection. There’s a sense that Lamb is being careful of Wordsworth, who is thirty-one and already a self-styled sage. Lamb is twenty-five, and the Essays of Elia won’t be published for another twenty years. Tactfully, Lamb distinguishes his sensibility from Wordsworth’s:    

“Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature.”

Heresy, of course, to Romantics and their admirers. But Lamb isn’t so much denigrating the rural as celebrating the urban. In his reply to Wordsworth, he anticipates Gogol, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Zola, Joyce and Bellow in his London revelry:

“The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me.”

Lamb has turned himself into a precursor of the flâneur:

“The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.  But consider, what must I have been doing all my life, not to have lent great portions of my heart with usury to such scenes?”

Sunday, March 11, 2018

`A Literary Mount Rushmore'

I have never seen a copy of Aesopic, subtitled Twenty Four Couplets by Anthony Hecht to Accompany the Thomas Bewick Wood Engravings for Select Fables with an afterword on the blocks by Philip Hofer. It was published by the Gehenna Press in an edition of five-hundred in 1967 and today sells for as much as $960. To my knowledge Hecht never reprinted its contents, though in The Hard Hours (1968) he includes a suite of nine couplets titled “Improvisations on Aesop.” The editor of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (2013), Jonathan F.S. Post, quotes one of the Aesopic couplets, “The Nightingale,” in a footnote to the letter Hecht wrote to Ashley Brown on April 18, 1978:

“What is it to be free? The unconfined
Lose purpose, strength, and at the last, the mind.”

Brown had used the lines as an epigraph to his essay “The Poetry of Anthony Hecht,” published that year in Ploughshares.  In his letter, Hecht relates “The Nightingale” to his frequent allusions to King Lear. His poems and Shakespeare play, he writes, “both touch on not so much madness as the fear of madness.” Hecht had his own Johnsonian anxieties about his sanity, but the couplet also suggests something about the composition of poetry and, by implication, all the arts. An “unconfined” poem is likely to be self-indulgent, flabby, atonal and dull – that is, like most contemporary poetry. An artist needs something to press against; namely, form. The best poets press hard and avoid tedium by devising unexpected variations in their formal patterns.

In a letter written two months earlier, Hecht replied to John Benson, who had lettered the word AESOPIC (OED: “of, relating to, or characteristic of Aesop, a semi-legendary Greek fabulist of the 6th cent. b.c.”) on the title page. Benson had asked whether Hecht would “consider writing lapidary inscription for a `group of standing stones.’” Hecht says he finds Benson’s letter “flattering and bewildering,” adding, “After all it isn’t every day I’m invited to become part of a literary Mount Rushmore, or given the promise of such marmoreal perpetuity.” Hecht treats the offer with politely ironic detachment, noting that such engraved texts – “the pious platitudes on post offices and court houses, or else the mortuary inscriptions `That teach the rustic moralist to die’” – generally adhere to the “convention of their sentiments.” Hecht might have cited Dr. Johnson in the Life: “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath."

Hecht here reminds me of my involvement a decade ago with an American poet who died a few years back. Let me explain. He was renowned for drunken, online tantrums which often, in a morbid sort of way, were more interesting than his poems. I received several of his overheated emails, written in varying states of coherence. All smelled of Smirnoff’s. In his final collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001), Hecht included a two-part poem titled “Lapidary Inscription with Explanatory Note.” Here is the first part:

“There was for him no more perfect epitaph
Than this from Shakespeare: `Nothing in his life
Became him like his leaving it.’ All those
Who knew him wished the son of a bitch in hell,
Despised his fawning sycophancy, smug
Self-satisfaction, posturing ways and pig-
Faced beady little eyes, his trite
Mind, and attested qualities of a shit,
And felt the world immeasurably improved
Right from the very moment that he left it.”