Monday, July 04, 2011

`Mysterious, Seductive, Fearful Expressions'

In Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995), the first of three charming grab-bag collections he published late in life, D.J. Enright (1920-2002) assembles a “Short list of mysterious, seductive, fearful expressions.” Among his thirty-four entries are flat-footed clichés (“Hidden agenda”), classical tags (“Lente, lente currite, noctis equi”), modish gibberish from literary theory (“Phantom aesthetic state”), detritus scavenged from popular culture (“Nintendo”) and a salaciously unlikely nugget mined from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Hutch of tasty lust”).

Writers indifferent to their raw material apply words indifferently, with a putty knife, while others savor the medium and collect shiny bits like magpies, impatiently hoping to display them. Since returning to Texas I’ve become reacquainted with “kolache,” the word and its savory referent, and the “red-vented bulbul.” “Awesome,” I’m sorry to report, has metastasized to Houston, even among adults. Our taste in words, as in food and sex, is idiosyncratic. Following his list of “fearful expressions,” Enright writes:

“But Ivan Morris remarked of Sei Shōnagon’s catalogues of place-names, temples, poetic subjects, things that make the heart beat faster, and so forth, that however meaningful to the compiler, they might well be of no more interest to readers `than arcane laundry lists.’ An ever-present consideration.”

True, one mustn’t inflict private tastes on public sensibilities, but the temptation can be difficult to resist. Elsewhere in Interplay, Enright uses “unruly engine” in reference to the hazards posed by wit. The author is George Herbert, in “The Church-porch” from The Temple:

“Wit’s an unruly engine, wildly striking
Sometimes a friend, sometimes the engineer.
Hast thou the knack? pamper it not with liking:
But if thou want it, buy it not too deere.
Many affecting wit beyond their power,
Have got to be a deare fool for an houre.”

For these reasons I’ve resisted posting more of my growing catalog of “fearful expressions” from Houston. Herbert goes on to warn:

“Make not thy sport, abuses: for the fly
That feeds on dung, is coloured thereby.”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Thanks, Patrick, for quoting Herbert on wit as an "unruly engine." It made my day--to reuse a very handy cliche.