Wednesday, January 08, 2014

`My Dear Friend, Clear Your Mind of Cant'

A poem by Vikram Seth from the “Quatrains” series in All You Who Sleep Tonight (1991) got me started. Seth is the author of The Golden Gate (1986), a witty and accomplished verse-novel of manners written in five hundred-ninety Onegin stanzas, a la Pushkin. I remember reading Tom Disch’s review in the Washington Post Book World: “Seth writes poetry as it has not been written for nearly a century, that’s to say, with the intention that his work should give pleasure to that ideal Common Reader for whom good novelists have always aspired to write.” That The Golden Gate was written in iambic tetrameter with an ababccddeffegg rhyme scheme is gravy. The poem from “Quatrains” is “Cant”: 

“In Cant’s resilient, venerable lies
There’s something for the artist to take heart.
They tell the truth that fiction never dies,
And that tradition is the soul of art.” 

The word itself is resilient and venerable, with six meanings as a verb, five as a noun and one as an adjective, not counting sub-taxonomies, the earliest dating from the fourteenth century. Cant is so dense with meaning and history, from geometry and carpentry to forestry and political science, it resembles a linguistic seed out of which an entire world could germinate. Its third noun usage begins in music (“singing, musical sound,” from the Latin cantus) and evolves over centuries into a cluster of related meanings, including Seth’s. By Milton’s lifetime it meant “accent, intonation, tone” and “a whining manner of speaking, esp. of beggars.” We’re getting warmer. Then it morphs into “the peculiar language or jargon of a class.” By the eighteenth century the word had recognizably assumed Seth’s meaning: “the special phraseology of a particular class of persons, or belonging to a particular subject; professional or technical jargon. (Always depreciative or contemptuous.)” The OED cites Johnson’s Rambler No. 128: “Every class of society has its cant of lamentation, which is understood by none but themselves.” 

I think of cant as in-crowd bullshit, language that flatters its users while excluding or trying to mislead outsiders. Chief today among its adepts are academics, journalists, lobbyists, critics, “activists” and, of course, politicians. The OED further distills this sense, “Phraseology taken up and used for fashion's sake, without being a genuine expression of sentiment; canting language,” and cites Johnson according to Boswell: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant... You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly.” 

In his Dictionary, which often reads like a catalog of punch lines, Johnson offers these definitions of cant, among others: “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms,” and “barbarous jargon.” Besides Dr. Johnson, can you think of another writer wholly free of cant? Jonathan Swift, perhaps. Solzhenitsyn. Yvor Winters. Never abundant, today the species is almost extinct.

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