Saturday, April 12, 2014

`Not Untrue and Not Unkind'

I learned it half a century ago in Latin I: “Propinquity breeds special relationships.” One of the reasons we chose Latin over French, German and Spanish, they assured us, was to bolster our English vocabulary. Thus, celerity, passerine, procrastination and spelunking -- words to savor but use sparingly. Imagine if Ned Washington had titled  Hoagy Carmichael’s song “The Propinquity of You.” In reading Lincoln again, I’m impressed by how modern his prose often sounds. Perhaps I mean not modern but timeless. After all, to be modern in 2014 would be to write in algorithms, not words. To be modern in 1859, Lincoln speaks of Manifest Destiny and “a great passion — a perfect rage — for the `new’.” The theme is eternal, at least among Americans. As an early stump speech, delivered more than a year before he was nominated as the Republican candidate for president, Lincoln’s talk deftly forges an intimacy, a propinquity, with his listeners at Illinois College: 

“The inclination to exchange thoughts with one another is probably an original impulse of our nature. If I be in pain I wish to let you know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you.” 

Not what you might expect two years before the country would tear itself in half. Much given to silence, to soundless inward-dwelling, Lincoln was a master of speech who loved a good story and a responsive audience. He says, on Feb. 11, 1859, celebrating the medium in his message: 

“…if a mode of communication had been left to invention, speech must have been the first, from the superior adaptation to the end, of the organs of speech, over every other means within the whole range of nature. Of the organs of speech the tongue is the principal; and if we shall test it, we shall find the capacities of the tongue, in the utterance of articulate sounds, absolutely wonderful.” 

In Darwinian terms, the first lie must have been uttered soon after the “superior adaptation” of human speech evolved (Lincoln’s talk, delivered one day before his fiftieth birthday, and Darwin’s, comes nine months before On the Origin of Species would be published). Even in the most propinquitous of relationships, honesty doesn’t always follow with celerity. Philip Larkin reminds us in “Talking in Bed”: 

“It becomes still more difficult to find
 Words at once true and kind,
 Or not untrue and not unkind.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

My friend Eva used to say: Familiarity breeds attempt.