Saturday, January 11, 2014

`One Gets Obsessed with Nugacity'

The Oxford English Dictionary’s “Online Word of the Day” on Thursday was nugacity, which sounds like a quality possessed by candy or the name of a Japanese megalopolis. In fact, the word is even more useful: “a trifling thing or idea; a frivolity” and “triviality, futility.” In short, it refers to what occupies most of our minds most of the time. We already know nugatory, but nugacity carries an additional sheen of pretentiousness that seems fittingly trivial.  In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson defines it as “futility; trifling talk or behavior.” Among the OED’s citations for the second definition is one from Philip Larkin: “I'm sorry this letter is so dull, but I do just bugger all and tend to stagnate. One gets obsessed with nugacity (you are bound to know what that means, you sod).” 

The sod in question, of course, is Kingsley Amis. The future lifelong friends had met in 1941, their first year at Oxford. Larkin’s letter is dated Sept. 19, 1942 (p. 44, Selected Letters 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite, 1992). Both are twenty. The letter is typical of their exchanges and of many among aspiring writers, filled as it is with in-jokes, irreverence, smut and literally sophomoric humor. In short, clever young men reveling in the liberating presence of kindred spirits. Larkin describes hunting for jazz records during a visit to London. He wants sides by Fats Waller, Luis Russell and Fletcher Henderson with Henry “Red” Allen. Here’s the sentence preceding those quoted by the OED: “It is after tea now and Louis [Armstrong] is pouring out his soul in `Dear Old Southland.’” Here’s what follows: 

“To me the present is utterly repellent. I very frequently want to lie down and vomit. Instead I read Dryden. Do you know anything about Dryden? I don’t know about you but I’m definitely a romantic in art, if that means anything. This means I expect colour, idealism & mysticism, to a certain extent. Now Dryden hasn’t got any of these qualities, says Buggery Dobrée [Bonamy Dobrée, literature professor at Leeds and editor of The Poems of John Dryden, 1934]. Instead he has `complete mastery of his instrument.' He can have complete mastery over his tumescent organs for all I care. What’s the good of being able `perfectly to express an idea’ when one’s ideas are all balls? Shite him.” 

Can you remember writing this way to like-minded friends? No pressure from political correctness or even good manners, but always with the assurance that your correspondent is never offended and gets all your jokes. Larkin writes, “Well, I’d better get on with Caedmon, fuck him,” knowing Amis will nod and snort and toast the sentiment. Not everyone sees the humor embodied in nugacity, including the word itself. The idea of nugacity, if not the word, is quintessentially Larkin-esque: “you are bound to know what that means, you sod.” Years later, recalling his first meeting with Amis in the quad at St John’s College, Larkin writes: “For the first time I felt myself in the presence of a talent greater than my own.”

1 comment:

Guy Walker said...

In recent posts you have made a nice distinction between ‘cant’, in your definition:

‘in-crowd bullshit, language that flatters its users while excluding or trying to mislead outsiders’

and the relationship between Amis and Larkin or any set of fellow travellers and kindred spirits:

‘ No pressure from political correctness or even good manners, but always with the assurance that your correspondent is never offended and gets all your jokes.’

What worlds apart these two modes are. The latter involving the delight in resonances that have only to be brushed lightly to be understood in the knowledge of the pleasure they will cause in your interlocutor. These are in jokes that cement friendship. The former evoking a whole world of professional deceit and superior posturing , by means of which the layman, who is not in on the terminology, is fleeced, belittled and manipulated.