Rest your Case

Most would concur that the English language possess but three cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. Though popular today, misinformation should be distrusted. In this case, folly reigns supreme as chief grammatical practice, and the progressive education model continues not only to dilate its pockets with the coin of the dunderheaded, but also relies on teachers of foreign languages to teach English case.

English, however, retains the Latin cases. 

Nominative: the naming case. Most readily known as the subjective case. The nominative case identifies the subject of a sentence (The soldier fainted during the ceremony) as well as any pronouns or adjectives in that sentence grammatically related to that same subject (The tall soldier, who fainted at the ceremony, he…). 

Vocative: the calling case. Though similar in appearance to the nominative, the vocative case, as Kingsley Amis writes in his style guide, The King’s English, is “used when addressing or invoking some person or abstraction.” Hamlet has the abstraction bit down: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Or, for more everyday sort of talk: “It’s been nice talking with you, Jim.” Hamlet could have eased things up with a simple “women are frail” and “Jim” could have stopped with “you,” but that wouldn’t have called them out.

Accusative: the picking-out case. Here, the nouns and accompanied verbiage therein form what’s commonly understood as the direct object, the object of a sentence at which the subject aims with a transitive verb (King Henry VIII beheaded Sir Thomas Moore…Jane threw the ball).

Dative: the giving case. “Corresponding with to or for,” the dative expresses recipience. In “Jane threw Jack the ball,” Jack is in the dative case, as he is the recipient of this highly sought-after ball. This means the same thing as “Jane threw the ball to Jack,” except that “to Jack” is not in the dative, but rather a part of a prepositional phrase, which means that we’re now also sans indirect object.

Genitive, the ownership or source case, corresponding with of or from. Many will recognize the possessive’s apostrophe-s form: “the gods’/god’s ambrosia,” as stand-in for “the ambrosia of the gods/god.”

Ablative, the case that corresponds to source or cause. We often see this in the passive voice: “The pugilist’s insides were explored by his opponent.” Or, “The waltz came from Austria.” 

In addition to honest, stand-up instructional failure, English’s absence of inflection is likely partly to blame for the general notion of English’s contemporary existence as merely a tenuously linked series of case-less, primordial grunts.  

An inflection is a change in the form of a word to denote tense, mood, person, number, case, and/or gender. This is clearer in other languages such as German or French, whose word-endings alter to denote what English does invisibly. Declensions and conjugations are two examples, or in this case, case.

The Distinction Dossier: A Puzzling Problem

Dilemmapredicamentquandary, and conundrum all describe certain spots of bother. As we shouldn’t, however, like a pizza deliveryman to arrive where we need armed police, it is best that we use our language to distinguish problems accurately, the former being those of mild hunger and a hulking and aggressive home-intruder, respectively. 

Dilemma, predicament, and quandary are words that comprise a group of words that describe complicated, perplexing situations from which one would have a difficult moment or two disentangling oneself. They also, however, have discreet meanings, which have a kind of  loosely linked logical crescendo of unfortunate events.

Dilemma, for your average Cretan, describes any difficult situation, but dilemma’s true meaning is to describe two possibilities in which one faces a choice between equally undesirable alternatives, something of a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” sort of pinch. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a popular one that intellectuals enjoy casually dropping into dinner conversation, hoping that the eyebrows of members of the opposite sex find the topic interesting.

Pictures might aid the visually inclined.

Here we see the classic dog-faced-man/man-faced-dog rump-chewing choice.

Dilemma is pre-predicament, as it is assumed that, prior to the dilemma at hand, things were popping along sans rump-chewing.

But now we are in a predicament: a difficult situation that is especially unpleasant or unfortunate. Predicaments might be best understood as “currently having a rough go.” Some warm-blooded people call these “jam ups.”

Here no choice is to be made. You’re going for a swim. This is merely a tough spot.

Quandary: A state of uncertainty or confusion that renders one unable to act, which is often accompanied by puzzled, doubtful, and uncertain feelings. Affecting anyone from lovers to lummoxes, quandaries span the situational gamut. 

Here we see James Herriot in a quandary. To help Tristan would be to honor a friend–and recidivist–whilst the opposing action would honor the professional relation with his boss, Sigfried, thoroughly frying Tristan, but, perhaps simultaneously beginning Tristan’s recovery from alcohol-induced fun-having, which is what a good friend does. James rightly falters in his step.

conundrum, however, has its own category. A conundrum specifically denotes a complicated, perplexing question or problemnot situation. A conundrum manifests as a riddle or puzzle, the answer to which often involves a pun or play on words, though it can also be purely a logical conundrum. Ironically, unlike the rest of the words on this list, conundrum’s etymology is unknown, though sources such as Fowler and the OED suggest its origins in 16th-century Oxford or Cambridge as a pseudo-Latin joke, like hocus-pocus. 

Here we see the kind of conundrum that keeps me up nights, but the likes of which are solved daily by schoolchildren in Russia.

The proper definition of conundrum.

All tight spots, to be sure.

Signs and Symbols: Psychosis in the Modern World

Before Science, science was psychosis, and to live in accordance with Nature, rather than perpetually floundering to control it, was diagnosed as best practice, as to live in accordance with Nature was to live in accordance with the entire universe. In the pre-Enlightened world, the universe was a completely rational and well-ordered system, and therefore all phenomena therein existed with a kind of divine harmony such that everything happened exactly when and how it was intended. Phenomena, instead of submitting to the causal reduction of simplest terms, was known teleologically in the terms of the purpose that those same phenomena served and not, like science, of the cause by which they arose. The universe was known, completely rational, and with grand purpose; therefore, it would not have been farfetched to refer to its seemingly disseminated parts as an intricately designed whole, a vast system of interconnected reference. 

Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols explores this philosophy of vast interconnectedness in its unnamed sanatorium-bound character’s diagnosis of “Referential Mania,” a diagnosis in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” This story-element works as a pithy trinity: a philosophical exploration of the aforementioned teleological principles, a brief venture anent the idea of Resistentialism, and a meta-critique of how we read literature and our subsequent expectations thereof.

Garnered most topically would be the unnamed invalid’s difficulties with a teleological consciousness in a scientific world, for “phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes.” The world, as Science has informed him to think, is not merely a chaotic sphere on the face of which the Darwinian nightmare continues until nihilism cures all our spiritual woes; he sees patterns and meaning in all things:

“Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything, and he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions.”

This sounds a lot like neurotic paranoia bordering on psychosis. And, with regard to the scientific paradigm of knowledge in which we all live, it is. Epochs change, however, as how we understand information to change. A conscious existence is similar to that of our unnamed friend’s “dense tangle of logically interacting illusions,” which entails that “he must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of his life to the decoding of the undulation of things.” And, with this teleological outlook comes a different approach to existence, a vastly dissimilar view from that of today’s era of things: “The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away…the silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of his being.” This kind of über-consciousness, however, is not one of distinct ease.

Resistentialism, originally a satirical theory developed in the wake of existentialism, is a philosophical idea that inanimate objects harbor spiteful feelings toward humans, manifesting those ill-feelings by way of emitting malevolent airs from their person similar to those “little phobias” that the unnamed boy experiences: “He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world.” Resistentialism’s main assertion is that inanimate objects endeavor to cause problems for humans. In Signs and Symbols, the boy’s parents, who are unaware of any kind of cosmic interconnectedness, are consistently met with difficulty presented to them by way of inanimate objects. Consider the inconsiderate nature of “the thunder and the foul air of the subway” that both parents experienced, or mom’s “soiled cards” or dad’s “hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate.” The ultimate sign of this theory at work is during the father’s being locked out of his home, as he “he had given her his keys earlier that day.” His son’s suicide imminent, the father states to his wife that “‘I am dying.’” Rilke’s tiger is prowling in his cage. So full of virility, yet so impotent. 

Moreover, each of these examples could very well be a Nabokovian mind game, and therefore a meta-narrative of how the modern reader reads with the preconceived notion that he is supposed to find signs and symbols in everything; he supposed to solve the story much like a scientist, mathematician, or chess player would solve something quantitatively. Everything above-delineated could merely be an over analysis of things immaterial— precisely nothing of substance—proving this analysis a faulty tool, as analysis is predicated upon inexact axioms. Then, what exactly could this story mean? It could be endlessly evaluated for the signs and symbols located therein. Why not allow it to be? Why not take it for what it is? Why become psychotic?