One reactionary refusal to the despotic pace of Modernity consists in Romantic literature and the accompanying idealisms of the Romantic Hero. Romanticism emerged through a rejection of the Modern way of life, suggesting Modernity as altogether a corruption, a “restraint of theological and social conventions,” and that one should pay heed to pre-Modern values in order to live a fulfilled life. Romantics view Modernity as a “spiritual disaster, a demeaning routinization of life…” The Romantic Hero, by result, is defined and depicted as someone “placed outside the structure of civilization…yet with a sense of power, and often leadership, that society has impoverished itself by rejecting;” he is a highly introspective character who triumphs the individual over the group, and saturated with traits of “wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.” One might summarize the Romantic sentiment as mirroring the famous words of Max Weber: “The whole cosmos of the modern economic order is an iron cage, producing its specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, and its delusion that this nullity… has achieved a level of development never before attained by mankind.” This belief that one can simply transport oneself to another time can, for some Romantic characters, pave a well-cobbled path towards “Modern Melancholy… [and] false autonomy.” Stark opposition to Romantic characters and their sentiments see Romanticism as but an illusion of escape from the responsibility of Modernity, indeed often further connoting it as an ideology capable of becoming militant.
Category: Idle Thoughts
The Mystery of the Modern Narrative
The contemporary reader, whenever she is not watching Netflix, assumes that she is a detective. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, readers, rather than experience literature, investigate it. Previous to Poe’s invention in Detective Fiction, literature pursued a very different mystery: the portrayal of empathy, human intuition, and their combined relationship with our imponderable Human Condition and its connection to the meaning of all. Good things. However, from the Enlightenment’s rampant rise of science and Modernity’s subsequent Industrial Revolution came electric lighting, from electric lighting the ability to combat darkness, from the ability to combat darkness the opportunity to read books late into the night, from the opportunity to read books late into the night to highly increased literacy rates, from highly increased literacy rates to the profuse outpouring of a million new authors, nearly all of whom learning their trade by way of the Detective Story, the most seminal of those being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation in Sherlock Holmes. This is what bakers call bitter-sweet, for more people can read, but, as with all businesses that bloat beyond good means, the quality of the readership, and–as can be readily reviewed today by a cursory dekko at contemporary bookstores–the quality of the authors, and, therefore, the work. Our infatuation with Sherlock Holmes and the narrative form pursuant thereto thusly permeated into all writerly attempts. Identical to the formulaic armature of a Sherlock Holmes story, the familiar Preferred Modern Narrative includes a gripping introduction to warrant the case, suspense by way of narrative secret, sleuthing by way of narrative clues, the ever-ubiquitous Red Herring, and finally the story’s solving. To modestly bolster the assertion that we are indeed, until this very moment, unknowingly rewriting Sherlock Holmes, a brief investigation of Silver Blaze, Doyle’s first story from his collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, may be in order.
First impressions are not everything, but they are darn close. Story introductions retain a similar logic. And the contemporary reader, an entity exceedingly impatient with such initial conferences, does not like to pursue a subject without an official writ issued by the normative authorial power. To warrant the case of a story is to create, through the pithy portrayal of narrative circumstances, enough reasonable suspicion for the reader to begin investigation. The contemporary reader, as do the junkies at the main train station, lives hard and fast, and similar dossiers arrive fresh at the grocery store daily; therefore, this warrant should arrive first-thing and full of intrigue. What the contemporary reader finds intriguing is up to the color of her humors, but it is the swiftness with which it is served where the Detective Story, unfortunately, excels. Consider Silver Blaze’s immediate writ of narrative execution in the following:
“The tragedy has been so uncommon, so complete, and of such personal importance to so many people, that we are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute, undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns. On Tuesday evening…”
There is much promised here: tragedy, personal importance, surmise, conjecture, hypothesis, social critique, Truth—Doyle even posits the meta-suggestion that it is our, the readers’, duty to see what inferences may be drawn, even being so kind as to supply us with the information that it all began on a Tuesday evening. Herein provided are the contemporary craft essentials so sought-after by those so hungry to make it to the supermarket shelves, or, nowadays, any shelf at all: a sense of tension, meaning, reader participation, mystery, and the much envied sense-of-time—all within the first-two-page instant gratification we desire. Someone’s life is on the line. The issue with this model, however, remains: why we should care? The Modern writer says to herself, between said binge-bouts of Netflix, as Classical Literature, she knows, is merely social control (isn’t university easy?): Why write good character when one can write a secret?
We shall all go to our graves having hid something from those we love. Thus, the establishment of a narrative motive by way of secret is indeed a natural and poignant choice. Contemporary fiction would stand dumbfounded, mouth and eyes agape, without this Detective Fiction-based parlor trick. From Humbert Humbert’s arguably illegal psychology portrayed in Lolita to the farcically low-stakes outings propelling any P.G. Wodehouse story, a secret may be of any magnitude. How a secret is written, however, has been relatively similar since the Detective Fiction’s incipience. Something as simple as the expositive confirmation that “it [was] obvious…that there were many people who had the strongest interest in preventing Silver Blaze [a horse] from being there at the fall of the flag, next Tuesday” is enough.
The trail would go blue-cold, however, without an air of general suspicion and distrust—an atmosphere rife for sleuthing—from which the reader could deduce the most pertinent facts. This may be done in any story by way of clever, perfectly paced exposition that, unbeknownst to the reader, sends her on the hunt for narrative clues. It is indeed no mystery at all as to why the Silver Blaze’s second page should, with its familiar set up, leave the contemporary reader’s ears pricked upward and in belief that the game be afoot:
“…At King’s Pyland, where the Colonel’s training-stable is situated. Every precaution was taken to guard the favorite. The trainer, John Straker, is a retired jockey, who rode in Colonel Ross’s colors before he became too heavy for the weighing-chair. He has served the Colonel for five years as a jockey, and for seven as a trainer, and has always shown himself to be a zealous and honest servant. Under him were three lads, for the establishment was a small one, containing only four horses in all. One of these lads sat up each night in the stable, while the others slept in the loft. All three bore excellent characters. John Straker, who is a married man, lived in a small villa about two hundred yards from the stables. He has no children, keeps one maid-servant, and is comfortably off. The country round is very lonely, but about half a mile to the north there is a small cluster of villas which have been built by a Travistock contractor for the use of invalids and others who may wish to enjoy the pure Dartmoor air. Travistock itself lies two miles to the west, while across the moor, also about two miles distant, is the larger training establishment of Capleton, which belongs to Lord Backwater, and is managed by Silas Brown. In every other direction the moor is complete wilderness, inhabited only by a few roaming gypsies. Such was the general situation last Monday night when the catastrophe occurred.”
Just like Mama MFA made, the above expository fiesta contains just enough precise yet enigmatic information as regards all pertinent actors and associations appurtenant to the plot that the reader has therefrom gathered enough evidence to bypass the stage of reasonable suspicion and pursue the dictates afforded to probable cause.
Due narrative process, however, gets in the way of even the most veteran literati. Familiarity with administering arrests by the dictates of lexical law proves to that reader the red herring’s reign as powerful as ever. The red herring takes many forms. The red herring is a now-common literary device that presents a kind of narrative clue to the reader that intends to mislead or distract that same reader away from the true object of pursuit. The red herring now takes on many forms of deception, but the most traditional form comes from Detective Fiction’s redirection of suspicion upon an otherwise innocent party. Silver Blaze employs a classic Sherlockian misdirection contrived by meandering the reader away from the logic of a case and towards that of an otherwise innocent character’s possible motivations for wrongdoing: “‘Yes, and that is a factor which we must certainly not neglect. As Desborough, their horse, was second in the betting, they had an interest in the disappearance of the favourite. Silas Brown, the trainer, is known to have had large bets upon the event, and he was no friend to poor Straker.’”
Again: who cares?
Consider the meta-mouthpiece for the modern narrative, Sherlock Holmes, and his egotistical epilogues at the end of each story, which are equally a treat and a chore to read. In the Silver Blaze’s case, Colonel Ross’s dialogue, during Sherlock’s ending analyses, stands in for the thoughts of the contemporary reader, stating “‘You take my breath away.” Admitting that “‘(He) ha[s] been blind.” Further confessing that “You have made it perfectly clear, Mr. Holmes.” And it is this logic-machine of a man with an athletic form of Aspergers, sociopathic cold-bloodedness, a simultaneous cocaine/heroine addiction, a near-robotic man suffering from perpetual sleep-deprived torment—Doyle’s anthropomorphized cautionary tale of Modernity’s effects on the spirit for the world—to whom we owe our thanks for the modern narrative.
During the early sixteenth century, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, said enough was enough, cocked his quill back, and shot a blank into the bountiful bosom of English rhyming poetry.
Previous to Sir Howard’s daring move, blank verse poetry had been, all the way through the Italian Renaissance, enjoying the circulatory luxuries afforded by fair weather and the positive digestive effects of a Mediterranean diet. Described by some as “clunky,” “wooden,” or “entirely ungifted,” The Earl of Surrey was not always feted for his stellar verse-writing abilities. But his peers’ good-spirited raillery did not stop his becoming one of founding fathers of English Renaissance poetry. It was, in fact, Howard’s translation of a description of quivering seamen at the sight of a battle between Laocoön, the sea-god Neptune’s priest, and a sea-monster in Virgil’s The Aeneid that flipped the ship of English poetic thought:
Whiles Laocon, that chosen was by lot
Neptunus priest, did sacrifice a bull
Before the holy altar, sodenly
From Tenedon, behold, in cirlces great
By the calme seas come fletyng adders twayne
Which plied towardes the shore (I lothe to tell)
With rered (reared) brest lift up above the seas,
Whoes bloody crestes aloft the waves were seen
The hinder parte swamme hidden in the flood;
Their grisly backes were linked manifold.
With sound of broken waves they gate the strand
With gloing eyen, tamed with blood and fire;
Whoes waltring tongs did lick their hissing mouths
We fled away, our face the blood forsoke.
Howard’s orthography is here unstandardized; thus, it is assumed he were besotted at the time of writing—as well as during its submittal for publication. Moreover, one will find here, somewhat refreshingly, no rhyming structure. One need but only ten fingers to translate The Aeneid from Latin into English, nearly every line containing ten syllables, as is the going rate for blank verse.
From there, Christopher Marlowe requested Henry Howard clench his sack, whereupon Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, and subsequently a much better (and drunker) blank verse than the King of Wood ever could. Here is but a snippet:
The starres moove still, time runs, the clocke wil strike,
The divel wil come, and Faustus must be damnd.
O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me down?
See, see where Christs blood streames in the firmament.
And, although John Milton, Robert Browning, Robert Frost, and a gaggle of Moderns have employed the blank verse with great, sometimes breath-taking success, it was with the plays of William Shakespeare that shooting blanks reached a level of immortality. All of Shakespeare’s characters, from obscure farmers to the infamous Falstaff, speak in blank verse poetry, yet they all seem to speak in the tongue of the Everyday—which they indeed do. As always, Shakespeare is able to be two places at once, always able to sashay that mental tightrope of wit. Moreover, Shakespeare, monomaniacally enamored with the blank verse as he was, furthered the thing from its roughneck roots, applying iambic pentameter to every line.
In effect, The Bard might be witnessed rendering one of his stricter bits that contain exactly ten syllables and iambic stress such as the following from the second act of Romeo and Juliet:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
Or, one of his looser, more hair-pushed-back-collar-off-its-stud swangers; that is, the lines hover around ten syllables and sometimes take the iambic pentameter, sometimes not, as in the first three lines of Hamlet’s famous bellyache:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…
And, as it is with all things, all meaning is pregnant with Shakespeare’s words, all existence, whether one is aware of it or not, merely our inhabiting of Shakespeare’s globe.
Pissed from a Distance
Angry, bellowing men with pythons for arms and peanuts for brains are no laughing matter. Disenchanted, seething gentlemen, whose arms exist merely for decoration and whose wits are tucked away in the dark steeples of brooding misanthropy are often a gaggle of laughs. Why we prefer one over the other is uncertain, yet the conundrum remains: why is being pissed from a distance so funny?
As if Holden Caufield found himself a trifle more well-adjusted English don, the hero from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jim Dixon, sets the modern gold-standard for amusingly irritated young men. However, unlike Caufield, Dixon, despite his patent literary-level hatred for the Post-War English University, is regarded by most of today’s literati primarily as a childish perpetrator of mildly lascivious high jinks. This is not an untruth. How, then, amongst all the griping, does Dixon keep sneaking in the ole’ rib-tickler? By examining a few of Amis’s distancing narrative techniques, and their effects on our humorous interpretation of novel, one may gather how merely being miffed is enough to blister the knees.
It is no happenstance that Lucky Jim is written in the close-third-person narrative style. This narrative choice sets the perfect level of impersonality necessary for harmless irritation and subsequent schadenfreude. Where in more than a few cases the first-person narration style, with its highly intimate connection with authorial intention, might perhaps flounder, the close-third-person succeeds in creating just enough distance between the snappish views of the character and the author who wrote them. This faux distance is important for the reader, as it allows him to fully experience all the fun of the hatred whilst relieving him from any of the personal responsibility for enjoying it. The distant-third-person would ostensibly also be quite effective in the pursuit for amicable animosity, but in its stark dissociation from direct emotional experience, it often cannot quite achieve the level of intimacy needed for one to feel that humbling pang of guilt so closely linked with humor. Therefore, in depicting the Displeased, the close-third-person reigns as the supreme line-walker. How, then, does Amis apply this balanced mode, in conjunction with other techniques, to Jim Dixon’s understanding of the provincial university at which he works and the pedantic characters who inhabit it?
One technique Amis employs to achieve a safe proximity with the Scathing is to affect the first comedic commandment of Euphemism. How does one scathe euphemistically? It is in this very field where Lucky Jim displays its unique brand of genius. The idea here is similar to the effect of outboxing an opponent, whilst simultaneously inquiring into whether he endeavors to continue, yet reminding him he cannot stop the round; it is a kind of controlled, gentle viciousness that is a bit difficult to have happen upon one’s own person, but highly entertaining to watch. Dixon is not bashful about whom he targets for what is more than solely pugnacious satire, rather a kind of ruthless portrayal of truths. For an example of this, seek no further than the first scene of the novel, during which Dixon’s interpretations of Professor of History and mentor, Professor Welch, are described. Welch tells an anecdote to Dixon regarding his playing recorder and piano with a few music aficionados around the school, and how he was observed by and reported on by a local gazette. Whereupon, beginning with Welch, the following takes place:
“(B)ut what do you think they said then?”
“I don’t know, Professor,’ he said in sober veracity. No other professor in Great Britain, he thought, set such store by being called Professor.”
“‘Flute and piano.”
“Flute and piano; not recorder and piano.” Welch laughed briefly.
A veritable knee-slapper. And Dixon felt the very same way, going as far as to mention that “the older man… began speaking almost in a shout, with a tremolo imparted by unshared laughter”. And, though the laughs indeed remained in the singular form, Welch continued on absently and without consideration for the human constraints of boredom. Dixon, however, like a decent lad, attempts to honor this insufferable codger by “tr[ying] to flail his features into some sort of response to humor”. May we see now how Dixon is following the standards for decorum, responding in seemly ways, seemingly adhering to societal expectations, whilst also taking the piss? This is the very essence of being pissed from a distance. It is a kind of Bad Faith agreement wherein one conforms yet kicks dust. A subtle rebellion.
Let us now tackle the subject of Bertrand, the unequivocal coxcomb of the novel. Dixon treats Bertrand with palpable discontent. Fitting to the temperament of an exasperated young man, Dixon behaves the opposite way to his contemporary, Bertrand, than he does through his begrudging subservience to Professor Welch. Bertrand is rendered as something of a laughingstock. We are meant to laugh at Bertrand, not with him. Bertrand is described as a kind of Post-War beatnik; he is a self-proclaimed painter and caricature-grade clown; and Dixon sees this to its core. Through his persistent commentary on Bertrand’s madcap insistence on perpetually wearing a blue beret, Dixon dances not around his distaste of Bertrand, stating his claims outright: “He was wearing a blue beret, which had much the same effect on Dixon as Welch senior’s fishing-hat. If such headgear was a protection, what was it a protection against? If it wasn’t a protection, what was it for? What was it for?” Can we not hear Dixon’s irritation? Inevitably, one of the final elements of the novel is a, due to an ignominious lack of physical conditioning on the part of both participants, graceless affray between Bertrand and Dixon, of which event Dixon narrowly claims victory.
Lucky Jim is a young man’s novel. It preaches to the soul of the forthcoming thirty-years-of-age existential crisis, incisively arguing with, and often fittingly ignorant to, the antithetical notions of career versus freedom, love versus happiness, and suffering fools versus societal dissociation. Lucky Jim, truly a late-stage bildungsroman book, by Amis’s use of the close-third-person narrative style and tastefully detached prose style, a Looney Toons steam-whistle-escaping-from-the-shirt-collar hot-temperedness is rendered irascibility-light, a stiff scotch cut with water, heavy on the ice.
The Problem of Today
Standard English expects the present perfect tense to be always used whenever the adverb of time, today, is used.
Have you seen Aunt Sarah today?
Yes, I have seen Aunt Sarah today.
Although the examiners at the Cambridge Exam would applaud one’s blanket usage thereof, I should employ my hands upon a different task, dipping them first into the glue, thence the glass.
Although myself a trifle to the right on the Descriptivist/Purist scale, I nevertheless call the case of limpeting on to this usage of the present perfect, as one does the ship’s mast before the final plunge, a load of the shoddiest. Tenses should be used discriminately, to denote time and one’s passage through it. Rules should not simply exist.
It might insult the sensitive reader to hazard forth that the simple past tense denotes events that occurred in only the past, whilst the present perfect denotes those that have occurred in both the past and at present. Past this, I ask, then: does today happen before, now, or after?
Let us examine again the case of Aunt Sarah. The general idea is that today is not over. You just might see Aunt Sarah in the same collection of 24-hours that have been allotted the title; therefore, you have seen Aunt Sarah.
With this, I agree. This present perfect usage is paramount, whenever, for example, one works with Aunt Sarah in the same building and seeing her again is merely the work of one’s pivoting around the next corner, or one lives in the general area as Aunt Sarah, and she’s known to stop by with baked goods or bad news, or she’s prone to spontaneous FaceTime calls on the same day that you have already seen her, or oneself is a known serial visitor of Aunt Sarah. I take issue, however, with the fact that, if you ever saw Aunt Sarah, then you are mistaken.
A dismissal of the simple past tense’s “I saw Aunt Sarah today” as purely an American vulgarism smacks of the worst kind of linguistic injustice. And, indeed, it is regarded as something of a singularly American sin to say, I saw Aunt Sarah today.
It would be correct, however, to say: I saw Aunt Sarah earlier today, for it uses earlier to denote a time that happened before and will never again occur, so the simple past tense it approved.
Firstly, about this, I should state the obvious: In the sentence, I saw Aunt Sarah today, the earlier is simply omitted and therefore implied; we are intelligently implying that some part of today ended, never to return, or that a particular event or function is now history. In this case, stating earlier would also be something tantamount to a redundancy. And, aside from within the plays of Shakespeare, redundancy is given the stink-eye.
I wrote an article today.
I have written an article today.
I wrote the article, and I am no longer writing the article, thus the action of my writing the article exists solely in the past—but it all happened today. Additionally, I wrote the article during the the morning, a bit in the afternoon, and knitted the loose ends together during the evening. Am I simply to say, then, that I wrote the article earlier? When was earlier? Well, in bits throughout the day. Which day? Today? Yes. Surely, I could rewrite the article later that same day; I could edit the article, too. I could even, though my Sloth prevents it, write another article. However, I can never write that same article again today. The article, as both an idea and artifact, is complete. I cannot link the completed artifact to any present action; therefore, it’s simply in the past.
Let us return to Aunt Sarah, whom I have seen today—only.
Oh, yes? Although Aunt Sarah was viewed by Yours Humbly in the later forenoon through to the early afternoon, lives three hours away by car, hasn’t a computer, smart phone, car of her own, or nearby train-line, enjoys a healthy dose of agoraphobia, is not prone to kidnappings, has an aortic embolism, lost her voice to a pleasant life of Pall Malls, and doesn’t have any legs? It would be for my money that I saw Aunt Sarah today. Need I say earlier? Is that not obvious? More often than not, a common day on Earth begins with the sun’s rising, its staying overhead for some amount of time, and its setting. Moreover, humanity has added things such as seconds, minutes, even hours therein. To complicate things even further, we’ve given names to certain clusters of hours; there’s breakfast, second-breakfast, elevenses, lunch, dinner, supper. You know about those, don’t you?
I sympathize towards rules. I am, however, sympathetic towards rules that exist only due to their making sense; I believe that the smudge in the painting should be intentional. We have an s at the end of nouns to show the plural, we have pronouns to make sense of antecedents, and we have verb-tenses to understand one’s relation to time. But, if someone corrects your saw with a have seen, firstly, consider if you perhaps truly have made a mistake. Upon vindication, tell the offender that you’ll see him later, which doesn’t actually mean that you’ll see him later, if that isn’t obvious to him already—but, maybe, for obvious reasons, he’ll require the clarification.
Fun with Animals
Comparing human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities, defined broadly as anthropomorphism, is an innate, highly entertaining tendency of human psychology.
The human-to-animal route is a particular favorite of humanity’s, as well as an age-old practice. The English language comes complete with an eloquent system of Classical metaphors that, in order to connote specific meanings, compares animals’ physical appearances, actions, and intentions with those of humans’, and, in this way, exaggerates those same traits, such that they become more obvious, stronger, funnier.
Likening your fellow Man to an animal can, however, sometimes possess the propensity to be rather smashmouth football. Calling someone an ape can quickly get you into a spot of bother. To suggest doing something doggy style might also provoke a stiff reaction. Therefore, seek the friendship of understatement. And nothing says understatement quicker than scientific writing.
By its very nature of attempting to remain detached and objective, scientific writing has a built-in understatement monitor, the literary result of which is often ironic. Scientific words are often so nebulous in meaning that they feel almost ghost-like; therefore, scientific words are essentially invisible to the weal public, so one may use them flagrantly, disparaging, and with minimal fear.
A stand-up, modern gentleman’s work-around for rendering the blunter admission of “ape” might be found in the adjective simian. For comparison to another, slightly more dignified knuckle-dragger, consider ursine: like a bear. For sheeple who follow as the flock, ovine might be the bellwether. Whenever some swine’s eating like a pig, tut-tut him for his porcine ways; and, if he drinks tea directly out of the whistling kettle, his ways are more saurian, as lizards find the heat preferable and are known for things burnt and tonguey. Elected above the normal system of life, often a clever representation of tragedy, and in possession of possible psychic abilities? Try corvine. If she’s got a neck, she’s struthious. If Ulysses’s Buck Mulligan would say that she “bucks like a goat,” she’s probably redheaded, and you can also call her hircine. Someone who’s either lupine or vulpine might blow your house down, and these evil predators are often cloaked in ovine attire. His aqua-based partner in crime is the shark, which is described by the adjective selachian. “Silly goose” feeling a bit tired? Call that foolish, helpless, loveable lummox anserine. That’ll cook your goose. In English literature, the description of ugly, demonic protectors of treasures that sometimes symbolize fertility belongs to toads, or bufoniform creatures. Everyone knows a cockroach when she sees one; the good for nothing, unwanted, dirty pests, otherwise knowns neighbors, resemble something blattoid. Satan himself couldn’t escape the biting description of ophidian: an evil, poisonous, backstabbing, lying trickster with a penchant for deceit. Neither could Gríma Wormtongue give the raspberry to his parallel with the vermiform and therefore death. But, now I’m just peacocking, which is quite a pavonine thing to do.
Now for the elephant in the room. For an extensive analysis on comparing humans to animals, do consider forgoing the extra stop by the vegan restaurant tonight in favor of purchasing Ward Farnsworth’s much more enjoyable Classical English Metaphor. The book’s built like an ox.
A Queer Bag
I once tutored an extremely bright young freshman who, when prompted by his professor to write a more than modest-length essay about The Fear of the Unknown, twisted his brow, pouted angrily, and said, “but, if I ain’t know what it is, how can I be scared of it?”
The contemporary system of American colleges and universities is unfortunately no stranger to such high feats of intellect. Much to the surprise of all, however, he did not finish the semester. And, although we might also wish for ourselves such a privileged life of gadding incompetence and drooling ease, we aren’t all so lucky.
Having already conquered breathing and washing our bodies, those of us highly developed creatures who endeavor to understand a thing or two about our “reality” (as Nabokov would have written it) often sense The Unknown as something of a lurking fear. The English language contains no dearth of words within its lexicon to report on this effect. There are, however, fine discriminations betwixt selections. Let’s start with something that might make us feel a bit queer.
Queer did not always mean “affluent student with good parents and a need to be the center of attention,” rather it served as an adjective that described something as “strangely off,” or “oddly amiss.” Rumored to be derived from the German quer (oblique), queer also means feelin’ “slightly ill” (heard often in traditional Irish music), as if one were feeling not quite knowingly sick but wambling on the verge of something, perhaps along Queer Street. And to queer something has always meant “to spoil or ruin” it, which presents an interesting irony against today’s fashionable usurpation. In fact, I should wager queer now as a word almost entirely ironic.
Strange is of French origin and means “something unusual or surprising,” specifically in a way that is “difficult to understand.” This may describe an external event or the way one feels, both of which usages arise from strange’s connotations with something “never before seen or encountered and likely unfamiliar,” even “alien,” which supports a notion of linkage with the archaic sense of the word: “unaccustomed to or unfamiliar with.” Odd would be the closest in meaning to strange, though not geographically. Odd was born and raised in Old Norse and also applies itself to numbers that have one left over as a remainder, whenever divided by two. Be there a connection between something’s being off-kilter and its lack of even division?
Fey is perhaps my favorite word to describe oddity, if only for its aesthetic appeal. Fey is a stronger word than strange or odd, for it connotes “an impression of vague unworldliness or mystery,” as well as describes someone as “having supernatural powers of clairvoyance.” Fey is of Germanic origin and has reached your eyes today through Dutch and Old English. There is also an archaic, Scottish definition that means “fated to die or at the point of death,” which leads one to wonder why Shakespeare, for Macbeth—or, The Scottish Play—chose to name the witches therein not The Fey Sisters, but rather The Weird Sisters.
In fact, The Weird Sisters makes complete sense and is, though it sounds commoner, a more sophisticated usage. Weird is also of Germanic origins and therefrom the Old English wyrd or “destiny,” or, more specifically, “having the power to control destiny.” German mythology defines weird closely to how the Greeks defined Fate. But, they are not the same. The German idea of weird means a web of interconnected events, of which a linear path can be neither drawn nor understood, whereas the Greek idea of fate took things more linearly. Something that’s weird is of unstoppable, pre-determined origins that, whilst momentarily fey, was ultimately a cosmic certainty. Nowadays, as most things, we’ve simplified it to mean “supernatural or unearthly,” or, if you’re of humbler ilk, “something bizarre,” which comes from the Italian bizzarro. In this sense, then, Macbeth, by powers beyond his reason and control, had always been doomed to something weird.
Though fate is an ancient Greek concept, we receive the word by way of Latin. Greek mythology’s The Fates presided over the birth and life of humans, each person’s destiny weaved by them: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos—another three weird ladies. As a society, we tend to stick a bit etymologically truer to fate than to weird. Fate is a development of events within each person’s life that are outside of each person’s control, which, like things weird, are pre-determined and controlled supernaturally. Unlike weird, however, fate is thought as linear. Think of weird as a spider web and fate as a river.
Supernatural has been a difficult word to avoid using, as it is today used to describe essentially any force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. Natural things, as we’ve come to understand them, are things native to our physical, material, observable world, things that can be sensed and are therefore measurable. Super- is a prefix that roughly means “over” or “above,” which has heavenly connotations. Preternatural is a near synonym, preter- meaning “beyond” or “more than.”
There are also more secular, yet less powerful, words that one many employ to describe anything deviating from what is normal or usual—often in a way that is undesirable or worrying—words such as unusual, uncommon, and unconventional are decent neutral choices with a slight leaning in meaning towards societal normativism. Unorthodox is also a fine, middle-brow selection with some religious connotations. Abnormal and atypical are alternatives, but they’ve become bloodless, scientific bores that have actually taken on meanings of their own and have, like queer, become almost entirely ironic in nature. Outré would be a good, neutral choice for the Francophile who wants to describe a thing that is “beyond the limits of what it considered usual, normal, or proper” and carries the notion of “singularly unique,” which is an unfortunate contemporary redundancy to commit on the part of the Author, as “unique” has now essentially lost all meaning, for everyone is today “unique”—one need only a red streak in one’s hair.
Funny and Curious inhabit one category; both have amusing aspects, which can simultaneously describe something strange or unusual. Funny can describe something that arouses suspicion, as well as, like queer, one’s feeling “slightly but undefinably unwell.” Curious contains the obvious meaning of “eager to know or learn something” but can also be used as an adjective or nominative adjective to describe something that arouses the need to know or learn: “This is a curious novel; do you perhaps have a copy that I might borrow?”
Uncanny is a current crowd-pleaser, and is, in my opinion, a trifle over-used and will soon find itself queered. Uncanny describes something that’s simultaneously odd and unsettling, due to the described’s enigmatic nature and potentially threatening manifestation. Bandying nowadays about The Uncanny Valley is common. I’m bothered by the redundancy found in this phrase, as it describes by merely re-describing the definition of uncanny. A perhaps helpful metaphor, however, is the aim here.
We’ll finish with a mystery. The meaning of the prefix myst-/myster-, which occupies a spot in English by way of Ancient Greek, Latin, and French, respectively, is best translated today as “one whose eyes are closed.” Anything with this prefix possesses a connotation of secret enigmatic strangeness. Moreover, it carries an esoteric sentiment, conjuring images of the soul or the spirit, rather than things material. And, finally, as in the case of things mystic or mystical, symbolic and allegorical significance that transcends human understanding is suggested, religion or the occult often implied.
The Importance of the Unnecessary
Though a common misconception and favorite mantra of jealous minimalists the world over, “Charles Dickens was” not “paid by the word.” Rather, he was paid by installment. He did have, however, one highly enviable up on Twenty First Century lexoslaves in that he was paid. Nevertheless, no matter how one might want to spin Dickens’s preternatural ability to describe at length any and all things as merely a by-the-word, middle-brow money laundering scam, the fact remains that the gentleman could indeed describe.
The Description is a lost art. And the Description has received this predicate nominative adjectival pejoration due to our unhealthy obsession with The Useful, The Economic, The Necessary. Why, when one failed poet in brown corduroy asks another yawning novelist on hiatus what his favorite epoch of literature is, does that same overweight adjunct professor always respond with “the Nineteenth Century?” The Nineteenth Century was the heyday of the novel—the heyday of Realism. And it is likely this truth that forces that same school-debt encumbered, part-time bike courier to reply with the century aforementioned.
Good Realist writers were/are concerned with (un)necessary detail. And it seems to be the unnecessary and not the necessary that reminds us of our world. Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, written in 1836, during only his twenty-fifth year on this earth, is not only a post-doctorate-level mirth-driven abdominal workout, but also an A-1 exercise in The Unnecessary.
So, how does one write The Unnecessary? First, gather together all of your friends who are fluent in Ancient Greek. Now, perform the same task for those who are fluent in Latin. Very good. Now that you are still alone and with quite a bit of free time on your hands, this could be a great time to ponder the fact that the average sentence length, as compared from the time of Shakespeare to today, has decreased over seventy-five percent, from over seventy words per sentence to under fifteen. A much-needed decrease in convoluted thinking, some might say. A woeful increase in small ideas, others would riposte. Either way, it remains true that we use fewer words than ever to describe our world.
In the olden days, before divorce and UberEATS, there was this thing called a Classical Education, whose interests were, briefly stated, to bestow onto its students a deep, rich, fulfilling connection with the roots of human civilization and a meaningful, unfractured perspective of the world. Sixteenth through Nineteenth Century students were ensconced in this education, and Charles Dickens was one of those lucky students, although he left formal schooling at eleven-years-old to work in a factory in order to amass the funds required to bail his father out of a debtors prison. Students of this time were well-versed in Ancient Greek and Latin, languages heavily reliant on the long sentence, or what is known to better people as hypotaxis.
Hypotaxis enjoys many long-since-forgotten philological entreaties. A well-constructed bout of hypotaxis is scintillatingly complex. You remember complexity. Although there is much historical and contemporary evidence for the contrary, we do sometimes listen to and trust in those who actually think. Whether it proves competent or incompetent, hypotaxis of a good variety gains the reader’s trust, as it verifies that the narrator or character has thought a goodish deal about what he is saying. Try to convince an editor today to publish an opening sentence like the opening sentence of The Pickwick Papers:
“The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.”
Hypotaxis is also inherently polite. Moreover, hypotaxis is sexy; we inherently like to strip away its layers of meaning and tease our mental faculties with its hidden parts.
Around 1900 or thereabouts, however, there came this newer and therefore, obviously, much better idea called a Progressive Education, which decided hypotaxis evil and the frenetic acquisition of office workers to be the most important pedagogical endeavor.
In a contemporary world thoroughly wanting in hypotaxis, it is simplicity itself to find the correlation between the loss of the long sentence and the loss of the lengthy description. Consider just one of the hundreds of painstakingly detailed passages in Dickens’s description of a debtors prison:
“It was getting dark; that is to say, a few gas jets were kindled in this place which was never light, by way of compliment to the evening, which had set in outside. As it was rather warm, some of the tenants of the numerous little rooms which opened into the gallery on either hand, had set their doors ajar. Mr. Pickwick peeped into them as he passed along, with great curiosity and interest. Here, four or five great hulking fellows, just visible through a cloud of tobacco smoke, were engaged in noisy and riotous conversation over half-emptied pots of beer, or playing at all-fours with a very greasy pack of cards. In the adjoining room, some solitary tenant might be seen poring, by the light of a feeble tallow candle, over a bundle of soiled and tattered papers, yellow with dust and dropping to pieces from age, writing, for the hundredth time, some lengthened statement of his grievances, for the perusal of some great man whose eyes it would never reach, or whose heart it would never touch. In a third, a man, with his wife and a whole crowd of children, might be seen making up a scanty bed on the ground, or upon a few chairs, for the younger ones to pass the night in. And in a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh, the noise, and the beer, and the tobacco smoke, and the cards, all came over again in greater force than before.”
According to James Wood’s How Fiction Works, nineteenth-century Realism bolstered the birth of the unnecessary detail: “19th-century realism…creates such an abundance of detail…that it will always contain a certain superfluidity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus detail.” Dickens’s above passage is uncommon in today’s fiction because of its overabundance of detail. Of course, it paints a nineteenth-century picture, but it serves no ulterior motive but to describe for the reader the scene; it describes itself for itself; it enjoys the existence of itself for itself. The Detail is enough; it is its own end.
Let us turn to a man unafraid to let his pen run wild, the prince of petty himself, Oscar Wilde: “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
Wordsymthe’s Fine Wares
I hear a lot of talk nowadays about free speech. The truth is, however, that, for the halfwit, language always costs something. Wordsworth never wrote too much about a word’s worth, as it wasn’t worth it to him; advertisers, however, have considered this idea, and, since then, they’ve been capitalizing on your desire to buy a moment’s identity.
Fancy yourself fond of the Quaint and the Cozy? Perhaps you’re best sold by a bit of the Olde. Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic antiquity have been deemed by Moderns as the kings of all things quaint and cozy. To sell rubbish of the like, the key is to sound not too old, so as to confuse and intimidate your customers with a powerful ancientness. Rather, if a business wants to sell a sleepy evening, just throw, as Rich Boy might have suggested, a few e’s on it. Additionally helpful would be a k or two, or, if you’re of bolder ilk, three. Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe works well on your standard child but take heed—those with a need for tweed require more sophisticated ruses as adults and thusly seek establishments anointed with such titles as Pumblechook’s Publick House, Sigrid’s Steake and Steinn, or Wycliffe Taverne. And a post-prandial stroll would be better appreciated upon Grosvenor’s Greene than upon anything merely green.
So, you want Cozy but not necessarily Black-Plague-and-dysentery-in-the-chamber-pot cozy? You might, then, just consider something vaguely British. American orthography and speech, although often etymologically older than our dentist-less counterparts’, have been deemed by the hoi polloi as too modern. Indeed, the English have been chosen as the gatekeepers of Cozy, even their books on murder and grand deception donning the title “Cozies.” Yes, simply anglicize anything you’d like by a smidgen, and you have yourself not a boring, old, belt-line-to-your-armpits American movie theater stinking of Stetson cologne, but a Centre Cinema. It’s not curb service, you bean-burning cowboy, rather kerb service. Tire Town is tired, so make it Village Tyres. Whether you’re selling favours, colours, programmes, or connexions, they all, with a bit of the Union Jack jacking things around, sound identical but look somehow classier.
Although I might argue that people find the Brits cute due to the modern caricature of their previous ways resembling something vaguely child-like, another way to swindle someone with the Sweet would be to jettison the Anglophilia for a moment to inhabit the orthography of a true child. This method works best on people with lots of money and no taste. With pockets full and head empty, Kathy stops by the Kit Kat Klub, and Beth, who is not a big reader, by Olive ‘r Twist Cocktails. Mark finds nothing wrong with the Kuntry Kitchen’s rather salty menu, neither Sandy with the Sip ’n’ Sup’s predictable array. And the business performed by the Knick-Knack Knook caters mostly to those with an appetite for local history at second-hand prices. So, k’s are cute yet classless.
Many of your contemporaries will mention to you that they find class systems to be archaic forms of arbitrary hierarchy under which oppression is the main side-dish, yet those same many are just as hungry to purchase their spot. Which shop possesses the pleated trousers on which one may really count? Dave’s Pants Store? or The Regiment for Men? There’s a sale this weekend at both Hal’s Hut and Lorrimer Limited. Where exists the better buy? You are to buy a wedding gift for lost-trusted friend: as regards general quality, does the General Outlet Depot or Regency Room Exclusives ring the sacred bell of fraternity? Fine wares are desired: The Squire Shop, Carriage Trade Fashions, or Joe’s Quality Goods? Wrong. So, why did we choose those other stores? My bet is that we see these titles as resembling those of the nineteenth century’s, a century associated with class.
And nothing says class to the philistine like anything French. It’s a certainty in English: use more French-derived words, sound smarter. In 1066 A.D. the French talked it over with the English, and English said it would be OK to let them run the island for a while. Therefrom the French perfumed up the place for a few hundred years. Chaucer wasn’t into it, but everyone else who knew what was what did their business in French. Therefore, French words in English hold a special, higher place in the lexicon. If one wants to kill an animal and turn his or her skin or flesh into either a bag, shoe, or dinner, just throw a French appellation on it, and things are all right.
For example, two gentlemen walk into L’endroit Pour Manger, which they know to be spectacular. One asks what’s in the Soupe du jour. The waitress, new to her craft, ventures a wry one: “It changes every day.” That same gentleman smiles blankly. The other gentleman submits a perusal to the le menu and runs a stubby finger over and subsequently stumbles painfully through pronouncing the following:
- Oeufs durs et crudiés de la saison, “well done, please.”
Our waitress smiles. And for dessert?
- Pommes de terre frites et haricots verts du potager
But illiteracy can also be used to one’s advantage. Imagine that you need to sell tons of garbage in bulk quantities to simple, no-fuss folk with a job to do. The salt of the earth can’t be bothered with the French, neither have they time for English. Who needs to lay a tough coat of caulk, whenever one could grab a tube of Tuff-Kote. Need to slap up something quick? Try Kwik-Kote Paint. Why work hard, whenever Redi-Kash loans are easy? Dri-Kleen spot remover for those meatball sandwich stains—E-Z-Gro fertilizer for the do-it-yourselfer who takes no guff. Even jetsetters sometimes struggle with reading. For that, there’s the fairly priced Nite-Flite Air Fares.
It’s not Alright
If I were given a dime for every time I’ve heard “but, language is flexible; it changes,” then I should have just a few extra dollars, for my friends, thank God, are not literature undergraduates. The damage that this now worthless phrase has inflicted upon my heart, however, must have already cost me a fortune.
Why is it not alright?
It’s not alright because it’s not all right; it has nothing to do with being stuffed to the nipples with methane. Whenever one embarks upon alright, one is truly searching for all right.
All right means that everything’s “all right,” as in it’s not at all left, as in it’s not at all evil, as in it’s all good.
Whenever something’s all right, all acts as an adverb, describing the adjective (or nominative adjective) right, which, in this case, is intensifying the rightness.
To wantonly use alright is not the sign of an understanding soul more accepting of newcomers, rather of poor discriminatory abilities. Surely, homophones can be a nuisance in English, but the fact that we cannot persuade that same homophone-sufferer that listening to audiobooks is not the same as reading should not be our problem to bear.
Those at fault, however, are somewhat intelligently attempting to truncate the word into a word-pattern similar to those they’ve before seen. Perhaps top form here would be to provide a comparative list of distinctions, and, through this, describe what all right offenders believe to be doing.
All ready: All serves as a pronoun that describes a group of people who, or things that, are prepared to begin, or ready. “We are all ready to sacrifice grandma.”
Already: An adverb of time, already describes something that has happened before, or is presently underway with, something else: “We have (are) already sacrificed (ing) grandma.”
All together: This describes how several things or people are currently oriented, or how something (or someone) is to be done, which is to say that everything or everyone is in one place or group, or that something (or someone) is to be done all at once: “Let’s put the Christmas trees all together, so that we can celebrate all together.”
Altogether: An adverb describing how something is to be done all in one place, or in a group, or otherwise all at once: “Why don’t we just throw the Christmas trees out altogether?”
The same connective logic applies with a part: The indefinite article (a) and singular noun (part) describe one element that is not necessarily a part of a larger whole but could be: “A part of me believes that my toaster talks back to me, which could be a part of my problem.” A part cannot, although taken apart physically, cannot describe something that has been taken apart.
Apart unparted tempts those again with this tendency to confuse parted forms with the adverbial form, which, in this case, modifies “tear”: “You don’t want me in your house; I’ll tear that place apart.”
Any way: Any is a determiner; way is a noun. Witness and behold: “You could do the job in any way that you like, as long as you get it done.”
Anyway: “Forget it. You don’t have the correct tools, anyway.”
Some time: “I have some time on Friday to meet, if you would like.”
Sometime: “I would certainly like to meet sometime, but Friday does not work for me.”
Now consider the interesting case of a pace and apace.
A pace: A pace consists of an indefinite article (a) and a noun (pace): Select a pace on the treadmill that is right for you.”
Apace: An adverb that means to do something swiftly or quickly: “As I have only thirty minutes to complete five miles, I shall forsooth endeavor to move my legs apace.”
This pace case, although idiotically described, shows the vast area for misinterpretation of which the written word, if wielded incorrectly, is so easily capable, which is a nice segue into pure idiocy.
A lot is used in English by all to bypass the Words of Number/Amount conundrum, as “a lot” can be used to refer to “a lot” of pencils on the desk, but also “a lot” of chocolate pudding spread all over the sidewalk. Allot is a verb that means to apportion or provide a certain amount of something to someone or another thing.
Alot: not a word.
This is all to say that there’s no way around it: Alright is an outright error, for alright is not a word; it attempts to supplant one word that already has its own logic with nothing. Alright attempts to slip the Trojan Horse in through the backdoor but doesn’t hold up. But enough of that talk.
Fowler, Elster, and many other authorities on the English language hold firm that alright be either fashionable, barbarism, or something worse. The modern Fowler’s, fudged around with by Butterfield, suggests a compromise. Butterfield says that we should keep all right in its rightful place yet further asserts that alright could be used to distinguish from all as a pronoun, as in many of the above examples, as well as simply using alright for the adverbial form, much like we use already and altogether. He suggests two other reasons for a distinction to be made, but malarky smells worse whenever piled upon one another, I assume.