The word berth has always, for me, had something of an oaky afterbirth; that is, upon its reaching my lips, I have never been able to escape the taste of a freshly greased newborn. I have a feeling that I am not alone in this phenomenon. Luckily, this neurological event is not without some etymological reason, which makes the whole thing acceptable.
More than mere homophones, birth and berth are more than likely doublets, which means that they were born of the same root-word. Birth is the older of the twins by just a few centuries, finding origins in Proto-Germanic, thence slithering into Old Norse, and a bit later Middle English, during which time berth is born, meaning “bearing” or “carriage,” though not a baby’s, as mothers were still at this time staunchly anti-pram.
How long can mothers bear to bear bare-naked babies around bears without bearing arms?
The diversity of the word is hereabove illustrated. Yet, indeed, for what duration can a woman with child truly endure or accept producing unclothed infants within proximity of large, carnivorous mountain mammals sans the proper firearms? However, a better question exists: are bear, bear, bare, bear, and bear related to the birth/berth imbroglio?
Well, as mentioned, berth began as “bearing” or “carriage” and, to this day, still describes any allotted amount of space, particularly a ship’s (and don’t we often call ships she?) allotted space, either for her docking, or for the gentlemen underneath her who sleep in “berths,” otherwise known as small cabins, where sailors sleep in the fetal position, from which they unberth upon the captain’s call to perform their nautical duties, which may also be called a berth.
Cut the ship. With compound nouns such as “birth canal,” is it so strange, then, to have borne in mind the widths of certain waters and the flowing of certain currents?
Roger Micheldene is fat, drunk, lusty, British, and he is in the United States. But that would be to simplify Roger. He is a visiting publisher at Pennsylvania’s Budweiser University. He is somewhat well-dressed. He is also hypersensitive to criticism and rejection, introspectively self-absorbed, palpably insecure, unable to identify or own hurting someone’s feelings, and leads a black cloud of negative emotion and hostility, even describing himself as “distinguished in anger.” However, like all narcissists, whether grandiose or vulnerable, he is the only one that does not truly know it, and, most of all, the blame lies always with others.
Mollie Atkins, cringe-worthy anglophile, serial adulterer, and soon-to-be budget-mistress to Roger, asks Roger, during the first minute of their first picnic together, “Which (food) [he] would like to try first.” Roger: “I think I’ll start with some of that,” pointing at Mrs. Atkins. And, whilst the very next line in “He had some of that” reeks of humor stinking of Amis, the following describing Mollie’s fruits as “well matured but showing no untoward signs of age and with the customer’s satisfaction borne very much in mind,” though tickling and telling enough, smacks one of a strangely self-centered detachedness, his immediate post-copulation thoughts being those of her age and the customer’s satisfaction. The sinister abdominal workout continues, as one honks through Roger’s description of Mollie’s unattractively intimate utterings and his deadpan espying of a tortoise under a fern that had been watching the sin unfold in real-time. Yet, we are a trifle shaken by the dialogue directly thereafter, wherein he describes Mollie as disturbing “his own sensations.” And, whenever the British literary liaison is bested in vocabulary distinction by a cheating Pennsylvania bumpkin, a scene of some psychological concern commences. Roger uses the word tortoise whenever turtle is called for, and, whenever Mollie catches him on this, Roger “brooded for a moment…He was dissatisfied with the tortoise situation…it had put him down a couple of points conversationally and this must be redressed at once. ‘How’s my old friend Strode?’” In addition to the odd habit of seeing conversation as a points-game, Roger decides to mention the name of Mollie’s apparently dastardly husband for a number of hurtful reasons, chief of those being “Worsted over the tortoises.” Moreover, Roger uses the word “Egotist” to describe Strode, which is fitting, as narcissists are always quite adept at finding narcissistic traits in those other than themselves.
Without much delay are we given another rather indicative scenario. A campus debate develops spontaneously between Father Colgate, a handsome, young, gentle Catholic priest, and Roger. What started as a conversation becomes one of those odd campus showdowns between religious figure and disbeliever. Despite one’s thoughts on the cosmos and their order, Roger’s motivations during interaction are worthy of some attention, starting perhaps with the fact that he “wanted some sort of audience for what he was preparing to tell Father Colgate. One of their number, a blonde girl wearing a man’s shirt but in all other visible respects unmanly to the point of outright effeminacy, was looking at him. These Yank college girls were at it all the time, one heard.” Why would an audience be necessary for what is presently a private conversation? Additionally, why should a blonde Yank girl in a man’s shirt who was potentially at it all the time be an important consideration of the proceedings? Furthermore, why should she be the chief focus of the proceedings? “He must concentrate on showing this blonde…how marvelous he was at dealing with chaps like Father Colgate.” After the churchman had delineated his way through forethought, responsibility, and reason, Roger “said fast and loud: ‘I honestly don’t know which staggers me more, Father, your affection for the obvious or your half-baked humanitarianism.’” And, whenever Roger is momentarily impeded by the young, talented visiting novelist on campus, Irving Macher, Roger feels that he must now “engineer the punishment of Macher for his interruption,” for taking him away from his loyal herd of college disciples, “including the girl in the shirt.” A significant instance of shallow, self-revolving behavior, not to mention a preoccupation with being admired and praised by others, the main representative of those being the blonde, someone much younger than he, someone highly impressionable, someone whom Roger can control and manipulate.
And this instance of attempting to exploit Youth is not singular. Indeed Roger finds great irritation in losing a game of Scrabble to the seven-year-old genius child of the aptly named Dr. Ernst Bang, the husband of Helene Bang, Roger’s supreme lust. Roger goes as far as knocking over the Scrabble board in a way that attempts to convey an accident, whereupon he accuses the child of cheating. It was this same child whom Roger attempts to blame for plotting Roger’s downfall. Whenever all is resolved, however, and the child is free from suspicion, Ernst and Helene laugh a gleeful mirth, the kind of gleeful mirth that expects warm participation on the part of the laughee. Instead, Roger can hardly keep his narcissistic rage contained: “‘The laugh’s certainly on me,’ Roger said, keeping his mouth expanded and producing an aspirated grunt every half second or so.”
With regard to Helene, Roger’s main sexual fixation of the novel, his general sentiment can be summarized rather succinctly:
“Whether or not his motives about women were obscure he did not think they were. A man’s sexual aim, he had often said to himself, is to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature that is the opposite of these; to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal. But it seemed a good moment to keep quiet about that.”
This sentiment can be still better understood, whenever taking his private calculations as regards Helene to heart. He oft describes his pursuit of her in quantified terms, one example thereof’s being “…a masterful feat of conscious policy, all of it successfully directed at getting her to come away with him in a week’s time…chances at about sixty to forty in his favour.”
Roger, in a scene during which a notoriously promiscuous wench asks him whether or not people should be kinder to others who have relationship problems with the opposite sex, even using the phrase “our position,” Roger’s ego is assailed by suggesting the problem to be in the plural. Roger then jettisons all consideration for the cookie and, after “[taking] a deep breath to insure rapidity of fire,” instead locks, loads, and delivers accordingly:
“I fail to see any similarity in our positions. I have, fortunately for you, been taking almost no notice of your nonsense. But considering your time of life I would advise you to conduct yourself with a little more dignity. Most men don’t enjoy drunken women after a certain age making certain passes at them. You have a perfectly good husband. I suggest that you pay a little more attention to him.”
Like all seasoned narcissists, Roger projects his insecurity upon this, albeit not entirely admirable, woman. It is nevertheless striking how much Roger truly desires to hurt people with what he says, and what he says being, with the names and situations changed, really just descriptions of himself.
The novel’s religious meditations are frequent and strong. In general, Roger has it the wrong way around: praying to sleep with another man’s wife, endeavoring to fist-fight priests, even attempting to gaslight God himself, who, being the inventor of the thing, likely hasn’t fallen for Roger’s charms. Although Roger arguably holds his own amongst some of the most despicable characters in literature, his story is redeemed by the call to change. Father Colgate tells Roger, and therefore the reader, how these symptoms are
“…infallibly the signs of a soul at variance with God. You, my son, are very gravely disturbed. You are in acute spiritual pain…I detected this from your very violent and distraught words to me back at the fraternity house and I obtained the clearest possible confirmation from the way you behaved a moment ago. A man doesn’t act like a child unless his soul is hurting him.”
Roger: “I’m not your son, you dog-collared buffoon…now unless you want to be martyred in the next five seconds you get out of my way.”
At just over 161 pages, One Fat Englishman, written in 1963 by the always witty ambassador to bad behavior, Kingsley Amis, flickers by with the speed and conscientiousness of a character-study. Whilst at first a novel merely unsettling, irritating, and even in nihilistic in scope, clarity reigns upon its conclusion; the redeeming factor to this novel is the call of transcendence that Amis offers in his demonizing Roger’s evil ways, indeed serving very much as something of a spiritual autobiography that led to Amis’s own retreat away from a delusional hedonism and accompanying convoluted nihilism to a life of, though ever satirically snappish, conservatively mannered contemplation.
The strength of a short story may be evaluated by various quality-judgements. And, as the nomenclature suggests, short stories haven’t the time to unimpress. Fortunately, there are many routes that one may take to perform such a feat; the best-cobbled path is, however, in the same fashion as one would win the heart of a lover: intimacy. Dennis Johnson’s collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, not only deeply affects the reader, butalso possesses one’s soul with a devilish intimacy nearly divine in its courtship. Some might moot artistic afflatus; some might point to the rampant drug abuse. I remain nevertheless steadfast in the opinion that these slices of someone’s literary heaven exist from a mastery of craft. It may be interpreted that Johnson completes this coaxing, in part, by three forms of ingratiation: a conversational first-person-reportage narrative style, the acknowledgment of the reader with the second-person, and the Big Kiss Goodnight ending.
Johnson’s stories feel like a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket whispering unspeakables. Whenever a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket descries us at a social gathering and, after cornering us with his broad shoulders, proceeds to delineate to us his heaviest moments, we normally fear for our lives. Though this is often the prudent choice for those in favor of a full life, the opposite is likely our response to Jesus’ Son. Johnson earns our affections with his conversational first-person-reportage narrative style. Reportage, though often considered unliterary, is pungent with authenticity, for it most closely imitates someone speaking directly to us about one’s life. The reportage style is told using the past perfect tense, “I’d been staying at the holiday Inn with my girlfriend,” in conjunction with the simple past tense, “we made love in the bed,” often also using signifying wording, such as “I remember.” Neither does it hurt to compare one’s Holiday Inn romance with a heroin-junkie to Dante’s climb to Paradiso and the Empyrean with his truest love, Beatrice: “we…carried one another to heaven.”
What do you think about the use of the second person to acknowledge the reader? I am not certain about it, but I shall leave that up to you to decide. I trust your judgement. In any case, it certainly is personal. On the wrong day in Germany, you could get the bamboo cane for it. But, in Jesus’ Son, you understand the second person to be a term of endearment, as this usage suggests: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Consider this supremely yarn-like confidence that Johnson unravels, after confiding in us some heavy exposition about the characters in his story Two Men: “My two friends and I went to get into my little green Volkswagen, and we discovered the man I started to tell you about, the first man, sleeping in the backseat.” Remember?
What is the Big Kiss Goodnight ending? It is what everyone wants. Moreover, it also seems to be a tactic of writers who enjoy finishing stories with a smooch of the angelic. In accordance with the aforementioned considerations as regards a short story’s incapacity to allow a moment’s somnolence, its ending might perhaps be its most important time to excite, and the stories in Jesus’ Son do not leave us blue. Indeed, each story ends with a bang.
Consider this coda at the end of a story about a less than gentle man named Dundun: “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” Or this uplifting bit: “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
Of course, this narrator had no filial connection with the barmaid about whom he is reporting, but that has never been a qualification when considering if one has been another’s mother.
There is indeed nowadays an armed and steadily growing posse of masters. What with masterclasses, master’s degrees, and masterpieces around every corner, one begins to deliberate over the validity of whether or not one has been duped all along—hoodwinked, shammed out of his birthright that he is yet too an undiscovered master of something or other. Much like the words “amazing,” “crazy,” “awesome,” “impactful,” “unique,” and, every half-literate’s favorite, “problematic,” “master” has taken the initial and regretful Cheeto-crud-on-the-fingers-bathing-suit-tucked-under-the-panniculus stumble towards its bellyflop into meaninglessness. This is all to say that one should, at the very least, attempt to choose one’s words with some intention, and it is with not a little attention that I classify Evelyn Waugh as past master status. And, although Waugh claimed P.G. Wodehouse “the head of (his) profession,” it is in Waugh’s short story Scott King’s Modern Europe in which one may be masterfully classed on the rhetorical devices, grammatical gifts, and narrative tones it takes to make a worthy work of wit.
Rhetorical devices are the invisible patterns upon the page that make readers smirk and wonder at how a human with only one frontal cortex could turn a phrase so well, the same invisible patterns that make writers lower their heads, peep intermittently out the window, and wait for the approach of the rioting public with hot oils and blunt instruments who had just gotten hip to the jig that he’s been passing off Ancient Greek hand-me-downs at freshly woven silk prices. Waugh, in the course of less than forty pages, performs the unabashed huckstering worthy of a Middle Eastern bazar.
Most people, even my father, a man of precisely no reading at all, knows what a simile is. Most people, however, do not know a good simile whenever they see one. Allow me to play the purveyor: “He had been cross-questioned about his past and his future, the state of his health and finances, as though he were applying for permanent employment of a confidential nature.” Scott King, Waugh’s British protagonist seems to be rather discontent with his brief examination upon entering the nation of Neutralia: allegorized post-war, socialist continental Europe. The always playful transferred epithet scoots in shortly thereafter, titillating lookers-on with a quick one to the ribs about the story’s oddly breathtaking communist town hottie, Miss Sveningen: “Think of her striding between the beds, a pigtail, bare feet, and in her hand a threatening hairbrush.” Anaphora makes its first appearance twice when King speaks to the comically ingratiating communist professor, Dr. Fe: “There was more than politeness in Dr. Fe’s greeting; there was definite solicitude,” this repetition creating an emphatic effect. That same professor’s depiction of Neutralia’s liberation is eye-squinting in that unique way that many of us now may very readily connote with some contemporary views under the iron regime of Critical Theory: “Then we were liberated and put under the Serbs. Now we are liberated again and put under the Russians.” This fine use of isocolon, better known today as parallelism, achieves a repetition that, in conjunction with its connotation in the repeated word here in question, creates an ironic effect suggestive of successful academic menticide—also a very relatable theme for today’s universities. And a good mix is always appreciated. Consider the following right upstairs, left to the liver of alliteration and overstatement: “But here the din banged back from gilding and mirrors; above the clatter and chatter of the dinner table and the altercations of the waiters, a mixed choir of young people sang folk songs, calculated to depress the most jovial village festival;” though, for me, this is sober empiricism.
Yet one can create feats of wit with good, old grammar as well. Consider how much this simple absolute adds to an otherwise commonplace description: “He took Whitemaid by the arm and led him out of the hall to a cool and secluded landing where stood a little settee of gilt and plush, a thing not made for sitting on.” The key as regards witty grammar is to tincture its instances with a taste of the playful. A settee in indeed constructed entirely for humans to rest their limbs as they see fit, but Waugh revokes that privilege, suggesting something curious about the furniture that leads the lips of readers curling accordingly. In English, the Passive Voice has been, for some reason, forbidden by literary authorities as weak and spineless, and the writerly equivalent of filching the last of grandma’s money from her purse. The passive voice, however, is much funnier than the active voice, as it deletes the subject, indeed suggesting the subject as entirely unimportant, further intimating the subject’s stiff-lipped reaction to the scenario, perhaps mildly offended by it all: “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. “Fascist beast.”—“Reactionary cannibal.”—“Bourgeois escapist.” If his sentence were used in the active voice, the same image of rejection would simply not be enforced. Even something as simple as verb tenses can be used to inspire the acquisition of new facial muscles: “The waiters had drunk and were drinking profusely of brandy and there was a bottle at hand.” Verb tenses, and therefore the passing of time, can be used to achieve humorous results. Here, we have the past perfect tense followed by the past continuous tense, followed still by present bottle, suggesting the protractedness of the activity. This usage of two tenses in direct succession also aids in producing a kind of scene-transition effect, wherein we see the waiters drinking, then perhaps some time goes by, after which we expect the waiters to have completed the sluicing, only to find that they have unnaturally prolonged the activity.
In truth, one could almost give all of the above-mentioned the heave-ho, if one had an infallible command of narrative tone. One of the combinations above used overstatement, a fine comedic tone forsooth, but the understatement is the undisputed heavyweight champion: “The party trailed out through the swing doors into the dusty evening heat, leaving the noblemen to compare their impressions of Miss. Sveningen’s legs. The subject was not exhausted when they returned; indeed had it risen earlier in the year it would have served as the staple conversation for the whole Bellacita season.” Legs tend to have that effect on men, a woman’s legs all the more, a Nordic snow-queen’s of mythological length being thus a certainly. Yet understatements need not be about legs; they can indeed be about any body part and its function: “He hiccupped without intermission throughout the long dinner.” Here, a simple “he hiccupped a lot” would have had the same logic but lost all the sense. Comedians and comediennes alike make sweeping statements. Comedy is meant to make grotesque spectacles of otherwise quiet characteristics or foibles. To suggest that the man next to whom you spent your morning commute emitted a scent wicked enough to send Lot’s wife sprinting out of the salt is a slightly more entertaining image than reporting that he smelled bad. Therefore, get out your broom and sweep. Waugh could push one with the best of them: “The foyer was empty save for Miss Bombaum who sat smoking a cigar with a man of repellent aspect.” A man of repellent aspect? It is additionally funny due to its receiving no further description, thus no debate can be made. He was bloody repellent. That is all. This is not to be confused with making a witty aside. Witty asides are slivers of smartly crafted opinion that show the reader that the writer has thought a lot about the subject at hand, usually not positively. When describing a confused gaggle of herd-mind socialists, Waugh proffers the following: “Noah’s animals cannot have embarked with less sense of the object of their journey.”
Just like cashiers at the grocery, writers of comedy should change registers, making the switch from high language to low, the ornate and well-spoken to a slag-lad of the gutter: “Scott King was an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet; provident Nature who shields the slow tortoise and points the quills of the porcupine, has given to such tender spirits their appropriate armor. A shutter, an iron curtain, fell between Scott-King and these two jokers.” Just as finally seeing the hilarious things at which everyone’s already hacking up their insides violently is an enjoyable time for most, should one, to achieve the same effect, place powerful images at the end of sentences. It is the long-awaited reveal; the man walking carefully along the icy sidewalk who has finally begun to dance—the cologne-drenched gentleman in the BMW who has been revving it for hussies coming it out of the bar at 2:00 a.m. finally losing grip on his latest drift, remodeling his vehicle upon the nearest metal road barrier; or, a beautiful giant of a Nordic female upon a balcony in a bath towel devouring a large cut of meat: “The windows stood wide open onto the balcony and on the balcony, modestly robed in bath towels, sat Miss Sveningen eating beefsteak.”
If one has not yet deduced the general pattern for oneself, it is indeed the clever changes and juxtapositions, whatever those might be, that carry the day and take home the big win. One very effective way to experience this is to suddenly change either the mood of the narrative or the characters proximity to the events before-described, as in the following: “Dr. Fe, when they met, showed the reserve proper of a man of delicate feeling who had in emotion revealed too much of himself. It was a happy day for Scott-King. Not so for his colleagues.” Or, “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. Fascist beast—Reactionary cannibal—Bourgeois escapist. Scott King withdrew from the meeting.”
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.
Whom we decide to murder is, luckily, mostly up to us. Simply connect a Latin prefix of your choice with the Latin four-banger of -cide, a suffix with a license to kill.
Feeling fond of warmer weather during the colder months? Murdering your brother might kindle passion’s proper flame. The first round of the ninth layer of hell is, according to an Italian eye-witness account in the early 14th Century, inhabited by the perpetrator of the world’s first slay, Cain, and subsequently the first fratricide. The Latin prefix frater(brother) joins hands of red deed with -cide in order to fell our brothers. But what about putting a sharp one through your sister? For this, there’s sororicide. This word stems from the Latin soror (sister), likely best recognized through the common university campus clubs called sororities, which institutions also serve as a kind of murder of a young woman. The eight-hour flight just started, the headphones just went kaput, and the baby is right on time with its piercing cries. Infanticide is the killing of infants, a task of unmatched physical ease—David Lynch’s Eraserhead shows one how simple it can be. Or, if offing the baby is not in the offing, then perhaps logic better supports the offing of oneself, namely through suicide, a word stemming from the Latin sui (of oneself). Matricide is the whacking of one’s mother, patricide the same for one’s father—I didn’t say off. For otherwise lesser spendthrifts amongst this exceedingly humble readership, a two-for-one scenario exists in parricide: the killing of one’s parents. Or, perhaps you are one for sticking it to The Man. The French and the Russians, amongst many other highly civilized animals, are rather fond of it: regicide, the murder of a king (or ruler), has been a crowd favorite for some time. The acting party most oft sees it, however, as tyrannicide: the killing of a tyrant. Simply getting your hands dirty without a specific target will likewise put a few hairs on your chest. Homicide (Latin homo [man/human]) will get the task done on the cheap. For a real deal, however, it’s best to buy in bulk. Genocide (Latin genus) is the killing of a race or kind. Or, if you are particularly fond of tragedy on a scale hitherto unforeseen, you might fancy menticide: the systematic undermining of a person’s values and beliefs through brainwashing or torture, a weak attempt at which may be easily imbibed with the viewing of the latest Batman film.
True humanists are a rare breed nowadays, but they nevertheless roam packless across this planet as God’s lonely children. No problem, though. There is plenty of stuff for you to kill, too. There’s pesticide for pests, insecticide for insects (often pests), herbicide for weeds (unfortunately nothing yet for potheads), bactericide for bacteria, fungicide for fungus, and vermicide for worms.
Redundant Writing, as defined in the DSM-5, is “a mental disorder in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others.”
Why must the DSM-5’s above-displayed introductory description of Anti-Social Personality Disorder—which bears hefty resemblance to the definition of one’s neighbors whenever it’s 1:50 a.m. on a Tuesday and the Mumble Rap is still going strong—reattribute “mental disorder,” whenever we are reading a book called TheDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Moreover, does someone who shows no regard for right and wrong ever consider the rights and feelings of others?
Philadelphians call it water ice. Sexual deviants call them assless chaps. And the Germans call it language. For the rest of us, it’s called redundancy.
The repetition of unnecessary details causes children to weep and the beloved family dog to take its final breath; therefore, the practice has long since been forbidden by literary authorities as a tragedy and miscarriage of compositional justice.
There’s your classic Thesaurus Thumper:
“A titanic, humungous, behemoth of a mountain—just a huge piece of rock, and enormous.”
The Dunderheaded Double-Up:
“With every tuna fish sandwich that you swallow whole, you’ll receive a free gift. That’s an actual fact. “
The Fool by Abbreviation Special:
“I’m so drunk from alcohol that I forgot my PIN number before we got to the MLS soccer match, so I couldn’t use the ATM machine to take out any cash money. Please RSVP— s’il vous plaît.“
The Undue Intensity Stack:
“These were extremelyimportant company meetings, and they were met with severely inadequate attendance.”
The Loose-Lipped Lenny:
“Yeah, so that’s basically how you do it; it essentially works like that.”
In all fairness, The Undue Intensity Stack and the Loose-Lipped Lenny can make for humorous combinations, as they can often carry with them a certain amount of irony. The key here is to employ them intentionally and deftly.
The True Plus True Equals True (Tautology)
“I struggled to find the words to describe the oddly shaped man before me; he was indescribable, due to his appearance, so I was speechless.”
The Tautology by Cliche
“I struggled to find the words to describe the oddly shaped man before me; the cat had my tongue, and I had a rock in my throat.”
Cliches are particularly sinful, for, through their utter banality, they are rendered redundant the moment that they depart the lips or manifest from the keyboard. To use a cliche to emphasize a statement, as depicted above, is a sign of genetic inferiority.
What we want is deliberateness. Whenever deliberate, these heinous lexical acts aspire to inspire rhetorical emphasis, adding additional dimension and meaning. This called pleonasm.
Here, someone uses pleonasm to show high vexation, perhaps hoping for a payout.
“Yes, officer. That’s right. The stupid idiot and his fellow colleaguescompletely destroyed my exact replica Porsche by punching it with their fists and kicking it with their feet. That’s a foreign import, by the way.”
The rhetorical forms of merism and blazon, used as they are to describe at length things already stated, could fit into this category, but I have deemed them nearer to sacrifices at the altar of The Description than merely déjà vu all over again.
All this championing of clear and concise writing for the sake of transparency and succinctness has, however, given rise to the need for balance. Therefore, I’d like to end with a quote from a good friend of mine whom I’ve never met, Mark Forsyth:
“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy, and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish to dress for mere utility. Mountaineers do it, and climb Everest in clothes that would have you laughed out of the gutter. I suspect they also communicate quickly and efficiently, poor things. But for the rest of us, not threatened by death and yetis, clothes and language can be things of beauty. I would no more write without art because I didn’t need to, than I would wander outdoors naked just because it was warm enough. Again.”
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.
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 writethat 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.
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.”