Quote #18: Viktor Shklovsky (1981)

—words don’t just stand on their own, they exist within the context of a phrase; a word juxtaposed to another word isn’t an arbitrary word, it shifts the meaning into another dimension. It’s a labyrinth of linkages that that has a purpose.

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Post-Word Literacy

The state of Michigan, as argued by lawyers for its Attorney General and acting on behalf of Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s office, currently supports the position that its children’s fundemental right to education does not include a fundamental right to literacy. Their motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit suing the State for unlawful failure of duty to students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District states the position bluntly: “There is no fundamental right to literacy.”

There is something in this argument that escapes the typical criticisms of legal cynicism and semantic decadence. In other words, the supposed plausibility that one’s right to education is provided in the tools to learn alone irrespective of results of having learned, or that there are meaningful distinctions to be made parsing the terms education, learning, schools, and literacy are both insulting arguments, but they both also fail to reveal the truly heartless core of the document. The State of Michigan has, to my hears, entered into Lewis Carroll territory of Catch-22 deadlocks and tyrannical fantasies. Rights themselves are based upon literacy. Our legal system is one elephantine literature. As far as the courts are concerned, citizens are already grafted into this literature of laws and rights (our names, social security numbers, passports, driver’s license number, fingerprints) than our corporeal or emotional experience bares witness. One cannot be a citizen without the literacy of citizenry. So to say that students have no fundamental right to literacy is akin to saying they have no rights to rights, or legal recourse: they are always-already unjustified.

In “A Mad Tea-Paty” (Alice in Wonderland Chapter VII), Alice is relentlessly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ignored to the tune of everyone else’s ignorance, arrogance and stupidity:

`[…] I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Here, the arbiters of logic (Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse) refuse to acknowledge Alice’s inherent human dissonance (i.e. that even though she didn’t say exactly what she meant, she did attempt to communicate with the party with what she did say, and not purposefully confuse the proceedings) while ignoring how their own permutations of proper speech and correct civility reveal further conflict, their absolutist premise that individual particulars always refer to different ideas and never the same breaks down within a few supposedly supportive exchanges.

What makes Michigan’s legal verbiage additionally worrisome is that American society has very recently entered into something close to a post-word era where what you say, what is written, and what words mean, means terrifyingly little. For confirmation of our immediate context, here is The Atlantic‘s James Fallows from just earlier today:

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies.

Since about the 1970s, sociologists and media theorists have speculated that we live in an aliterate society, where people can read but chose not to. And then in more recent decades, critics have discussed the “truthiness” of American public and the failure of evidence to effectively persuade or – in the case of Global Warming – progressively build consensus. Recent days have shown that perhaps these are mere symptoms to a far more oppressive paradox of living utterly outside the sphere of poetry, rhetoric, and apparently also meaning.

Victorian George MacDonald speculated on the what a post-word world might look like in his aphoristic “The Prison”:

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe… It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has (had) its sign, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him… Soon misery will beget on his imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences.

This uncanny vision of modern subjectivity trapped in a feedback-loop of solipsistic misuse, unable to grasp the meaning of something even so basic as a sign, is a nightmare curiously attuned to our current predicament where the consensus path of least resistance is often simultaneously considered to flirt with unprecedented disaster.  The twin gods of Fate and Chaos seem to have superseded any and all principles of Modernity that help shape self-governance, conceptions of social responsibly, or mutual regard for the rights of individuals. The state of Michigan is essentially arguing to students, individuals, people, anyone, everyone—like the Hatter to Alice, like MacDonald’s cosmic prison—that they simply don’t exist. What words will convince them otherwise?

Quote #11: Elena Ferrante (2015)

The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.”

Word #10: “glottochronology” (n.)

n. [Linguistics]

  1. The application of statistics to vocabulary to determine the degree of relationship between two or more languages and the chronology of their splitting off from a common ancestor.

Or, as its conceiver Morris Swadesh hypothesized, “[i]f we can show by means of comparative linguistics that various people spoke similar languages sometime in the past, we can infer the identities of those predecessor languages, and thus even more intimate connections between all human cultures … arriving eventually at an original tongue” (quoted in About a Mountain, 126)

 

The Creaturely Language of John Clare

 

In a fragment catalogued blandly ‘Taste’, Clare includes “twharling,” a word which when it was first transcribed posthumously from his copious unpublished fragments by one of the Tibbles in 1932 was printed “thwarting”. Here is the restored selection taken from Grainger’s edition of The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare:

the mind delights to indulge in the rambles—this is happiness—to lean on the rail of a wooden brig & mark the crinkles of the stream below & the little dancing beetles twharling & glancing their glossy coats to the summer sun—to bend over the old woods mossy rails & list the call of the hairey bumble bee playing with the ivy flowers till he has lost his way—& anon finds it by accident & wings out of the wood to the sunshine that lead him to his mossy nest lapt up in the long grass of some quiet nook—such is happiness—& to wander a pathless way thro the intricacys of woods for a long while & at last burst unlooked for into the light of an extensive prospect at its side & there lye & muse on the lands cape to rest ones wanderings—this is real happiness—

The question is whether this and other sundry orthographic irregularities found throughout this passage in particular and Clare’s writings in general are vital to Clare’s poetry. How do we find them to be vital and to what degree? More or less, Clare scholars agree that his odd spellings are an important artifact of his biography and some might even say his artistry, his process. But are they important to his art? For me, the fact that different caring editors doubly disagree on both the word itself (which may or may not even be a word outside Clare’s works) and its (mis)spelling precisely at the crux – the sweet spot – of an essay on “taste,” so one explicitly debating what is or is not poetic writing/reading, seems suspiciously more than interesting [NOTE: from this same text, Tibbles and Robinson/Powell record “coy flowers” while Grainger records “ivy flowers”]. The passage – a quintessentially Clare bit of prose – belies claims of country clumsiness or the remnants of the poet’s documented bouts with mania insofar as it is an immersive joy to read: the argument is lucid and clear, its language vivid and animate. Can it really just be an awkward reality that such intelligible writing happens also to be illegible?

Clare’s regular engagements in mischievous orthography is alternatively read as rustic or erratic depending on the critic. Clare’s biographer, Jonathan Bate, notes how Taylor and Hessey chose to publish Clare’s poems to preserve their “rude” presentation: “unpunctuated, unedited, highly irregular in spelling and punctuation” (205). However, Clare’s “rude way” is not simply the product of a unschooled verisimilitude, as Bate readily admits: ”[in Clare] words are made to do things they had never done before” (379). English traditions of onomatopoeias, dialecticisms (even ideolecticisms), portmanteaus (what Bate calls his “nounce-words”), as well as a multitude of regional nicknames for flaura and fauna are all labored into his writings. However, what begins to bring evidence of a truly wild English at work is the fact that these many existing devices for tinkering meaning in early-Victorian literature are not enough to compose Clare’s universal poetic, or as he opines in Pastoral Poesy,“A language that is ever green.” When Clare plays with such poetic instruments – as in: “Young hodge the horse boy with a soodling gait,” or, “The toltering bustle of a blundering trot,” or, “Moozing cool shelterd neath the skirting woods” (three instances from Rural Morning) – the poetic encounter in all its misspelled messiness is so musically peculiar and full of indefinable yet deeply relatable animation and vitality that the questionable language becomes neologistic, a new language created to express inconceivable[1] truths. “I used to feel a pleasure […] reading the oft thumbd books which I possesd till fancy ‘made them living things’, Clare writes in an autobiographical fragment (61). Language and poetry for Clare exists in a kind of biological – “ever green” – state[2] of flux and particularity, and both Clare’s asymmetric repetition of common words that, as Paulin writes, “take on subtly subversive vibrations of meaning” (xxiv), and his neologistic spellings that orthographically mirror the biodiversity of the natural world are indeed vital to this project. [Before reading one of Clare’s sonnets to address how this graphic, morphological interpretation of misspelling could possibly add or aid in the meaning of a poem, it is worth saying that there is not only existing linguistic theory that undergirds. The scientist and writer Alexander von Humboldt wrote theories of language and poetry – his own take on the problems of ‘Taste’ basically contemporaneous with Clare’s own work. When in 1808 the German Parisian wrote, “New forms, too, enter the common treasury of language. The speech of humans is enlivened by everything indicative of natural truth, be it in the representation of sensory impressions from the outer world or of profoundly stirred thought and inner feelings,” (Views of Nature, 141-142) it’s hard to believe he was writing before anyone knew of John Clare the poet, roughly the same year as he wrote Helpstone.

 The Crow  

Clare’s sonnet The Crow uses language in assorted startling ways. The poem recounts the joys of seeing a crow, but the crow is animated by variant language. In its entirety it reads:

 

How peaceable it seems for lonely men

To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky

Over woods and fealds, o’er level fen

It speaks of villages, or cottage nigh

Behind the neighboring woods – when march winds high

Tear off the branches of the hugh old oak

I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by

And hear them over the knarled forest croak

Then sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke

That in the woods their daily labours ply

I love the sooty crow nor would provoke

Its march day exercises of croaking joy

I love to see it sailing to and fro

While feelds, and woods and waters spread below

The musicality – “speaks,” “croak,” “croaking joy” – and animated imagery – “fly in the thin blue sky,” “chimney sweeps sail by,” “sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke,” “I love the sooty crow” – are present in abundance and gift the poem exuberance and a feeling of controlled levity. And we sense in words like “hugh” “knarled” “sosh” and even the imagistic nicknaming “chimney sweeps” that the poem is full of instances where Clare is trying to capture a colloquial sense of how people talk[3], as well as poetic spelling that blurs the line between recording regional dialect and onomatopoeia. Yet, the most interesting use of language is in the doubly-unique misspellings of the word “fields”: the third line reads “fealds” while the last line reads “feelds”. How could this be anything but the odd accident? In a humorous and rambling journal entry on grammar, Clare writes the following: “what ever is intelligbe to others is grammer” (accurate spelling recorded[4]). It is tempting to pass off these findings in The Crow as just another soodling gait, except that we find a similar instance in the poem Insects:

How merrily they creep and run and flye

No kin they bear to labour’s drudgery

[…]

Then in the heath bell’s silken hood they flie

And like to princes in their slumber lie.

So here is an other example of a word doubly-mispelled in a single poem. Neither “flye” nor “flie” being properly “fly” – a Clare word spells correctly[5] often enough. Within the rhyme scheme, and in following after “run”, “flye” would seem to suggest the sound of “flee,” neither does he write “flee” nor does reading it seem to infer to mean “flee” but instead only possibly an alternately pronounced “fly.” What is the meaning of all this orthographic drudgery?

Yet a third poem contains double-misspellings, this time alongside its proper construction. Decay A Ballad is a cynical, sly, poignant song of 10-line stanzas and begins melodically, “O poesy is on the waine”, a line which repeats eight more times. However “waine” never shows up again written as it is introduced, the “i-n-e” configuration never resurfacing. The poem oscillates then in no apparent pattern from the correct “wane” to another error, “wain”. “Wane” wins out in the last few stanza, as if to signal yet again that spelling is a kind of tyranny over the whims of poetic musings. In this way, the title “Decay” speaks explicitly to a microcosmic decaying taking place in the surface of the poem as the poet submits to the conventions of English (perhaps in order to sell more poems).

“A language that is ever green” implies Clare’s neologisms are not mere mechanical inventions, however. His words are better viewed as creaturely: they are alive with difference. In this way, Clare’s noting of “feelds” and “fealds” in The Crow describe two distinct fields, or perhaps the same field at two distinct times; both places of the crow’s joyful croaking, though, often imperceptibly, unique. The inconstancy of nature, that which is imprecisely referred to as both impressionistic and uncanny by scholars, is graphically situated in Clare’s “green” orthography that resists the conventions of printed English. Just as repeated signs can call attention to themselves as mere words – something stark and empty which the speaker and the reader desire to be more meaningful than they actually are – negating that repetition through orthographic play preserves the bouncing unpredictable happenings of nature-before-your-eyes. In contrast, Clare’s ode to the specific bird tied together with disparate memories over time figures the fragmented memories of continuously “lonely men” rather than a single sighting affecting shifting emotional states.

Clare was so detailed in his observations of nature that his poems on occasion detailed information undocumented in scientific records of the time and using regional language undocumented in any lexicon. What a dangerous plan for an impoverished person. Yet, this desire to amplify the microscopic is what makes reading Clare’s writings such an expansive delight: “The instinct of the snail is a very remarkable & worthy notice tho such things are lookd over with a carless eye” (NHW, 32)].  In part this what makes Clare’s work so interesting alongside Humbolt: Humbolt had to be literarlly immersed in the screaming biodiversity of South American jungles to develop more-or-less the same ecolinguinstics [compare for example Humboldt’s 1844 writing, “[w]ords, therefore, are more than signs and forms; and their mysterious and beneficent influence is there most powerfully manifested where the language has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, and on its own native soil.” With Clare’s lines from Pastoral Poesy: “True poesy is not in words / But images that thoughts express] that Clare ascribed from his homespun corner in the Midlands; according to Bate, except once, Clare never even saw the sea. But he did see crows.

Clare’s creaturely, “twharling” language of orthographic abnormalities and crooked repetitions should be considered as composed with equal attention and care to microscopic detail that he gives to the subjects of his work.

[1] John Ruskin in Modern Painters III defines prophetic inspiration: “[people] who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them” (74).

[2] representational not incarnational

[3] Another regional poet writing in the 1840’s, William Barnes, once “declared that ‘the arraignment of the humble classes for speaking bad English’ is ludicrous, since in fact ‘they are the only persons who speak English at all’.” This seems to confirm Clare’s opening couplet from Pastoral Poesy. (Oxford, 2013, xlii)

[4] Editors Robinson and Powell decided to add Band-Aids to Clare’s unpublished prose piece and came up with “intellg[i]b[l]e” as though perhaps Clare didn’t purposely botch this word of all words. (481)

[5] As in Woodpecker’s Nest, just to give one of many instances.

Word #7: “autophagy” (n.)

noun.

  1. The action of feeding upon oneself; spec. metabolic consumption of the body’s own tissue, as in starvation or certain diseases.

tumblr_n0yxvvzssy1qb1i2wo1_1280

Image of “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),” 1936, by Salvador Dalí, on exhibit (last I checked) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Apparently, if one happens to be an octopus, the act is literally common within a lifespan; among humans, however, (as the Catalonian so vividly demonstrates) the concept is disturbing even at the arms-length of a metaphor.

Quote #6: Alexander von Humboldt (1808)

New forms, too, enter the common treasury of language. The speech of humans is enlivened by everything indicative of natural truth, be it in the representation of sensory impressions from the outer world or of profoundly stirred thought and inner feelings.

From the 2014 edition of Views of Nature translated by Mark W. Person and published by University of Chicago Press. See this week’s earlier post for more on von Humboldt’s radical ecosemiotics written more than three decades after this passage.

Jargon Alert #1: “impact”

On some unspecified date in the very recent past, the professional class of America decided the word “effect” was simply too difficult to keep storage within a language also housing the word “affect” – and so, a remedial cure was drudged from the vernacular of auto insurance forms: everyone began using the word “impact” in hitherto unknown and morphologically abusive ways that have now stretched the term into a viscous jargon jam currently observing peak, craft-bottled mania.

The term “prevents thought” through what G.K. Chesterton calls a “paradox of death.” The word enjoys popularity because it has a visceral, athletic, even disaster movie-like flash to it. However, as a noun, it is merely an inert placeholder for additional details and, eventually one hopes, meaning. In reality, the word only works as connective tissue in a much larger context, it was never designed to be the story itself. Impacts in what way? Impacts how? Impacts impactfully is nonsensical (ignoring the debate of whether its comprehensible English). More specifically, following Chesterton, it is a particularly “destructive” kind of nonsense:

Nearly all modern paradoxes merely announce death. I see everywhere among the young men who have imitated Mr. Shaw a strange tendency to utter epigrams which deny the possibility of further life and thought. A paradox may be a thing unusual, menacing, even ugly—like a rhinoceros. But, as a live rhinoceros ought to produce more rhinoceri, so a live paradox ought to produce more paradoxes. Nonsense ought to be suggestive; but nowadays it is abortive. The new epigrams are not even fantastic finger-posts on the wild road: they are tablets, each set into a brick wall at the end of a blind alley. So far as they concern thought at all, they cry to men, “Think no more,” as the voice said “Sleep no more” to Macbeth. These rhetoricians never speak except to move the closure. Even when they are really witty (as in the case of Mr. Shaw), they commonly commit the one crime that cannot be forgiven among free men. They say the last word. (“Two Kinds of Paradox,” 1911)

And so, our first “Jargon Alert” has officially been issued. Watch for rhinoceri.