Saturday, July 25, 2009

How Many Words?

The following is a compendium of my thoughts on writing four years ago. It is a baseline check on what I still retain:

The Anchoress has gotten very angry about a rude and obscene t-shirt directed at the Pope. He certainly doesn't deserve such treatment, and her anger is quite understandable. Of course, she has her own inimitable take on what the whole business really means:

"What I am wondering about is the strange fascination the left seems to have with the F-word....Gad, I can't stand boomers. I am one, technically, but I have never liked this generation. Even back then, when I was 13, I hated this pre-occupation with "self" that is so much a part of that crowd. Even back then, at 13, I thought the Woodstock Chant was lame.

The F-word is so done, SO overplayed. But the boomers and their limited progeny can't let it go. The F-word is their calling card, their banner, their meaningless creed.

I bet if you asked the marketer of the F*** Benedict XVI shirts if he is a liberal, he would say he is, or that he is "progressive," or something. When I was growing up, raised by classically liberal parents, I was taught that being liberal meant being open-minded, allowing others to live and let live - giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and most of all, engaging in real, meaningful discussion, not flippant blow-offs...."

Well, gee.

PROSPERO: When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
With words that made them known.

CALIBAN: You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.

The Tempest, I, ii

To know how to curse. It is the Big Secret that no one in America really talks about, so no one learns. I learned. And learning it was one of my triumphs of literary control over my mother tongue.
I learned it from literary masters like Jonathan Swift.

Most Americans are left in the dark about it because we are taught from the cradle, and in school, that we really all ought to be "making nice" to everybody whether we believe it or not.

Where does that leave all of us, boomers or others? In exactly the same place where George Orwell found so much that was compelling in the style of Henry Miller:

"For the truth is that many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that is recorded here. The callous coarseness with which the characters in Tropic of Cancer talk is very rare in fiction, but it is extremely common in real life; again and again I have heard just such conversations from people who were not even aware that they were talking coarsely."

But I really learned how to curse. I learned to hoard the words miserly, like gold nuggets, and not waste them on silly things that meant nothing. Strong words are for real emotions, not mere pique or startlement, and, particularly, not mere pique about something purely entertaining.

They should be used sparingly, and for maximum rhetorical effect. When you say them or write them, you should really mean every syllable of them, tasting every drop of bile in them, and building a full emotional head of steam before you let them explode.

A properly articulated obscenity requires a beautiful literary setting. The target of one's hatred should be built up artfully, in a baroque fantasia of language like an elaborate white wedding cake.

Then the single salty word can have the effect of blasting the white wedding cake with a sawed-off shotgun.

I was born in the 1950's. I call myself "liberal" or "progressive" interchangeably, and I mean something very precise by those words. What I mean by them is not a synonym for "making nice" to everybody. How much that makes me a part of the Anchoress' "they" on the left--who are so self-absorbed and adolescent--I'll leave to your good judgment.

But I have never lost touch with the fact that there are many places where some people have no "happily ever after" and have no future to "make nice" about anything.

Americans, generally, are not very well acquainted with the fact that such places exist, and they are usually too busy "making nice" to understand them.

One thing is certain, and it will never be learned by merely "making nice".

There are things in this world that deserve to be treated with language like the blasting of a wedding cake with a shotgun.

Why do we who write on this marvelous invention of the weblog soil our common tongue with ugly and inappropriate words about what we do here?


We seem to be totally indifferent to the emotional resonance and overtones of English which has made it the glory of its poets and the constant but cruel love of its prose writers. They keep the flame of this alive in the entertainment arts. In the Star Trek mythos, for example, "Borg" is the epitome of inhuman unfreedom, a beehive where the bees are burdened with all the mechanical ironmongery of an opthomologist's consulting room.

"Blog" is equally as ugly, but we, certainly, are not. We are merely the same fallible and tragic human beings, writing in English, as Donne, Swift, Keats, or Henry James. Why turn our back on that heritage with a label on our form so ugly?

It is now in common usage, so, of course, I must endure the copyblot of it in my writing as in others. To do elsewise is to be too precious and persnickity for a direct writer of the English tongue. So I blog with the rest of us. But I don't have to like it, and I don't.


In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having some resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics). The difference lies in the replicative potential and minimally required resources to replicate. Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, elemental particles, tunes, designs, skills, moral and aesthetic values and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit. The study of evolutionary models of information transfer is called memetics.....In casual use, the term meme is sometimes used to mean any piece of information that is passed from one mind to another. (Wickipedia)

This neologism is not ugly, particularly. It would be wonderful delineating a fur pattern on a slithy tove or a mome rath, as we call a cat calico, tabby, or tortiseshell. But both the real definition and the derivation (from "memory" in Greek) are simply a lie. "Daffodils that come before the swallow dare," did not do itself. A particular man named Shakespeare did it. It has not propagated itself. Particular human beings have read it, referred to it, and quoted it, directly or indirectly.

"Meme" is a metaphor, which, in its proper place of a specific scientific field of study can function intelligibly as a model, because, in its proper context, responsible and intelligent scientists remain fully aware that you cannot ride in the elevator of a model of the Empire State Building.

In causal use it is a metaphor run wild, as so many do in English, and a dangerous one at that. Note that this last sentence is also a metaphor, but one under my intellectual control. The implication that our ideas somehow do themselves is an early step toward the inhuman unfreedom of the Borg.

Now I know why it is so tempting. The actual relation of language to the writer is a great and not wholly describable mystery; we can hint at only by describing it as like breeding of horses--Daffodils Which Come Before The Swallow Dare, sired by Shakespeare, out of English. Meme, in its casual use is a way of both acknowledging, and glossing over this mystery with pseudoscience.

It has also become an ugly term of abuse, in a blogosphere which resembles nothing so much as a continuous political pie fight where the custard cream has been replaced by chickenshit. I am, by the way, a seasoned writer of English and I claim the same right as Swift to use vulgarity and ugliness to describe vulgarity and ugliness, keeping is very rare for maximum literary effect, and, unlike its use in the writing of so many out there, it also is tightly under my control.

Any idea that you don't like is a "meme" which someone bad and bent (Democrats, Republicans, the Religious Right, the Bush-hating Left, whatever) has propagated and needs to be stamped out.

"Meme" itself deserves to be stamped out. It is a lie, it is not a legitimate part of the common tongue, it is destructive to the notion of freedom of ideas, and it terminally offends my taste. So you have not seen it in posts prior to this, and you will never see it here again without the prophylactic of inverted commas.

Would that my fellow bloggers were so choosy as I.

More often than not I write these reflections directly on the screen. Occasionally, however, I have both the time and opportunity to work longhand and in ink, with a nib pen by preference.

There are deep memories associated with this for me; myself in the third grade making the letters using a Schafer pen with a ball nib, conscious all the while of the physical pleasure of writing with a real pen, instead of an ink stick. It has much the same feeling, resonating in the fingers all the way up past the elbow and beyond, of the satisfyingly exact scratching of an itch with the hard pointed corner of a square clipped fingernail.

These days, I prefer a square calligraphy nib. It slows you down to prose period speed as you draw each thick black stroke definitively. Phrase follows phrase and clause follows clause with a pace like slowly rolling thunder.

A square nib keeps an old hand honest, for it will write neither crabbed nor scratchy. The letter forming technique must remain both precise and fluid for the ink to even stain the paper. Another thing that keeps both an old hand and old eyes honest is quad ruled paper. The blue lines of N-S, E-W naturally correct variations in line levelness and letter slant.

I say writing, but I actually print, in a style with a flat nib that wavers from italic to half uncial. I abandoned cursive at the age of twenty-one, due to a complaint from a snotty supervisor, deputized to "help" my regular supervisor, about how my writing looked on a carbon paper form. It was all hand work in those pre-personal computer days. Info from the forms was keyed in by specialists to a mainframe with far less capacity than any CPU sitting under a desk today.

I could print as fast as I could write cursive (this was a rare accomplishment); I disliked the style of cursive that I was taught in school, the same one, I believe, still taught in Columbus today; and I was always impressed by the high degree of legibility possible with printing in a young and flexible hand wielding a ball nib pen.

My father had a beautiful cursive that I envied greatly. He was taught the Palmer Method cursive in Chicago catholic schools, in the dim and comfortable years before the Great Depression. It required more time, practice, and training than my cursive, which is undoubtedly why the schools abandoned it. We must remember that in the 1920's a personal typewriter in the home was perhaps no more common than a collating copier there today. When it did exist there, it was likely to be the prized possession of a professional writer, but not very many other people.

Back then, you received typewritten letters from businesses, but you commonly wrote handwritten letters to them. Portable personal typewriters were commonplace when I learned to write, and it was becoming more "businesslike" to use them in home to business correspondence. Which is why schools had ceased to care about anything but expediency and ease of teaching in the matter of penmanship.

My father's initials, WM, were spectacular in Palmer Method capitals. They looked like species tulips nodding in the wind, since each sharp turn of the pen in a letter was executed with a graceful and narrow oval loop, and the flow of the letter slant was an elegant 25 degrees or so NNE. My script was pedestrian and ugly beyond belief beside this, even when you wrote it well, and I doubt I could even write it today, except for my check signature, which is as spiky as the track of a seismograph, the flat nib turned almost due north/south, and the ink shredding in an irascable temper. I hope never to have to try to write anything else in it.

When I look at the business letter formats built into Word and Works today, it is amusing to see how they still derive from those old, handwritten, business letters of eighty and more years ago. It is like the nose, cheekbones, and jawline of my maternal grandfather staring back at me in the mirror, married incongruously to the paternal forehead of both my father and his father.

There are layers in such designs, for eyes to see than care to and can, of penmanship, of feathery carbon copies in unevenly worn typewritten pica, and of the rough rasters and pixels of the early personal computers--a ghostly trace of each in every hopeful resume and cover letter destined today for the paper shredder with nary a reply back, as was once the courtesy of businesses, now long lost, even when I was growing up.

I recently had lots of contact with the handwriting of American students. I won't give details because the people who let me do this are as touchy about such things as if they were fighting terrorists. One thing that struck me was the persistence of a cursive style (in my day confined to girls, and probably still so) that has no name as far as I know, but which I always called "cutesy round curliques". When I do so, I suspect almost everybody knows what I mean. It is an ink stick (a.k.a. ballpoint pen) style and, from my mature perspective, deserves far more respect than I gave it forty years ago.

It is not an official style. It seems to have been an underground tradition passed on among schoolgirls as the years have passed, probably by example in letters and notes between them. As a man dedicated to the pen, it gives me hope. For people who exercise their own private taste in the matter of handwriting, as opposed to the majority, who let it deteriorate anyhow as they age, are the people who will keep pens, ink, and paper alive.

They are worth keeping alive.

Putting a good pen to responsive paper makes ideas come. The pleasure of the nib dragging; the sight of regular black marks appearing out of nowhere, row upon row; and the magic thing that happens in the head when 4 or 5 or 6 of those black marks make a mental picture of things or relations--all of these support a visceral craving for the process to continue and they bestir the brain to make this happen.

The magic gets even more incredible as you age because whole letters in words can (and unfortunately do) disappear into hyperspace as you write. But, despite this, the pictures in the mind generally remain the same. Real ink, smoothly flowing and richly sustaining in its satisfying blackness of thin stroke next to thick, has what they call in wine-tasting mouth-feel, only a better term would be mind-feel.

I think the difference between being a writer and merely being someone who writes is an emotional relation to prose periods. Does anyone even use that word anymore to describe the components of a sentence rather than merely for the little dot at the end? A writer strives not only to make the words mean what he wants to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape and speed of his mind like a well made suit of clothes fits the body. We call this prose style.

My mind, I think, is slower than some, shrewder than many, and chronically self-reflective. It needs space and a stately pace. Which is why any who read this blog regularly should expect a style with long running sentences, of many phrases and clauses, and constant parenthetical remarks to develop the premises of my thought. These are then contrasted with short, simple, and biting declarative sentences to hammer home the conclusions.

I know this makes for a prose not to everyone's taste, since it requires to be read with concentration to be understood. But, then, my premises and conclusions are not to everyone's taste, either.

In my random junk drawer of more than 45 years of extensive reading, I once came across the remark that English doesn't have grammar, it has manners. That may be slightly exaggerated, but, in some sense, it is profoundly true. English is more than the sum of its grammatical parts. Conventions of grammar and usage in English are a particularly arbitrary imposition on a language which is not only living, but rather prone to wild living, fast living, and high living.

Sometimes, to make the sense you need to make in the way you need to make it, you have to return grammar and usage conventions suddenly and without notice. The sentence fragment, the comma splice, the split infinitive, the starting of a sentence with a conjunction, the (very occasional) rude, salty, and vulgar word, and the extension of the meaning of a word beyond its dictionary definition or its derivation, are all resources to be used, with discretion, as long as you preserve good English manners. Of course, we can't tell the schoolchildren this, but when they are out of earshot, we can admit it to ourselves.

The longer sentences necessary for the fit to the peculiar shape of my mind require a more antique punctuation than contemporary style manuals encourage--far more commas to differentiate distinct segments of thought, as well as more liberal use of parenthesis and em-dash.

Finding effective punctuation is one of my greatest writing challenges, which I sometimes do not wholly meet. The difference, for example, in choosing to use the semi-colon in the first paragraph above, and to avoid it for commas two paragraphs back, is superficially inconsistent, but expresses a need to keep the two different lists of things stylistically distinct, with the first list requiring more definite separation of the members than the second.

Also, for the sake of blogging, which is a pioneering virtual prose form where on-screen reading is distinctly more difficult than in the hard copy forms of book or magazine, a different approach to paragraph breaks, closer to newspaper style than book style, is required for maximum clarity. This is particularly true for a style like mine.

Conventionally, paragraphs are supposed to delineate complete thoughts, no matter how long a block of text this requires or how many different aspects of the same thought are being explored.

But, onscreen, such a long and heavy basket weave of text makes very difficult reading, which, as a reader, I find destructive to comprehension; and the scrolling function is no substitute for the ease of re-reading in books or periodicals where the pages move but the paragraphs don't.

Consequently, I insert paragraph breaks liberally almost anywhere that significant variation in the focus of the thought can excuse them.

In a like manner, I find one of the most useful functions in my blog engine is the electronic fold for most posts further down the blogroll. It saves the reader's time in scrolling and presents the very worthy writing challenge of making enough sense on the front end of an essay so the reader can discern, without having to be told, that it continues below the fold, as well as provide enough information to make an intelligent decision whether or not to continue reading. Of course, I don't always meet these challenges either.

But challenges you are not sure of being up to are one of the things that make writing fun. And if it's not fun, why do it?

Finally, there is the matter of gender and number of indefinite personal pronouns. This is, of course, a political correctness minefield. When I write a sentence such as the one above:

...not only to make the words mean what he wants to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of his mind...

I am taking a calculated risk that my reader will know, in context, that I am largely, though not exclusively, talking about me, and I use the masculine gender because it is my gender. Thus he or she will not be offended.

The entire issue is one of the most delicate and difficult in the prose graces of contemporary English. Giving offense when you don't intend to is a major breach of manners, thus political correctness, whatever its abstract merits, has a reasonable claim here.

But most of the alternatives are equally suspect as breaches of mannerly prose. Use of the pronoun "one" more than once in a sentence has a pedantic, snobbish, pseudo-British sound. "He/she", or sometimes "he/she/it" is a barbaric American violation of the relations of spoken English to written English. For the only sensible pronunciations of he/she/it, given English vowel length and vowel color, would be "heesheet" in America, "hishit" in Britain, and "heeSHEit" in pretentious American academese, the pronunciation generally favored by the most extreme partisans of political correctness.

"He or she" is also not a politically correct alternative which wears well over the long haul. With the ghost of spoken language always in the ear when the pictures of written language are in the mind, overusing "he or she" makes the writer sound like a braying donkey: heORshe, heORshe, heORshe...

Thus the only sensible and mannerly alternative to meet the problem that I can see is to sacrifice number to gender, substituting the vagueness of number of "you" (since we no longer use "thou" and, if we had it available, we would use the "familiar" form of "thou" in most such contexts) or the inconsistency of number agreement created using "they". Thus:

...not only to make the words mean what you want to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of your mind...


...not only to make the words mean what they want to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of their mind...

Not the best of choices, but the ones, I think, which are the best mannered.

One thing is certain. I feel very lucky to read and write English, for all its challenges and difficulties, and to see English prose emerge so flowingly for me from my fountain pen.

I hope that he, she, it, one, you, and they do too.

I write now as clearly as I ever have, but the sentences are flat, without the emotional sparkle that my old blogging sustained. There are fewer metaphors, less vivid and varied language, and truly fewer ideas. Perhaps I wrote myself out, for after a certain point the original writing just dried up. I tried to restart several times, but the bipolarity stopped me like a brick wall.

But I did not take it on directly. I am now.

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