Wednesday, August 5, 2015

All words are shadows

Ah, the mysteries of language! How little truth there is in any tongue, despite our ceaseless appetite for speech! All words are shadows.
Owen Parry, Shadows of Glory

Written words seemed to have the effect of framing the mind, narrowing options. They were one step away from mind control -- as I saw it -- or brainwashing. Words were limits, boundaries.
Travis Hugh Culley, A Comedy & A Tragedy

I encountered both of the above on the same day and was struck at how they seemed to express opposing views. Abel Jones, the narrator and main character in Owen Parry's Shadows of Glory, speaks of the ambiguity of words. They can, and often do, mean different things to different people. In his memoir A Comedy & A Tragedy, Travis Hugh Culley tells of believing words, at least written words, were too specific, too limiting. They meant one thing and one thing only.

Now Culley is writing about his youth. He did not learn to read and write until he was in high school, and he probably feels quite differently about written words now than he did in his boyhood. Today he might agree with Abel Jones. I can understand how, especially to an illiterate person, writing might seem to pin one down. Even we literate folks use expressions like "put it in writing," suggesting that, at least compared with spoken language, the written word leaves little wiggle room. (By the way, I visited a church in Fort Myers, Fla., a few months ago where the nursery was called The Wiggle Room.)

I was reminded of something I read about Ernest Hemingway in Thomas C. Foster's book How to Read Novels Like a Professor. We know that Hemingway used few adjectives in his writing, yet there is one adjective found surprisingly often in his work: nice. On the first page of The Sun Also Rises we find Robert Cohn described as "a thoroughly nice boy," and on the next page he is described again as "a nice boy." The word pops up again and again. We find "a nice cathedral. Other characters, including Brett and Mike, are called nice. Why would Hemingway, who usually avoids adjectives, use nice so often? Explains Foster, "Because it doesn't mean anything. Or rather, because it can mean so many things and yet nothing in particular. Or because it is capable of meaning what it says and also its opposite, depending on context, delivery, and inflection."

If you or I overused that word in our writing, it would not reflect well on our writing ability. To Foster, however, Hemingway's repeated use of nice shows his artistry. The word doesn't narrow the options, as Culley once believed, but rather is shadowy, as Abel Jones views all words. That's why the U.S. Constitution, the American system of government put "in writing," can mean whatever the Supreme Court wants it to mean.

A day later I found another interesting line in another book. Rereading Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County" 1989 collection The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos, I found the panel where Opus is called a worrywart. "A worrywart"? he says. "I'm a worrywart? A worrywart? An anxious pimple?" Then comes the punch line: "Such an awful mystery is the English language."

Now that's nice.

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