Archive: June 2012
There are - most people would agree, and some of them aggressively so - more important things than words. Still, words are important enough, if one reflects that those who have been deprived of them from birth never - for better or worse - become part of the human community. Orwell - via Newspeak - suggests another way in which they are important - in the manipulation of thought, and through thought, behaviour.
In a 1944 essay entitled 'The Death of Words', C.S. Lewis deals with what may be a natural - or at least unconscious - form of the erosion of meaning in language. This is the transition of a word from having a descriptive meaning, to having a purely judgemental meaning. This can happen in two ways - the word can become pejorative, or it can become the opposite, which Lewis refers to as "eulogistic".
The pejorative shift is more common:
It is certainly true that nearly all our terms of abuse were originally terms of description; to call a man 'villain' defined his legal status long before it came to denounce his morality.
But I doubt if that is the whole story. There are, indeed, few words which were once insulting and are now complimentary - 'democrat' is the only one that comes readily to mind. But surely there are words that have become merely complimentary - words which once had a definable sense and which are now nothing more than noises of vague approval? The clearest example is the word 'gentleman'. This was once (like 'villain') a term which defined a social and heraldic fact. The question whether Snooks was a gentleman was almost as soluble as the question whether he was a barrister or Master of Arts. The same question, asked forty years ago (when it was asked very often), admitted of no solution. The word had become merely eulogisitic... This is one of the ways in which words die.
He goes on to say:
The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition. As old horses go to the knacker's yard, or old ships to the breakers, so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad.
With this in mind, I wonder what it says about our current age that the word 'anti-science' is now used so often in certain quarters as merely pejorative - a way of dismissing an argument - and that 'scientific' is used merely to mean 'reliable' (with 'unscientific' to mean 'unreliable'). Is this a trend in which all that is 'unscientific' merely becomes illegitimate and unthinkable, with 'scientific' (following the eulogistic usage of such words as 'Christian' and 'American') being simply the undescriptive, rallying flag of the realm that is (we are compelled to believe) all there is?
Lewis's essay ends as follows:
And when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.
In a poem, the title of which I have forgotten, Larkin states that "life is slow dying". He offers various examples of this: "hours spent giving evidence or birth/advance equally slowly on death". Something like that. He concludes: "And saying so to some means nothing/Others it leaves nothing to be said." I have tended to be in the latter group. On the subject of the end of the world, ultimately, there is nothing to be said. That's why it's the end of the world. Much like the bit - inevitably - in the Monty Python film, where Death comes to a dinner party, and the guests complain and start to give him a piece of their mind, and he tells them to shut up, because they're dead. I think a great deal about the end of the world, but I will take all that as understood and say nothing about it (because there's nothing to be said), even though it has much to do with my theme. I may mention, however, the petite apocalypse (is apocalypse a masculine or feminine noun?), which is personal death. My theme, as my title indicates, is being 40.
I'm not sure I intended to notice the fact that I have turned 40, since noticing one's age seems a very cliched mode of behaviour to me. Nonetheless, I have noticed it, more than I have noticed turning any other age for... well, probably since my teenage years. I am told - by more than one person - that 40 is good. I am told - by more than one person - that, on the other hand, 30 is bad, and it's good to get to the former after negotiating the latter. How do I feel? I've never been convinced that feelings can really be verbalised in any direct way, but one thing I'm certainly aware of is this: I appear to be old enough that if we were living closer to what some call nature, I could very well be expected to be dead by now, and yet, I have accomplished almost entirely nothing and have no sense that my life (which should by now have ended) has even begun.
This is a peculiar state to be in and not very satisfactory.
Larkin made some other poetical observations about the passing of time, age, mortality and so on. But I'm not writing an essay on Larkin. There is one poem (perhaps two) where he talks about reaching the age where you know everything about yourself that there is to know. I've always been half-skeptical of and half-friendly towards this idea. I'm not sure that I believe it, exactly, but I can say that time makes it very clear to you if you take a path that diverges from the path or paths taken by your peers. Those other figures, who took the other paths, grow more and more distant as you progress towards your solitary destination.
I may now make a brief statement of what is obvious, immediate and unavoidable to me on my path, but which to others might seem peculiar and incomprehensible: If we do not know for a solid fact that there is a congenial afterlife then there is absolutely no justification for begetting more offspring. Surely the momentum of mere unthinking biology and tradition has run out by now, and we can actually decide, consciously. And if so, what possible grounds can there be for a conscious decision to procreate? I know there are others who simply say, "There is no justifiction for etc." My path diverges from them, too. My path has an 'if'. I am not expecting that 'if' to be resolved in a favourable way, certainly not in my lifetime. That's all. That seems to be a summation of my path and the nature of its divergence. To me, it even explains the melancholy blue of the shadows that fall upon the path from the overhanging branches and leaves. However, I know - from experience rather than deduction - that saying so to others means nothing.
From Larkin, to Dickens. Perhaps too many people quote Dickens, and perhaps too few read his works. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. I have more friends now than I know how to give time to. I am involved in the production of mad and beautiful books, but I no longer have time for my own writing. The people who are waiting, for one reason or another, for me to get back to them, must run into triple figures. When I lie abed at night and think they are still waiting, it seems to me that it would be more pleasant altogether if I could just fade from existence and be forgotten. And then, I begin to think, who - who? - who in this world is going to get back to me? There must be someone, somewhere, who will get back to me about some wonderful and stupendous thing that will render my life charming thereafter. But no, no... whoever this obscure personage is, they are very busy with other things, and getting back to me does not occur. Bills occur, and demands, and wrangles and deadlines and duties. But nothing delightful and silky. But never mind that my attention is distracted by a stir in the curtain that I always hope must portend some living marvel about to make an entrance on the stage of my life, and never mind that it never portends anything more than someone prompting me in my lines, at most... It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. Fear of death has waned; will to live has also. I am better equipped than ever to write what might appear the work of a worldly and not-too-dim sort of person, but my energy is drained, and now that I am less despairing I see even less the point. But nonetheless, a publisher with which I am associated is producing beautiful things... but how mundane the mechanisms of commerce with which one must engage. It is easier, we are told, for the writer to find attention now... but harder to find appreciation, as illiteracy and philistinism set in, harder still to find security. I think I am by temperament a contemplative. I need time to reflect more than almost anything else. But there is hardly a minute in the day now when I have space in my thoughts for things other than deadlines and to-do lists. There are a hundred wonderful projects in which I am involved, and I feel like I might be dead before the completion of any of them.
And my life's work, well... it becomes more and more clear how insignificant it is. I always believed that I had been given, from an early age, some genuine grasp of some unique portion of beauty in the world's - or some other world's - soul. The things I have written that display that grasp most naturally are the things that are unpublished, farthest of all from having readers, and I wonder, too, if I shall ever finish them, and, if I do, whether they will mean anything to anyone, though for me, I hope, they will leave nothing to be said.
Quentin S Crisp
|May 2012July 2012|