Magazine: American Scholar, Winter, 1992

Section: Life and Letters


On the campus where I teach, there is a landmark, a large rock on which fraternity and sorority members paint their Greek letters, the political-minded announce their slogans, and the whimsical occasionally indite their usually unobscene graffiti. The other day walking past it, I noticed that some less-than-advanced student of Latin had written: ``Veni, vidi, vici.'' Instantly, my mind rejoined, ``Veni, vidi, vici / Your mother looks like Nietzsche.'' Why does my mind do this? Where do such items come from? What sort of thing is this for a man in his fifties to be thinking? Ought I to seek, as they say, professional help?

Early on a spring morning in South Bend, Indiana, sitting alone in a quiet room over-looking a swimming pool, I notice two ducks alight on the water. ``A pair of ducks,'' I think, ``a pair of dukes, a pair of docs, a pair of dice, a paradise, a pair of Dekes, a pair of dorks, a paradox.'' I could go on, and that morning, for a bit longer, I did. In the newspaper I glanced at soon thereafter, someone was referred to as the ``heir apparent'' to some job I cannot now recall; but the phrase suggested to me another, which my pun-spewing mind put in the form of a riddle: ``What do you call a toupee? You call it, obviously, `hair appar ent.' '' A friend remarked that her eyes itch. ``Eyesitch Bashevis Singer,'' I blurted out, since I happened to have been recently reading his novels. In the fullness of time, I was forgiven.

How long has this been going on? asks a fine old torch song sung, in my youth, by June Christy (the Misty Miss Christy, old guys may recall). How long has my mind been subject to such nuttiness? Only as long as I can remember, though the condition seems to be becoming worse as I grow older. Who put these toys in my attic? Can they ever be cleaned out, so that I can turn my thoughts to more serious matters? Is language therapy indicated?

Or is it not my mind but the silliness of words themselves that provokes me to such zaniness? Surely I am not the only one who has noted it. ``I went over to Dover,'' Henry James wrote to a friend, then he added: ``What a language we have, `over to Dover'--it would have made Flaubert an even greater maniac than his own did.'' Is the English language inherently zany? Why is it so often the case, at least for me, that one word powerfully suggests another, often in some comic fashion. I hear the word adhering and I invariably think of the phrase add herring, and I don't even like herring. I hear the word intuit and I feel I ought to put more in to it. I see the name Immanuel Kant and my mind turns it into Immanuel Won't. When I hear the word paradigm all I can think of is the phrase from the Depression, ``Brother, can you spare a dime?'' I am like the little boy mentioned by F. L. Lucas in his swell book Style who remarked that ``death'' does not seem a very good word for what it describes, and when asked what word might be better, promptly replied, ``Hig.''

Have I been working with language too intensely for too long, like a man left out in the sun without a hat, who is consequently a bit touched? Are we talking here about a mild case of James Joyce fever? Truth to tell, I have been wandering about in (I won't say reading) Joyce's Finnegans Wake and, strange to report, finding whole passages not only comprehensible but charming. This in itself is, as anyone who has taken up this book, a work seventeen years in its highly involuted making, a bit disturbing. What is disturbing is that I have come to think I know what it is that Joyce had in mind writing this just about unreadable book. But, here, do please try a passage on your own:

What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cube house still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through successive ages that shebby choruysh of unkalified muzzlenimis silehims that would blackguardise the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven. Stay us wherefore in our search for tighteousness, O Sustainer, what time we rise and when we take up to toothmick and before we lump down upown our leatherbed and in the night and at the fading of the stars!

What I believe the old boy, Mr. James Choice himself, had in mind was to demonstrate the comic instability of language, the way almost every word in English resembles some other word, if not in English then in another language, so that, if one is sensitive enough to language, its soundings and resoundings, one is lucky to be able to communicate at all. Setting aside the problem that language provides in meaning and precision, consider for a moment its hidden traps. The falling into unconscious puns, the double en tendres, the boners, the howlers, the lavish prospects for lapses, the unconscious sexual metaphors, the horrendous comic possibilities awaiting anyone writing and speaking English--all these things make it apparent that the language is not altogether, as the folks down at computer city say, user-friendly.

In this list I haven't even mentioned irony, the disease that sets in among writers at a certain point of sophistication, and from which, once begun, return is impossible. ``One is taught to refrain from irony,'' says Max Beerbohm in Zuleika Dobson, ``because mankind does tend to take it literally.'' And in a radio broadcast, Max once remarked, ``I wish, Ladies and Gentlemen, I could cure myself of the habit of speaking ironically. I should so like to express myself in a straightforward manner.'' You don't suppose he meant that last sentence, do you?

Please do suppose that I entirely do mean it when I speak of the comic instability of language. I do not have in mind here anything so fancy as tony deconstructionist notions about language being mystifying, illogical, hopelessly political, and therefore itself, somehow, discredited (to be replaced by what--seashells, perhaps?--has never been even murkily suggested). Nor do I have in mind the struggle to make words mean precisely what one wants them to mean, over which Flaubert daily wracked his brain (cracked his crane?). Poor Flaubert, whose letters to Louise Colet, his mistress, are filled with such groaning complaints about his endless wrestle with language: ``Last week I spent five days writing one page, and I dropped everything else for it. . . . '' ``Do you know how many pages I have written this week? One, and I cannot even say a good one.'' The poor man had with words what must now be called a real ``Flaubertian'' problem. (There goes language, making a fool of one again.)

Flaubert's difficulty was in straining after an idea that might not have been achievable. ``Oh!'' he complained. ``If only I wrote the way I know one has to write, I'd write so well.'' What he had in mind was a style in which every mot was absolutely juste. (Le Mot, I not long ago learned, is what many of his friends call the novelist Ward Just, and I like them and him straightaway for this little joke.) Here is what Flaubert had in mind:

I envision a style: a style that would be beautiful, that someone will invent some day, ten years or ten centuries from now, one that would be rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with flame: a style that would pierce your idea like a dagger, and on which your thought would sail easily ahead over a smooth surface, like a skiff before a good tail wind.

What a lovely passage! ``I believe he's got it,'' as Professor Henry Higgins might say. ``By God he's got it!'' But of course Flaubert, being Flaubert, would not have found this or anything else ever good enough. The writer's--or at least certain writers'--road to hell is paved with the desire for stylistic perfection.

Imagine the state Flaubert would have been in if he had had to oversee translations of his ever-so-meticulously constructed works. It would have taken him onto the stage above madness. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who achieved fame as a writer in English and not in the Yiddish in which he grew up and wrote to the end of his life, noted of translation that ``the `other' language in which the author's work must be rendered does not tolerate obscurity, puns, and linguistic tinsel.'' It is, of course, possible to enjoy the splendidly spare English translations of Singer's own stories and novels and still love the literary tinsel that he felt these translations must eschew. (The English writer Richard Church once noted that the sound of the word eschew was responsible for his deciding to become a writer, so fascinated was he by it when, as a child, he heard it for the first time. My own reaction to the word is rather different. When I hear someone say ``eschew,'' I have to suppress saying ``Gesundheit!'')

Some often-translated writers have not let foreign languages stand in the way of their love of linguistic tinsel. Often these are writers who have command of not one or two but several languages. It may well be, it occurs to me, that one of the tests of command of a foreign language is to be able to recognize puns in it and, at a still higher level of command, to make puns in that language. Vladimir Nabokov is a case in point. (Is a man living in a rough neighborhood who carries a knife someone who has a point in case? Just thought I'd ask.) In the second volume of his biography of Nabokov, Brian Boyd tells of Nabokov's friend Alfred Appel reporting to him, during the wilder days of the sixties, that a nun in one of his classes at Northwestern University complained that a young couple near her in class was always spooning. Nabokov mockingly reprimanded his friend for missing a lovely opportunity. ``You should have said, `Sister, be grateful that they were not forking.' ''

One good pun tends to provoke another, often less good pun. With Nabokov's pun in mind, is it not possible to say of Brillat-Savarin, the great chef and writer on gastronomy, that he was a forking genius? Yes, it's certainly possible, though probably not a good idea. Yet those who take pleasure in making puns are perpetually crouched to leap-- couched to sleep?--always ready to fire away. Using puns in captions has long been considered an opportunity for a bit of fun, and journalists wait to get in their shot at it. Some seem rigged, such as the caption I once read beneath a photograph of trainers with stopwatches during an early morning workout at Aqueduct: ``These are the souls who time men's tries.'' Which doesn't lay a glove on the journalist who had the chance to write a caption for a photograph of the late Aristotle Onassis looking at the home of Buster Keaton, which Onassis was thinking of buying. Under this photograph the lucky fellow was able to write: ``Aristotle contemplating the home of Buster.'' Did yet another journalist caption a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev, with a Kur dish child in his arms, ``Kurd-carrying Communist,'' or did I make this up because I want it to be so?

You know you have the disease bad when you have puns ready-made and hope for situations to arise in which you can call them into play. There is a very good young writer on philosophical subjects named Josiah Lee Aus pitz. If ever I were to know him well enough, I should like to compliment him on something he has written and go on to ask him if he wrote it at home or at the home of relatives on his father's side--that is to say, under different Auspitzes.

``T'ain't funny, McGee,'' as the wise Molly McGee used to say on their old radio show when reining in her husband at those times that his humor threatened to veer out of comic control. But then punning is famously a low art. One has to have a taste for whimsy to go in for it; and it is no surprise that those two most whimsical of English writers, Charles Lamb and Lewis Carroll, both went in for it in rather a large way: Lamb, always the good host, used to complain about his ``nocturnal alias knock-eternal visitors.'' But then the distinctly un whimsical Winston Churchill appreciated a good pun, and in his essay on Herbert Henry Asquith he recommends an elaborate pun off the words wait and see and weight and sea that he allows may be apocryphal but ``deserves to survive.''

Groucho Marx suffered this same weakness, which he turned to a strength as a comedian, and once wrote to his brother Gummo that he and T. S. Eliot had three things in common: ``(1) an affection for good cigars; and (2) cats; and (3) a weakness for making puns--a weakness I have tried to overcome. T. S., on the other hand, is an unashamed--even proud punster. For example, there's his Gus, the Theater Cat, whose `real name was Asparagus.' ''

Groucho's sense of the comic instability of language was at the heart of much of his humor and hence of his charm. He was able to spin off the fragility of words like no other comedian of his time or of ours. I cannot recall specific examples of his doing this, so regular a feature of his performance was it. But if one were talking with him, one did well to watch one's vocabulary. Say ``disgruntled'' around him and he was likely to ask you if you ever felt ``gruntled.'' Mention that you were ``non plussed,'' he would likely ask when last you were ``plussed''; he might even go a step further and ask if you ever read Marcel Plussed. He would wish things untrammeled, trammeled; things impeccable, pecced; things invincible, vinced. If you mentioned that you thought something feasible, he would doubtless ask how precisely does one feas it. Tell him he was frivolous, and he would beg leave to frivol on. When Groucho was on a roll, which was most of the time, it was probably safest not to speak around him at all.

Groucho could also be death on odd names. W. C. Fields, too, thought, as he might have put it, nomenclatural exotica riotously funny, and he became something of a connoisseur (a kind of sewer) of odd names and used them in his movies whenever possible, the odder the better. That someone happens to be named Velveeta Hickenlooper or Montague Fortin bras really lit up old Fields, a man who always had plenty of alcohol in his lamp in any case. (And couldn't Groucho have done fine things with a phrase such as a ``lamp in any case''?) I do not share this appetite, though I sometimes indulge in it myself. I once owned a Volvo that had something called a Manual Choke; whenever I noted it written on the dashboard, I would say to myself, ``Manual Choke, wasn't he one of those Cuban pitchers on the old Washington Senators?'' To Shakespeare's question about what's in a name, I say, usually, a hell of a lot. What if Shakespeare's own name, for example, were Lou Peltz? Quite hopeless. Under the name Lou Peltz he couldn't have turned out a haiku.

But one doesn't really have to fall back upon names to find amusement in language. Neologisms supply enough comedy on their own. The cant phrase ``work ethic'' has always seemed to me to suggest its opposite, which would be ``loaf ethic.'' One can readily imagine coaches using the phrase: ``We like his loaf ethic, the way he seems to be able to kick back and do absolutely nothing for weeks at a time.'' To stay with sports, there is much talk these days in games about ``momentum,'' but if there is momentum why not, as a matching item, ``nomentum,'' when teams seem to lose their energy, slow down, fall apart? Teams with ``nomo'' would require plenty of players with a strong loaf ethic. Pleasing to know that I am not alone in finding so many of the neologisms of our day a bit goofy. Here is Richard Wilbur's take on the uncharming and not very useful ``role model'':

When Jack came tumbling down the hill,
The record shows that sister Jill
``Came tumbling after.'' Was he her
Roll Model, then, as I infer?

I have also taken much pleasure of late in the word judgmental, which is almost always used pejoratively, implying as it does that making judgments about anything is very bad form. I happen to have a friend who is a judge, and it delights me to be able to say to him, ``Oh, Dick, don't be so judgmental,'' when the man has no other choice. To revert to names again, I am sure that there must, somewhere, be a man or woman on some bench, federal or local, named Judge Mendel. As Henry James says, ``What a language we have.''

Along with freshly minted neologisms, another prominent incursion upon the language of late has been the disappearance of the hyphen. I rather miss the darling fellow, so much that I have agreed to become Chairman of the National Committee to Rescue the Hyphen. Who stole it? you may wonder. Copy editors seem chiefly to blame. It evidently caused everybody too much trouble getting the little bugger right, so the decision was made to eliminate it in all but a minority of cases. The consequence is that one now comes across such strange-looking words as multiethnic, neoisolationist, rechoreograph, postpleistocene, antiodorous, prowoman, daylong, weeklong, monthlong, solong oolong howlong ya gonna be gone. Please make checks payable to The Com-mit-tee to Res-cue the Hy-phen.

Typographical errors have become another playground for the vagaries of language. Everyone knows how common they have become in recent years. Rare is the book that nowadays contains none. If you ever wish to depress a writer, tell him about all the typos you have found in his book. If you wish to make an enemy of him, tell him his book is ``bristling'' with typos; be sure not to forget that word bristling. Isaac Bashevis Singer has said, ``An author doesn't die of typhus, but of typos.'' (The pun works better with a Yiddish accent.) Many have speculated upon why typos show up so much more frequently now than in earlier days. Some people have blamed it on computer typesetting; others on the belief that the kind of people who used to devote themselves to careful proofreading are simply not around. Evelyn Waugh, that wicked man, claimed that now that priests are no longer defrocked for sexual scandal it is impossible to get any decent proofreading at all.

For the present, typos, like love in the George Gershwin song, are here to stay. May as well get what enjoyment one can from them. I was not long ago told by an editor of the Times Literary Supplement that in a review I wrote of a book about White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in America, my phrase ``the way of the WASP'' came out on galleys as ``the way of the Wisp,'' which is rather charming. The same week the word ``Freudian'' came out ``Fraudian,'' which is rather telling. Twice the last line in Vladimir Nabokov's novel Bend Sinister, ``A perfect night for mothing,'' was changed by proofreaders to ``A perfect night for nothing.'' The situation is not so different with ``discrete,'' with a single e between the r and the t; use it and some proofreader is almost certain to change it to ``discreet.'' Be discreet; forget about discrete.

Then there are those words that one cannot be sure are typographical errors. ``Only connect'' famously begins the epigraph to E. M. Forster's Howard's End. Edward Shils, who knew Forster at King's College, Cambridge, once told me a story about convincing Forster to send some pages of a diary he had been keeping to the magazine Encounter, which was about to publish an anniversary issue, but in the end Forster sent the pages to Harper's, where he was able to get the larger fee. ``Do you suppose,'' Shils said, recounting the story, ``that what he really meant was `only collect'?''

And let us not forget those typos of the mind and tongue--``mindos'' and ``lipos'' they ought perhaps to be called. Richard Sheridan had the genius to give them, through a character he invented for The Rivals, the name of malapropisms. ``As headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile,'' says the blithely confident Mrs. Malaprop. The English journalist Jilly Cooper reports that her char-woman, learning that a house the Coopers had bought was reputed to be haunted, said: ``You'll have to get the vicar to circumcise it.'' Samuel Goldwyn made of such slips almost a specialty. ``In two words,'' he once reportedly said, ``im possible.'' On another occasion, he told an employee, ``If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you.'' I'm sure he did, too.

Foreign-born English speakers often--and understandably--fall into these lapses. ``The lawyer has put all the money in egg roll,'' a friend swears she heard an elderly Jewish woman say. ``Gingee Rogee,'' a Frenchman who taught at the University of Chicago used to pronounce the Hollywood actress's name. Did I actually hear a woman describe another woman as ``no longer a sprung chicken,'' or did I make it up? Probably not, for the foreign-born are especially good at muddling cliches. ``You don't want to take the baby out of the bathwater.'' Or: ``When they made her, they really broke the gold.'' I like to invent these on my own. ``I am eating these strawberries,'' I recently announced, ``like I'm going out of style.'' I have also been heard to mutter: ``In for a penny, in for a pounding,'' and ``You live and you yearn.''

``Mother,'' a little boy is supposed to have announced upon returning home from school, ``do I have a cliche on my face?'' ``A cliche?'' his mother asks. ``You know,'' the boy replies, ``a worn-out expression.'' Except in the realm of ideas, I have come rather to prize cliches, provided they be old enough. Of Lytton Strachey, Max Beerbohm wrote, ``He is not afraid of cliches,'' and he meant it as a compliment--a sign, I suppose, of self-confidence in a truly accomplished writer. Even H. W. Fowler allowed that there were cliches and cliches, and some were not only better than others but indispensable:

To take one or two examples from the many hundreds of words and phrases that it is now fashionable to brand as cliches, writers would be needlessly handicapped if they were never allowed to say that something was a foregone conclusion, or Hobson's choice or a white elephant, or that someone was feathering his nest or had his tongue in his cheek or a bee in his bonnet. What is new is not necessarily better than what is old; the original felicity that has made a phrase a cliche may not be beyond recapture.

I seem to have spent much of my life avoiding cliches, only now to confess a secret, small but steady pleasure in certain of them. Hoist, you might say, on my own foulard.

I also enjoy using slightly I won't say archaic but nicely out-of-it words. Crosspatch, fussbudget, pernickety, zealot--it's words such as these that I enjoy unfurling when the occasion permits. I have a preternatural regard for the word trousers and go with it every time over pants and the all-too-slick slacks. I say alas so often and with such earnestness that I don't believe it qualifies as affectation. I like, too, old cliches whose meanings I don't quite understand and don't always try to discover. I am grateful for the occasion that allows me to say that someone or other left ``hell-bent for leather'' or that something or other was done to ``a fare-thee-well.'' I wish there were more opportunities for me to use the phrase ``shiver my timbers,'' but then I guess you can't have everything.

Having always had a strong taste for metaphors, I have done a fairly brisk business in them in my own writing, and I admire them greatly when they are cleanly struck off in the work of other writers. But they do provide delicious food for unconscious comedy. Mixed metaphors are rarely in short supply. Literary critics can be depended upon to talk about ``fictional voices that have grown teeth and are ready to bite into the heart of the artistic enterprise.'' (Get that metaphor to an orthodontist.) Near misses are always interesting to contemplate, too, such as John Updike's ``I awake in light, feeling as if my soul had a slight sore throat.'' (Get that metaphor to an eye, ear, nose, and throat theologian.)

The miscast metaphors that give me most pleasure are the unconscious and perfectly, delightfully inappropriate ones. ``A good metaphor,'' said Aristotle, ``implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.'' A comically bad metaphor has a mildly grotesque inappropriateness, often implying the failure of the perception of dissimilars in similarity. ``A broken toe,'' such a metaphor might run, ``is a real pain in the neck.'' Sex, being a subject strewn with slang, is one in which these unconscious metaphors show up to a most hilarious effect. Using metaphor in the realm of sex is, to speak metaphorically, like walking in a poison-ivy-covered cow field filled with land mines--danger lurks wherever one steps. I shall always prize the student who wrote that ``Madame Bovary's problem was that she couldn't make love in the concrete.'' So, too, the man who announced that ``it is time for some straight talk about the gay liberation movement.'' And, again, the journalist who wrote that ``urbanology is a virgin field pregnant with possibilities.''

For many years now editors have played off the comic richness of language in the titles they have given articles and reviews in their magazines. Sometimes these are plays on words (``When Putsch Comes to Shove''), sometimes reversals of words (``Britannia Waves the Rules''), sometimes sheer whimsy (``Yes, We Have No Cezannas''). Nearly thirty years ago, I tried my hand at this sort of thing when I was a sub-editor on a small political magazine, but I was sent from the principal editor's office in disgrace when I tried to title a review of a crybaby autobiography ``The Days of Whine and Neurosis.'' A pity, really, for after all this time I still like it.

I am very glad that English is the language I grew up in, if only because I don't think I would have had a chance to learn it as an outsider. I am altogether too literal-minded to have been able to accept with serenity its vast number of inconsistencies. Why, any foreigner must wonder, does one drive on a parkway and park in a driveway? A slim chance and a fat chance--how can these be the same? What is a homeless community? What has egg to do with eggplant? Drink up, call up, dummy up, slow down, drink it down, play it down, be bored stiff, blue, out of one's gourd, big deal, no deal, do a deal--yumpin' yimminy, bon Dieu, oy gevalt, forget about it!

And what would a foreigner make of the new all-purpose American adjective fun? The word sometimes even had its problems as a noun. The late Vernon Young, an Englishman, film critic, and immitigable highbrow, once asked me what I supposed it was Americans had in mind when, upon parting from him, they sometimes instructed him to ``have fun.'' But what would he have made of such more recent locutions as a ``fun person,'' a ``fun time,'' the ``fun part''? I once left a restaurant, which attempted to duplicate the food and what its owners misconstrued to be the feel of the 1950s, in the company of a woman who is often rather stringent in her opinions about food and language. ``We must never go here again,'' she said. ``I fear this is a restaurant for fun couples.'' Sorry but there are not enough italics and quotation marks to signify the completeness of the contempt with which she used that last phrase.

But as an American I am not always clear on what words mean, so fast is the language moving, so wild are some of its inventions. What does it mean, for example, to call something ``freezer-fresh''? (``Don't get fresh,'' mothers used to say to children of my generation who looked as if they might attempt to sass them. And whatever happened to the word sass? We still have the activity but no longer the word.) Cars are no longer ``used'' but ``preowned''--with an extra charge, doubtless, if they throw in the hyphen. Slums and now even ghettos are gone, leaving people who used to live in them gamboling in the ``inner city.'' ``Terminal living'' apparently means you are just about dead.

Sometimes I ask myself how this mania for language, which has been my making and threatens sometimes to become my undoing, came about, both in myself and in others who share in it. Why am I such a sucker for sentences that have a kick in their tail, such as this by Kingsley Amis, who in his Memoirs writes that ``one does rather go through life constantly suffering from unpreparedness for how awful things are going to be, starting with human nature.'' I have a weakness for happy linguistic inventions. Chips Channon's ``anti patico'' seems to me quite as helpful as the ``simpatico'' from which it derives. Donald Tovey's referring to detective and spy stories as ``illiterature'' is a helpful addition to the language, as is ``neodoxy,'' which means obedience to the new. I like Kitty Muggeridge's description of the television johnny David Frost as someone who has ``risen without trace.'' I am also respectful about precision in connection with the unknowable. When Mau rice Richardson describes a Hungarian drink as tasting ``like hornet's piss,'' it strikes me that he has chosen well, for, though I haven't kitchen-tested any of this, the urine of a hornet sounds, somehow, much bitterer than that of a wasp or a bee.

``The limits of my language,'' said Wittgen stein, ``are the limits of my world.'' That seems a true, an almost commonplace statement, but neurophysiologists, in their recent researches, are beginning to make it seem rather shaky, claiming that language can only be explained at the neural level. It is now thought that different parts of language-- proper and common nouns, regular and irregular verbs, and so forth--are processed in different areas of the brain. The latest view is, according to an article in the New York Times, that ``language and perhaps all cognition are governed by some as-yet-undiscovered mechanism that binds different brain areas together in time, not place.'' This is all much more complicated than I can hope to grasp, but it does begin to explain to me the linguistic oddities bequeathed to many victims of strokes. I had a dentist who, suffering a stroke on a photographic safari in Africa, lost his memory for all proper nouns and his powers of consecution, or of following anything consecutively. After his stroke, H. L. Mencken lost his ability to read and write and could only speak haltingly, the right words refusing to come to him. Different bitter jokes for different ghastly strokes.

But does the brain perhaps play tricks on others of us who have had no stroke by giving us a larger drawer than most for frivolity in the ample cabinet of language? Why is it that some of us are more alert to the capriciousness of language than others? Possibly the problem could have to do with nothing so elegantly scientific as studies of the brain but instead with an ingrained whimsicality of nature. Such, I have little doubt, is my own nature. I have long believed, for example, that I would be very good--too good--at writing advertising copy, and I am glad that I was never given a chance to try, lest it turn out to be so. I also have secretly believed that I might have been a decent lyricist, for whom the meaning and weight of words mean less than their playfulness and rhyme.

Not long ago a friend who holds an option on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story ``The Diamond as Big as the Ritz'' asked me if I would like to try my hand at turning it into a musical by writing what I believe is called ``the book'' and lyrics for it. This is not one of Fitzgerald's great stories, I think, but it is one of his great titles. As a musical, this title could go a long way. Somehow I saw, in my mind's greedy little eye, people talking about having seen Diamond--yes, Diamond, that is of course how they would refer to it--in London, where the cast was much better than in New York. Everyone would see Diamond, and I would see gold, much gold, pile up around me. My friend asked me to think about it.

I tried not to but couldn't help doing so. Suddenly free moments--in the shower, walking the street, before falling off to sleep at night--seemed all to be given over to my writing song lyrics in my head. Good to be able to report that the world will be spared having to hear such half-composed, not quite half-witty classics as ``He's Got That Midas Touch,'' ``Champagne Is the Only Pain That Glorious Life Need Ever Contain,'' and the really quite unforgettable ``Still Priapic Over You,'' with its delightful opening line: ``No matter what the topic, I'm always quite pri apic, darling, priapic over you.'' Diamond--I fear that, for the present, you'll have to miss it, at least in my version.

Not only does the world not need my song lyrics, but neither do I, for I already have a plenitude of other people's bopping around in my brain: you go to my head, and I think I'm going out of my head, when we are dancing and you are dangerously near me, cheek to cheek, with sand in my shoes in Havana, in a small hotel, on a horse with no name, as time goes by, nice work if you can get it, s'wonderful, alone again, naturally, or is it (in the words of the all-too-mortal Temptations) just my imagination, so let's call the whole thing off.

As lines from songs both lovely and junky regularly pop into my head quite without being called up--and let us not speak of commercials: ``The heartbeat of America, that's today's Chevrolet''--so, quite as insistently, do punch lines from jokes: ``This could lead to dancing,'' I want to say to a student who says something quite foolish in class. ``What! And leave show business?'' I think, when someone suggests that I give up some boring task or other. ``Mark it down, Morris,'' I say to myself, when I know I am apt to forget some small item, ``mark it down.'' ``And about my humility,'' I mutter within when someone offers me a few kind words of praise, ``about my humility, not a word?''

In danger of being flooded by language, I need every so often to find a life preserver, and I look for it in stately language, in which solid words stay moored to sound thought. Whenever I am addressed by the title of Doctor, I always want to--and sometimes do--say, ``Please read two chapters of Henry James and get right into bed.'' But, in fact, when I am myself suffering from the linguistic equivalent of seasickness, I tend to take my own advice and read a writer whose language does not bob around: Samuel Johnson, or George Eliot, or Santayana, or Winston Churchill. A few pages from any of these or from a few other writers and I am ready to return to the battle.

The English poet and essayist Alice Mey nell, in a brief essay on dialects, writes of the dialects of Venetians or Genoese of another day: ``We may believe that it is a simple thing to die in so simple and so narrow a language, one so comfortable, neighborly, tolerant, and compassionate; so confidential; so incapable, ignorant, unappalling; inapt to wing any wearied thought upon difficult flight or to spur it upon hard travelling.'' Dying in a simple language, which had never occurred to me before I came across it in Mrs. Meynell, is a charming and devoutly to be desired condition.

But what if, as seems more likely, my physicians and nurses speak the standard psy chobabblified, jargon-ridden, watery lingo of the day? What if my physician tells me that I am a ``special person,'' my nurse mentions that she has a few thoughts she wishes ``to share'' with me, and the various technicians monitoring my passage into the next world speak to one another of being ``conflicted in their career choice''? Perhaps now is the time to go back to that living will I not long ago signed. Where in it I give instructions to pull the plug--and what a happy phrase that is!--I ought to add that another set of plugs be immediately placed in my ears, preferably ones connected to a machine playing Schu bert sonatinas and blocking out the blight of sappy language that most distinctly is not the last sound I wish to hear. When mustering-out time arrives, I do hope no special persons are around--and no bloody caring ones, either-- and all will keep their conflictions to themselves, so that I shall be left alone with the few people I love and the music of Schubert, in repose, lying there, like a bunny easterized upon a table, as the poet didn't quite say.



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Source: American Scholar, Winter92, Vol. 61 Issue 1, p7, 8p.