26 mar. 2008

From Garrison Keillor's column

"Should I accept financial advice from someone who uses Me as a subject?" she asked me.


And now I am wondering if the upheaval in finance may not be the result of the raging epidemic of poor spelling we see all around us.

The field of language seems particularly prone to a kind of "magical thinking." If we only knew how to SPELL then society would be on a proper footing. Yes. I'm sure all the wall street geniuses who gave us the sub-prime mortgage crisis did so because of misspellings. If people didn't say "aint" they woudln't spit on the floor either. Of course, Keillor is a humorist so I'm sure he doesn't mean this idiocy to be taken literally. It's a very literal-minded approach, though.

Pound was especially prone to this kind of magical thinking. He thought certain breakthroughs in usage of language could lead to a better society. We all saw where that led. Orwell too. Why if we just didn't use so much litotis, euphemism, and the passive voice, our political thinking would be cleared up.

Magical thinking, basically, is the idea that we can influence reality through the strict control of largely irrelevant minute particulars. A mistake in the performance of the ritual will make the gods angry. If nobody uses "disinterested" to mean "uniniterested" we will all think clearly ever after. If Bush had paid attention in philosophy class, we wouldn't be in Iraq. For some reason liberal, educated folk are more, not less prone to this kind of magical thinking, especially about language. I hear this kind of crap all the time from people who should know better.

For example, the idea that poets are anti-war because of their unique sensitivity to language and its political manipulation. Then why are the crappy poets anti-war too?

I'm even prone to it myself. I caught myself thinking: if Garrison Keillor had only read Creeley and Silliman instead of Bly and Collins, he wouldn't make that mistake!

I had to overcome it in my work on translation. I was thinking that if translation of Lorca had been better, we wouldn't have had all those cultural misunderstandings, as though a good enough translation would simply abolish the difference between cultures. I don't believe that any more.

8 comentarios:

Joseph Duemer dijo...

Fair enough, but consider this sentence:

"The historian cannot say how richly succulent the juice from the veal loin Henry IV ate the night he learned of Richard II's death tasted as it dribbled down his chin."

This from a post arguing that fiction writers allow us to "enter the consciousness" of literary character, but that's not my point. My point is that it is an excruciatingly bad sentence in which the writer's desire to show off has distorted reality. [Source]

The taste of death dribbling down Henry's chin, where there are apparently taste buds . . . such writing cannot be good for the body politic, or morality, or my digestion.

Jonathan dijo...

Well, in principle at least it's not good for the body politic and makes me naseous too. But the hygnenic impulse--to rid ourselves of such writing in the hope of some political benefit--is surely an instance of magical thinking. Surely the author of Magical Thinking would agree? Living in a regime of democratic robustness and social justice someone might still have a "bad prose day" and write a sentence like that.

The link between bad prose and bad politics seems mostly specious to me. Pointing out a bad sentence to me doesn't really change my mind. If fact, I've read this sentence already today, quoted on Dan Green's blog.

Joseph Duemer dijo...

That's where I saw it too, Jonathan. And while I want to agree with you about the absence of a direct link between good prose & good politics, I'm not so certain. How about the inverse? Don't we cringe at the creepy language of many politicians? Isn't that language designed to deceive? Isn't such language bad for the body politic? Is the relationship between George Bush's language and his politics irrelevant? You may say that such language is intentionally bad & that's true; but do we give unintentionally creepy language a pass. Well, that's a lot of questions.

By the way, the title of my book, Magical Thinking, was meant to suggest that there is a certain kind of magical thinking that results in art & beauty as well as the other well-known kind we're discussing here.

Jonathan dijo...

I know what you mean. I'd like to question that whole association, though. I'm not saying I don't make similar associations, but I think on the whole they remain "magical." The language is creepy because it's a lie, not for any really linguistic or stylistic reason. I find the liberal disdain of Bush's disfluency to be rather dumb for the same reason. I do disdain Bush, but not for that.

Someone I once knew and disliked intensely also smelled rather bad, and was ugly to my way of thinking. Maybe there was no cause and effect there, but my magical thinking was that "of course he smells bad and is ugly... he is a jerk!"

Joseph Duemer dijo...

I'm not so willing to let go of the connection between disfluency and moral stupidity, but I'll have to think more about it before I can say why -- beyond what I've already said. Contra your acquaintance, lots of morally disreputable people are attractive. I'm thinking, just as I write this, that there is a relationship to power here, but it's late and I have classes to prep for tomorrow. More anon.

Matt dijo...

"What did we think those / tendrils were for, except to go on growing / some more, and then collapse, totally / disinterested. "Uninterested" is probably / what I should say, but they seem to like it here."

--Ashbery, "The Military Base"


Joseph Duemer dijo...

Jonathan, I don't think we really disagree. My formulation: Certain kinds of debased language are symptomatic of political or moral deficiencies, but it does not follow that eliminating the symptom will cure the underlying disease. To think so is, as you say, a species of magical thinking.

Jonathan dijo...

That's an eloquent statement with which I mostly agree, especially seeing it as a symptom rather tha na cause.