Archive for July, 2007

Zombie lit

July 18, 2007

From William H. McNeill’s Venice:

Dositheos’ second great achievement was to give the Orthodox tradition a historical definition. He did this by writing a History of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, published in 1715, eight years after his death.

I have to wonder if his editors got so grumpy (like me) with the fact that McNeill mentions Venice only a very few times in his last chapter that they failed to notice (unlike me) that he slipped in a bizarre instance of posthumous writing. A great achievement indeed!


Mnemonics #1

July 13, 2007

ébranler – to shake or weaken

Who can resist the urge towards puerility when asked to remember a word with “bran” as its middle syllable, especially when it obliges the uvula to heap one syllable on top of its predecessor in so viscous a manner as this word does?

Rest assured, I am not so strong; nor can I forebear to note the certain explosive quality of the accented e, which ushers in the bare fact of a weakening the cause of which is only to be discovered in the musing, elongated phonemes that follow – the phonemes, of course, where “bran” is found. The accented e – which, in being set apart from the rest of the word by the distinctness it commands in the face of the muffled remainder by means of whose contorted efflorescences one sound heaves sickly into another, allows the word to contain its own meaning by obliging one to perform, first, an enervating coup, then a muddled reaction so far back in the throat that it may as well be abdominal – bears an accent aigu, which, in starting just above that vowel and rising, illustrates a movement precisely opposite to the lost buoyancy of the weakening’s object.

The result of the negation affected by the rising accent aigu and the sudden enfeeblement of the object is a kind of stasis which I choose to interpret not as a conflict with the active sense of the word, but as a recapitulation of the weakened state where decisive action in one direction or another is rendered impossible.

A journal of my infancy

July 10, 2007

An ancillary yet durable fear – my personality’s gallbladder, let’s call it – is that I will somehow forget the whole of the English language. To fixate on a single, temporarily-forgotten word whose connotation matches your thoughts as well as possible, or to describe that word, wringing your own entrails to divine its first letter or its number of syllables: these are ordinary experiences enough, but to forget the entirety of the only language you speak is nothing short of horror. To forget English would, for me, mean being reduced to my partial knowledge of German and French, plus a considerable amount of impotent gesturing; and because I love words, love to swaddle the most recondite members of our lexicon, the idea of having the English language, whose nuances I have worked so hard not simply to know but to render part of myself, snatched from me is enough to make me shudder, however unlikely it may be that the thought could come true.

Which is all as much to say that, yes, at this point I am shamefully monolingual and that I presently feel the weight of this dependency, this rigidity or this American middle class sine qua non, as something more akin to a pain than an itch. I feel not simply annoyed, but virtually disabled by the fact that I’ve somehow failed to grow fluent in another language in the 25 years of opportunity I’ve had; or as if that failure is itself somehow a stigma not on my facility with language (of which I’ve frankly never had cause to regard as anything but exceptional), but on my intellectual history, as if it were to prove that the arabesques into which I take such pleasure in shaping the English language belie not curiosity with the possibilities of language but an unshakable laziness with respect to content.

But let me be easy on myself, for I’m working hard to teach myself French, am taking advantage of as many resources as my embarrassment of the difficulty with which that language issues from me allows; but at the same time, I am motivated primarily by a spite the object of which is the torpid manner I’ve heretofore used in approaching language; a spite the object of which, in short, is myself. That an easy, forgiving attitude towards my past mistakes — even the objection, tempting because there’s an undeniable truth there, that dwelling on the mistakes of an unchangeable past is fruitless — becomes obviously counterproductive in light of my motivations.

But that the whole of this process has had a decisively negative tinge to it with respect to my own laziness or my past objections doesn’t adequately describe the principle frustration which I’ve confronted in a steadily increasing degree as I approach the end of the textbook: that is, how absolutely infantile my command over the language is. To simply not know a language is, in that respect, less frustrating than to know it partially; to use words in a way that feels like coughing up inflatable furniture is much worse than the resigned placidity of someone who can’t speak the language at all.

It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t known for my facility with English; but to have to face again that unremembered time is a much more difficult feat than simply disciplining myself to study everyday.

A bilious confection

July 4, 2007

My respect for academia was stricken with yet another blow yesterday when I received news that a colleague, the impression of whose mental flaccidity and ability to sully the pages of any text with his blindly-flung bullshit has not received any abatement since I first met him, has accepted a tenure track position at a well-respected university. Nor is he the only colleague who seeks the Good Life in a close, oral inspection of our faculty’s collective ass – only the most recent to have purchased some success through his osculant efforts. Some of them even seem to go about this as a sort of Pokemon game, hunting down and conversationally cornering the professors who most resist their sycophancy.

The Ecstasy of the iPhone

July 2, 2007