Here Buckle

Tim : 30 May 2012 4:10 am : Blog

I think we all have our internal language police. Faulty grammar, faulty punctuation – the signs are everywhere. CAR’S FOR SALE – what, only one? We curl our lip as we drive past, enjoying the pleasure of knowing better. Such pleasure is, I’m sure, behind the remarkable sales of books such as Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves – pleasure and, perhaps, a little anxiety that we may be unwittingly committing grammar gaffes of our own. Truss gets in a moral tizz about these things, and it’s true that there’s a distinction to be made between “The dogs like my Dad” and “The dog’s like my Dad”, or “We’re here to help” and “Were here to help”. But most of the time, we get by – does anyone reading the latter notice really believe all the assistants are out to lunch?

Some years ago, the late Keith Waterhouse inaugurated the AAAA – the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe. But apostrophes are missing just as frequently as they are unnecessarily present, and the Association has its work cut out. The apostrophe is a relatively recent innovation in punctuation, anyway, and there is a movement afoot to abolish it altogether. Would it matter very much?

The wrong word is harder to swallow. It’s particularly irritating when a word is used in a way completely opposed to its meaning. “Literally” is probably the most widespread example: “I was literally burning up!” Well, maybe metaphorically you were. But in this case, I think the speaker usually knows what “literally” means, and is using it in this way for hyperbolic effect.

With some other words, though, it’s more mysterious why their usage strays so far from their meaning. Why, for instance, do people talk about “a quantum leap forward”? That’s a very cautious leap you’ve got there. And twice in the last week – once in the Huffington Post – I’ve noticed “enervated” used in contexts that suggested “energized” or “revitalized”. (The Huffington Post compounded the offence by bestowing an additional n.)

Again, despite the irritation I feel, I’m not sure this matters. It’s a momentary distraction, and at worst I lose a little bit of confidence in the writer who made the error.

There are some words – very few, I think – that signal two completely opposed meanings. This is the seventh, last, most extreme type of ambiguity in William Empson’s scale in his Seven Types of Ambiguity. An example he gives is “buckle”, which can mean buckle like a bicycle wheel, or buckle one’s belt. Poets love words like this, and Gerard Manley Hopkins exploits this ambiguity in “The Windhover”. He praises the pride, splendour and power of the bird, but also recognizes that, as a Jesuit priest, he should renounce these attributes, as lacking in Christ-like humility. So he says, “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” – and has it both ways. Which shows what can be done in language, when you know what you’re doing.

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Evil

Tim : 4 March 2012 3:12 am : Blog

“I myself am hell”

–    Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour” (quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost)

 

“Around this character he has thrown a singularity of daring, a grandeur of sufferance, and a ruined splendour, which constitute the very height of poetic sublimity.”

–    Coleridge on Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost

 

 “The horror! The horror!”

–    Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness

Marlon Brando as Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now

 

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the heart of the title is a beating, human one: evil is in us, even defines us. As a child I attended a small Catholic convent school. The Catholic Church, too, thinks evil is within us. That dazed, newborn baby resting on the exhausted mother’s chest is already fallen, guilty by way of inheritance of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. But then it is baptized, and this sin is washed away—the child is redeemed through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. All this is quite a lot for a baby to take aboard, but there’s plenty of catching up later. Evil is banished from our hearts, or as the Church says, our souls, and from then on, it’s a force on the outside, trying to get in. The task of the Catholic child is, above all, vigilance: Satan, like the Big Bad Wolf, is prowling, and we must build defences strong enough to withstand him.

 

 

I was taught by nuns who looked rather like those in The Sound of Music—dressed in black, with black veils and black habits and black shoes—we didn’t often see their shoes. A starchy white wimple concealed hair, ears, neck; in the middle of the wimple was an oval hole filled by an oval, abbreviated face: the cluster of eyes, nose, and mouth. The wimples in The Sound of Music were more extravagant and revealed more face than the ones I remember – maybe a Hollywood touch. The only other parts of the nun that were visible were her two hands. As a bride of Christ, she wore a wedding ring.

 

I had been going to Mass on Sunday since I was a baby, so this wasn’t at all odd. What was strange was when, towards the end of my primary schooling, one of the nuns appeared with a chestnut-coloured lock of hair escaped from her wimple, damp against her forehead. Not escaped—it had been set free, deliberately. I had never contemplated the fact of a nun’s hair before. If she had hair, what else did she have? Other changes occurred. Habits that formerly brushed the floor became shorter, revealing black-stockinged calves. The wimple receded, leaving the face fully exposed. One nun—a rather advanced young woman, with Nana Mouskouri glasses, who taught the primers—started bringing her guitar to school. We could hear her leading the children in song from our own classroom down the corridor.

 

The Church was changing, softening. The priest faced the congregation in the Mass, for some of the time at least. He spoke in English, not Latin. Occasionally, in the sermons that often seemed to gravitate towards technical points concerning the 16th century Council of Trent, the elderly priest would make a joke, and a murmur of surprise and appreciation would ripple through the congregation. The priest started to place Communion in the communicant’s hand rather than on the tongue. My mother was especially opposed to this, and to this day, along with some others of her generation, she stubbornly keeps her hands folded in prayer and extends her tongue to receive the Host.

Saint Maria Goretti

 

But though some of the outer edifice was beginning to crumble, at the core was hard certainty. There was good and there was evil, there was Heaven and there was Hell. In between was Limbo, where the unbaptized dead babies went, and Purgatory, which was a kind of waiting room where those who were bad but not damned sat around until the prayers of the rest of us reached a crescendo in God’s ears, and they could be admitted to Heaven. One morning a nun told us the story of Maria Goretti, a child martyr who resisted a would-be rapist to the death. “She never gave in!” the nun said. Her eyes bored into us. “She never gave in.” We were appalled and thrilled. As she lay dying, Maria forgave her murderer, who subsequently repented of his evil, attended Maria’s canonization, and ended his days working as a gardener in a monastery. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of rape victims and also of chastity. Images of her tend to be idealised portraits partaking of the iconography of the Virgin Mary.

 We memorised the Seven Heavenly Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Ten Commandments, the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Creed. We went to Confession, and celebrated our First Holy Communion, the little boys in white shirts and clip-on ties, the little girls in bridal dresses and veils. Altarboys in purple soutanes with white surplices helped the priest during the Mass, lighting and snuffing candles and fetching and carrying. I had bursts of devoutness, and rode my bike through the frost to early morning Mass. Some of the kids at school weren’t as devout as all that. There was even a gang called the Devil’s Disciples. They had gone to the other side, and had a certain glamour. Still, they knew there were sides. I was often fearful of committing some unforgiveable, mortal sin, and spending eternity burning in Hell. Much later, when I read the chapter in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen is terrified by the priest’s richly detailed description of the horrors of Hell, I was remembering as much as reading.

Dante’s Hell, by William Blake

 

I was irresistibly drawn to sin. On the long walk home from school, I’d recite under my breath, “Shit, bloody, fuck. Bloody, fuck, shit. Fuck, shit, bloody.” Every word was condemning me to God knows how many years of fiery torment, but I couldn’t stop. “Fuck, bloody, shit.” My soul was a slab of pale meat somewhere beneath my heart, and every sin was a telltale black spot, a lesion, its magnitude dependent on the gravity of my wrongdoing. I would imagine my entire soul, blackened and horrible. It was a wonder the Confessional Box didn’t spontaneously combust.

I know now that evil is a social, cultural construct, etc, etc, but at the same time I know it’s real, and maybe fundamentally. These days I think of it as a sometimes horrifying, nullifying absence of kindness—in people’s dealings with one another, and even in some landscapes. I remember driving for hours once to a deserted strip of coastline to go diving, and then not even putting my foot in the water—there was such a sense of desolate hostility there. In her book about the Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt talks about the “banality of evil”. It’s one of those perceptions you instinctively assent to, but it’s the agents of evil—people like Eichmann—who are banal. Evil itself, abroad, terrible, is scary as hell.

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This is the one thing that’s true

Tim : 9 February 2012 9:00 pm : Blog

To start a blog is to make an implicit declaration: that I have something to say. That I have something worth saying. But what’s it worth? If it was worth something, obviously I’d be writing a column or hosting a show; I’d be Karl du Fresne or Paul Holmes or, God help us, Paul Henry – one of those curmudgeonly white males who find a congenial habitat in New Zealand’s media and colonise it like weasels. But what I have to say isn’t worth anything. I write poems, so I know a thing or two about worthlessness, and I know that what I say has no value.

 

When I read or listen to the pundits of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, I’m struck by the absolute confidence these people have in their own opinions. They know what they think, all the time. I have no such confidence. I never have done. To find out what I think about something, about anything, I write it down. As E.M. Forster says somewhere, “How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?” But even then, is this what I mean? When I write something down, the act of writing produces something else, something other, something still tentative and provisional but more concrete, more pleasing than the vague, half-formed thoughts – feelings, really – that curl and thicken and dissolve against the ceiling of my brain like cigar-smoke.

So, if even I don’t know what I think a lot of the time, how can I hope to persuade others to my way of thinking? The answer, I think (I think I think, I’m not sure), is to make a virtue of not-knowing. After all, there is so much we don’t know. If we stick to what we know, we leave an awful lot out – not just the Big Questions (“Does God exist?” I don’t know!), but also the little ones, like why does my cat, Pru, repeatedly butt my hand when I’m trying to put food in her bowl? She knows – she knows! – that this slows me down, and makes me spill Friskies on the floor, but still she does it, every morning. There’s no answer to this, but it doesn’t stop me asking, sometimes amused, sometimes exasperated. I like questions that stay questions.

There is a peculiar condition with a beautiful name that I suffer from. Not suffer, exactly – it doesn’t hurt, and at worst it’s the cause of the occasional, mild, social embarrassment. The condition is called echolalia. People with echolalia echo other people – they will pick up and repeat the tail-end of what someone has just said, parrot-fashion. Mine is slightly different, in that I repeat what I myself have just said. No sooner have I said, “I hope you have a good day,” than I’m repeating under my breath, “… a good day.” Why do I do this? It probably has to do with a severe speech impediment I had until my mid-teens: repeating in a whisper whatever I’d just said, I was carrying out a pronunciation-check. But it’s just as likely that I’m trying to convince myself of the veracity of what I’ve said aloud – a different kind of check, a reality-check. “Yes, that’s correct, I do hope you have a good day.” This blog is, perhaps, a kind of echolalia: a writing down that comes from unsureness.

Albert Einstein, a distinguished echolalian

I hope that these posts may yet prove, after all, to be worth something, outside the bounds of the market and of utility. I think people generally are less sure of things than they seem, but still wonder about them. The heading of this, my first post, quotes the final line of a poem I wrote some years ago. It protests too much, and gives away the fact that really, I’m not very sure about anything. This is the one thing that’s true.

 
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