Dog's Dinner

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It Ain't Necessarily So

I'm deeply annoyed with whoever it is at Slate magazine who keeps changing the presentation mode back and forth, but more troubling still is the relative paucity in recent months of interesting political articles (particularly depressing is Hitchens's tight-leash attack-dog triviality). On the cultural front, however, I was charmed by this review of a new book on the prescriptive vs. descriptive debate in language. As I mellow with age and continue teaching English in Poland I tend increasingly toward a more descriptive stance, and I found this article embracing my old bete noir(linked to at the bottom of the other) quite persuasive in its way. There is something about this kind of unblinking confrontation with contradiction (explored in a different context in Slate's ongoing series of non-cynical, open-minded interrogations of scripture) that I find very refreshing-- it reminds me in a way of the psychoanalytic notion, which I first encountered in this book, that in Freudian/Kohutian terms, a statement such as "I don't like" means the same thing as "I like," a notion easily scoffed at, to be sure, as nihilistic egghead tomfoolery, but one which I nonetheless consider to be often true. The elasticity of language is not to be underestimated. For example, a friend and former co-worker of mine, an internationally renowned guest speaker in the world of recovery fellowships, made a speech wherein he asked, with his inimitable delivery, why his audience found him in good health and spirits, looking twenty years his junior, and not paralyzed/dead/bed-ridden/decrepit after decades of abusing alcohol and intravenous drugs? "Because," he pauses, "if justice was just, then that should be so." When I first listened to the tape I heard this as a mistake and thought... "Well, with his charisma he can get away with it, after all, his point is understandable." The point being that God tempers justice with mercy. But when I thought about it some more, I realized that it not only makes perfect sense but belongs to a venerable tradition in English literature, from Shakespeare to Swinburne, in which writers (and speakers) problematize the tension between nouns and adjectives. More importantly, as the government was forced to acknowledge a few years back after having rashly christened the Afghan campaign Operation Infinite Justice, divine justice, which monotheist believers describe as infinite, is not something that humanity can fathom, let alone enforce, hence If divine justice was, or were, just, i.e. comprehensible in the narrow human sense, then perhaps my friend would have been laid low years ago by the arithmetic of self-destruction. But as God's justice is tempered (sometimes) with mercy and grace, he lives on to spread his message of temperance.

In any case, it is good to part with absolutism, in whatever sphere, and always healing, as we can hear in Dylan's "My Back Pages" and see in the later writings of Calvino.
P.S. In the article on "literally," when he used "scan" to mean "skim" as an example of multivalence, I was reminded of those old Two-Minute Mysteries (by Don Sobol of Encylopedia Brown fame), in one of which Dr. Haledjian based a charge of murder on his absolutist prescriptivist interpretation of "scan." Sobol was never one for ambiguity.

1 Comments:

At 8:20 PM, Blogger paulkp said...

Hi Tim,

(Tried your columbia email unsuccessfully)

I was so bored I googled myself past page 1 for the first time and saw your post from two years ago! That's funny that you waited so long to read any of Olinger--without disposing of it. I honestly can't remember why I gave you the book except that it was literature, and you were a great writer, still are of course. I also have a personal connection to Updike, loosely. I went to school with his son, as I also did with the children of Cheever, Salinger, and Berryman. I don't have their emails, sadly.

I hope you and your family are doing well. The last time I saw any Williamses, you all were in line at a Christmas movie at the Avalon, perhaps 10 years ago?

I keep in touch with Ryan Martin, who is an OB-GYN in New Haven. Dave Jacobs, who admired you as much as I did, is also training to be a doctor.

Take care,

Paul Penniman

 

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