Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Now Face North

I don't think many people who wear The North Face fleece jackets have ascended the north face of anything. What's more, The North Face wearer announces his superiority of dress, his authority on yuppie sportswear, without ever actually showing his face. I am starting to hate The North Face, because of its lack of a face. All I see is its cold shoulder.

Until this strange positioning of embroidery coupled with the always already "away" positioning of the North Facers faces when in close proximity to non-North Facers faces really started to get to me (which it did, after a cool season of riding the 'L'), I did not even know if there was a logo on the front of The North Face jackets. So often did they turn the other shoulder that I had to visit The North Face dot com to look at a fleece jacket for myself, to determine if it was to blame for its wearers' paradoxical simultaneity of coldness and warmth. The jacket, as it turns out, does have a front logo. So maybe it is not wholly to blame for its apparent one-sidedness? But yet -- could it be that the front logo is intended for the admiration of the sporty affluent fuck's sporty affluent fucking friends, while the back logo is there for the rest of us to covet? The fleece aficionado can keep his power structure of branding in place, without having to gaze upon the pitiable face and shabby woolen garments of the less warmly outfitted citizen of winter.

Have North Facers even seen the commercials for these products? I think the fleeces are so much a part of their cultural code they need not be sold to. The North Face gear, at any rate, is advertised to real outdoor adventure types. Those real outdoor adventure types do amazing things in those advertisements. They don't just stand around on the 'L' ignoring humanity and iPodding their brains to shit. You can do that in a Kmart jacket.

Now I want to punch one in the shoulder blade.

I am not averse to outdoor wear for city use. I am wearing REI pants and a Columbia sweater as I write this on the commuter train. (But those are store-brand and low-end outdoor garments, respectively.) I am also not totally averse to wearing The North Face gear (don't you love how they've built "The" into the name so you can't even write about it properly?). I have an awesome pair of ("The") North Face pants that I got on clearance. They have a logo embroidered on the back pocket. But dammit, if you want to see the front of them, I will gladly turn around. And if you want to say "Hey, nice pants!" I will gladly turn around and say "Thank you!" with my face.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Splendid Word

I ended my last post with a line from Woolf, that for many of us is "nuff said" when it comes to why we love our language: "Words, English words..." I thought since I posted two months ago on words that I hate for absolutely no sane reason, I should give equal time to words I love with the same intensity and absurdity. First, here is most of that paragraph from Woolf, with clues to why some words might grate and some might delight:
"Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations -- naturally. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today -- they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word 'incarnadine', for example -- who can use it without remembering also 'multitudinous seas'? [...] Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word 'incarnadine' belongs to 'multitudinous seas'."

--from "Craftsmanship," delivered as a BBC broadcast on April 20, 1937, part of a series entitled Words Fail Me
Woolf's points about words and their meaning-baggage are valid, but another approach to thinking about why we love words comes from the "cellar door" camp. Some words may appeal to us because they are sonorous, and for no other reason. Here is an excerpt from what may be the first mention of the "cellar door" theory in print:
“He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

--from Gee-Boy, by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, 1903 (and pulled from this NYT article)

For me I think a combination of these things is at work when a word moves me or sticks with me. (For my most-hated hit list, however, I maintain that it is only the sound quality of the words that I find abhorrent, as I have no issue with the meanings. I could make a list of words I hate for the meanings, but wouldn't that just be a list of things I hate?)

So here are some of my favorites, including proper nouns from around these United States:

boat ride
Cucamonga (anglicized Shoshone, so it counts as English)
Clarksville (any simple name with a "ville" after it gets me...'cept maybe Hooterville and Margaritaville)

*Appalachian. (A "haint" is a ghost.)

There are more. Maybe I'll add them as I come across them in my reading. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments, especially those where the meaning is obviously not why you love the word.

Once it has snown...

In the winter I start turning all verbs ending in "-ow" into irregular Old Englishy sort of past participles. I think it's because of the snow. It makes me want to say, "Look! It has snown."

I don't think it's too wrong to think of these verbs with the "-own" or "-ewn" ending. Many of the "-ow" verbs still retain what I'm assuming really is an OE ending. Here are some of the ones that really end that way in Modern English:

mow mown
blow blown
sew sewn
show shown
know known

Some of these have two possible endings, like "mown" is most often just "mowed." In fact, proper Modern English lovers probably would not let you get away with "mown" even though it is perfectly proper. It just sounds archaic. But I like that. So here's how we should say the following verbs as past participles when the mood strikes us, and again, grammarians be damned!

snow snown
slow slown
furrow furrown
crow crown

As in...

"It has snown for fourteen days."

"Yes, the snow has not slown down one bit."

"I might have known -- that is why your brow has been furrown."

"Indeed. It is so dark and cold the cock has not crown."

So there. What else do we have to amuse ourselves with when it has snown a fortnight and the cock has not crown?

"Words, English words." -- Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

Monday, November 8, 2010

Grammarians, Skedaddle

I have a serious problem with grammarians. I mean, they always bugged me a little in school, but now that I'm doing a master's it seems like the grammarians should have shuffled off by now to torture high school students or edit online magazines or whatever they're good at. See that's the thing. I think grammarians are the way they are because they're not great at having ideas or writing elegantly or anything interesting. So they correct the rest of us. And yes, their grammar-bolstered confidence is so great, they even correct the authors.

Don't get me wrong, I observe most grammar rules (and I do think most high school English teachers are better than just plain grammarians). But I think that some grammatical conventions are too rigid to allow for creative use of this gorgeous language we're lucky enough to have. It's English for God's sake! It can do the awesomest things if you only let it breathe. In one of my classes I sit through weekly humiliation (oops, I misidentified an expletive...) and discomfort (is that an absolute construction? ...I don't think I'll raise my hand). I'm not targeted or anything, and I don't try to take people on, but it is a generally hostile environment for me. I will provide some examples lest you think my complaints are vague or simply based on some kind of grammar envy.

The Sloppy Proofreader
We looked at an overhead of a letter written by a woman author. She typed a quotation mark before the period when she mentioned the title of a short story. The professor thought this a good time to remind us that quotation marks go after the period, and to show his disdain for this highly respected author's cavalier punctuation. The grammarians grumbled along with him. "That's why she has editors." The letter was typed on a type-writer, so whether the writer made an honest typo or had an orthographic brain fart, she was probably not going to go back and fix it. Yes, that's why she has editors. But it's also not most people's main concern to police their quotation marks when writing freely. We proofread things that lots of people will read, like papers for classes. We might even proof our emails. But most of us don't think of ourselves or our friends as failed writers because of a typo. The rogue quotation mark might have warranted a preventative aside in a freshman writing class, but not two whole minutes of grad student tsk-tsk-ing. (That's not a word! Take that!)

The Permissive Editor
When we got down to the analysis of some prose by the same author, we looked at some sentences containing extremely long and winding interrupters. I like interrupted sentences -- dashes, parentheses, whatever have you -- but some of these had double, triple, confusing interruptions. They sure were great though. But what did the grammarians have to say? "I can't believe her editor let her get away with that!" When told that some of this prose had been printed in magazines, they asked why it wasn't "fixed," why no one "stopped her." Maybe because the editor recognized great writing, even where the occasional verb was separated from its direct object by a parenthetical. (Who cares?! It's all so fucking arbitrary.)

The Sentence You Would Never Write
The first directive in this class is to look for "the sentence you would never write." This is supposed to help us find unique stylistic features. While it may sometimes be an efficient way to do just that, it is presumptuous to assume you have a class full of writers who never successfully deviate from grammatical norms. "Look for the sentence with bad grammar" is the message behind this. And since we all love our grammar, we should be able to identify the sentence straight away. What does it say for our precious stupid grammar if every writer we are studying uses egregiously "flawed" sentence structures? Even if we allow for the flaws because the writers show some sort of genius, a method to their grammatical madness, why assume we would never want to write a sentence like theirs? Should we resign ourselves to mediocrity in prose because that's all that proper grammar allows for? Instead, I think we should be looking for "the sentence you would love to write." Or in the case of the grammarians, "the sentence you would love to write, but can't, so you complain about it."

In Conclusion
I hope there are less grammarians at my next stop on the road to an advanced degree in English. If the GRE subject test in literature is any indicator, we should be more worried about learning our Greek mythology and modern poetry than correcting people's inspired use of English. I don't recall a grammar quiz on that particular test. While I recognize that teaching writing is something we will all do (and do constantly), grammar is just one small part of that. To think of teaching writing as teaching grammar or to think of studying style as studying grammar are incredibly reductive approaches. More on style reduction to come, once the semester has ended.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Vulgar Marxist

In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton describes vulgar Marxism as a reduction of the complexities of Marxist analysis to that oversimplified notion that material condition either makes the man, or makes the resistant man. Eagleton calls for a more sophisticated Marxism that looks at how art (literature) is expressed in many aspects of the superstructure, and is not solely shaped by "means if production," or by an author's poverty or wealth, but by a host of economic influences coming from several contexts (author, the whole of literature, the real world, the implied reader...). In other words, Marxist readings should not merely attempt to show how a work supports its historical conditions, or assume that the work directly challenges those conditions. It's never that simple.

In the first chapter Eagleton clearly puts forth how art is a part of the superstructure that can either reinforce or undermine it, possibly effecting some change at the base. I won't go into it all here, but this was really helpful for me. I'd known all along that Marx, influenced as he was by an aesthetically vocal G. W. F. Hegel, and a cultured (if impoverished) chap himself, would have liked to pull art into his mix, but hadn't the time considering those thousand or so pages of capital-criticism he had to get out. I just couldn't put my finger on how art was such an important part of superstructure, having fallen into the vulgar Marxist mentality sometimes myself.

This was the first time I'd seen the "vulgar Marxist" called out this way. I've seen the term before and I think it's useful, but Eagleton was the first place I'd seen it described so well how when it comes to criticism of art, vulgar Marxism misses the point. But while Eagleton privileges his sophisticated Marxist critic, he does not call for an eradication or a re-education of vulgar Marxists. The word "vulgar" is key here, and I don't think it's pejorative. Vulgar is of the people. Vulgar is what the people understand. If a vulgar Marxism is as far as any proletariat group could be expected to get in their understanding of how economy shapes their consciousness (or, more simply, their "lot in life"), this is far enough to effect some kind of reaction. What good is Marxism if its first application, its praxis as Marx would call it, isn't to help the people see the way to doing something? Eagleton's sophisticated Marxism is the critic's window into the power structures of society as illuminated by art, a window he looks through so that he can critique those structures. Vulgar Marxism might serve the vulgar man just as well. Only he may choose to break the window, and bust some heads.

Workers of the world unite,
Critics of the world . . . untie.