Sunday, February 21, 2010

Would you just finish it already, JRRT?

When I was a strapping young man I heard a sexologist say on the radio that a man thinks about sex three times an hour. I thought, that’s fairly accurate for me, if she means for twenty minutes each time. I wonder how many times I think of other things – literature, philosophy, physical pain, money, family, old friends? Who knows? Someday they will be able to attach a fMRI to our heads and see on a tv screen what we are thinking about, and even tabulate it. Now that will be scary and the end of the fantasy of privacy. Or, worse, at some point the chip recording our thoughts will be implanted in kids' heads when they are born and it will just be recorded on a government server like the keystrokes I’m typing now probably are being recorded on the NSA super-computer in Fort Meade, Md.

But, that’s the future. Right now, I can tell you myself I am thinking about The Lord of the Rings, and how many times a day it crosses my mind. It might not help that I just counted my Tolkien or Tolkien related books in the house at over 20, and I look at them all the time, but I would estimate that I think about his work five to ten times a day. That may be a little obsessive considering that I first read the LOTR 25 to 30 years ago. Yes, I like it that much. That's more than I think about Miracle on 34th Street, Seinfeld episodes, and whatever books I AM currently reading all put together.

I’ve written on Tolkien before here, about once a year. There was a piece concerning who or what was Tom Bombadil (7/17/07) and another concerning the movies (4/10/08). There was one last year about how, IMHO, The Lord of the Rings was the greatest book of the 20th century (5/14/09). I guess I have more to say.

I consider here his progress of writing LOTR, solely taken from his own letters (of which, thanks to Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s authorized biographer, I have now read twice and taken notes the second time around - I swear I enjoyed every second of it). I'm hoping it is more interesting than it might sound to you. But, just in case, I decided to narrate the journey myself as if I were the Master's muse. As always with Tolkien posts, if you aren’t into his work, go elsewhere.

We start, dear reader (Tolkien addressed his audience all the time, he just didn't write "Dear reader") in December, 1937, when the not yet too old philology professor, surprisingly successful with his children's tale published only a few months earlier, The Hobbit, is considering at his publisher's instigation, a sequel.

I think it is plain that quite apart from it, a sequel or successor to The Hobbit is called for. I promise to give this thought and attention. But I am sure you will sympathize when I say that the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies the mind, and the Silmarils are in my heart. So that goodness knows what will happen. Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental. But the real fun about orcs and dragons (to my mind) was before their time. Perhaps a new (if similar) line? Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Beerkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story? Or is he, as I suspect, fully enshrined in the enclosed verses? Still, I could enlarge the portrait.

Yes, dear reader, Tom Bombadil was among his first considerations for a hero. Imagine, no Frodo and Sam, or perhaps just a small role for them? Now that would have been a very different tale, indeed. Before LOTR made Tom the phenomenally powerful spirit/being he was, he was merely a character Tolkien had created for his children – a doll actually, and he had written some verses about him which were eventually quietly published to no notoriety. But, to get to my task, at least he is going to start LOTR, anyway - as of December 16, 1937, the date of that letter. How long could it take? After all, Tolkien's proved that he was an engaging and powerful writer. The Hobbit had taken roughly a year or two (it's unclear) to write, though much longer to publish and now he has done it once all ready, so it should be easier. But, to be fair, let's give him two years or so to finish because LOTR is more intense than The Hobbit.

I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – ‘A long expected party’. (February, 1938)

You just finished the first chapter? Clearly, LOTR will take longer than I thought and a muse's job is never done. But, it's only been a little more than a month, so perhaps I am being a little pesky.

At the same time I find it only too easy to write opening chapters – and for the moment the story is not unfolding. (February, 1938)


The sequel to The Hobbit has now progressed as far as the end of the third chapter. But stories tend to get out of hand, and this has taken an unpremeditated turn. (March, 1938)

But, then . . .

The sequel to The Hobbit has remained where it stopped. It has lost my favour, and I have no idea what to do with it. For one thing the original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel – ‘Bilbo remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’ . . . (July, 1938)

That does not sound promising. Maybe I could be C. S. Lewis's muse.

In the last two or three days, after the benefit of idleness and open air, and the sanctioned neglect of duty, I have begun again on the sequel to the ‘Hobbit’ – The Lord of the Ring. It is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals. I must say I think it is a good deal better in places and some ways than the predecessor; but that does not say that I think it either more suitable or more adapted for its audience . . . If the weather is wet in the next fortnight we may have got still further on. But it is no bed-time story . . . . (August, 1938)

Yes, so flash ahead a half year when it is probably almost done. Got to be.

I think The Lord of the Rings is in itself a good deal better than The Hobbit, but it may not prove a very good sequel. It is more grown up – but the audience for which The Hobbit was written has done that also. The readers young and old who clamoured for ‘more about the Necromancer’ are to blame, for the N is not child’s play . . . The writing of The Lord of the Rings is laborious, because I have been doing it as well as I know how, and considering every word. The story, too, has (I fondly imagine) some significance. (February, 1939)

Some significance, you silly little genius; Now, please, WWII is about to start, so you've got to finish soon. So, fly with me to the very end of the same year.

I have never quite ceased work on the sequel. It has reached Chapter XVI. I fear it has grown too large. (December, 1939)

Don’t worry. I'm sure it will all work out. Ummm, except 1940 and 1941 are passing. Alas, maybe it will never be finished. I am apparently no more successful at musing than anything else.

I have for some time intended to write and enquire whether in the present situation it was of any use, other than private and family amusement, to endeavour to complete the sequel to The Hobbit. I have worked on it at intervals since 1938, all such intervals in fact as trebled official work, quadrupled domestic work, and ‘Civil Defense’ have left. It is now approaching completion. I hope to get a little free time this vacation, and might hope to finish it off early next year My heart rather misgives me, all the same. I ought to warm you that it is very long, in places more alarming than ‘The Hobbit’, and in fact nor really a ‘juvenile’ a all. It has reached Chapter XXXI and will require at least six more to finish (these are already sketched). (December, 1942)

Fantastic – the end of 1942. For God sakes, even Pearl Harbor was a year ago. I have faith thought that it will be published soon enough. So, let’s take a big jump – say, over a year from then . . .

I saw the two Lewis bros. yesterday, & lunched with C.S.L.: quite an outing for me. The indefatigable man read me part of a new story! But he is putting the screw on me to finish mine. I needed some pressure, & shall probably respond; but the ‘vac.’ is already half over & the exam. Wood only just cleared. (March, 1944)

Are you kidding me? Are you sure you want to write this? I bet Raymond Chandler could have written 12 novels by now. How is it you have time for lunch?

Yesterday morning I managed to get an hour or two writing, & have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. (April, 1944)

Frodo? Mordor? Why that’s the very end, isn’t it? Yeah. Of course, it would help if you wrote more than a couple of hours at a time.

We shall soon be in the shadows of Mordor at last. (May, 1944)

Did I miss something? Weren’t you at the gates of Mordor just a month ago? Did they go back?

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir – and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices – where already some fascinating material on the hobbit Tobacco industry and the Languages of the West have gone. There has been a battle – with a monstrous Oliphaunt (the Mamuk of Harad) included – and after a short while in a cave behind a waterfall, I think I shall get Sam and Frodo at last into Kirith Ungol and the webs of the Spiders. Then the Great Offensive will burst out. And so with the death of Theoden (by a Nazgul) and the arrival of the hosts of the White Rider before the Gates of Mordor we shall reach the denouement and the swift unraveling. (May, 1944)

That’s more like it. I don’t mind pausing for Faramir. I like him too. So, at worst another couple of months. Phew!

Spent the morning writing and we are now in sight of Minas Morghul. (May, 1944)

The whole morning? Well, yeah for you. For crying out loud, it was easier to plan D-Day.

I am afraid I have not written for some time. . . . I have taken advantage of a bitter cold grey week (in which the lawns have not grown in spite of a little rain) to write: but struck a sticky patch. All that I had sketched or written before proved of little use, as times, motives, etc., have all changed. . . .I worked very hard at my chapter – it is most exhausting work; especially as the climax approaches and one has to keep the pitch up: no easy level will do; and there are all sorts of minor problems of plot and mechanism. I wrote and tore up and rewrote most of it a good many times; but I was rewarded this morning . . . and the latest chapters the best so far. Gollum continues to develop into a most intriguing character. (May, 1944)

What do you mean you haven't written for some time? Are you, depressed? Get some exercise. Chase your wife around and GET BACK TO WORK! I knew I'd never be a good muse. Now, the Tooth Fairy - I would have just killed that.

I was not frightfully bright at lecture on Tuesday, as a result. Chief reason, however, is absorption in Frodo, which now has a great grip and takes a lot out of me: chapter on Shelob and the disaster in Kirith Ungol has been written several times. Whole thing comes out of the wash quite different to any preliminary sketch! . . . Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: . . . . (May, 1944)

Good for you - orcs are real. So are writing deadlines. You started this 6 years ago. Please stop re-writing everything. Maybe it was better the first time. How would you know?

Here is a little more of ‘The Ring’ for your delectation (I hope), and criticism, but not for return. Two more chapters to complete the ‘Fourth Book’ & and then I hope to finish the ‘Fifth’ and last of the ‘Ring’. (October, 1944)

See, now I’m getting a little pissed off. We were at the end two years ago. It only took two years for the action in the whole damn book to occur.

Book Five and Last opens with . . . the destruction of the Ring, the exact manner of which is not certain . . . Barradur crashes, and the forces of Gandalf sweep into Mordor. Frodo and Sam, fighting with the last Nazgul on an island of rock surrounded by the fire of the erupting Mount Doom, are rescued by Gandalf’s eagle . . . But the final scene will be the passage of Bilbo and Elrond and Gladriel through the woods of the Shire on their way to their way to the Grey Havens. . . It will probably work out very differently from this plan when it really gets written, as the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectl glimpsed in the preliminary sketch . . . (November, 1944)

Yes, it will end up very differently, John. Trust me, I'm from the future. But, it is fun to watch the creative process at work and to see how things could have gone differently. Now, you all heard him. Almost done. Seven years gone by!

I am v. glad that you enjoyed the next three ch. of the Ring. The 3rd consignment shd. Reach you about Dec. 10 and the last on 14 Jan. I shall be eager for more comments when you have time. Cert. Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will prob. end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S. will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns.(December, 1944)

Yes, that’s right. That’s right. You have it all. I give you one more month to put the wraps on it.

Still there is the great ‘Hobbit’ sequel – I use ‘great’, I fear, only in quantitative sense. It is much to ‘great’ for the present situation in that sense. But it cannot be docked or abbreviated. I cannot do better than I have done in this, unless (as is possible enough) I am no judge. But, it is not finished. I made an effort last year to finish it and I failed. Three weeks with nothing else to do – and a little rest and sleep first – would probably be sufficient. (Circa March,1945)

Oh, you son of a . . . Three weeks? Not that I believe you anymore. Well, get some sleep and then to work. It's okay. It's okay. Shhh.

I managed to go into ‘retreat’ in the Summer, and am happy to announce that I succeeded at last in bringing the ‘Lord of the Ring’ to a successful conclusion. . . I think there is a chance of it being published though it will be a massive book far too large to make any money for the publisher (let alone the author); it must run to 1200 pages. (October, 1948)

Wait a second. You said three weeks, WEEKS, not three YEARS. Seriously, what is the matter with you? It’s been an entire decade and you are still not done. Don’t you want to finish it? Okay, a decade is long enough. We’re done, right?

I now suggest as titles of the volumes, under the over-all title The Lord of the Rings: Vol I The Fellowship of the Ring. Vol. II The Two Towers. Vol. III The War of the Ring (or, if you still prefer that: The Return of the King). . . The Two Towers gets as near as possible to finding a title to cover the widely divergent Books 3 and 4; and can be left ambiguous – it might refer to Isengard and Barad-dur, or to Minas Tirith and B; or Isengard and Cirith Ungol. On reflection I prefer for Vol. III The War of the Ring, since it gets in the Ring again; and also is more non-commital, and gives less hint about the turn of the story: the chapter titles have been chosen also to give away as little as possible in advance. But I am not set in my choice. (August, 1953)

So, we were in 1948 and it’s been a decade since you started, and now it’s NINETEEN . . . FIFTY . . . THREE. You are kidding me? What, were you abjucted? However, screwing around with the titles means you are done, right? We're just fluffing the pillows, no?

I am not at all happy about the title ‘the Two Towers’. It must if there is any real reference in it to Vol II refer to Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol. But since there is so much made of the basic opposition of the Dark Tower and Minas Tirith, that seems very misleading. There is, of course, actually no real connecting link between Books III and IV, when cut off and presented separately as a volume. (January, 1954)

Sigh. That doesn’t sound like you are finished. They could have fought WWII twice and you still wouldn't have been done. I just got a letter from muse school saying I have to start repaying my loans.

The third volume was of course completed years ago, as far as the tale goes. I have finished such revision, as seemed necessary, and it will go to be set up almost at once. (April, 1954)

Really? I think I heard that one before. Let me guess, more revision? Some 16 years after we started. That's s-i-x-t-e-e-n years after we started. No one believes you anymore, John. I have an idea. Stick with the teaching. At least you won't starve.

But, yes dear reader, it's true, with some more drama and switching publishers, then going back to the one who had published "The Hobbit" – LOTR was published in July, 1954, over 16 years after he decided to start writing a sequel to The Hobbit which very well could have had Tom Bombadil as its hero. You know, looking back, it was worth the wait (actually, I wasn't even born yet).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Who said it II

Last April we played Who said it?, and I couldn't wait a whole year to play it again. My rules are, as almost always with trivia or the like, that I have to find it in my own library. It is hoped that they are "interesting" (see below as to the reasons for the quotations). At least they are to me. This really isn't a trivia contest (although you might want to take a guess), because it would be very odd indeed if you knew many if any of these quotes. What it really is, what most of these trivia like posts are, is just my personal celebration of the only material things I own that I have a personal connection with - my books. I love to peruse through them, finding stickies in them, notes I took or just things I loved and have forgotten. I put the answer right below them, so you don't have to jump back and forth.

1. Again and again the angry monsters made fierce attacks. I served them well with my noble blade, as was only fitting. Small pleasure they had in such a sword-feast, dark things in the sea that meant to eat me, sit round their banquet on the deep sea-floor. Instead, in the morning, they lay on the beach, asleep from my sword, the tide-marks bloodied from their deep gashes, and never again did they trouble the passage of seafaring men across the ocean. (Hint, this one is the only quote from literature, but, historically, a very important work).

This is from Beowulf, the oldest epic poem, still existing, which we have in some form of Old English (I tried to read it. Few words are recognizable in modern English), and certainly near the top of my list of favorite of pre-modern epics or sagas, if not the top. This is from a scene much less famous than the battles with Grendel, his mother or the dragon. The mighty Beowulf is simply engaged in a friendly swimming contest that went on for days. He lost, but only because he was rather busy fighting monsters along the way.

2. At present every coachman and every waiter argues about whether or not the relativity theory is correct. A person's conviction on this point depends on the political party he belongs to.

This is from Albert Einstein's pen. It reminds me much of the current debate over global warming. What you read, who you give credence to, etc., seems so much to depend on whether one is more or less on the right or the left. Apparently, this is nothing new. Of course, now we know that relativity theory is correct as, without it, the gps in your cell phone and other devices would not work.

3. I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not.

This is from the snarly mystery writer, Patricia Highsmith, creator of Ripley. If nothing else, she said what she thought.

4. According to the reports sent to me, it appears that, thanks to the firmness of decision and courage which you showed, exposing your own person, the attempted high treason was crushed. You have saved the German people from grave danger, I am obliged to express to you my profound thanks and recognition.

From the president of Germany, Paul von Hindenberg, to Adolph Hitler, after the Night of the Long Knives. The hero of WWI, his role in Hitler's rise is disappointing to say the least, but he was already lapsing in and out of senility, and mistook Hitler on the day he died for the Kaiser.

5. These men could shave a horse's main (sic), paint, disfigure and offer for him for sale to the owner in the very act of inquiring for his own horse . . . they could hoop up in a hogshead a drunken man, they themselves being drunk, put in and nail down the head, and roll the man down New Salem Hill a hundred feet or more. They could run down a lean, hungry wild pig, catch it, heat a ten-plate stove furnace hot, and putting in the pig, could cook it, they dancing the while a merry jig.

A description by Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, of the men of the West. He was complimenting them.

6. The course that we have chosen will require wisdom and endurance. But let no one doubt for a moment that we have the resources and we have the will to follow this course as long as it may take. No one should think for a moment that we will be worn down, nor will we be driven out, and we will not be provoked into rashness. But we will continue to meet aggression with firmness and unprovoked attack with measured reply.

Or not. This was a speech by LBJ on the Vietnam conflict. At least, for his part, he meant it, and we were there long after he left office.

7. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath.

A curious conflicting statement by Thomas Jefferson, who's greatest credit was his championing of religious freedom.

8. The inhabitants live upon flesh, rice, and milk. They have no wine made from grapes, but prepare it from rice and a mixture of spices. Both men and women have their bodies entirely decorated with needle markings, in figures of beasts and birds; and there are among them specialists whose sole employment is to execute these ornaments upon the hands, legs and breast. When a black coloring stuff has been rubbed into these punctures, it is impossible to efface the marks by water or otherwise. The man or woman who exhibits the greatest profusion of these figures is esteemed the most attractive.

Would you believe Marco Polo on tatooing in old China? There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

9. I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise and I know they are dangerous. Also, sinful. If a man should challenge me now I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet spot and kill him.

Mark Twain ranks number 2 to me as the greatest American writer, and number 1 as a true author. I imagine many scholars would agree with me. I find in perusing his gems, you can find the answers to many of life's problems.

10.The more I see of the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Mikado the better I am content with democracy, even if we have to include the American newspaper as one of its assets.

Not bad for a president. That's Teddy Roosevelt, frustrated in his role as a peace maker. I hope and think he was joking.

11. I'd heard about what series are like, but I really didn't know how it would be. It was quite a shock. In this medium, you perform, everyone performs. There's no such thing as a real moment, an honest reaction, because the show is like a cartoon. You're not acting. Not the way I studied it.

From the mouth of the enchanting Ginger, aka, Tina Louise, the bathing beauty of Gilligan's Island. She wasn't much liked on the show and refused to participate in Returns to . . . As to the question, Ginger or Mary Ann, MA wins hands down.

12. I shall stand or fall in this struggle. I shall never survive the defeat of my people. There will be no capitulation to the powers outside, no revolution by the forces within.

Hitler himself, as the end neared. For a second, he sounded a little Churchillian, didn't he?

13. And what of our children, noble testament to our sacred union, fruit of our deep and enduring love; what manner of mercy is it that would slay their adored father, and deliver up their devoted mother to everlasting emptiness? Know then, you warped, gross, eaters of dust, you abominations upon this beauteous earth, I should rather embrace my husband in death than live on ingloriously upon your execrable bounty.

Ethel Rosenberg, possibly a Soviet spy (her husband Julius was certainly) reacting to hints that she might be spared (as were the other atomic spies in her circle) and that only her husband would be slayed. Betrayed by her own family, her story is still moving, even if you deem her a villain, and it is a touching love story at that.

14. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. Their is grandeur in this rule of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

So ends Darwin's The Origin of Species. He would be greatly surprised at criticism of his theory as a form of atheism.

15. Interesting. An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.

I love Strunk and White's Elements of Style. It doesn't take long to read and is probably a good idea every once in a while. It certainly is interesting.

16. Among the Jews there are three schools of thought, whose adherents are called Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes respectively. The Essenes profess a severer discipline: they are Jews by birth and are peculiarly attached to each other. They escew pleasure-seeking as a vice and regard temperance and mastery of the passions as virtue. Scorning wedlock, they select other men's children while still pliable and teachable, and fashion them after their own pattern - not that they wish to do away with marriage as a means of continuing the race, but they are afraid of the promiscuity of women and convinced that none of the sex remains faithful to one man.

The works of Josephus are just riveting. Perhaps we owe more to him for our knowledge of the first century than anyone else. Certainly, his offhand mention of James, brother of Jesus who is called Messiah (which I believe was a genuine reference, unlike some other later insertions) is our best evidence of Jesus' existence.

17. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22. . . .

If you can't figure that one out, you are just an idiot. But, it's from one of Tolkien's letters, which are the best guide as to how he created his own little imaginary middle-earth.

18. My heart skipped within me, thinking they had been English men at the first sight of them, for they were dressed in English apparel, with hats, white neckcloths, and sashes about their waists, and ribbons upon their shoulders.: but when they came near, there was a vast difference between the lovely faces of Christians, and the foul looks of these heathens.

Mary Rowlandson was taken by Indians during King Philip's War (17th century) and saw her own daughter die. She was finally ransomed and restored to her husband. Her tale of captivity (short and you can find it online) was a huge best seller in its day. It is hard not to feel her disappointment in thinking she is about to be rescued by friends only to be quickly dragged back to reality.

19. My understanding is covered with sores. There is no physician to heal me. I have waited for someone to pity me, but found no comforters. from Adam to this day I have surpassed all sinners. Bestial and corrupt, I have defiled my mind by a liking for unworthy things, my mouth by words of murder, lewdness and otehr foul acts, my tongue by self-praise, my throat and chest by pride and arrogance, my hands by indecent contacts, by theft and assassination, my loins by monstrous lechery, girding them up for every possible evil deeed, and my feet by hastening to commit murder and plunder.

From the self drawn will of Ivan the Terrible. If you don't find that interesting (sorry, Mssrs. Strunk and White) we have little in common.

20. We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, teached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air alsso was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradis of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenom, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, and infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.

Oh, to have a fraction of Henry David Thoreau's talent . . . that would be something. He is perhaps tied for second on my list of great American writers and tied for number 2 or number 3 among actual authors. You could open a collection of his works at random and come up on any page, almost every paragraph with as evocative a drawing. I can't read a line of his without thinking "wow".

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A rose by another name is just not nice

So, there I was standing on line at Mount Vernon (or was it Monticello?) with Bear and Mrs. Bear, waiting for the tour to begin. Casually, I used the word “retard,” and received some looks from those around me.

“What,” I said, “is that one of the words we are no longer supposed to use?”

“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” "Yes."

I pondered that a bit there. It seemed a little silly to me that a word I had grown up with was somehow now verboten, couldn’t be used at all, while awkward synonyms for it were okay. Later, in the souvenir shop I was standing by Mrs. Bear when I spotted a father and son who had been sitting on a bench when I uttered the unpopular word.

“Oh, no. Oh, no. Look over there. Please don’t tell me that that kid over there is the one who was sitting on the bench near us when I said ‘retard’.”

“I think so.”

“Oh, sh*t.”

Yes, I had said “retard” right in front of a kid who was a - I'm actually still not sure of the politically correct word – I’m told “special” isn’t right anymore either, maybe “special needs” is still okay, but I still feel strongly that if we are going to have metaphors for improper words, they shouldn't be multiple words, so I’m going to leave it as “r____d” for at least this post.

Worse, his father (I presume) was with him and it probably was more hurtful to him than to his son. I got the same feeling you'd get if you'd asked Mr. Jones how his son was and he replied, “Why Johnnie’s dead.” My apparent lack of vocabulary no doubt gave them a good reason to think me the lowest of idiots (wait – can you even say idiots anymore? If you can, why? How is “idiot” or “cretin” any less insulting than “r____d”? I’m going to get ahead of the curb and just write “i___t” before I get in trouble.) Anyway, even if I didn’t know that “r___d” was a politically incorrect word, I did know not to say it in front of someone who is, you know, r______d.

So, I felt kind of bad for Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, for getting in trouble for calling liberals in congress “f*cking r____ds” when they were being difficult over health care. First, I'm glad to see we've at least grown up enough that he didn't get in trouble for the expletive. And, not that anyone really thought he meant that they were literally r____ed, just that they were acting like i___ts by insisting on controversial provisions in a bill he wanted to see passed.

Not that I like Emanuel that much, as he was hired to be the tough guy for the administration based on an agressive type of partisanship of which I don’t think too highly. But, this is silly. Even Rush Limbaugh defended him, but probably because he likes to call opponents “r____ds” too.

Still, it gets increasingly difficult in this day and age to avoid the mind field of politically incorrect words. I’m not even talking about the dreaded “N” word, a word I have become so uncomfortable with that I can’t even write it here without feeling funny. Now, I admit that it is a word that I used to use only in the telling of jokes. I always found ethnic humor funny. I used a lot of slurs in jokes, including for my own ethnic group. In my mind the joke was always on the bigot, or the sheer ridiculousness of the prejudice. Yet, I found it funny then and don’t apologize for it. Much humor can be ugly if not meant in jest. It is only because of the extreme emotional angst it causes not only blacks, but at this point many whites, that I won’t even tell a joke using that word anymore, and only use it reluctantly if discussing the topic itself.

A few years ago I was teaching my first constitutional law class where race was an issue. I remember the first time I used the word “black” in class, a word the Supreme Court still uses. I was looking at the class and I was a little nervous lest I was told by a group of angry students that “black” is offensive. As we know, colleges are hotbeds of political correctness. I was not accosted but I think I saw a few involuntary grimaces. Most of the students used "African-American," a designation I neither think is accurate (does it include North Africans of Arabic descent, white South Africans and Rhodesians, and exclude blacks from the West Indies?), nor mellifluous,** nor fair – why don’t we say European-American for whites, etc.?

Color is of course, a ridiculous way to refer to people too, in some senses. None of us are white, black, red or yellow, just different shades of brown.

In the same class I mentioned earlier, I was once reading a paragraph to a case out loud. The opinion was written by a judge who was a leader in anti-race discrimination. When he came to refer to a Chinese person, he referred to them as a “yellow man”. I felt compelled to stop and explain to the class of youngsters that for the judge, who was writing in the late 19th century, that was not a slur, and was not so even in my youth. I'm not sure when it became politically incorrect, but it certainly is now.

Yet, how strange is it that no one would think to refer to someone as a yellow anymore, but we still use black and white? What could the rationale for the difference possibly be? Obviously, rationale is the wrong word, as these things are cultural preferences, and rational thought has little to do with it.

Of course, even stranger is that we don't use “colored person” or just “colored” anymore - that's now a slur - but “people of color” is just fine, in fact preferred by some. Then again, the NCAAP still uses “colored people” and get away with it, no doubt because being mostly “people of color” themselves, no one takes offense. Plus, there is historical significance.

I stick with black and white, because it is easy to say, everyone knows what it means, and so far, it is not considered offensive, or at least terribly offensive, by the large majority of the country.

Yellow, though, as I’ve said, well, that’s out of the question, though no one can say why. As strange, it is now considered incorrect to call someone an “oriental,” but not offensive to say that you are going to the the orient or an antique is oriental.

Of course, being the schizophrenic country we are when it comes to ethnicity, there are a number of places in America that have “devil” in it, which was a direct reference to the American Indians who lived there. Actually, there is a movement to change those names, and many have been.

I still use “Indian,” the word I grew up with. "Indigenous people" or "Native American" is just too long for me. It shouldn’t matter that Indian was a misnomer from the start. Native American is a misnomer too. They were simply here before the Europeans, but they didn’t start off here either. Apparently, and the geneticists seem convinced of this, they are descended from Africans like everyone else in the entire world.

Jew is an interesting word. It’s the only ethnic group I know of which also describes the religion. And, although many words can take on a different context from the way they are said, Jew easily becomes a slur when the J is emphasized or said with a grimace, but why I can’t explain. How come it doesn’t work with Christian?

In fact, I have at least one friend, a Jew, who doesn’t like it when non-Jews use the word Jew, even if meant as in “he is a Jew”. No one I know agrees with that, but he’s a rational person and feels it deeply.

Which raises that issue of “Well, if they use it, why can’t we?” This most often has to do with the dreaded “N” word, which some whites feel they should have the right to use as long as blacks do. While I understand the sentiment behind that, I think it’s a fallacious argument. Not all blacks use it, probably the percentage isn’t that high (although I really don’t know). Let’s use an analogy. If one white guy beats up other white guys, is it okay for a black guy to do so. If you need me to answer the question, you aren’t thinking.

One time I did get into a bit of a mess with that issue in the same con law class I spoke of before. While discussing racism, one black student used the “N” word appropriately. Then, a white student asked a question about it, also appropriately. He was, unfortunately, the class wise guy, but he had meant and said it seriously. Didn’t matter. Many, maybe all (it happened so fast) of my black students were furious and one raised her hand and said someone has to tell “him” to shut up. Now what do I do? I had no idea as I wasn’t prepared for it. So, I said that I can’t solve the problem of who can say it and who can’t, but it just shows how painful fighting words can be and why there was an exception for it in first amendment law (the subject we were discussing).

After the class, the white kid who had said it came up to me sheepishly and asked “What did I do wrong?” I could tell he felt awful. All I could think to say was that I wasn’t going to suggest he did anything wrong, but this is the culture we live in now and if you use the word, just be prepared for consequences. A year later a student in that class who was a little older (and white) told me I had handled it well. I sure didn’t feel like it. Still doesn't. The next week a few of the black students who were always present boycotted the class (or, it sure was a coincidence). I’m guessing they didn’t think I handled it so well.

On a political note, something strange has happened between the two ideologies. It used to be that conservatives were against political correctness. Perhaps having to many points scored against them by liberal word police, many now are, or at least pretend to be, just as sensitive to words as their opposites. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess.

So, what’s the moral here? I’m not sure. Obviously this is a cultural matter, and there is no cosmic right or wrong. It's not much different than saying "bless you" when someone sneezes but not when they cough. But, I try and not hurt peoples feelings if there is no principle at stake, so, I’ll try not to say r____d in public if it’s going to upset some people (but, among close friends and family, I may have to resort to it) but if it slips out, I didn’t mean it personally, you i___ts.

** Ah “mellifluous,” my favorite word. May it never become politically incorrect.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .