Does the Word Really Have To Die?
An essay by Theodore S. Voelkel, PhD. (Yale University). Scholar, poet, and co-founder of The American Leadership Study Groups (ALSG).
© 2009, Theodore S. Voelkel . All rights reserved.
Is anybody listening? Anybody out there? I ask the question as I fill the hours upon hours of my sunset years with The Swooning Cobra, Nothing Doing, and the other heady casks of fiction into which I pour myself at the keyboard, not quite knowing as I commence each day's journey whither, exactly, it is bound to take me, which makes me feel like the child clambering up the ladder to the start of the slide or the swing or the high dive, knowing only that a headlong plunge awaits me and that a trail of text will be left behind at the day's fading. Yet still I have to ask, and keep asking. Is anybody listening? The true Nietzschean, to be sure, would not ask that question. If he is the Last Survivor after the proverbial nuclear apocalypse or global virus or extraterrestrial pounce, confronting only the empty echoless heavens, he can still keep working and building and sitting up straight and grooming and parting his hair, because, because . . . it's the same point about Everest. Because it's there. Did the cave painters of buried prehistory think anybody was "listening" beyond their immediate hunter-gatherer condo mates? I think they just spattered away, and so do I.
The Last Ankle Across
The view from the rope bridge is my sermon for today, packed about with various other themes in the same leaking grocery bag of life in the present lane, and bound up with the same conundrum of the man who faces the vast echoless All of the universe and still creates. Everest-because-it's-there. And what, exactly, is so empty about your universe, bub? There are five, six billion sets of eyes "out there," potential receptors for what you trowel. Empty? Yes empty. Those eyes in the main no longer sit still for the song and dance of language or for any other use of language save code, speech in a hurry, speech out of the user's manual, clipped and clichéd. "From Language To Code" could be chiseled on the lintel of our times, our corner turn of history. Is it because everyone is running out of time? That could be. In America, where work hours are longer now than in Europe, the leisure that people do take — that they grab, spastically — is poured into exertions just as clenched, as fretted as their workaday: skydiving or slaloming or cycling or bungee jumping, and even the couch potato wads his cranial cavities with tumbling bodies plugged by .45's, car crashes, "bloopers" (the term as ugly as its object), and reality TV full of crowded kitchens and t-shirts and fraternity jokes and the people that go with it all. You are what you watch. All of it is fretted.
The issue cuts across national boundaries. America merely got there first. Today the whole world turns language into code — to the extent, of course, and one must always qualify, to the extent that the farther-flung indigenes have come in out of the desert or paddy or corrugated shanty, put on shoes and shirts, booted up their PC's, and taken on the jumpy homogenizing folkways of the cyber city. We are all screen junkies now.
The rope bridge is my metaphor. It comes from every jungle survival tale that you or I have ever watched, in which the squad of heroes leaps from one jungle hazard to another, under doomsday chase by bellicose tribesmen, the scriptwriter sacrificing one or another of the less sympathetic members of the cast to thin out the plot line, until the party finally reaches the obligatory rope bridge, where spears and arrows whiz up through the slats as our heroes frantically lurch their way across, the span swaying and seesawing under the unexpected weight, like trying to "walk across" a trampoline or suspended fishnet. Flames, smoke, arrows, howls of pursuit, yet one by one the party tumbles onto terra firma, torsos heaving and panting in safety. By now the suspense is down to the last set of feet, the last ankle, still on the undulating slats. The camera zooms in. Mere inches separate the final foot from land. As if in tortuous slow-motion, the terminal sole nestles on firm sod, and just then the bridge behind collapses in a great conflagration of dust and cinder, the punctuational nick-of-time. They just made it.
Stepping onto terra firma from the rope bridge is my image for completing a work coaxed from the muses, which one has teased and flattered them for, fought and wrestled into form, picking one's way over the bridge slats, buffing and tightening the sentences by the light of canons which belong to a world one takes as still intact, safe and snug behind. The supposal is that the literary rope bridge remains as strong and sinuous as the day the strands were strung, and so with any writer who has created a world on the page, waxed it to a glow, who rests serene at last, having planted himself on terra firma, made the tortuous walk across the suspenseful empty chasm which is every uncompleted work in progress.
Here I am on the sod of safety, panting, looking back, mentally evoking the literary bridge as though I could simply turn around and walk back to the other side, and there hand my finished text to the world from which it took its breeding. But something has happened in the meantime, a conflagration. A world has collapsed behind me, and I, with you, dear likely reader, belong to the generation of the last ankle across. The rope bridge behind us hangs by its few last strands, and there is no backward traverse to an audience stable and waiting, an audience one can toss the opus to in a gesture of filial salute. I am yoked to the yonder side of the rope bridge, and there is no going home again, the literary home residing in the past, as the rope bridge to it is no more.
At my keyboard, I am in a world magically recomposed from the past, as if nothing bridgewise had intervened. For as long as the keyboard sings and the digits drum and the images flow and the text accumulates, I safely tread the slats, confident that they are still held firm by supporting strands tautly stretched, reedy and strong, conveying the comfortably literate back and forth, safely high above the no-man's-land of the subliterate, the semiliterate, the preliterate, even the postliterate. Yet as I glance ahead, many steps beyond the approaching bank of terra firma, beyond the rope bridge of this one work and the next one and the next one after that, beyond all bridges, as I glimpse the raucous wreckage, my departure off Planet Earth, and the readership which might or might not exist for the papery legacy I leave behind, these my children, my words, loved and coddled as any trueborn, then my mind's eye sees only fire and smoke and the arrows of the tribe.
Oh yes, I can hear it, hear the reproof, and I might well be maundering in the same vein myself were I oppositely shoe'd: "The chap's riled because nobody wants to read his damn fiction," it goes. "Open your eyes, my friend, there are four kinds of print matter, four species of eyewash which the presses clack and grind out for the public these days, simplifying, of course, but still touching the pulse of it. They are: (1) space aliens, or anything cloned from it, anything in the playpen of the three M's: myth, magic, and monsters, as with this Harry Pothead flumdiddle; (2) the sex books, sweaty or showered off or somewhere in between; (3) the how-to's: How To Make A Million Without Getting Out Of Bed In The Morning, or How To Lose Fifty Pounds By Eating Ice Cream All Day, or How To Tell Off The Boss Without Opening Your Mouth; and finally (4) the romances, vicarious fulfillment, made for puppygirl glands to steep in while ingesting snacks by the hour, the crated produce of the pulp queens Danielle Steele, Judith Krantz, and their wannabees, the long Relationship freight train that hitches on new cars by the mile, book clamped to book, stretching out so far that you never reach the end, just a cycling chain-link of narration until, at the next ready stopping point, the book's back cover, the author declares a recess so you can make your off-the-rack purchase of the next one, and, with a few name-and-scenery shifts the unseamed Relationship freight train resumes. Formula writing (even "genre" writing is too highbrow a term for this . . . material) is the bread and butter of the publishing scene today. So, mate, my literary friend, my late bridgewalker, you fall between the gears of the four-cornered machine and naturally you feel bereft."
Fair enough, and touché . . . but it is not thus. There is no singe, no trace of seethe, quite the opposite. I may be too pessimistic. This is no crash-to-earth of the disillusioned, because I would not have expected much more. The congenital pessimist is the perfect writer for the age of the rope bridge. The world about me coasts down a different track: such has been this voyager's Datum One since the crib. One does not scan two minutes of the tube and its ads, the latter blatting the real message, without its dawning what feeds and pleasures the book-consuming multitude, up to and including the bulk of the university schooled, by and large my achievement peers, but unlike me happy in conjugal bond, children in college, accepting of compromises, natural as grass, facial moles and baggy pants and elephantine track shoes and split infinitives. A life of sociability, dining out with friends, bars, sports on the cathode eye, "bloopers" and flatulence jokes. My social and educational peers are, in the main, there, right there, denizens of that grain. But I know that, have always known it, so what's to feel tribulated about?
In point of fact I am not. The only time I felt heated about anything to do with my book The Swooning Cobra and its possible relation to the printing press was when I dialed, experimentally, a number of literary agencies I had pulled out of a reference volume at the Lexington (Mass.) public library, in the aboriginal days before my internet hookup. It was my inaugural fishing run, a test trawl of the brine. I phoned a few agencies, and one voice in particular still rings in my memory, belonging to what sounded like a young junior editor, an office functionary I could visualize knotting up loose ends late of a workday afternoon before going out to beer himself with the boys, but finding himself instead tied down by a bookish-sounding baritone on the phone shopping an MS. He asked me for a quick plot précis. How would I possibly do that for Swooning, which runs to over a thousand pages? The real rankle, though, was the perfunctory routine of the exchange, which put me in queue, standing with tin cup in hand, My Life Story And All That I Deserve And Hope For spilled out to an apprentice desk jockey, quick as a chewing-gum gnaw, in a minute or less, perhaps twenty seconds. That was the rasp of it, hawking a lifetime's fantasy palace to a salaried gumshoe hot to be out the door. I mumbled a few perfunctory words about feminism in ancient Persia, a world without electricity, where bulk matter is moved by brawn rather than electromagnetism, Sacher-Masoch redivivus, and my mind's eye saw this short-cropped, early-thirties, paper-shuffling bookwright grinding restive molars, mulling what his ears must have told him was a freelance flake peddling swampgas, his seasoned agentry crystallizing the judgment, not just No, but Get This Bozo Off My Back So I Can Get Back To The Horrors And Ghosts And Sex Jiggles. Back to the saleable sauce.
So my "heat" was not the grump of the Homer Unappreciated, but aimed itself at the perfunctoriness of the exchange, my few minutes on the auction block of author-petitioners standing with their résumés scratched onto slate neck-boards. Given the business tangibilities, it is what they must do, a factum I apperceive without blinking. The short-cropped jockey on the phone was a stand-in for the general public, or the biggest pie-slice of it today. My "heat" was really with myself for going along with it even for the experience, for detouring myself to the roulette tables.
I don't think I would bother with the casino again. I would rather write.
No Return Ticket
What lies under the rope bridge? Which is to say: what looms ahead for reading homo sapiens? By no means a dimming of intelligence, the cranium's operational limber, the agile chess move that spins an invention, cures a disease, conquers a continent. Intelligence is brain cells, and there is no evidence of that tissue in atrophy. What wastes is a different sort of tissue, language as rite, the gesture of suspense, the giddiness of oral invention, the speech of burning bushes and burning loins, seducing and snatching, meshing magic gears, as when a surprise verb springs a sentence and arm-wrestles the eye, and the thought does more than materialize on the page, it leaps onto it like a gymnast, snapping comprehension forward, hang-gliding over the surface, colliding with no obstacle on the way, a paper tongue light and frictionless, actuality without matter, leaving only its warble behind.
That is what withers if it is not already dead of inanition: language as a fair Minerva to wrap the arms around. Language now becomes a tool, code, the most stripped-down freight car for the heaviest haul of data. Is it the death of the sacral too? That I cannot say. For certain it is the death of the sacral in speech. But elsewhere? Movies striking up long tactile landscapes and quiet surges and fluent reticences may overturn that supposition, demonstrating that aesthetic ganglia can vibrate still today. So the busyness all around us is not so maniacally crash-and-burn that it leaves no interstice for reverie. I am not — yet — prepared to pave it all over and scratch R.I.P. on the magic groves and springs. But I refuse to concede that a remaindered "sacral" is what is evoked, say, in playwright Peter Shaffer's bizarre stage production and later movie, Equus (1977), with its claim to find the numinous residing in, as he puts it, "certain fish 'n' chips shops," and presumably in today's counterpart, which would include cell phones and espresso bars and I daresay baggy pants and baseball caps. Peter Shaffer's sacral of "fish 'n' chips shops" is a metaphysics for the lazy, and leaves the issue adrift. In any case, I will say my requiescat for the sacral in language. That little wayside shrine is tilted over, weathered and peeling.
And there is no bitterness in the reflection. How could there be? I sit here at my cloistered keyboard and gaze back, far back over the incomprehensibly long cave-to-condo saga of the ape who stood up and probed. Reversing the film reel from my latter-day, up-to-the-minute, internet-bundled little world and skimming over the whole numbingly long procession, back to its misty indeterminate vanishing point, I pick out the profile of something clear and legible. To know all, or to know the key notes, is to forgive the song. What happened could not but have happened. There was in it a blind, stumbling, yet unidirectional process, the muddled and murky destination of which we only now, nearing the end, begin to glimmer.
Man crawls out of the cave, whittles himself a better club from a branch, gets a mousetrap or two along the way, and after the turnover of epochs finds that the original grit, the overhead between himself and the world, the bark it came packaged in, precipitating the terrors and the dodgings and the ploys and the chance-takings to survive for one more day, even upgrade his lot if he does survive, is largely diluted away. That "grit" is now a commodity one buys in cans to frictionize gripping surfaces of machinery for firmer hold. Nobody is at fault, exactly. Nobody strayed, nobody betrayed, nobody partook of the forbidden Tree Of Knowledge or indulged some other soup kitchen beyond prudential bounds. You are hungry, you eat. You espy a prospective new tool, you use it. The inevitabilities follow from the jolt of instinct. There is no cause for cosmic yowl.
(Parenthetically, and I won't waste words on the matter: editorial mouths, busy and predictable, who see Exploitation and a vast charge sheet of Social Failings, are but flies scavenging stray septic pits of the past. They illumine no part of the general psyche, only fan its distempers, have no eyes with which to see what they're igniting, and are not worth expending a watch tick on beyond this paragraph.)
Our forebears did what anybody would have done, what nature's pinch of hunger and pain and desire directed them to do, and, doing so, accumulated an armory of gambits, gadgets, and gewgaws. Suddenly we open our eyes, long generations later, in an air conditioned shelter (don't think of trying to pry me out of mine) to find that our tools have not just smoothed and polished, but scrubbed off the original grit, and the art that rose from it, the sacral springs of language, the naiads and woodsy sprites and wingèd Psyches and wayside shrines and enchanted groves and dark taboos. Now they're programming content for the Learning Channel and History Channel, served up between ads for Chevy vans and kitchen-knife sets and the Most Loved Songs Of the Seventies. I know about such things because I have watched the shows too, when the topic suited, timer-recorded and played them back, zapping the commercials.
So this is no putdown.
Perhaps it could have been foreseen, but I doubt it, because we do not quite know what "it" is — what lies in wait down there beneath the collapsed bridge of the Word. How, then, could we have prognosticated it? We take stock from where we are, and I am but lately off the bridge, on the far bank looking back, looking on the remains of the old span, which I thought, which we of my generation thought, would be there forever to carry us back and forth with glide and assurance, and perhaps, also, a dram of profitability . . . nothing avaricious, only a writer's life of comfort, say in serviceable suburbia. But the bridge is now a cloud of dust and smoke, and it will not be back, not that bridge, built the way it was, in slow jiggered increments out of the primordial grit of our vulnerability and blind striving and improvising, and which, as we piecemealed it together, repaid us with art. Our striving is no longer blind, it is laser-sighted. We wear contact lenses and contrive machines to do our seeing. And who of us would regret that we do?
It is not that there are no fellow rope-bridge survivors. There are some, there may be one. Is anybody listening? as I asked at the start. Just one? Survivors look for one, one may be enough, some fellow worshiper to tap signals with through the wall. Perhaps the fruits of latter-day literacy might be passed from hand to hand like samizdat copies, notes from underground, a questionable metaphor, of course, as it assumes that a nefarious force controls the ground above, which I refuse to concede: nothing inevitable can be nefarious. (Spinoza was right.) These little piñata parcels might give us, if not a complete bridge across, perhaps a strand or two, enough for late-term tightropers to dare a few final steps, if only to keep limber, and help us to remember.
Of course, there will be "books," ink spots on paper, booklists, book reviews, bookstores, book racks, bestsellers, authors pitching their wares, being arch and ingratiating on morning television. What are the names? Ludlum and Forsyth and Clancy for the action-packing, Stephen King for the ghost-and-horror, legions of wet-sheet jockstrap authors, plus always the sagey, so-serious sawdust-chewers of the school of Making It Work and Doing and Undoing and Up And Down And Around And Sideways and No Time Like Yesterday and Quitting I've Had Enough and all the new waves and wash-ups and spinoffs. The presses will grind and agents will collect their split. Even temporary rope bridges might be flung across the canyon, become bestsellers no less, helping the huddled band of the surviving to make a few more passes across for old times' sake, Tom Wolfe say, one of the exceptions that proves the rule. The eye doesn't jump-rope his text, it flirts with it, draws it up through a cool-drink straw . . . a hint of old times, times gone.
My point is that several things are happening in the vicinity of the rope bridge. Most globally, there is the end of language as oracle, dancing round the altar of words, the rub of the hand over silk, the rub of the magic lantern, its place now taken by the quickest crawl through speech. The tongue itself has been digitally remastered. (And I repeat: my climate-controlled burrow is filled with the sound of digitized classics. No going back, nor would I wish to.) Language becomes a journeyman's job, like taking telephone orders or squibbing ad copy or grunting pavlovian monosyllables before the camera. Bumper sticker odes. The process was prefigured, seeded and fertilized, once we trod outside the cave and wrapped our feet in leather and wove bigger nets for a heavier catch. And now, at last, it seems clearer what lay ahead all along, millenia ahead, at the caboose of history's freight train. Exactly what awaits inside the caboose is still murksome to see in the all-pervasive dust cloud of the collapsed bridge, but a few large facts seem to line up, and one of them is that the Big Book, thickened by the overlapping deposits of countless contributors, a vast palimpsest of multiple tongues molding the speech on its pages, is a library curio. Yesterday's grand read has devolved to the waiting-room browse. I don't "read books" much more myself, in the old voracious way. I may write in a streak, but read? There is the bedtime nod-off, as much a biochemical as an intellectual transaction, and there are journals over breakfast coffee. Bringing on sleep or shucking it off: reading's all about sleep. The old reading, the world-in-image, the acrobatics of syntax, the eye's soundless squeal as it vaults and loops and skates the comma-flagged sentences, is a twilight zone, sequestered to the airless back room of our world, where spinsters of memory under knee blankets rock away with their needlepoint. The words stash themselves in echoes and shadows, fill dusty trunks in the attic. Downstairs where we actually live, objects are halogen-bright.
The academy? Naturally, the official Preserve Of Books is kept heated and the floors swept, tax monies duly raised, budgets line-itemed, the wheelchair-accessible halls there for us to amble through and warm our hands. But be serious. Schooling at the starting levels is state-sponsored detention, keeping juvenile neuromusculatures off the street. And at the higher levels? A mime of scholarship, fingers appearing to sift old dust, grinding out fresh volumes with drippy bindings and sharp embossed letters. Politics, a synecdoche for the momentary, for whatever channels the four humors, rouses the adrenalin flow, saws the molars, is or can be recreational and engaging, a ready distraction from the strain of concentration, and it has all but preëmpted the cognitive switches and relays of scholarship. One hears the snaps and clicks through the ivy. The cloister is uncloistered now, it is down in the street. All that remains of the classical academy, Plato's grove, and for as far into the future as these old eyes can see, is the physical plant, and I am grateful for that, grateful every time I drive into Boston on Soldier's Field Road and cast my gaze across the Charles River at Harvard's regal turn-of-the-century quads, sliding past my car window as leisurely as the decade which gave them birth. I am grateful, grateful for the relics. When, eventually, the "faculty" (a word that cannot be written today without quotation marks) and the books extruded by it, and the student body, and the "courses" and clubs and debates and journals, the mechanical motions of study and learning and teaching, when all have passed into forgetfulness, at least, at least, if we are lucky, the ivy quads with their brick-and-gilding will still be standing, the iron gates still screaking.
Tombs they are, majestic as the pyramids, and that is enough, I am content with that. It is the candy's crust. Memory inserts the filling.
Out of Grit
The death of language as muse and goddess, Athena or Artemis or Calliope with her eight whispering sisters, she to whom incense is burned, for whom men strive and sharpen their quill and clench yet another time to find the utterance to make her smile — the death of that is the telling fact in the collapse of the rope bridge. Yet for this particular trekker of the jungle, other divides separate my forlorn footfall from the vanished traffic on the bridge. Even if it were 1957 all over again, the year of my matriculation in college, I doubt that any literary translation of my affectional push-pulls would seduce an audience to speak of.
This bridge-walker was always off the broad track, the center lane, but without any countervaling taste for its opposite number, the life of Bohemia, the stubble-chinned iconoclast wheezing his garret fulminations. Indeed, this youthful tongue vented more scorn for the Bohemian than for the gray-flannel Levittown the Bohemian liked to think himself rebuffing. At college, in Wheaton, Illinois, a midsize suburb of Chicago out on the vast midwestern tableland, I would pass the local train station on the cusp of a new month and view the suburban commuters queuing up to buy their monthly train passes. The passes were for the daily jaunt between their oil-heated, vinyl-sided shoeboxes and Chicago, taken on the Chicago and Northwestern, a streamlined, punctual-to-the-second commuter rail utility, the carriages sleek, shiny, and all-climate. At the sight of the queued pass-buyers, I routinely cast my gaze at ("down" at, I would have sniffed at the time) the little domino file of the fedora-hatted, narrow-lapeled, plastic eyegoggled, wingtipped young breadwinners in their thirties, faces still babyskinned but peeping the first folds of seniorhood, young marrieds siring starter-families, toting leather briefcases and dozing through The Lonely Crowd on the train, the book that dirged the very life they were apprenticing.
It was the detritus of Midpaunch USA to this observer, ducklings in a row coasting idly, minds on "autopilot," as we later learned to say, bleached goods I could no more fancy myself becoming than the dashing Man About Campus, the apollo with three dates a week on a slow week. So disdaining was this sallow introvert of those bell-curved normals teeing up for their seat on the Middlebrow Express that he would snort out loud, plodding by or cycling by, harvesting new bushels of anecdotage to pile atop the store of derision already binned in his silo, ready for instant retrieval around the dining table. (My college tablemates may have found the burlesques a spice, a third shaker next to the salt and pepper, but the daily tongue stabs at the expense of the college's institutional venerables, those of gray hair and large desk and plaque on the door and secretaries outside, the tales climbing up the rumor chain by capillary action, left those same pates and palates gravely non-entertained, and the enrollment fate of the perpetrator forever . . . dangling.)
So, The Swooning Cobra, or anything cognate of mine, if written in 1957 or 1958 or 1960, would likely not have engaged many of my contemporaries, nor their putative opposite numbers on the establishment seesaw, the turtlenecked readers of Jack Kerouac and J. D. Salinger or the cinéastes of Ingmar Bergman or Antonioni or Fellini. Swooning would likely have abducted only those who fell within a few gene-counts on either side of my own psychic DNA, and that is a markedly short queue. Lots of room, well ventilated.
It wasn't just Middle America that I held at wide berth on my Samaritan road, it was . . . America. I was the pugilistic college Europhile, so much so that much to my latter-day chagrin, I positively spurned, held myself pristine of the bureautop of framed family faces from American history. I am shocked at the wide sea of my ignorance to this day. Madison, Jay, Gouverneur Morris . . . they mean something, but far less than what they should. ("Gouverneur" Morris, however, did stick in my mind, royally so, as how could he not for the name alone, which tickled with every encounter on the page, a wig on a plaster bust.) Anything worth reading about, chasing through library shelves, investing with deep-ladled cerebral protein, had to be of and about Europe, and centuries ago. Ancient history, Rome, Greece, the battles and the treaties and galleys and latifundia worked by hordes, and litter-borne Roman ladies in piled wigs, and Baroque salons and chamber recitals and Haydn's decorous musical jests — that is what eye and psyche mined from veins of academic ore stretching in many directions, but always far from the topicalities, historical or contemporary, that lay behind the here-and-nowness of life in Middle America or Early America or fringe America or any other part of America.
And the rope bridge? I cite the ancients and Europe and the pertinences thereof merely to avow my own rootment in the humanities, in a college curriculum exclusively Eurocentric, scornful of American history — to my later regret, I say once again — spurning the slightest thread of Yankee democratic institutions, Valley Forge, the whole founding narrative of our land and home, being inflamed instead by monarchy and the civic style of the Baroque. And so, as the rope bridge of humane letters collapses from mixed atrophy and technological overtake, my fictional scribblings are twainly doomed, not only because code replaces the flow of word and metaphor, the euphoric bob and bounce of the verbal ball, but, most definitively and most fatally, because Eurocentric literacy is a step still further removed from today's garage-tinkerer and his corporate extrapolation, the latter, I repeat and repeat again, the factotum keeping society's life-support system tuned and oiled and fueled, and us dreamers within it clean, contented — and grateful.
And kills literacy in the process.
In debate on matters public and polemical, I am first to render thanks to the garage-tinkerer, and long may he fidget, keeping thereby my pants-crease crisp and unrumpled, and allowing me to "fix dinner" each night in the seconds it takes to pop a brick of ice in the oven. Grateful I am, and such are the ironies, yes grateful for the blind rumbling juggernaut which seals my literary doom, and I will take up the cudgels to defend the tinkerer against the bureaucrat and public meddler in any skirmish in the public forum. Vim and versatility, elevating us from cave to high-rise, flows through the tinkerer and inventor, and are but calcified and shackled by his "activist" nemesis, the social free rider with dust in his eyes, pins on his lapels, a placard in his hand, bromides on his tongue, and paper schemes for us all on his gray metal civil-service desk.
There is yet more to the picture. The music of language is evaporating, not just from its displacement by the techno-code that keeps us alive and climate-controlled and blunts the palate for ornament, but because play and palate, the pleasures that lift the tribe above its daily scratch, beyond the needful and nagging, the seductions which bake no bread but are the why of our eating, all go, today, and for as far ahead as I can see, into "pop," the most comprehensive label for the communicative coin of the street and streetsmarts. Pop is the techno-world at leisure, as Oedipus Rex was to the Athenian public on its day off. Pop music, pop culture, pop living, pop a frozen dinner in the oven. Den instead of living room. Fatigue attire, those infernal track shoes. Speech that is not just "informal" but a muddle of words barely roped by syntax. "In terms of" as the all-purpose shrug-off for the labor of finding the right preposition, "whatever" the ready-made terminus of any series, "media is," "data is," and "y'know," the latter a wilt of parsley sprinkled over every utterance. And always the use of the shortest-route synthetic jerk of speech, the least energy-depleting, the quickest over with and on to the next chop of semi-thought, the runniest out of the mouth, sliding easy as the morning stool. Nicknames as the cognomens, even in official circumstance (President "Jimmy" Carter). Open collar, open cuff, open laces, Informal Friday, the three-day stubble, baggy attire, baggy bodies, slouch as gesture, slouch as public manifesto. A come-as-you-are society will not only lack the relish to sit down and audition page after page of rolling thunder, it will lack the cranial receptors for any syntax more sinuous than See-Jane-flash.
Form takes time. The potter, the pounder, the keyboard adventurer, the moralist of grammar, the morning groomer and scrupulous dresser are fighters, fidgeters, worriers. Form belongs to a world still grained, not yet blanched of roughage, a world which copes, still, with grit, laboring to smooth it down. Form belongs to a world afraid and even benighted, which sees gods or genies in the storm, the crooked tree, the creak in the next room — grit, roughage, the unfathomable. It keeps the fingers kneading text to sort out and illumine, keeps the soul contriving, gasping for more air, more light, a reason behind the flux, the logic behind the leaking roof.
I look at old 1950's jazz albums and note the performers wearing neckties. Take one of them, the lead saxophonist with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, his name Paul Desmond, his visage cerebral and studious, his physique gaunt and even anoretic, eyes barricaded behind bone glasses, gazing distantly to the next galaxy over, there to find the theme he needs — and in every photo I ever saw of him . . . snug in jacket and necktie, as equipoised as Babbitt at the water cooler. His horn artistry was no idle noodling, it was a dissertation on the cosmos typed with sax keys, a propounding of theses to a receiving public, the latter primed to listen, debating his arguments to themselves and among themselves, weighing his hypotheses of sound as he wound himself into tight spots, then wriggled out with a jujitsu flutter of the fingers, the audience's exuberant applause a footnote upon his dissertation, penstroking the final Q.E.D. Yes, we get your point, Paul. Thesis proved.
Paul Desmond. The fellow was lucky to die early, while the decade of the fifties was still warm.
I have here a final parting effigy, the face of things to come. Code in place of the velvet of language. Shirtsleeve informal. Nothing dug in and seeded, to birth, foliate, and flourish in decorous discursive stages. No grit, only white bread. The gods have fled. Ignorance has fled. Wonderment at our few inklings of wisdom on the stranded shore is now replaced by a sealed capsule that reboots every morning. It is a world where everything pops — pops up, pops out, eye-pops. Popcorn. Sensation by the pop, second by second, the psyche pressed against the now with the attention span of a trilobite. The loudest car crash, the hip-hoppiest street pidgin, the gapingest mouth. It is a visage that stared out at me from the pages of TV Guide a week or so back, only one of a swarm I could have clipped. It is the perfect escutcheon for what the rope bridge, as it finally collapses, collapses into.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.