May 14, 2013, 12:01 am
“The Scream” (1893), by Edvard Munch; mug from Yizzam.com
Last summer I had the chance to see two versions of a work by Norway’s greatest artist, Edvard Munch. If you go to Oslo you can see it in one version at the National Gallery (no photos, please) and another in the lovely Munch Museum (cameras welcome). In recent years each of them has been stolen and recovered. A third version of the work has been on view this year at MoMA.
Of course, you know the picture—it’s an icon of modernity’s anxiety. The figure has been thought to depict a psychiatric patient, or even a mummy.
Munch himself spoke of his synesthetic response to the world, where ideas and words presented themselves in chromatic terms. His recollection of a particular urban moment inspired him to create the various versions of a visual arrangement that would…
May 1, 2013, 12:01 am
Four decades ago, Fredric Jameson analyzed structuralism and formalism in an important book he called The Prison-House of Language. The title alluded to an aphorism in which Nietzsche cautioned that we’re stuck thinking within language’s limits (“in dem sprachlichen Zwange”).
The phrase “prison-house of language” seeped into the scholarly aquifer, perhaps getting an unintended assist from Foucault, whose own landmark work cheerfully directed us to similarities between social organization and prisons.
Since then the constraints of language have taken on new and interesting wrinkles, thanks in no small part to the digital reconfiguration of communications (I’m avoiding the word revolution here). Our mental structures have arguably shifted, but what is certain is that the Internet has given us access to an unimaginably vast corpus of words and thoughts, ideas and suspicions, truth and…
April 19, 2013, 12:01 am
My last post was on correspondence closers—those expressions of fidelity and endearment on which the seamless fabric of academia depends. In that post I paused to admire the French use of elaborated closers.
At the front end of academic correspondence, however, nobody baroques it up like the Germans. Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt is a mouthful, but it’s standard issue in the world of male German academics. We couldn’t easily translate that gesture into English. The honorable Professor Schmidt, who also holds a Ph.D., would just be snark. Even Professor Schmidt, Ph.D., might be fatally misread as sarcasm.
But let’s not feel superior to Teutonic stiffness. We’re not so good at negotiating the naming business here in the Anglophone academic world. The terms in which academics address one another, or choose to be addressed, are what I call a first word problem. For the …
April 5, 2013, 12:01 am
“She’s not only merely dead,” proclaims the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz, “she’s really most sincerely dead.”
I’ve heard that line hundreds of times, and seen the film dozens, but only recently have I noticed that the Coroner’s professional judgment culminates in a gesture of epistolary finality: most sincerely. Surely the most gracious way to be an ex-person.
With such adverbs, ladies and gentlemen, letters once took their leave.
The epistolary closer is a formality, a bow and departure from the imagined presence of the recipient. Across the great age of letter writing, closers have been one of the ornamental marvels of those things on paper that people sent to one other.
Even today, the French remain—ça va sans dire—the masters of formal exits, having taken epistolary bowing and scraping to the level of science. I love French closes, with their odd verb forms and in…
March 18, 2013, 12:01 am
“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” croons young Romeo. Generations of high-school students have puzzled over what he meant, perhaps most of all over that “but soft.”
Shakespeare’s romantic Veronese is saying something like “Hang on a minute” or “Hey, look!” He’s not particularly interested in softness.
But we are, at least by the evidence of contemporary usage. The word soft has an extraordinary range of meanings and uses in English—pleasant, unmanly, untested, agreeable are just a few. It would be impossible to drive our STEM-y curricular self-examination without the idea of “soft science” (the OED dates the usage to 1966). It would be difficult, too, to run a political campaign without accusing the other guy of being soft on crime.
The American obsession with material softness as a sign of luxury is a postwar mark of upward mobility and dreams of…
March 5, 2013, 12:01 am
I’ve recently discovered Google’s Ngram Viewer. If you haven’t found and played with it yet, you will.
The Ngram Viewer takes a corpus of just over five million library books digitized by Google and, within that arena, instantly searches for terms or phrases you may want to explore, tabulating the frequency of their occurrences over time.
The Ngram algorithm might let you visualize, for example, 20th-century deployments of the words nitpicker, caviller, and momus—to choose more or less at random three epithets that might be applied ungenerously to a writer on language. You may already use nitpicker in this sense. (If you have grade-school children you may have another—more visceral—sense of the word, as well.)
Caviller is a pretty unusual word in contemporary discourse. But if you know the verb to cavil, meaning to insist on making pointlessly small distinctions, you can…
February 19, 2013, 12:01 am
It is a rainy, blustery day sometime in the 1950s, and at our little school desks we are preparing for lunchtime recess. Mr McHugh, my grammar school’s principal and a man of priestly aspect, announces in solemn tones that recess will take place indoors “due to inclement weather.”
Inclement weather. Not stormy weather, not a lovely day to be caught in the rain. The phrase “inclement weather” felt then—feels now—mysterious and official.
Looking out my window as snow drifts over Manhattan more than half a century later, I’m still wondering how weather became inclement. And is there any other occurrence of the term in general use?
Some figures in history have come down to us with a reputation for clemency, as Mozart would have it in his opera La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus). The Romans thought him a good emperor, the Jews not so much—Titus was responsible for the …
February 6, 2013, 12:01 am
This morning my Twitter feed led off with this message from RandomDigital, the electronic arm of the august publishing firm Random House:
@RandomDigital: Please support media companies in transition by buying a physical copy, or subscribing.
Lo, how the mighty have tweeted.
I felt as if I had just passed a pet store with a sign in the window that read “Please buy this puppy while we’re busy bioengineering a dog that doesn’t require walkies.”
It’s no secret that even the great traditional publishers are scrambling to reinvent themselves. If they’re going to stay in business, even the Big Six, of which Random House is one, need to reach readers devoted to electronic toys—which is to say everyone under 20, half of the literate population under 70, and even a goodly number of the quill-and-ink-pot set when no one is looking. I’ve just made up these faux usage stats, so…
January 22, 2013, 12:01 am
Screenshot from the film “Catfish.”
Catfish: An online impostor posing as a romantic object. To deceive by posing in such a manner. See also the 2010 film of that name.
The continuing drama of the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the woman who did or did not exist has provided one of the stranger distractions in contemporary campus life.
A quick recap: Manti Te’o did or did not believe that someone reportedly named Lennay Kekua was or was not his online girlfriend. Whether or not she existed, and if having existed she did or did not die, Te’o did or did not wish to misrepresent an event that had or had not taken place.
At least that much is clear.
If, as has been claimed, Mr Te’o was catfished, he was the object of a double deception in which a virtual presence posed first as the extension of…
January 17, 2013, 12:01 am
When President Obama put forward the name of Jack Lew to be the next secretary of the Treasury, there were two immediate reactions. First was puzzlement and the homophonic query “Lew who?” Then came the visual thrill ride that Mr. Lew calls his signature.
Even the President wryly observed that if Mr. Lew is approved for the post, the new Treasury secretary would be required to have at least one decipherable letter amid the sequence of tumbling o’s. Fair enough. They look like clowns spilling out of a small car.
Time’s Katy Steinmetz ran a piece entitled “What the Treasury Nominee’s Signature Really Tells Us” (January 11, Time NewsFeed), though the telling focuses on the practice of graphology and a reading of the signature by Eileen Page, a handwriting specialist.
Time might be reluctant—though others, including me, are not—to call graphology a pseudoscience,…