The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘first person’

Who’s Number One?

March 17, 2015 | by

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.

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Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More »

Elder Abuse

March 11, 2015 | by

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Alexander Orlowski, Head of an Old Man in a Fur Hat, 1815.

For something that inhibits creativity, depression inspires a lot of metaphors. You can read about it likened to a vine-covered house or a black dog or a dreary balloon, or see it portrayed as a lowering cloud. Maybe because it’s a state so characterized by its lacks—of joy, of fun, of perspective, of energy, of hope, of self-love, of memory—people are eager to imbue it with substance.

When it hit me—in the abrupt way it does when you’ve forgotten to take your meds—I was on the subway. It was like being deluged by a tidal wave—no, make that a wave of slush from a passing taxi. The drear was powerful and immediately exhausting. I told myself it would pass. We all have our tricks. When things aren’t too bad, I can sometimes get myself to the dog run. The best thing to do is to help someone else, although this is easier to say when you’re not in the grip of it. When the prospect of dressing or bathing seems beyond contemplation, when keeping yourself from others seems like one of the few good things you can manage, the energy required in engaging with others is daunting. Read More »

A Dance to the Music of Time

March 6, 2015 | by

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Do the Twist!

Back when I was at my loneliest, I decided it would be a good idea to force myself to do all sorts of things alone. It’s not that I had an aversion to solitude: I’ve always enjoyed, for instance, dining solo, and I like watching movies without the pressure of other peoples’ reactions. But that was not enough; that was too easy. If it was not galling, if it didn’t make me feel acutely self-conscious, somehow it didn’t count. Accordingly, I started singing karaoke and riding carousels and seeing bands with grim determination. I won’t pretend this phase lasted long, but it was horrible while it did. I still can’t hear the song “Veni, Vidi, Vici” without a pang. 

The point was not to meet anyone; I shunned company. It was some combination of self-improvement and self-punishment. One June evening, I determined that I would go dancing. I didn’t want to—of course I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do any of it. Read More »

Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick”

November 21, 2013 | by

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Collage via Flickr.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

I am writing this while pregnant with my first son, just as Sylvia Plath was when she wrote “Nick and the Candlestick” in 1962.

I wanted him: he was no surprise or trouble at all; he was passion and biology. But I am not happy. No one in smiley U.S.A. is supposed to say this at the news of a baby. An expectant mother is supposed to be ecstatic, full of promise and life. It is true, I marvel; the last thing I ever expected to be good at was creating a small person, that my body could nourish him both inside itself and within the world. He’s evidence that something inside me might work, even if other, less visible things do not.

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

Before him, I would read Plath quotes from one of those ubiquitous Twitter feeds, feel recognition—and feel like a cliché. I do genuinely love her work, but it’s so expected, so reductive—even if, with him, it feels newly vital for me. We all know the narrative: marry a handsome, destructive man, go from one to two, three then four, and then kill yourself at thirty. Like so many girl-readers, I worshipped her and selfishly romanticized the tragedy. As a young woman, Plath sought the whirl and illusion of enchanted, swift New York, painfully unprepared for adulthood, and like so many others, I recognized all those standard youthful Manhattan dreams, darker when you feel everything twenty-fold, when you’re unsure of having any talent or worth, paralyzed by sensitivity, maybe a little weak, easy to dismantle. A cliché, yes, but the mythology, and the work, remain captivating and solid. As a writer and a reader and a human being with dark tendencies, I have great empathy for everything Plath. There is a reason she has endured. We may all fail miserably at love, family, and living, but we can try to be brave, especially in our work. As Plath says of her own womb, my stomach was always crawling with white newts and calcification, a gut that betrayed me, even when I tried to convince it of happy otherwise. Read More »

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This Is the Way We Wash Our Clothes

November 13, 2013 | by

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Photography credit Florian Köhler, cheatha.de.

It was not until I went away to college that I realized how much laundry my mother did. I don’t mean that my family of four generated an unusual amount—none of us changed more than once a day, or had especially extensive wardrobes—or that she stood around an industrial-sized cauldron like Mrs. Buckets in “Cheer Up, Charlie.” Rather, at any given moment, some step of laundry-washing was in process. If the washer or dryer wasn’t running, clothes were being sorted. Large piles of lights and darks littered the hall floor. There was a wicker hamper of some description, in a nook under the linen closet, but things either didn’t make it there or were sorted with such dispatch that they never reached its limbo. And always, always, there was the folding. My parents’ bed was generally covered with a large pile of clean clothes; anyone who happened to be sitting on the bed watching TV would either fold a few napkins in the course of a show (me) or sit atop a mound, occasionally knocking clothes onto the floor (my brother.) Then there was the hand-washing, or those pieces my mother had deemed too delicate for the dryer: there were usually a few of these hanging damply in the bathroom. She did not work full-time back then; one wonders how all the laundry might have gotten done if she had.

It’s not that she was compulsively clean in other ways; if anything, the house was fairly chaotic. Indeed, when we did have guests over, the door to the master bedroom had to be kept rigorously shut because there was so much laundry on the floor. We always had plenty of clean clothes, which is of course nice, but in retrospect I think she washed things too much: towels got frayed and faded long before their times, the knees of our jeans seemed to have unusually short lifespans. She used utilitarian detergents; there was some vague but distinct taboo against fabric softener that made the first sheet I borrowed in the college laundry room feel deliciously illicit.

Her constant laundry-doing was a running joke in the family, as well as something of a mystery. How was there always so much laundry? The mystery only deepened when I moved out on my own and realized that one load a week was sufficient to keep me in clean clothes and sheets, and that the whole process only took a couple of hours. Read More »

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Wanted: Literary Mentor

May 21, 2013 | by

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I’m in the market for a mentor. My qualifications? I’m educated. Some (prospective employers, Stafford Loan sharks, OKCupid algorithms) would say too educated. More importantly, I have wide shoulders and solid vision, am able to open most jars and decipher prescription fine print. I’m handy with sticky file cabinets and missing memory sticks. I can sort e-mails and convert floppy disks, screen calls from editors and exes, purchase trinkets and gadgets for departing lovers or estranged children.

Past potential mentors (professors, friends of friends, intermittent pen pals) have proved unwilling or unworthy for a variety of reasons. Some were in no position to accept or provide help, requiring their own full-blown interventions. Others had full plates—book tours, a slew of international residencies—or had already been claimed by another dedicated sycophant. One candidate of desirable vintage (tottering, affable, largely abandoned) preferred nubile female mentees. Another candidate projected an intriguing otherworldly aura. A certified genius, she was very kind but too far removed from the cynical workings of the world to offer much practical assistance. (In one dreamlike afternoon workshop, just prior to dropping another brilliant, indecipherable insight: “First, allow me to put on my human-being suit.”) Read More »

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