The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language’

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 »

Systems Bigger Than Ourselves, and Other News

March 16, 2015 | by

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From SimCity, 1989.

  • On SimCity and the value of games that dared to make complex systems their protagonists: “SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors … the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment. This was a radical way of thinking about video games: as non-fictions about complex systems bigger than ourselves. It changed games forever—or it could have … ”
  • Philip Roth’s misogyny is treated as a given these days; “the women are monstrous because for Philip Roth women are monstrous,” Vivian Gornick once wrote. But: “Maybe Philip Roth loves women? Maybe he, who offers a three-page description of female masturbation, is in fact an advocate for female desire? … While misogynists try to shame women, Roth celebrates women’s sexual power. It’s the men he is out to get.”
  • “That sentence is shit. It’s got to be better. You asshole.” Matt Sumell on writing and doubt.
  • Today in German words that dearly need English equivalents: verschlimmbessert, which can be roughly translated as “ ‘ver-worsebettered.’ In essence, it’s a combination of verbessern (‘to improve’) and verschlimmern (‘to make worse’).  Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening.”
  • In which Benjamin Percy attends the dreadfully named Man Camp and enjoys a surprisingly rousing encounter with masculinity: “When men get together, they tend to speak with irony or rough-throated braggadocio, but [here] there was an uncommon sincerity to everyone’s tone. It caught me off guard.”

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »

Perfect Paul

March 5, 2015 | by

Our ongoing quest to personify the weather.

Arthur Rackham, 1912.

As I write this, the ominously named Winter Storm Thor is bringing his hammer down on the tristate area. Thor is pelting. Thor is dumping. Thor is lashing, coating, and causing havoc. He has an image problem, as all storms do, these days. Led by the heedless call of the Weather Channel, the media has depicted Thor—like Juno, Neptune, and others before him—as a creature of blind wrath, fueled by an amoral, motiveless lust for destruction. If you believe in the banality of evil, then Winter Storm Thor belongs with Eichmann and Iago in your rogues’ gallery.

The Weather Channel has named winter storms since 2012, as part of a dumb and widely impugned media strategy that sensationalizes the weather in a shameless bid for more clicks. “The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Neil Katz, who runs Weather.com, told The New Republic last year. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?” By becoming the very embodiment of vengeance, is one answer. Read More »

Wish You Were Here

March 4, 2015 | by

Vasily Perov, The Hunters at Rest, 1871.

Many agree that our language is coarsening. We curse more, insult each other with impunity, and speak like illiterate cats on a regular basis. But in one way, things are improving: it’s been a good ten years since I heard anyone say “Guess you had to be there.”

When I was a teenager, people said this constantly. Someone would tell a well-meaning anecdote, something he considered amusing or interesting—then some jerk would fill the silence with, “Guess you had to be there.” The jerk always waited until the story in question was over. And, yes, oftentimes the stories were lame, and not worth telling, and a waste of everyone’s time. But whoever was telling that story was putting himself out there, in a certain small way, and, in an equally small way, being beaten down. Read More »

The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett

March 3, 2015 | by

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Photo courtesy of the author.

There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”

The vitality of Barrett’s prosethe special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town lifehas already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fictionlike the community it describescan develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”

Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?

I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything. Read More »