[In the metaphysical poetry of 16th century England, a complaint is a song, a poem, by a spurned lover to his beloved. Thus the title of Philip Roth’s breakthrough novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is a witty double entendre, for the novel is both an account of Alexander Portnoy’s emotional disorders that bring him into psychoanalysis and also a love song to his beloved, which is to say, of course, to his mother.]
In the past few days, I have revealed myself on this blog to be a prig, a prude, a reactionary when it comes to English usage. Indeed, were I more of a fan of the old TV show Seinfeld, I might even describe myself as a Language Nazi. I quibble over presently, I fulminate against beg the question, I draw a line in the sand at the incorrect use of “transpire” to mean “happen” rather than “become known” [it originally means “to breathe about.”]
I am, of course, well aware that in these actions I stand not on solid ground but rather on linguistic quicksand. Comparative Linguists are fond of pointing out that language evolves and grows and changes endlessly, despite the efforts of William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. Indeed, one often finds that although people living close to one another can understand one another quite well, one can, by a series of geographical dislocations, end up with two communities, speaking ostensibly the same language, who are mutually incomprehensible. I once listened to Noam Chomsky on YouTube describing this well-known phenomenon. Nobody, he observed, ever actually speaks Correct English. What made his discourse especially delicious was that it was couched easily, effortlessly, fluently in precisely the Correct English that he was claiming no one speaks.
So why do I do it? There are two reasons, and the purpose of this post is merely to set them forth, not, heaven knows, to try to infect others with my disorder.
The first reason is that there are endlessly many logical distinctions available to be made, and in my view one of the functions of language is to make them. “That poses a question so urgent that it virtually demands to be raised” means something different from “That simply assumes what you claim to be trying to prove and thus reduces what you have said to a miserable tautology.” This is a real distinction. It can obviously be expressed in many different ways. Which we choose is a matter of convention, and conventions in language, as in dress or body adornment, change over time. But using “begs the question” to mean both obliterates a real distinction, and thus contributes to the coarsening and dumbing down of discourse.
The second reason is aesthetic, not logical. One of my principal aesthetic pleasures is the contemplation of the work of an artist who simultaneously embraces and transcends the formal constraints of an art form. Consider, as an example, the fugue. The rules of musical composition governing the writing of a fugue are severe indeed, stipulating as they do the sequence of voices or lines, the interval at which each enters, and so forth. In the hands of a journeyman composer, these restraints are all too evident, and conspire to produce a work that is tedious and predictable. But not when Bach writes a fugue. Bach plays with the rules, teases them, inverts them, all the while conforming to them rigorously. The result is a beauty that seems both spontaneous, free form, utterly expressive, and yet is a perfect instantiation of the inviolable rules of the fugue. Thus, we may imagine, God played with His laws of Nature as He created the world.
Language is, to be sure, a medium of communication, but it is also an art form in the right hands. A great writer produces graceful, seemingly effortless prose that articulates with precision complex concepts while conforming strictly to the rules that define correct usage. The language of Plato, of Marx, of Hume – and yes, of Chomsky at his best – is as much a work of art as a Bach fugue or a Dickinson poem. It takes our breath away.
It is not easy to write in this manner, even if, like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, one has been speaking prose all one’s life without knowing it. It requires focused attention and much practice. I recall once watching Yo Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. As he played, he leaned back, away from the instrument, as though he were listening to the music rather than producing it, while his arms and hands did the most complex, precise things to create that music. Since I am an amateur mediocre violist, who has actually played one of those Suites arranged for my instrument, I have some dim sense of the years of endless work that the young Yo Yo Ma did to achieve that magical transcendence.
That, in a few words, is why I flinch when someone is described as disinterested when what is meant is that she is uninterested.