October 13, 2016
Language carries a variety of registers within its expression and composition into works.
The Letter to the Hebrews begins famously: ‘God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds’ It’s that very smart ‘at sundry times, and in divers manners’ that I want to pick up on; because the Letter-writer is talking about registers of language. He saw that God approaches all men each on their own terms, in the sense that St Paul says of himself that he was being ‘all things to all men’ in order to bring to them to the gospel.
A man who has only read Marvel comic books all his life is to be approached for any converse with him differently from a woman who has read the classics and much of the canon of literature written in say the English language. An engineer might respond and understand better when approached in certain terms which a gym teacher might find dry or incomprehensible. The varieties of registers of language are shifting sands and any attempts to catalogue and classify them are an arbitrary exercise of making ropes from them. But yet nonetheless we all know persons in our acquaintance who are wordy, or else din certain words and phrases to death, or else remain taciturn, or may just use earthy or hyperbolic or flowery language much of the time. Language too then is a thing which is able to be ‘all things to all men’.
I have cited Shakespeare before now and in a different context where he has Hamlet give some sage critical advice on acting to the players who are visiting Elsinore; ‘let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ Shakespeare shows Hamlet as being very keen that the players use the correct registers not only of language in their roles, but also of actions and gestures; and to an end that the overall impression offered by them is ‘natural’ and is not something which destroys utterly that illusion happening on stage. The literary people like to call this fitting acting, acting having ‘verisimilitude’.
Put very simply, one does not go to a barbers shop to buy gasoline.
Now another contention, which I have broached previously a little, is that certain literary productions (I gave an example of tragedy) can no longer be created in our present age. I spoke of George Steiner and of his book ‘The Death of Tragedy’ whose contention this is.
Counter to this contention is a view often promulgated that a new age always awaits to throw up the new great artist who is able to synthesise, and/or else, overcome an apparent dearth of resources available in his or her age and for making great art.
It has been held by some scholars that Schopenhauer the philosopher might well have been a literary man of some standing had he not been born in Germany in the wake of Goethe, who himself was such a giant of literature that the field available to Schopenhauer and to other would-be literary men and women, had in effect been recently already vacuumed up all into Faust and Werther and into other classics made by Goethe during his lifetime.
Certainly the Anglo –American poet T S Eliot was able to rescue Georgian poetry from over-late Romantic straits and doldrums by way of a new and novel approach to poetry which produced The Waste Land and Four Quartets. But Eliot, as has been remarked many times, was a one-off, and like Job says of his comforters his ‘wisdom died with him’. Eliot’s was a style and achievement which no-one has been able to develop or to make a variety from which holds up as great poetry. Eliot it has been said took poetry in English into a cul-de-sac.
So what do we make of all this? Is it ‘cometh the man, cometh the hour’ or is it ‘nothing good can come from such a womb’ as is our present way of life and social milieu? Is it that certain registers of language once vital and vibrant and able for great poetry are nowadays antiquated or archaic and largely defunct and obsolete; and that it is this state of affairs which is responsible for so much (say) poetry in English which perhaps should not have been published; and probably would not have been published but for consumerism and but for the ethos of our consumerist age?
Take the citation opening the Letter to the Hebrews cited at the top of this essay; it carries such words as ‘spake’ and ‘sundry’ and divers’ and ‘time past’ and ‘fathers’ and ‘last days’ and ‘appointed heir’; in fact nearly the whole passage is not written in any register of language which a modern day person unassisted by study would appreciate or even comprehend very well. Yet this language of the Letter-writer even in its Jacobean translation from the Aramaic, rings astoundingly and astonishingly. A late bible scholar called C H Dodd, called this Letter-writer ‘addicted to eloquence’ a memorable phrase in itself; and Dodd was correct, the guy or girl who wrote it pours out words like gold-leaved ichors.
Let’s try a little game now; and try substituting for words of an olden age now defunct words which we might use instead today? Like this: ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’, a Hans Andersen story I believe; and no-one but no-one uses the word ‘steadfast’ in daily chitchat these days. So what shall we say? ‘The Robust Tin Soldier’ or ‘The Resilient Tin Soldier’; we would probably say ‘robust’ or ‘resilient’ when and where the word ‘steadfast’ might have been used around 150 years ago?
Now is it just and only that the word ‘steadfast’ is olde worlde and so is for us evocative; or is it in fact a more evocative word per se? Was it antiquated or ‘on the way out’ when Andersen used it in his story title? Was it evocative when he used it in the story; or has it acquired its evocativeness since; either from its fame or from its distance in time past, or both?
According to the answers to such questions rests the answer whether or not language is able to ossify and become ‘dull stale flat and unprofitable’ for use in certain literary genres.
Let’s try another item in our game. Let’s try a topic on what Matthew a\Arnold called ‘high seriousness’. I choose this topic because ‘high seriousness’ I feel is something we as a culture these days do not do well at all. At least we cannot do it not without making it ‘preachy’ and thus so soporifically dull as to crush one; and in the satirical sense of the word we make our talks ‘worthy’.
How many talks on ‘the environment’ and on ‘human rights’ and so on, do their adherents (to the talks not the principles) sit through, and in a bad sense, almost ‘religiously’ listen and so feel holy and also so very, very dry and restlessly constrained. Dickens has his finger on this ‘worthiness’ pulse. In his novel ‘Bleak House’, so I believe, Dickens dubs St Botolph’s Church in Cheapside London ‘St Ghastly Grimms’, because the actual St Botolph’s has over its porch entrance a sculpted skull grimacing in death like a Halloween gargoyle.
Dickens makes fun, good fun, out of stuffy over-zealous and over-righteous ‘high seriousness’ like that emblem of memento mori outside St Botolph’s entrance. (Dickens in his turn had the tables switched on him by Oscar Wilde who said of Little Nell, a character in Dickens’ novel ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, wherein Dickens wrings the last ounce of Victorian sentimentality from Nell’s death scene; that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
So there is misappropriation of register, by Dickens in his overly-sentimental drawing out of the pathos of Little Nell; by St Botolph’s by it going ‘over the top’ with mortal ‘high seriousness’; by writers like Thomas Hardy, whose dogmatic pessimism is so very ‘laid on with a trowel’ at times that one is only able to laugh at the absurdity of the tales’ ‘gravity and their delicious ironies’. ‘let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature..’ High seriousness then – for the 21st century in Europe and USA – an example - let’s take Christopher Marlowe in his drama ‘The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus’ – Marlowe whose ‘mighty line’ and ability to seduce readers with a luxury of words and language, held spellbound those playgoers and readers of poetry of his time and so paved the way before his untimely death for Shakespeare himself to become apprenticed to Marlowe’s skill and technique.
Faustus says in Act 1 ‘How am I glutted with conceipt of this! Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, Resolve me of all ambiguities, Perform what desperate enterprise I will? I'll have them fly to India for gold, Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, And search all corners of the new-found world For pleasant fruits, and princely delicates. I'll have them read me strange philosophy, And tell the secrets of all foreign Kings.’ Nothing much here that in plain terms of vocabulary is not current in use today. Yet the question remains, might such a powerful evocation of the enticements of pleasures be able to be written nowadays? The vocabulary is here today; but what might be lacking else which debars such a rhapsody of homage to delight from being appropriate to our native palates?
First of all, do you agree or not that such a hymn is hardly conceivable today? Secondly, if you say it is not conceivable, then why do you say so?
Well, whatever, it’s more than merely the bare words used. How might we say the same sort of thing today?
‘I’m over the moon this is fantastic I might get anything I want And no questions asked Whatever I want I can do? I’ll rob the Federal Reserve Buy up the Stock Exchange And travel the world and see life Tasty chicks and top hotels I’ll get them to **** And hang out with the big-shots’
Alexander Pope, an 18th century English poet coined a new word in English when he used the word ‘bathos’ in his work. ‘Bathos’ is the nadir of embarrassing crassness, and perhaps thus is how Christopher Marlowe’s iridescent verse transpires when given a modern setting.
‘Oh how the mighty are fallen!’ lamented David of the Israelite mighty men killed in battle; and here is this Faustian metamorphosis of ‘high seriousness’ concerning the seductive and delicious powers of sinfulness and of temptation to sin, into a travelogue TV-style fantasy heard retailed and perhaps too often dreamed of fondly in living rooms across the developed world.
For ourselves, in the main, what Marlowe’s Faustus envisages and lusts after as being his highest delights, and for which he is willing to sign away his soul, and in blood; for ourselves the situation when transposed to 2016 is trite and inconsequential, nothing more than the baits and lures peddled everywhere by our commercial endeavours, and taken hook line and sinker by so many of us as our highest aspiration; and one to which we attach zero gravity or consequence.
In short then, we have few registers of language of ‘high seriousness’ in public life today. My friend Richard in London has a little funny he tells about his time in his youth in India travelling and staying in an Ashram. It sort of sums up today pretty much: ‘I went to India and into a monastery to find out who I was – and when they told me – I didn’t want to know!’
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