Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere
Long Ago and Far Away
Anne DaBee wrote:
One more "Anne story", as a result of your Andrew Buck report.
I knew an elementary school principal who REALLY didn't know which came first, the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, and firmly believed it didn't matter because they were both over a long time ago. He didn't even have the sense to figure out that their NAMES could keep the chronology straight for him...
I believe his must have been a social promotion, as in "For God's sake, get him out of the classroom, even if we have to make him principal to do it." He'd been a teacher for about 17 years, tenured for 15, and I can vouch for the fact that he had plenty of self esteem. At another time I might get tangled up in a dissertation on the potential dangers of tenure, a practice which has recently come under fire in several local jurisdictions, perhaps because there are already too many tenured twits in the classroom as well as in leadership positions.
It makes verbal sense to you and to me, of course, that any revolutionary war should precede any civil war, but dollars to doughnuts the guy didn’t have a firm grasp on the concepts of “revolution” and “civil war”. Anyone might forget exact dates, but it takes true self-esteem to be clueless about the general trend of history in our country.
I used to think tenure was essential for the protection of free speech, but why should teachers require any more protections along that line than any other working citizen? It’s easy to see that social promotions actually do increase self-esteem totally unconnected with actual knowledge or skill or accomplishment.
True Grit or True Crit
Last week I saw the new movie, True Grit (haven’t seen the old one with John Wayne yet), a pretty good Western. The characters, especially the two main characters, spoke without using contractions, which was intended to give an air of antiquity, and it worked well, although Americans were certainly using contractions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in ordinary conversation. Besides adding a spurious air of antiquity, the effect is to make the speakers sound somewhat formal and serious, as well as more genteel than the characters who do use contractions. Try speaking for a while without using any contractions and see if it does not add weightiness and gravitas to your mind and tongue. I found the technique to be effective in this movie, and somehow it fit well with the vast landscapes of the western plains.
Speaking of which, at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati there’s a painting by Henry Farny called “Song of the Talking Wire” in which a Plains Indian is leaning his ear against a new telephone pole. In the Taft’s and in other descriptions of the painting, the critiques always emphasize something like the “devastating encroachment” of European civilization on the lives of the Indians as symbolized by snow, twilight, a dead deer, and a buffalo skull. But in this 1904 painting, the Sioux has a rifle, not an Indian weapon; he has two horses, not native to this continent; and the carcass of a deer slung over one horse means food, not devastation, and he’s lucky to find food in the winter. The buffalo skull could allude to the vanished buffalo herds, but skulls are not uncommon in the wilderness. Anyway it’s not a human skull. One caption to this painting (I forget where) said this Indian listened at the phone pole so he could tell his people he heard spirits and thus become a shaman. Who knows? I’ve noticed that the explanatory notes in art and other museums are different than they were when I was a kid. They often throw in political commentary of some kind, based on the views of the sign writer rather than the plausible views of the artist.
It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand
Alan Kennedy, whoever he is, is collecting color idioms in various languages and you can add to the list if you know some that aren’t there yet. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the feelings about color in different languages. For instance, a “black bee” is a woman’s female friend in Hindi.
TV person Joy Behar recently tried to get worked up over “Black Friday”, asking if it isn’t a racist expression. Whoopi Goldberg had to explain that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the busiest shopping day of the year and businesses hope to get “in the black” on that day. Before computers or even typewriters, clerks made entries in business ledgers with black ink for money coming in (credits) and red ink for money going out (or debits). I hope Miss Joy Thing never complains of being misunderstood herself.
A Minor Event
The BBC is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 with readings and events throughout the kingdom in the coming year. Already you can find some readings on YouTube if you search “King James 400”.
Of course there are tiresome objections to the BBC devoting so much time to a “minority”. Does this mean no minority tastes should be represented? Only the majority? Which would be…? Even if Europeans are casting off their Christian fetters, they oughtn’t to cast off their knowledge of two thousand years of European history, philosophy, art, literature, and culture.
One Kate Evans has written a short piece on conveying dialect or accents in writing, a tricky thing to accomplish well. But this subject perfectly clarifies the value of our eccentric spelling system, which some people would like to change to one more phonetically consistent. Which phonetic pronunciation should we use? If an Ohian wants to “park the car in Harvard Yard” while a Bostonian wants to “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd”, who is correct? We all know what “Harvard” is when we read it. Spelling helps make English the common language for so many people around the world.
This Parvum Year
For six and a half years I hit my internal deadline faithfully and sent out Parvum Opus every week, with few exceptions, until I ran out of steam earlier this year. I admit that a paycheck would have kept me on deadline, but obviously that’s not why I write it, and time wasn’t the problem either. Two projects siphoned off my writing energy.
This spring I produced an audio autobiography on CD of my friend, blues musician Sonny Robertson, called When Sonny Gets Blue. It's the first installment and I’m looking forward to collecting more material from him.
This summer I started working on a long-postponed epistolary biography of my high school Spanish teacher, Ellen Rowe. About ten years ago she asked if I wanted a bag of letters she'd written to her parents over a period of more than a decade, starting with her college years in 1953. She broke her neck in a car wreck in Spain when her Spanish fiancé was driving her car in the mountains, and was largely paralyzed ever after. She never married. I was surprised at her offer. Maybe it was because I was a writer and editor, though we didn't discuss what I might do with those letters. Of course my way of reading them — hundreds of letters — was to start typing them, but I didn't get far, then moved to Ohio & got married, and Ellen died in 2005. I let it slide until this summer, when I buckled down and typed every one. Then I started trying to find some of the people she named, and even visited some of her friends in Indiana. In spite of all her losses, Ellen went on to teach and travel, and never complained. A very admirable character. Thus the book, which I’m just beginning to edit; I’m thinking about the chapters I’ll write too.
And I have other projects in mind.
But writing Parvum Opus continues to be a pleasure, particularly when I hear from my readers. So here’s to a happy new year for all, as I end this PO and this year with a cryptic note I made to myself for some reason or other: “Opposite of schadenfreude?”
Schadenfreude (adversity + joy) is a German word meaning the pleasure one takes in someone else’s failure or pain, and what else can we say about studying mistakes in language? When Thomas de Mahy, the Marquis de Favras, was condemned to death by French revolutionaries, he said, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.” This perhaps gave him some satisfaction.
But when I wrote that note, I don’t know whether I was thinking we need a word for suffering at someone else’s success or happiness; or even for suffering over their adversity; or for taking pleasure in someone else’s success or happiness. It should be pleasure in others’ success, shouldn’t it?