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Human improvement

Play Pink Misty for Me

In Vanity Fair, the superb William Langewiesche ((Of whom I first became aware when I reviewed his American Ground.)) profiles a US Army sniper. About halfway through, as background, Langewiesche discusses the military’s response to claims that most frontline soldiers in the second world war did not fire their rifles:

[T]he Pentagon […] initiated a decades-long human-improvement campaign. By the Korean War, in the 1950s, surveys showed that fully half of the frontline riflemen who saw the enemy fired their weapons in response. In Vietnam, the number rose to 90 percent despite the unpopularity of the war and the low morale among troops.

It is a delightful invention of euphemistic bureaucratese, this human-improvement campaign — as though we must all agree that persuading humans to fire guns more often at other humans necessarily improves the first set of humans (if not the second, for obvious reasons).

Presumably, Langewiesche invented this phrase knowingly as a satirical nod to military unspeak. I initially assumed that it was real jargon, but the only other place google finds human-improvement campaign is in a random chat transcript. There are more results, however, for variants such as human-improvement processes (what “life coaches” will sell you), or human-improvement program (top: the “Church of Satan”!); as well as what Nature in 1910 called a “useful little book“, entitled Eugenics, the Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding.

What human improvements would you like to see, readers?



Tangled up in blue

So the New Yorker‘s David Denby likes this new film about insurgent smurfs by the guy who used to make excellent movies about robots or aliens?

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.

Oh, really? Maybe you should get out to the cinema more often, then. Oh no wait, you are one of the New Yorker‘s regular film critics! You must have seen a lot of films in “years”! And this is the most “beautiful” of them all? Really?

Amid the hoopla over the new power of 3-D as a narrative form, and the excitement about the complicated mix of digital animation and live action that made the movie possible, no one should ignore how lovely “Avatar” looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange.

Luscious seems to be one of Denby’s favourite terms of approbation — he chivalrously applied it to Shelley Winters in his terrible recent book; and a glance at the New Yorker‘s archive shows that Denby has also found luscious the sets of Moulin Rouge, Peter Jackson’s heaven in The Lovely Bones, the vineyards in Sideways, and “the over-all visual style” of Tales of Amelia Earheart.

He really gets going, though, when applying luscious to people. There is “the young couple with luscious flesh” in Snakes on a Plane (remember them? me neither!); “a luscious but vacuous married woman” in L’Auberge Espagnole; in Talk to Her, there is “the naked Alicia, who has a lusciously ripe figure”; while in Bright Star, “Abbie Cornish, eyes widening, breasts partly bared, is a luscious ideal”. Perhaps best of all is Denby’s description of Ava Gardner, in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, as “looking unspeakably luscious”. If so, it might after all be best not to try to speak it?

Anyway! Did you like Avatar, readers?



Hitchens vs the young

Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like the contemporary use of the word like. His profound sociological investigations of young people have, however, given him an idea as to why it used:

[T]he little cringe and hesitation and approximation of “like” are a help to young people who are struggling to negotiate the shoals and rapids of ethnic identity, the street, and general correctness.

What is “general correctness”? Is Hitchens struggling to say “political correctness” but shying away from it at the last moment? Anyway, Hitchens’s diagnosis proceeds:

To report that “he was like, Yeah, whatever” is to struggle to say “He said” while minimizing the risk of commitment.

I don’t think this is, like, right? To say “He was like, Yeah, whatever”, is to give a beautifully economical report of the person’s entire demeanour and attitude. Hitchens has cited some linguists pointing out that the construction “does not require the quote to be of actual speech (as ‘she said’ would, for instance). A shrug, a sigh, or any of a number of expressive sounds as well as speech can follow it”. But even when what sounds like speech does follow, it is not necessarily meant to be understood as more-or-less-accurate reported speech. For he was like, Yeah, whatever, it is entirely possible (or even probable?) that the person did not actually say “Yeah, whatever” — there is a creative ambiguity in play as to whether he was like introduces accurate reported speech or a very rough précis of speech or even merely a verbal description of gesture (he might not have said anything at all) — so that to replace it with Hitchens’s suggestion, the flat “He said”, could well be to commit a falsehood.

In sum, he was like and he said do not actually mean the same thing; and Hitchens is like, I do not approve of this youthspeak that I have not made sufficient efforts to understand?



Fighting words

Last week, the American Dialect Society announced that it had chosen tweet as its Word of the Year 2009 and google (v.) as its Word of the Decade. It’s a fair cop in the latter category, where nominees also included blog, 9/11, text (v.), and war on terror, defined by the ADS as “A global effort to prevent terror and terrorists”. (Eh?) So yes, the lowercase verb google is a reasonable choice. (I was first made aware of it by William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003); the American Dialect Society had already nominated it as WotY in 2002.)

But tweet as Word of the Year? Srsly? Surely sexting (according to the full list of nominations [pdf], consigned delicately to the “Most Outrageous” category) is more enjoyable in every way? Myself, I would have voted for Benjamin Zimmer’s nominationfail (used as a noun or interjection)”, which at least won the “most useful” category. (Though if it was decided that fail was the “most useful” word of the year, what quality enabled tweet to beat it to the overall prize? Sheer annoyingness?) I would have even liked to see fail duke it out in the Word of the Decade contest: after all, in so many ways the years 2000 to 2009 were made of fail.

What were your words of the year and decade, readers?


Like some

We’re on a road to nowhere

So, I finally got around to reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy? It seemed to have wowed the critics when it was published, which is an impressive feat for a book in which roughly one out of every four words is the word gray. Nearly as common is the word some, employed frequently in the place of an indefinite article to create similes of a bewitchingly deliberate imprecision? We get two on the very first page, beginning with:

Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

Yeah, like some cold glaucoma! (Are there hot glaucomas?) And then:

Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast.

Oh, some granitic beast. I know there are many different types of granitic beast? But the exact kind of granitic beast I am talking about is not important right now!

The boy does not escape being the object of similar tropes:

His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian.

Some old world thespian? Which one? David Garrick? Sir Henry Irving? Whatever!

Sometimes the man has dreams, and then he wakes up:

Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth.

I like this some very much. It is almost as if the writer knows that to write a phantom orchard would just sound silly, but the magic word some lends it that extra gravitas. But hang on — wouldn’t phantoms, rather than peaches, properly be the fruit of a phantom orchard? Just saying!

Often the man and boy come across dead bodies:

They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.

Um, right! This some is quite dismissive, not only of the pilgrims’ “common order” but arguably of the entire laboured simile itself. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking on my part?

Here the man looks at his tarpaulin, under which the boy is sheltering:

Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world.

Remember, there are many things you could do as a last venture at the edge of the world. Sitting under a blue tarpaulin is just one of them!

He trudged out through the drifts leaving the boy to sleep under the tree like some hibernating animal.

So here the boy is like a squirrel, or a bat? Or is he more like a massive and ferocious black bear? It’s impossible to tell, and the writer, lethargically wielding his some, doesn’t care! But wait, is “under the tree” really a good place for an animal to hibernate? Any predator could just come along and eat him! Unless what the writer really means here is that the boy is sleeping under the tree in the sense of being completely buried in the earth, among the roots? That’s a better hibernating strategy, at least. But then how is he breathing?

O look, more dead bodies!

Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming.

You probably don’t want to know exactly which of the many fearful kinds of ghastly envacuuming with which we are all so horribly familiar the writer is talking about here, and so by refusing to tell us, he is arguably performing a great mercy on our rain-streaked faces. (I believe that ghastly envacuuming might be the more intense and undesirable cousin of unpleasant buffeting?)

The faintly lit hatchway lay in the dark of the yard like a grave yawning at judgment day in some old apocalyptic painting.

This sentence is clever, because if you just said that the hatchway looked like a grave yawning at judgment day, that would be simply too horror-cheesy, but if you say it’s like that exact same shit but in some painting that is old, the simile is instantly elevated to the level of literary art.

At any rate, by this point in the book, I knew precisely how that grave felt, since I too was yawning at judgment day?



Hunting high and low

Rummaging through my virtual drawers, I find this book review that I wrote last autumn, which didn’t make it into the paper. I reproduce it here as a public service, so that anyone who might otherwise have been tempted to buy the book in question will save their money in these difficult times.

Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation
by David Denby (128pp, Picador, £9.99)

In the miniature footsteps of Harry G Frankfurt’s On Bullshit ((Which I reviewed for the Guardian in 2005. I can’t find that review online, so here it is:

On Bullshit, by Harry G Frankfurt (Princeton, £6.50)
It might help to be “one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers” if you plan to get away with having a longish newspaper article published between hard covers as a book. Even this nanotome takes a curiously lassitudinous approach, diffidently circling the subject and constantly pausing to tell us what it will do next. Purporting to be inspired by the lack of a “theory” of bullshit, it is more of an etymological stroll, which ends up arguing, by my count, exactly one thing, viz: “The bullshitter […] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Oops, I’ve given away the ending. (Well, not quite; there remains a the-world-is-going-to-the-dogs peroration.) I hesitate to say that anyone might write this who had an idle afternoon and a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Still, it takes no more than 15 minutes to read, and a stroppy sort may well end up considering it an example of what it’s talking about.

)) comes another super-slender monolinguograph, with New Yorker film critic Denby expatiating on snarkiness, a mode of derisive humour. At least, that’s what I think it is. Denby has gone and made up his own definition: that snark is personal abuse. An American comic is quoted as saying: “Obama did great in February, and that’s because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary’s doing much better ’cause it’s White Bitch Month, right?” Snark, Denby cries. No: that’s just sheer dumb nastiness.

According to Merriam-Webster, “snarky” means “sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in manner”; a New Yorker friend of mine writes: “‘snark’ is piquant sarcasm, usually by a hipster type”. Undaunted by actual usage, Denby insists that snark is mere invective (“creepy nastiness”, “dull slagging”). He spends a lot of time on coded Republican attacks on Obama: nope, not snark. If a joke is actually funny, on the other hand, Denby won’t allow it as snark: it becomes “wit” (cf Gore Vidal), or at least “higher snark”. This enables Denby to don a schoolmasterly cap and rank great satirists: Swift’s “snark-free” A Modest Proposal comes top, followed by Pope’s Dunciad (contains traces of snark), with Juvenal slouching up at the rear, “a genius of snark”. You can try this sort of thing at home, picking any random handful of writers; I didn’t.

Essentially, it turns out that snark is anything that offends Denby’s private sense of decorum and cultural hierarchy. Private Eye once took the piss out of the Beatles (“But really — the Beatles?” Denby splutters); and Joe Queenan said something unkind about the actress Shelley Winters, who Denby gallantly ripostes was “a luscious knockout for years”. Denby writes that “snark has its priggish tones”, and he should know. Look at all these young bloggers being wittily derisive! Why won’t they learn to respect their elders and betters? Denby confesses approval of “vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but, well, clean” — signalling with that flailing, comma-buttressed “well”, and the desperate italics, that he still can’t say exactly what he is objecting to, except that he knows it when he sees it.

An entire chapter of his own melancholically unfunny book, meanwhile, has been devoted to attacking the Washington Post New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd — she was wrong to mock the Bush administration, you see, because her mockery didn’t actually make the Bush administration go away — and Denby has argued that snark goes hand-in-hand with irresponsibility, anonymity and hatred of idiosyncrasy, which will be news to anyone who appreciates the state-of-the-art snark of a website such as The Awl. Perhaps Denby has been so pained by what he has encountered online (at least via the person he thanks for doing “some Internet research”) that he can’t bear to go back there any more. A happy ending all round, then.


The first man

Giving war a chance

Happy new decade, readers! (Or, for those of you who insist that 1990 was in the eighties and 1980 in the seventies, etc, happy new year!) I note that I was remiss last month in failing to be sarcastic about Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which came a week after he sent 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan. The speech has, of course, already attracted some bracing contumely elsewhere (cf WIIIAI on the world as it is), but what caught my eye in particular was Obama’s bizarre thesis on the antiquity of warlike action:

War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.

Um, surely if he was the first man, there was no one else to have a war with? Or maybe Obama’s paleohistorical argument is that the first man unilaterally declared war on the sabre-toothed tiger? (That must have been a courageous decision, for a lone individual to fight a war against an entire species. “You and whose army?” growled the tigers.) Or maybe when the first man came into the world there was already a first lady, and he declared war on her? Or maybe he just winked into existence, took a disgusted look around, and immediately declared war on himself?

Whatever the hell it means, it is an impressive argument: if the first human being who ever lived was driven to start a war all by himself, what hope for peace can there possibly be from a modern President with so many tempting targets?



Of mafflards and moonlings

My review of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary has been printed (in “edited” form, with some spatchcocked syntax and deranged lunulae) in today’s Guardian. It begins:

How would a person in the early 1600s call someone an idiot?

On that note, is taking the rest of the decade off. Happy calendargeddon, readers!


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