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To be, or not to be

By Nicholas Delbanco
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What changes stays the same

Although English diction has altered, there’s a through line from Anglo-Saxon to Elizabethan sonnets to street slang. From the bard of Beowulf through Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, and Toni Morrison, the discourse incorporates fresh forms of verbiage and fresh modes of speech. Both hovel and mansion provide a form of shelter; they both have doors and roofs. All else may be dissimilar but they belong to the one category: home. So there’s a constancy to written texts — a consistency of purpose — no matter how different they seem.

Here are half a dozen versions of a greeting and first encounter; there could be a dozen more. With no change of substance, there is a change of style:

  • Stand and deliver.
  • Who goes there?
  • Yo, bro’, wozzup?
  • Tell me, stranger, of your parentage and intention, your means of conveyance and proposed length of stay. Please know that you are welcome here; what though you come as pauper, you have a princely mien.
  • Papers? Papieren, bitte.
  • Hey, girl, lookin’ good.

We note the difference only in those things that are in essence similar; we don’t compare a horse and tree, but might a horse and cow. The human body — no matter how various in size and shape — must function within a set of skeletal limits; it cannot, I mean, be compared (except in metaphor) to a cockroach or giraffe. And yet what we notice is this man’s nose and that man’s weight, this woman’s length of leg or that color hair.

Identify yourself

And with certain mannerist authors, a reader can tell, on the instant, that (s)he’s reading the work of X and not Y, that A not B produced the paragraph or stanza. There are writers who exalt the individuality of speech and exult in eccentricity: this is my line, my sentence, my page…

Yet the opposite also holds true. To be quoted without recognition is a real achievement. Who can identify the creators of such formulae as “the greater good” or “e pluribus unum” or “plain Jane?” To become part of our discourse, as the composer of an adage with no tag-line or identity-tag is “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” That phrase is specific enough to be identifiable as part of Hamlet’s soliloquy (Act III, Scene 1) in his eponymous play. The words with which his rumination on suicide start, “To be or not to be,” have passed into conventional speech and may well be cited by someone with no notion of their origin or first intended use.

A veritable Catch-22

When Joseph Heller’s editors urged him to call his novel Catch-22, they had no idea, I’d guess, that the term would prove a catch-phrase for generations to come. To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind are part of our shared consciousness as four words arranged in sequence, even for present-day readers who have not read the books.

This duality — the desire to be instantly recognizable versus the ambition to belong to the collective whole — endures. The greatest of authors is unknown: Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. In the catalogue of classics, she and he bulk large. Together they have written the Bible, Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata and, for all practical purposes, the poems of Homer and Sappho; what we know of those wordsmiths is and matters little. What we have of theirs is language, and the language lasts.

Name recognition is, however, an increasingly important aspect of our consumer culture. Donald Trump ranks high among the list of Republican presidential contenders not because most voters take his candidacy seriously but because they know his name. “The Donald” is a trademark because of his relentless self-promotion, and there are 10 potential voters who recognize his mop of hair for everyone who knows for what — if anything — he stands. So there’s a kind of distance between the actual and imagined thing, a disconnect between reality and perception. As George Orwell wrote, in his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

Sincerity is open-mouthed, no matter how deep-buried the tongue may be in cheek.

Common parlance

The short story once was fashionable; so too was the “short short” or sudden fiction. Now they are démodé. Much the same may be said of the novel that’s been endlessly revised and, draft after draft, refined. Instead we’re back to the “loose and baggy monster” à la David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollman. The craftsman who coined that quoted phrase, Henry James, sells more books now each season than to his chagrin he sold when alive. A half-century ago, many an aspiring author copied Ernest Hemingway; now few attempt to emulate that style. And five years hence, today’s trendsetters will no doubt be “old hat.” Folk singers and balladeers understand this: To sing “Once I had a true love,” or “John Henry had a hammer” is to tap into the reservoir of language, but not to know or care who wrote the words.

  • Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?
  • I do but bite my thumb.
  • Of infinite variety.
  • That idlers call the world.
  • Crritic!

Not-so-buried in the lines above are quotations from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Beckett, and I use them without attribution because they have — or so it seems to me — entered common parlance.

In Elizabethan England the biting of a thumb would be construed as insult, and the phrase “infinite variety” echoes Shakespeare’s praise of his heroine, Cleopatra. The word “idlers” is sufficiently idiosyncratic to signal authorial usage, and it comes from Yeats’ poem, “Adam’s Curse.” The poet describes how hard it is “to articulate sweet sounds together,” a labor often undervalued by those idlers who don’t practice it. And “Crritic!” is the final insult hurled by Beckett’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, while they pass the time in Waiting for Godot, Act II.

Of the steadily accreting barrage of invective (“moron,” “vermin,” “cretin,” etc.), critic, according to the playwright, is by far the worst.

Nicholas Delbanco

Nicholas Delbanco

NICHOLAS DELBANCOis the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English. The author of 30 books of fiction and non-fiction, his next collection of essays, Curiouser and Curiouser, will appear in summer 2017.

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