Saturday, 2 July 2011

Words, rocks, respect.

Please, bear with me, be gentle with me and, above all, be patient with me. The next paragraph will, probably from the very first word, get you clicking the exit button and deleting me from your blogs-I-occasionally-visit list. Please, though, try to resist the urge and just read it and then I’ll explain why I risked losing your friendship or just your casual curiosity through such flippancy. It’s a spoof opening to a supposed review of a non-existent book called Ambiguity and Gastronomy in Tennyson’s 'In Memoriam'. If the book had ever existed, it would have been written by Professor V. Nonchalant. (If any such person exists, I apologise unreservedly for hi-jacking his/her name.) Here, then, is how my review of his/her book starts:

Teleological inadequacy in the quest for meta-fictional catharsis is a trope too frequently associated with linguistic excess. In his previous studies of root vegetables in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his monograph entitled Descartes and the Bay Leaf, Professor Nonchalant posited the extensory variability of post-cultural deviance in the seventeenth century’s sporadic yet transitional dalliance with anarchic conceptualisations of disassociated herbivorous phenomena. Here, he extends his exegetical analysis of textual malfunctions to encompass the twin themes of literacy and indigestion, arguing persuasively that the Victorians’ semi-precocious insistence on the iconography of laissez-faire nutritional expediency both complemented and contradicted their equally fervent adherence to the vertiginous monotony of the iambic pentameter. That, in simplistic terms, is the point de d├ępart of this 642 page study.

If you’re still reading, thanks for your persistence and good will. The paragraph, of course, means absolutely nothing. It’s unadulterated garbage masquerading as learning. In a moment, I’ll get to why I’ve quoted it here but first, why write it at all? Well, some of you may have visited the excellent booksquawk.com (and, if you go there this week, you’ll see my latest review for Lisa Hinsley’s  My Demon in which I use the word I introduced in my last posting – algolagnia). The site is celebrating the fact that it’s attracted 25,000 visitors and I suggested one way to celebrate would be for all its regular contributors to send in a parody paragraph of the worst type of reviewing they could think of – not nasty or vicious stuff, just typical of the most pretentious or just plain silly garbage. The idea was to just have a bit of fun.

So I wrote the above as an example and posted it to the group. But here’s the interesting thing. Two of the other contributors – both friends and excellent writers – knew that it was only a parody and therefore not supposed to make sense but they tried to read it as if it did, and one of them said ‘my brain couldn't HELP trying to make sense of what you wrote...and it *almost* did’, a fact which she said was sort of frightening.  So it brings us back to another aspect of the power of words. If we see them laid out in seemingly normal structures, we want to unlock what they’re saying. The tendency is to assume that they ‘mean’ something so we do what they implicitly ask and try to give them that meaning. And if we can’t, we think it’s our fault.

But what if I hadn’t confessed that the paragraph was just crap? I’d be admired for my profundity and towering intellect or dismissed as a con-man and a wanker, and all sorts of other things in between. And all because of my words. People are in awe of words, especially big ones; they’re powerful,  they shape our experience and they’re the only things that suggest meaning in the accidental absurdities of the world we live in. My old mate Sisyphus had his rock; we have words. It's a big responsibility. Let’s respect them.
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19 comments:

  1. Most excellent - and yes, I could not help trying to make sense of the passage even while chuckling at the sheer absurdity of it all.

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  2. I admire your profundity and towering intellect. I realised this as soon as I read the words Kant and Descartes, both of which gave me the horrors when I was studying for my degree. I bow down to your superior intellect.

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  3. The thing about art is that the artist doesn't necessarily understand all the implications of what he or she has created. So don't be quite so sure that what you've written is meaningless. Within the tautological self-referentialism, Coco and I perceive, albeit circumlocuitiously, a spectrum of tangential kryptokuprolalalalogoprurianistic micrognoses which have, in a transparaesthetical context, quite a crunchy texturalism. Get it out there, and see what punters think if it, I say. Coco thinks it sounds edible, anyway.

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  4. Sorry, I meant Of it. (In case that didn't make sense)

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  5. Quite the post. I, too, admire your towering intellect. I didn't study for a degree (only if computer programming counts) so like Chris, I must bow down to you.

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  6. It seems that in addition to missing some really good stuff by dropping out of college, I missed a bunch of crap, too. Thanks for that insight, Bill. :)

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  7. Diane, the weird thing is that I can sort of see that it might seem to make sense. Maybe grammar’s tendency to imply structures will always have that effect, whatever the words (or invented words) we fit into its slots.

    Chris, Nietzsche’s another good name to quote, and Hegelian’s a useful adjective. I haven’t read a word either of them wrote but I speak about them as if they’re old mates.

    Donnie, did you check the spelling of kryptokuprolalalalogoprurianistic? I think you’ll find there’s an ‘x’ missing. And we both know what ‘the punters will think if (or of) it’ – they’ll assume we ken fit we’re spikkin aboot. Coco’s response is the only legitimate one.

    Melanie, as a computer programmer you’d be embarrassed to see how, despite years of trying, my ‘towering intellect’ fails miserably to cope with the basic concepts of mathematics. I use the word ‘algorithm’ in the same way I use Kant, Descartes and the rest – it’s a form of bravado to mask my ignorance.

    Linda, I wouldn’t want to suggest that academia is one big confidence trick – there are some highly committed, truly intelligent and sincerely dedicated people there who have genuinely ‘towering intellects’, value learning and try to open it up to their students, but there are also posers. By the way, ‘bunch of crap’ is another great example of the uncompromising power of words; it’s as unforgiving as the verbiage of my spoof.

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  8. After a nearly sleepless night, I can't quite wrap my mind around intellectual spoofs this morning, Bill, so I'll take your "words" for it. However, point well taken. :)

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  9. Sorry to hear you had a bad night Jean. On the other hand, the comment Chris left on Facebook suggested reading my stuff might be just what you need. She just wrote 'Zzzzzzz'.

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  10. It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that algolagniarhythm....

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  11. ::snort::

    I've *read* reviews like that... usually in the national press. Only trouble is, those are meant to make sense; yours isn't. :P

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  12. 'Snort' is good, Fiona. I like 'snort'. Yes, sadly, there are those who think such verbiage is impressive and even meaningful. I have some priceless examples from academic journals.

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  13. I had to read so many of these kind of texts at university. I objected at first, but then I discovered that nodding at random moments and asking vague questions paid off well. In the end I wrote a similar text myself and got my master's degree with honours. So it goes.

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  14. I'm very pleased to say that my eyes and brain glazed over after the first sentence. The Sparrow Conundrum, on the other hand, is holding all my attention.

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  15. People, I read Anneke's master's dissertation and she's lying; it was written in clear, stylish English. (But I know she can do the obfuscation if she wants.)

    Rosemary, you're a woman of taste and perspicacity.

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  16. Gracias, taio (but I'm afraid that's the extent of my Spanish).

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  17. Thank goodness it wasn't for real,Bill!I thought my brain must be in poorer shape than I suspected and gave up after the second sentence.
    What a good test,though!

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  18. Myra, I'm tempted to do a Vincent Price style 'But it was for real, my dear', but you'd see through it.

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