Playing the instruments of thought

On the BBC’s “A Point of View” writer Will Self takes on readers and critics who oppose the use of difficult words, and by extension, of difficult art altogether. The main thrust of his critique is that educators, critics and the reading public are demanding that the bar be lowered from a level of reading they are no longer capable of reaching. Self mentions the criticism he has faced using obscure and difficult words, and finds it ironic that people seem far more offended by difficult vocabulary than by depictions of deviant sex, mental illness and drug addiction.

This comparison of writing about controversial subjects and using obscure and challenging words is far from arbitrary. For Self, advancements in the former have been paralleled by, if not actually caused by, a retreat in the latter. He mentions the bestseller success of Nabokov’s Lolita as an example of an artist justifying potentially objectionable content by dressing it in a high-minded intellectual vocabulary.

“ … in attempting to push forward into the realm of deadening conformity, the artists and writers of the 20th Century employed all the weapons that there were to hand – and by making their works intellectually challenging, they deflected the accusation that their sexual or violent content was only there to arouse.”

The conclusion he draws is that today, where the most extreme pornography is accessible at the click of a mouse or cell phone, there isn’t any compelling reason to sound too intellectual. The balance has been lost, and we will probably have to make do with stories about gang rape and serial killers that will send us to the bathroom to throw up but won’t send us to our dictionaries to look up any difficult words.

The main problem with this comparison is that it isn’t true. There were a lot of people who wrote about sex and violence without trying to give it an intellectual gloss. And did Nabokov, for example, abandon using quirky and often obscure words in his later novels even though he was no longer writing about a grown man’s fixation on a young girl?

That there is a difference between today and the middle of the 20th century is obvious, but I think the reason that there aren’t many writers today who use a vocabulary like Nabokov’s isn’t because there is no longer a need to camouflage controversial subjects with an intellectual framework. The real reason is that there aren’t any people who had the kind of cultured, multilingual upbringing that Nabokov had.

Seeing this issue brought up in connection with Nabokov reminded me of another famously prickly, opinionated, extremely well-educated Russian genius who was compelled to leave the cosmopolitan cultural worlds of St. Petersburg and eventually Europe altogether, to settle in the drastically different intellectual climate of the US.

In fact, Igor Stravinsky was already dealing with the issue Self has brought up 50 years ago. In a March 18, 1962 letter to the Los Angeles Times responding to its review of his book, the composer railed against the “reviewer’s prejudice against the vocabularies of educated people.” He goes on to mention all the languages he has had to learn to speak (three) and make his way in (also three). What he goes on to write corresponds with Self’s own sentiments while showing an entirely different motivation:

“But my interest in words is not merely philological. I recognize that words are the very instruments of thought, and that a large vocabulary permits the making of distinctions. Your reviewer, as an aspirant writer, ought to understand this, and he should welcome being sent to the dictionary to learn. And not only to the dictionary: how could he, as a would-be music critic, have failed to learn ‘esurient’ from the title of the eighth phrase of Bach’s or any other composer’s Magnificat? How could he have read any popular history of painting without knowing ‘wain’, and how could he have done basket-weaving in kindergarten without learning ‘osier’? And for that matter how could he have turned his back on my later music without knowing that he was ‘tergiversating’?”

Granted, some of Stravinsky’s examples might actually support the argument against using difficult words (not to mention the argument against sending children to whatever kindergarten he went to). Still, I can’t help thinking that these two Russians relished what the English language had to offer because they didn’t take it for granted. It wasn’t only a natural medium of communication but a complex organism composed of a multitude of parts and connections.

Photos – 1) A score of Alexander Borodin’s “God save Kyril! God save Methodius!”, 2) Igor Stravinsky

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Categories: Essays

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One Comment on “Playing the instruments of thought”

  1. 17/06/2012 at 4:35 am #

    Hi. I definitely agree. To argue that there is a directly proportional relationship between the transgressiveness of content and the type of language in which it was relayed is somewhat ridiculous, if you ask me. ‘Esurient’ and ‘tergiversating’ exist not because of an arbitrary whim, but because they mean something that any other word may not capture.

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