January 25, 2011

...And the Word was Good

Maybe I’ve just spent too long studying Shakespeare, but am I the only person who finds something contrary about an English Graduate Student who doesn’t believe in the sanctity of words?

This is a trouble I’ve run into repeatedly with a certain classmate of mine.  This individual seems to find no value in individual words.  I don’t mean definitions or bodies of texts or amalgamations of words that make sentences, but rather the value of an individual word to the precise meaning which an author intended.  The way a chosen word represents, irrefutably, something exact and definite which a writer means to convey. 

I find that this concept is something which beginning writers and amateur readers struggle with.  You remember how in your elementary writing class your teacher tried to get you to use words that packed a punch rather than boring, plain Jane, everyday words?  Something juicier than “she said” or “interesting”.  Something that better described exactly what you were trying to convey.  Beefing up (and narrowing down) one’s word choice makes a huge difference in one’s writing.  It creates more interesting and pointed writing which can better communicate thoughts and ideas about the scene one is attempting to convey.  For example, the fact that I used the pronoun “one” over “he”, “she” or “you” creates a more formalized tone to my writing.  This, in turn, lends authority to the sentence and, subconsciously, creates the illusion that I know what I am talking about (even in a completely hypothetical scenario in which I did not know anything about the subject which I was blogging on which, clearly, is not this case).

Similarly, a carefully trained reader must be conscious of an author’s vocabulary choice.  When reading, one must be aware that he is imbibing in a carefully crafted experience.  Like a fine chef, an author (and especially a well-respected and/or canonical author) chooses the words to put on the page with full awareness of what he is creating in his reader’s mind.  With so many words in the English language at his disposal, his conscious decision to use one word over any other must be noted and regarded as such; a conscious decision (unless of course one is reading a work in translation which brings further complications).  If a word is repeated, this must be noted as well.  A prime example (and my favorite by the by) is Petruchio’s “Kate” speech from Taming of the Shrew II.ii.1056-1065:

You lye in faith, for you are call'd plaine Kate,
And bony Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst:
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendome,
Kate of Kate-hall, my super-daintie Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore Kate
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation,
Hearing thy mildnesse prais'd in euery Towne,
Thy vertues spoke of, and thy beautie sounded,
Yet not so deepely as to thee belongs,
My selfe am moou'd to woo thee for my wife.

Petruchio uses the word “Kate” eleven times during this speech.  Shakespeare, the Master of the English Language, our Bard on High who Invented More Words than God, repeated the same word ELEVEN times in as many lines.  The reader (and actor) MUST be sensitive to this.  Obviously in this instance the repetition is used for great comedic effect.  Double-entendres litter this speech, but there is something deeper going on here.  Petruchio uses the name which Katherine specifically told him not to use over and over again to dig at the fact that she has told him not to use it.  It is the beginning of their relationship and her “training” at his hand and sets the stage for everything which passes between them after this moment.  Without this repetition to the point of absurdity, their relationship would not be so immediately evident.  In a way, the eleven Kates foreshadow the entirety of the show.

Another example of such repetition can be found in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  The word “eye” (or a close derivative) is used within the work nineteen times.  Granted, this is a much smaller proportion of word to text than in the example above, but the same rules apply.  Coleridge was an educated man, a man who had many more synonyms for “eye” at his disposal than Shakespeare had for “Kate”, so why would he choose to use this word over and over again?  There are many answers to this question (a Romantic preoccupation with seeing and lenses, a theme about the human soul, a statement about perception), but there is absolutely no way that I can get at these themes without being sensitive to their gateway: repetition and word usage.  As a critical reader, this sensitivity is my responsibility and without it I cannot ask the questions that must be demanded of the text.  Without this sensitivity, there can be no literary criticism.

The same is true of a rampant disregard for an accepted or implied definition of a word.  Unless there is strong textual evidence that an author either lacked a contemporarily understood term (such as Freud’s inability to use the word “gender” in his “Three Essays on Sexuality” and instead used the word “sex”) or meant to use a word in a way very different from how it would commonly be understood, we as readers have a responsibility to respect the author’s choice in vocabulary and use it to argue our points rather than twist it to our whims.  Statements such as “I don’t think he meant to use this word” or “I take this word to mean (insert archaic and unrelated OED definition here)” are demeaning to both the text and its author.  It’s like staging Hamlet on the moon; imposing yourself upon a text with no textual backing is arrogant and unseemly.  I, for one, have absolutely no patience for this sort of critical discourse.  Why should I care what you think over what the author is actually telling me?  Find some textual evidence, then let’s talk about meaning.  Until then, please keep your opinion to yourself because frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.

Find some respect for the language and authors that both you and I have chosen to study.  Until then, shape up or ship out.

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