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There’s always something to howl about

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.

From Less Than Words Can Say

by Richard Mitchell, The Underground Grammarian

A colleague sent me a questionnaire. It was about my goals in teaching, and it asked me to assign values to a number of beautiful and inspiring goals. I was told that the goals were pretty widely shared by professors all around the country.

Many years earlier I had returned a similar questionnaire, because the man who sent it had promised, in writing, to “analize” my “input.” That seemed appropriate, so I put it in. But he didn’t do as he had promised, and I had lost all interest in questionnaires.

This one intrigued me, however, because it was lofty. It spoke of a basic appreciation of the liberal arts, a critical evaluation of society, emotional development, creative capacities, students’ self-understanding, moral character, interpersonal relations and group participation, and general insight into the knowledge of a discipline. Unexceptionable goals, every one. Yet it seemed to me, on reflection, that they were none of my damned business. It seemed possible, even likely, that some of those things might flow from the study of language and literature, which is my damned business, but they also might not. Some very well-read people lack moral character and show no creative capacities at all, to say nothing of self-understanding or a basic appreciation of the liberal arts. So, instead of answering the questionnaire, I paid attention to its language; and I began by asking myself how “interpersonal relations” were different from “relations.” Surely, I thought, our relations with domestic animals and edible plants were not at issue here; why specify them as “interpersonal”? And how else can we “participate” but in groups? I couldn’t answer.

I asked further how a “basic” appreciation was to be distinguished from some other kind of appreciation. I recalled that some of my colleagues were in the business of teaching appreciation. It seemed all too possible that they would have specialized their labors, some of them teaching elementary appreciation and others intermediate appreciation, leaving to the most exalted members of the department the senior seminars in advanced appreciation, but even that didn’t help with basic appreciation. It made about as much sense as blue appreciation.

As I mulled this over, my eye fell on the same word in the covering letter, which said, “We would appreciate having you respond to these items.” Would they, could they, “basically appreciate” having me respond to these items? Yes, I think they could. And what is the appropriate response to an item? Would it be a basic response?

Suddenly I couldn’t understand anything. I noticed, as though for the first time, that the covering letter promised “to complete the goals and objectives aspect of the report.” What is a goals aspect? An objectives aspect? How do you complete an aspect? How seriously could I take a mere aspect, when my mind was beguiled by the possibility of a basic aspect? Even of a basic goals and basic objectives basic aspect?

After years of fussing about the pathetic, baffled language of students, I realized that it was not in their labored writings that bad language dwelt. This, this inane gabble, this was bad language. Evil language. Here was a man taking the public money for the work of his mind and darkening counsel by words without understanding.

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.

This man had offered me inanity. I had almost seized it. If I told you that this little book would provide you with general insight into the knowledge of a discipline, would you read on? If so, then you had better read on, for you are in danger. People all around you are offering inanity, and you are ready to seize it, like any well-behaved American consumer dutifully swallowing the best advertised pill. You are, in a certain sense, unconscious.

Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to “know with” something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know. More precisely, it is the device with which we can know. We don’t have to. We can, if we please, speak of general insight into the knowledge of a discipline and forgo knowing.

Consciousness has degrees. We can be wide awake or sound asleep. We can be anesthetized. He is not fully conscious who can speak lightly of such things as basic appreciations and general insights into the knowledge of a discipline. He wanders in the twilight sleep of knowing where insubstantial words, hazy and disembodied, have fled utterly from things and ideas. His is an attractive world, dreamy and undemanding, a Lotus-land of dozing addicts. They blow a little smoke our way. It smells good. Suddenly and happily we realize that our creative capacities and self-understanding yearn after basic appreciations and general insights. We nod, we drowse, we fall asleep.

I am trying to stay awake.

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  • 6 comments

    6 Comments so far

    1. Matthew Hardy February 29th, 2008 10:59 am

      > I am trying to stay awake.

      Bravo! You are correct: the emperor has no clothes. We are surrounded by inanity masking itself as high-minded thinking. Steer away from specifics and you can get a decent-sized crowd who love the gauze placed over their face and heart. Doing a great thing too often is replaced with endless drivel garnering the appropriate golf-clap. Ah, but to stay awake! To see you put those words in print heartens me. But, we are dealing effects and not a cause. It is the thinking a man does – those specific words one speaks only to oneself with eyes closed – which is where the real work is done. How big, how large, how grand can those thoughts be? Knowing that one can think whatever one wishes and having the courage to think past common limits will always open another door to knowledge. Not the related knowledge of “interpersonal relations”, but the true knowledge of what this life you and I possess actually is. From there comes the best offering one can make to another. From there, language expresses with clarity.

    2. Greg Swann February 29th, 2008 11:33 am

      Go read The Gift of Fire, Matthew. A tonic for your soul.

    3. Diane Cipa February 29th, 2008 12:55 pm

      Well, that was a soothing balm for the brain and how nice to enjoy it while WFB is so much in our minds.

      Words have meaning, and the frustration I feel when engaged over and over again in ridiculous discussions about RESPA and how regulators should just make things more CLEAR so people can comply has its roots in this laziness of language.

    4. [...] Richard Mitchell’s help on two occasions — so far. He warns us not to slip into the sloppy patterns of thought denoted by sloppy writing, and then he cautions us that the foggy gabble of attorneys and bureaucrats is in fact a language [...]

    5. Teri Lussier June 17th, 2008 4:19 am

      >”His is an attractive world, dreamy and undemanding, a Lotus-land of dozing addicts. They blow a little smoke our way. It smells good. Suddenly and happily we realize that our creative capacities and self-understanding yearn after basic appreciations and general insights. We nod, we drowse, we fall asleep.

      I am trying to stay awake.”

      Yes!

      How sad I missed this until today. How lucky it’s here at all!

    6. Greg Swann June 17th, 2008 6:39 am

      > How sad I missed this until today. How lucky it’s here at all!

      Every word of The Underground Grammarian is available for free at SourceText.com. A forgotten genius of the Twentieth Century.