Sunday, 7 June 2015

Mange-tout, mange-tout by Bill Kirton


This isn’t my opening paragraph. The next one is, though, and when/if you bother to read that far, you’ll quickly realise why I’ve made the switch. If I had opened with the paragraph that follows, there would have been no need to write any more because no-one would even have bothered to get to the end of it and, to mix a glorious metaphor, the ensuing pearls of wisdom would have fallen on deaf ears. So, let’s now start the blog.

My consuetudinary idleness has sometimes earned me the reputation of being a cunctator. Some see me as thewless but my perpetual condition of aesthesia requires little in the way of displacement. Careful auscultation (of the metaphoric rather than aesculapian variety) is enough to gauge my existential condition and I am not emulous with regard to the achievements of others. Indeed, the concinnity of sensations and perceptions produces a satisfying sense of oneness. I am sometimes cautelous and often pervicacious to rhadamanthine extremes but while this may all be an accurate assessment of my ‘moi’, its only real value is to introduce the subject of logomachy.

If you’re still here, thanks. In case you didn’t know it, logomachy is a dispute about words or a battle fought with words and, as you may have guessed from that paragraph, that’s sort of what this is all about. In fact, it goes back to a question I’ve asked (others and myself) before: does education help or hinder a writer’s development? One of my basic replies when asked about advice to writers is ‘Trust your own voice’. Too many people try to emulate others or assume that ‘writing’ means posh words, flowery asides, towering metaphors and so, when they write, the unique person they are gets trampled on in the gush of words. (Hey, listen, if Shakespeare can get away with ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’, I can trample people with gushes if I want.)

Education, despite what our present minister in charge of it seems to think, means opening doors, expanding horizons, leading people out of darkness and ignorance into light. It doesn’t mean reducing them to clones, making them all fit a predetermined pattern. It encourages critical thinking, individual investigations, a belief that curiosity can lead – legitimately – in just about any direction. Rather than making people conform to a set of rules, it liberates them.

In a way, that horrible second paragraph illustrates how destructive misguided education can be. Most of the obscure words that made it incomprehensible came from the excellent wordsmith site http://www.wordsmith.org/awad/ which, if you register, emails you a word a day. I’ve been collecting them, not necessarily with the idea of using them but because I just love words, especially ones which I doubt I’ll ever use. Of course it’s good to expand one’s vocabulary – the more words you have available to you, the more thinking you can do, and the more refined and nuanced that thinking can be. But education isn’t about whatever knowledge you can acquire, it’s about what you can do with that knowledge. I collected those words (‘cunctator’, ‘thewless’, etc.) so, theoretically, they equipped me to express myself more completely or with more subtlety. But, when anyone reads that paragraph, it's not my voice they're hearing, it's a contrived facade. Very often, new writers think that's what they need and their own, precious voice gets lost amongst the verbiage. In practice, the words I used above obscured my meanings, made them inaccessible to most readers. (My apologies if you are one of those who frequently drop ‘concinnity’, ‘aesculapian’, etc. into your dinner party anecdotes. You’ll be wondering what all the fuss is about.)

But if I don’t intend using them, what’s the point in collecting them? Well, because, like all words, they have a power beyond their actual meaning. They all contribute to the ‘show don’t tell’ cliché. In the popular TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses, the central character Del Boy, keen to convey the level of his cosmopolitan sophistication, repeats the words ‘Mange-tout, mange-tout’ as if they're full of significance. By juxtaposing his confidence in what he’s saying with the bafflement of those around him, the writers convey several layers of characterisation and social observation – all with the words ‘mange-tout’. Similarly, if I want to include a quick caricature of a pretentious git (or a failed wannabe writer) in a story, what better way than to simply hear him say ‘Look at that woman’s bursiform appendages. Such displays are either flagitious or, at best, Icarian. Cui bono? Cui bono?’

Mange-tout, mes amis.




12 comments:

Catherine Czerkawska said...

This sits so well with Debbie's post yesterday and especially Dennis's comment on it. It extends the discussion beautifully and you're so right. I remember spending a useful hour telling my son (then about thirteen) about not even having to use the word 'said' very much if you were careful about writing dialogue in a story and the reader knew who was speaking. I showed him ways to make that clear and add to our understanding of the character at the same time. He produced what I thought was a rather good story - only for his teacher at the time to cover it with 'he uttered', 'she exclaimed', 'they exhorted' and similar nonsense. Fortunately he became a pretty competent writer in spite of her. Similarly, during my time as RLF Fellow (and I know you must have had the same experience) so many students seemed to think that the more complex, pretentious and obscure their writing the better and a woeful number of lecturers seem to feel exactly the same.

Lydia Bennet said...

Spooky, how this follows Debbie's excellent post yesterday, and Dennis' comment on it! All very timely and important, but also this kind of 'education' is in line with the imposed importance of levels, grades, targets, etc. Hard to believe back in the early 80s when I taught in Middle School, we were able to have 'integrated days' and do all kinds of project-based activities as well as keeping literacy and numeracy a priority.

Lydia Bennet said...

Remember Del Boy, in his yuppy red braces ('lunch is for wimps!') in a wine bar, asking if the Bowjollay noovoh was a good year! Great character.

Enid Richemont said...

We SASsies are firing off a letter about this very thing, as you probably already know.

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Bill. It brings up dire memories, though. Once, after binge-ing on Nabokov, I became obsessed with topping his vocabulary. For about a half-year I tore through the new American Heritage Dictionary, stalking words I could use in my work. Big words! Learned words! I filled several notebooks...then had the sense to burn my only attempt at a novel force-fed on the big words I'd collected.

Susan Price said...

My favourite RLF encounter was with a student whose prose veered from well-balanced, lucid sentences to incomprehensible gobbledegook. When I asked her what was going on, she said, "What you call the well written sentences are just me - and what you call gobbledegook is me trying to be academic."
Said it all, really.

Fran B said...

It's all about confidence in your own voice, I guess. That might be one that naturally uses quite arcane, sophisticated words and sentence structures and, if it really is natural, it will probably work. (PG Wodehouse springs to mind and even Winston Churchill). Most of us don't speak or think like that so it doesn't work if we try to. The joy of reading is in the variety of styles and voices as much as the plots nd characters.

Reb MacRath said...

We all wait with Braided Beth (where the hell that expression come from?) for Bill's feedback on our comments. Beth says Howdy Do, Bill. :)

Bill Kirton said...

I'm just glad the blog created a few echos, Reb (and Beth, whose acquaintance affords me a superfluity of ineffable pleasure). Throughout my career in academia, I sat through meetings in which individuals jockeyed for intellectual pre-eminence, set out on sentences crammed with subordinate clauses simply to prove they could hold it all together and cement its meaning in its last (non-prepositional) word. And my RLF experiences mirror those of Catherine and Susan. Students were so pleased to learn that there was no rule saying that academic writing had to be incomprehensible. I'm still bringing the good news to students in schools.

Bob Newman said...

The message is poluphloisboiotatotic.

Nick Green said...

Del: I'd like to order duck a l'orange, but I don't know how to say that in French.

Rodney: It's 'canard'.

Del: You can say that again, bruv.

Bill Kirton said...

Bob, thanks for adding another word to my list. I had to look it up, of course, and liked the fact that it was used by Thackeray in 1843, just 2 years after the date of my WIP. I don't think I'll let any of my characters say it, though.

Nick, love it.