There are words, and then there are words….

Not very long ago, I found myself at a friend’s 75th birthday party, despairing aloud about the deluge of words that engulfs our world. A somber, very sober, man leapt to the defense of  language and good writers. There’s nothing I respect more, he said, than a good writer who can clarify and inspire.

Well, I like good writing and good writers too, I retorted….  but he wasn’t interested in anything I had to say. I was obviously some kind of philistine, or at the very least stupid.

He’s probably right. Not about the philistinism or the stupidity, but about words. Only words, well-crafted, beautifully put together, will be able to help us. No wordless vision, no great symphony, not even a Kumbaya, will do.

Albert Camus, 1957. Library of Congress.

I was reminded of this when I ran across an Adam Gopnik article on Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre in the April 9 issue of The New Yorker. Gopnik argues for the superiority of Camus’ journalism to his fiction or his philosophy. In a time in France that was nearly as chaotic as our own, Gopnik writes,

He struck a tone, not of Voltairean Parisian rancor but of melancholic loft. Camus sounds serious, but he also sounds sad – he added the authority of sadness to the activity of political writing. He wrote with dignity at a moment when restoring dignity to public language was necessary, and he slowed public language at a time when history was moving too fast.

How beautiful is that? Where is our Camus?

Words and values


How can you explain that 52 percent of Republicans in Mississippi still believe Obama is a Muslim? After all that’s happened, and all that’s been said. After that very legal birth certificate.

It seems to me there’s no way to understand it, except to say that we live in different worlds. That’s become increasingly apparent over the last many months.

It it’s true, I want to understand what the parameters of their world is. Not because I think they’re reasonable, much less true. But because something’s wrong. In the struggle between the left and the right, the right has grown stronger. I don’t mean that they’ll win in the next election. They may or they may not. Either way they’ve re-made the world into a place where it’s acceptable to talk about the yays or nays of contraception. Where social security and medicare are under fire, and not just for minor changes. All this and much, much more.

All of these things and so many more seem incredible to liberals or progressives or whatever we on the left want to call ourselves. I remember in the 1980s, when (Dukakis) was running for president—I think it was then, maybe including a few years before or a few years after—that “liberal” became a dirty word. I didn’t see it happen. It was almost mysterious. The same kind of thing is happening now, but on a much broader scale. Words are changing their meanings and ideas are becoming arguable when we thought any debate about them had been resolved decades ago. The President is a socialist and a Muslim. Say it often enough, and it’ll stick somewhere, although neither word means what’s claimed of Obama.

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, writes that Democrats are remiss in letting Santorum and Republicans like him repeat conservative tenets over and over again, that they change or reenforce the construction of reality in people’s minds. Even when liberals are attacking Republicans, they repeat the Republican positions in loud voices and then—often in smaller print and in terms of policy rather than values—argue against them. Just as often with scathing words and jokes. What stays with many are the Republican points, the conservative world view, rather than the refutations.

We should be putting our positions in a values framework and repeating them often.

Our two different worlds break down into something like this, according to Lakoff (with apologies to him since I’m keeping these descriptions rough and short):

The Left
Model: the family, caring for each other, parents are equal partners, etc.
The importance of the community, taking care of one another.
The government must be large enough to help regulate and assist business, to promote economic opportunity and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”

The Right
Model: the family with the father in charge
The centrality of the individual and his liberty, and especially his right to pursue economic prosperity
Capitalism will raise all ships if people work hard. The most deserving will find their way to the top.

I don’t know if I’d put it in quite the same terms as Lakoff—the father head of the family may be an implied construct, but I’m not sure it’s something every conservative would want to claim.

But I do think he’s absolutely right about the failure of those on the left to make moral arguments and to assert their values in a positive way. The right is not alone in supporting “values” candidates.

This is a debate about morality as well as about economics. In the months to come, I hope we begin to make a loud and positive case for our side.

Are we losing our ability to memorize? And if we are, does it matter?

The elephant has the longest memory of any member of the animal kingdom and can even remember where other elephants have died.

Years ago, when I taught, I resisted the requirement that I give tests that required memorization. I remembered the many nights as a student that I memorized material, aced the test the next morning, and promptly forgot everything. I wanted my students to learn to think. They could look up data; I hoped they would learn how to use it.

A few decades later and all we have to do is “google it.” The Internet remembers for us, and does it so much better than we ever could. You’d think I’d be happy, wouldn’t you? At least in this regard, things in education seem to be going my way.

It’s not that no one is memorizing any more. I googled “memorize” and found a wealth of information on how to do it. Journalist Joshua Foer received more than $1 million in advance royalties for his book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. An analysis of the importance of memorizing events and stories in human history; the decline of its role in modern life; and the techniques that we need to adopt to restore the art of remembering—the advance surely demonstrates that someone besides Mr. Foer thinks the subject is a critical one.

I haven’t read it and I may not. It sounds like the author spends more time than I would like on how he won the annual US Memory Championships after learning how to memorize 120 random digits in five minutes; the first and last names of 156 strangers in 15 minutes; and a deck of cards in under two minutes. True to form, I would have preferred more analysis of the role of human memory in the past and the present. I wanted him to think more and memorize less, I guess.

Before reading and writing became central in our lives, human beings transmitted their culture, their social mores and their stories by memory. In societies where literacy is still not dominant, medicine men and the old and wise are able to recite from their oral traditions for hours at a time. Learning was largely learning by rote well into the last century. I remember listening in amazement one night a few decades ago, to young voices in the park reciting classroom lessons in Port-au-Prince. I remember admiring old men who could still recite Longfellow’s “Evangeline” and Kipling’s “If…,” learned years earlier in school.

I, at a rather advanced age now, find that I lose words all the time—most of them nouns, most of them names of people. I don’t think I’ll buy Mr. Foer’s book and try to remedy that. And I certainly don’t care about remembering phone numbers or random digits. But I do think that I’m missing something now that I no longer try to memorize anything. What I’m missing is the way words feel in your mouth when you recite them. It has to do with poetry remembered and said aloud. It’s a different experience of words and, I suspect, a very important one. I hope we recover it.

iPhones and color markers

Some artists use iphones. Some use color markers and index cards. Art comes from every direction. Isn’t it wonderful?

In a post on March 18, I reported that artist David Hockney was using his iPhone and a software application called Brushes to paint some exquisite pictures. Yesterday, I discovered that they’re rife. A generation of iPhone painters is turning up everywhere. For those of you who would like to see one at work, the New Yorker website offers videos of  Jorge Colombo’s brushwork as he goes about creating New Yorker covers. Mostly paintings from the streets of New York, the process is fascinating to watch. Almost as interesting is an article from the British Daily Mail (mail online) that shows the work of several iPhone artists and their comments on using Brush.

I was eager to share that information but it’s not the only topic of this post. I’m going to do something quite different today, and all because, in the process of changing out some bookcases, I discovered a booklet I hadn’t seen in years. My impulse was to share it, and what better place than here? It’s from one of the finest writers I’ve ever known, an unpublished one, and one my age.

Decades ago, in the city of New York, my friend SallyLevy, who has a love of words that’s quite wonderful, mixed it up and made a small book for my birthday, almost a throwaway – a nonsense garden book, perhaps – at any rate, a book where words rubbed up against each other and with some graceful drawings, produced something charming, surprising, quite silly and, occasionally, even revealing. Over the next few posts, I will conclude with pages from this slender volume.

Sally worked with markers and a book of 5” x 8 1/2” file cards, and given her total panic around anything high-tech, she’d use the same tools today. (And on rare occasions does.) She certainly wouldn’t go near an iPhone or the application, Brush.

Art comes from every direction and always will.

The Roon Book of Wild Stuffs (1982)